Monday, June 3, 2013

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Been a little slow recently because I’ve been reading some stuff that didn’t really excite me one way or the other and I didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm either good or bad to write about it.  So I went on vacation and decided to re-read some classics.  And here we go.

Lord of Light won the 1968 Hugo for best novel and is one of the stranger works of the period.  One of the things that I really like about it is how much is left unsaid and undeveloped.  In this current environment of sequel after sequel, you’d expect a whole world like this to be the setting of novel after novel, but Zelazny wrote about it once and moved on.

In describing the plot you have to read between the lines quite a bit, but here’s the basic gist.  On an interplanetary colonization ship, the “Star of India”, a bunch of human colonists left Earth some unspecified time before the novel begins.  It’s probably been on the order of five hundred years, possibly longer.  When they arrived at their destination, the crew members discovered that they had developed latent psychic powers, unique to each person, and they used those powers combined with technology from the ship to subdue the various hostile alien species on the planet and achieve a foothold there.  They’ve also got the technology to grow cloned bodies and transfer their consciousness over so they don’t die of old age, although the process doesn’t work if you are already dead.

Rather than explain all this to the colonists and the descendants of their various bodies, the crew spreads the Hindu religion and claim to be various gods.  During the initial desperate fighting this is one thing, but after things calm down there is something of a schism among the “gods” or the First, as they are sometimes called.  One faction believes the time has come to abandon the charade and begin spreading advanced technology to everyone, and are known as Accelerationists.  The other faction, the Deicrats, likes things just fine as they are and since they politically maneuver themselves into running the reincarnation machines there soon aren’t any Accelerationists left.

Except Sam.

The book itself is extremely vague in these specifics and has one of the strangest structures of any book that I can recall reading.  The first couple of chapters and the last ones are the only ones that occur in the “present”.  It kicks off right in medias res and doesn’t bother to explain a whole lot, with Lord Yama, the god of death, figuring out how to rescue Sam’s spirit from the planet’s Van Allen radiation belt where it’s been trapped for a while and to stick it back into a body.  At that point Sam decides he needs to meditate for a while, and he thinks about his war with the gods and how he got into that state in the first place.  This recollection takes by far the majority of the book, and when he’s done he gets back up, we get the final battle, and then it wraps up amazingly quickly.

Since the book starts toward the end of the action, as it were, you know that certain things are bound to happen and the only question is why.  For instance, we’re introduced to Yama helping Sam out, but they clearly weren’t always allies, and we get to see a couple of occasions where Yama was either sent to assassinate Sam or was helping some other gods try to kill him.  Tak wasn’t always in the body of an ape, and so on.

Sam’s revolt against the gods takes place over centuries and is a bizarrely interesting struggle.  He’s got some supernormal powers of his own, which helps, but primarily he has his strong will and sense of moral righteousness.  I like characters like this, although he is pretty terrifying as well.  Early on he commits to doing whatever is necessary to break the reign of the gods, and keeps his word to do it, even when he could quit, even when he might die.  If he has to kill, he'll do it, and if he has to make a pact with the aliens he previously trapped, he'll do it, and if he has to deal with the gods themselves, he'll do even that.

In some ways this is a pretty ahead of its time book, but in other ways it does jar a little bit.  Unusually for the time period, it’s got some strong female characters, some of which are helpful to Sam, and some of which are actually primary antagonists.  Its portrayal of same-sex attraction is pretty unfortunate, though.  It was the 60s, and the typical portrayal in SF was characters like the depraved Baron Harkonnen at the time, so even that isn’t as bad as it could be (although the suggestion that lesbians would really prefer to incarnate in musclebound male bodies is pretty silly to a modern reader).

This is also a book that rewards re-reading, since so much of it is in flashbacks and reminiscences.  The first time I read it I was enthralled, and on each subsequent reading I’ve picked up on something that I’d missed previously, and it will probably still be part of the SF canon after many of its contemporaries are not.

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