Saturday, October 1, 2011

Roger Zelazny's "Lord of Light": Book Review

What if people landed on another planet (albeit very much like India), and mastered the technology to transform into gods in the Hindu pantheon? By such skill, what if they tamed demons, nature, and other humans so as to force them into paying homage and making "donations" via slot machines, as prayer wheels made "pray-o-mats," to perpetuate the rule of the gods and to enforce obedience by their subjects to ensure a good rebirth, thanks to "psych-probes" able to check for dogmatic conformity and karmic approval? 

Roger Zelazny's Hugo-award winning 1967 novel blends the fantasy of epic battles, with a great confrontation in Hellwell as the centerpiece among many contentions well-told, with a SF veneer. This sums up how machinery might advance what meditation alone might not for a cadre of Firsts, colonists from a doomed earth who build their technocracy as "Deicrats." They repel the Marxist-tinged efforts of humanist inventors and innovators to re-invent printing presses and weapons and know-how to spur progress against the Deicrats, as dissident "accelerationists." 

This slow struggle over eons, as Zelazny tells it in a dense, wry, wordy style more akin to Hindu scriptures than your typical fantasy-SF tale (even if cynical gods smoke cigarettes and crafty humans try to invent a flushable toilet), brings Sam into the tale, as a Buddhist model of rebellion against the hierarchical oppression. Yet, he's not exactly the Buddha, and his ambiguous position allows him to manipulate his mission to his own advantage and that of the humans he champions. 

It demands concentration, but rewards attention. Zelazny expects you to keep up with the shape-shifting antagonists who thwart Sam, who goes through his own considerable changes. Chapters flow into each other even if separated in time by immense distances; the gods keep their reign strong, as Sam tries to recruit defectors from the Celestial City to aid him in overthrowing divine despotism. I did wish for more reactions or actions from the vantage point of the humbler men and women, not to mention those Christianized zombies in Nirriti's army, an odd touch indeed. The concentration on Sam's club of Firsts does tilt the action always upward or downward to hell, and what's happening to the successor-earthlings (as it were?) gets relegated to what happens to extras in a big-screen epic (the story of its attempted filming makes a great footnote to the CIA in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis). 

One slight drawback is that this novel is conveyed in a prose style that may discourage readers, as its elevated, verbose, if slightly mocking tone echoes ancient chronicles more than it does a typical paperback published around the Summer of Love! 

Still, insights prove memorable, amidst the deities bickering and plotting and scheming. Science depends on the known, fantasy on the unknowable: "The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in that direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either." So says Sam early on.

The Enlightened One tells Kali: "The religion by which you rule is very ancient, goddess, but my protest is also that of a venerable tradition. So call me a protestant, and remember--now I am more than a man." With the great demon Taraka, Zelazny allows himself to enrich this character, perhaps as Milton did Lucifer: we see guilt emerge as Taraka aligns himself against heaven with Sam, and this chapter turns vivid as their perspectives merge. "His hell was a many-colored place, somewhat mitigated only by the cold-blue blaze of a scholar's intellect, the white light of a dying monk, the rose halo of a noble lady who fled his sight, and the dancing, simple colors of children at play."

In one mighty showdown, the land is ravaged by heavenly hosts, demons, zombies, and men all warring. Zelazny edges into a massive scene, and prepares us in fitting words. "It is said that each day recapitulates the history of the world, coming up out of darkness and cold into confused light and beginning warmth, consciousness jumbling its eyes somewhere in midmorning, awakening thoughts a jumble of illogic and unattached emotion, and all speeding together toward the order of noontide, the slow, poignant decline of dusk, the mystical vision of twilight, the end of entropy that is night once more."

This is a memorable narrative, and one of the only ones I can think of that takes on theological questions from a cyclical, Eastern orientation over such an immense scale of story and imaginative application of concepts. It deserves its place among SF classics, and despite its difficulty, proves a rewarding climb up its lofty heights. (Amazon US in slightly amended form 8-27-11)

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