Organized religion has been in a long, slow retreat across the West since the middle of the 20th century, as our culture has become increasingly secular, socially liberal and more willing to turn to science for understanding. Whether we see the world more clearly as a consequence, or merely cast our trusting eyes upon replacement deities, is not an easy question to broach in writing. SF gives us a chance to stage heavy and uncomfortable discussions off-planet, where they are certainly more approachable, and for many of us, more entertaining. In his famous 1967 novel Lord of Light, the writer Roger Zelazny utilizes Eastern religious traditions, SF tropes, wildly descriptive language and various literary tricks to challenge our view of religion, whether it is an embrace or refusal of faith, or even somewhere in between.
LoL the winner of the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Novel, is considered by SF critics to be a true classic of the genre. Labeled by the SF Encyclopedia as his “most sustained single tale,” LoL might be regarded as something of a magnum opus by this celebrated author. That means we may have to show some patience when trying to figure out what the praise is about.
Indeed, that’s what is required. LoL describes a far-future colony planet ruled by a race of Übermenschen who have taken on the identities of Hindu gods. These figures arrived on the planet as the original crew of a spaceship, and it’s hinted that they’ve lost oversight from their home planet (presumably, Earth). Their immortal status is maintained by superior weapons technology (to quash disobedient colonists) and by identity transfer (the SF trope where someone possesses the body of someone else via some futuristic transplant procedure). Identity transfer is not handled in a typical SF way; Zelazny treats it as a sacred art, property of only one of the “gods,” a former engineer of the spacecraft.
Under the ultimate rule of Brahman, figure such as Kali, Yama, Krishna and Ratri rule over their pieces of the world like a collection of dictators. Over the centuries, they have obviously bought into their godly image, conversing with each other in an artificially indirect lingo. Early in the novel, we find Yama plotting the cover-up of a scene where he and others had murdered another of their “immortals”:
Yama rolled a cigarette with care and precision. “It must be arranged that what I said is what actually occurred.”
“How can that be? When a man’s brain is subject to karmic play-back, all the events in his most recent cycle of life are laid out before his judge and machine, like a scroll.”
“That is correct,” said Yama. “And have you, Tak of the archives, never heard of a palimpsest – a scroll which has been used previously, cleaned, and used again?”
“Of course, but the mind is not a scroll.”
“No?” Yama smiled. “Well, it was your simile to being with. The truth is what you make it.”
In that exchange, we have Yama, a major power instructing Tak, a subservient deity figure, with tidbits of information. Tak, like we, are on a need-to-know basis when it comes to what these gods are capable of, and why they are willing to do the things they do. Karmic play-back, judge and machine are gradually explained as needed, but Zelazny maintains the mystery surrounding these characters for as long as possible. We’re clearly not in Asimov and Heinlein territory.
Dialogue counts for at least as much as narrative in LoL, meaning that we are continually dealing with different perspectives and misdirections. Mixed in this language are many incidents of anachronistic slang, puns and allusions that indicate cultural influences seeping in at the edges of this isolated planet:
“Jan Olvegg,” said the other.
The old man’s eyes widened, then narrowed into slits. He weighed a pair of scissors in his hand.
“It’s a long way to Tiperrary,” said the prince.
The man stared, and then smiled suddenly. “If your heart’s not here,” he said, placing the scissors on his workstand. “How long has it been, Sam?” he asked.
Sam is, in the guise/body of a prince, one of these immortals with plans to usurp the ruling class. Sam is shortened version of Mahasamatman, a prophet whose following has infiltrated society, and has brought into question the status of the other deities. LoL is the story of Sam’s centuries long quest to subvert the Hindu system, with strong parallels to the Bhuddist rejection of Vedic and Upanishad authority.
The seven sections of LoL take place in different times and settings, and tell roughly equal parts of the story. On the surface they have the appearance of sequentially linked short stories, but the themes that link them hint at Zelazny’s true ambitions. Yes, Sam is inspired to release the colonists from an endless cycle of life, suffering and death under the rule of the old “immortals,” but are his means comprised of enlightenment or brutal war tactics? How much destruction is Sam willing to bring about to change the planet to his visions – or liking? What is the proper place of the indigenous inhabitants of the planet, who have been bottled up for centuries in a place called Hellwell? Do the details of religious figures need to be obscured by time and conflicting stories, so that their abstract teachings are not debunked by scientific progress?
I fully admit that the plot and characters can take significant effort to unpack. I got the messages that I did from my own reading, and they will differ from every other person who finishes LoL. In this way, Zelazny’s work bears resemblance to Gene Wolfe’s – you have to be up to the challenge, and there’s always more to the story than what appears the first or second time. Not all New Wave SF is rewarding to read all these years later, but I think this one deserves a chance. 8/10.
NOTE: LoL gained some notoriety as the basis for the fake movie production in the film Argo, which features the CIA effort to smuggle its stranded personnel out of a newly-hostile Iran. It’s an okay movie but has very little to do with this novel.