Lord of Light

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Lord of Light
LordofLight(Zelazny).jpg
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Author(s)Roger Zelazny
Cover artistHoward Bernstein
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Genre(s)Science fiction novel
PublisherDoubleday
Publication date1967
Media typePrint (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages257 pp
ISBN9997410785
 
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Lord of Light
LordofLight(Zelazny).jpg
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Author(s)Roger Zelazny
Cover artistHoward Bernstein
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Genre(s)Science fiction novel
PublisherDoubleday
Publication date1967
Media typePrint (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages257 pp
ISBN9997410785

Lord of Light (1967) is a science fiction/fantasy novel by American author Roger Zelazny. It was awarded the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Novel,[1] and nominated for a Nebula Award in the same category.[2] Two chapters from the novel were published as novelettes in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1967. Zelazny's close friend (and fellow science fiction/fantasy author) George R. R. Martin describes in his afterword to Lord of Light how Zelazny once told him that the entire novel sprang from a single pun: the fit hit the Shan.

The context of the novel – modern western characters in a Hindu-Buddhist-infused world – is reflected in the book's opening lines:

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.

Contents

Structure

The novel is structured as a series of long semi-independent chapters; each a distinct story within a long campaign by the protagonist Sam – a classic trickster character – against the established gods of the world. The stories are not presented chronologically. The first story relates Sam's return from Nirvana to continue the struggle after decades of exile. The next stories are presented as flashbacks as Sam remembers the beginning of his campaign, and the tactics he employed, leading up to the titanic battle of Keenset. In the final chapter the newly returned Sam completes his campaign against the gods, with bittersweet results.

The story of Sam is based partly on the myths that surround the Buddha, the future buddha Maitreya, and Kalki, the coming tenth Avatar of Vishnu. Each chapter begins with an extract from a legendary version of the story, and extensive quotes, in English, from Indian literature such as the Sanskrit Vedas and the Pali Canon. Several events in the plot are accompanied by dialogue from the Upanishads.

In an intentional match with Hindu and Buddhist mythology and teachings, the first six chapters of the book describe actions which occur in the 'Great Wheel of Life'. These are repetitive actions, and thus the end of chapter six feeds directly into the beginning of chapter one. If read in this way, of course, the book will never end, in exactly the same way as an unenlightened life will never escape the cycle of desire, and be continually reborn. Eventually, an enlightened soul can achieve Nirvana, and release him or herself from the action of the Great Wheel.

While his previous works such as ...And Call Me Conrad and The Dream Master cast science fiction themes into a mythic mold, Lord of Light is the first to use Zelazny's technique of "anachronistic myth," in which a mythical or legendary story has science-fiction underpinnings and features occurrences of 20th century American vernacular and culture: Hindu deities smoke cigarettes, characters refer to Marxism and old drinking songs like "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", and two characters engage in an "Irish Stand-down," in which they take turns punching each other until one collapses.

Zelazny deliberately mixed elements of science fiction and fantasy in this novel in which the former crew of the starship Star of India pretend to be gods by adopting the trappings of Hindu mythology, and Sam invokes Buddhism to challenge them. Zelazny noted, “Lord of Light was intentionally written so that it could be taken as a science fiction or a fantasy novel. On the one hand, I attempted to provide some justifications for what went on in the way of the bizarre; on the other, I employed a style I associate with fantasy in the telling of the story. I wrote it that way on purpose, leaving some intentional ambiguity, because I wanted it to lie somewhat between both camps and not entirely in either. I did this because I did not see much stuff being written at that time which fit that description; because I wanted to see whether I could do it; and because I was curious as to how such a book would be received.” [3]

Plot summary

Lord of Light is set on a planet colonized by some of the remnants of "vanished Urath," or Earth. The crew and colonists from the spaceship Star of India found themselves on a strange planet surrounded by hostile indigenous races and had to carve a place for themselves or perish. To increase their chances of survival, the crew has used chemical treatments, biofeedback and electronics to mutate their minds and create enhanced self-images, or "Aspects," that "strengthened their bodies and intensified their wills and extended the power of their desires into Attributes, which fell with a force like magic upon those against whom they were turned." The crew has also developed a technology to transfer a person's atman, or soul, electronically to a new body. This reincarnation by mind transfer has created a race of potential immortals and allowed the former crew members to institute the Hindu caste system, with themselves at the top.

The novel covers great spans of time. Eventually, the crew used their now-great powers to subjugate or destroy the native non-human races (whom they characterize as demons) while setting themselves up as gods in the eyes of the many generations of colonist progeny. Taking on the powers and names of Hindu deities, these "gods" maintain respect and control of the masses by maintaining a stranglehold on the access to reincarnation and by suppressing any technological advancements beyond a medieval level. The gods fear that any enlightenment or advancement might lead to a technological renaissance that would eventually weaken their power.

The protagonist, Sam, who has developed the ability to manipulate electromagnetic forces, is a renegade crewman who has rejected godhood. Sam is the last "Accelerationist": He believes that technology should be available to the masses, and that reincarnation should not be controlled by the elite. Sam introduces Buddhism as a culture jamming tool and strives to cripple the power of the gods with this "new" religion. His carefully planned revolt against the gods takes place in stages: "An army, great in space, may offer opposition in a brief span of time. One man, brief in space, must spread his opposition across a period of many years if he is to have a chance of succeeding."

In many ways, the story of Lord of Light mirrors that of the novel Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.

The stories

(for characters, see descriptions below)

  1. In a monastery, the deathgod Yama – assisted by Tak, the ape (formerly Tak the Archivist for the gods) and Ratri, Goddess of Night – assembles a clandestine radio transceiver to extract Sam's atman, or soul, from the "Bridge of the Gods," the planet's thick ionosphere, and restore it to a body. Sam's bodiless essence was projected by the gods into the ionosphere after his capture in the battle of Keenset. This mode of execution was used because the last time the gods killed his body, Sam returned and stole a new one from one of the lesser gods. When Sam awakes, he claims to be horrified to be back in the flesh, having been aware of his ethereal condition the whole time, and having experienced it as a blissful Nirvana. He wants to return, to "hear the song the stars sing on the shores of the great sea." Eventually, after meditation on and immersion in earthly senses, he returns fully to the world. Shortly after, an encounter with the god Mara, who had come to investigate the disturbances caused by Yama's machinery, causes the conspirators to flee. As they proceed, Sam muses on his past ....
  2. Prince Siddhartha, entering old age, comes down to the city of Mahartha to obtain a new body. He finds that there have been changes while he has lived on his estates. Before getting the body, he must submit to a mind-probe, operated by the Masters of Karma, which will be used to determine his fitness for reincarnation. Those judged unfit are given diseased bodies or even reincarnated as animals such as dogs. The dogs then act as spies for the Masters. Siddhartha contacts Jan Olvegg, former captain of the Star of India, reveals himself as Sam, and realizes from what he is told that he cannot remain passive, and must proceed against the Gods. He raids the House of Karma, steals bodies for himself, Olvegg, and others, and causes the former Chief Master of Karma to be reincarnated as a dog. He then disappears to execute the next stage of his plan.
  3. The Buddha appears, preaching a philosophy of non-violence that undermines the doctrine of obedience to the gods and the struggle for a better rebirth. Instead, he emphasizes the pursuit of Nirvana and release from the illusion of the world. The goddess Kali, realizing that this is Sam's work, sends her personal executioner, Rild, to kill Sam, but Rild falls ill and is found and tended to by the Buddhist acolytes, as well as by Sam himself. Because he owes Sam his life, Rild renounces his mission after he recovers. He becomes one of Sam's disciples, eventually exceeding his teacher's wisdom. He takes the name Sugata, preaching in earnest what Sam had done only calculatingly as a way to overthrow the gods. Yama descends to kill Sam. Sugata/Rild faces Yama on a treetrunk bridge over a river, knowing he cannot defeat the God of Death, but fighting him anyway. Yama kills Rild and proceeds to find Sam. However, Sam tricks Yama and escapes, promising to return with "new weapons." Sam also warns Yama against the machinations of Yama's beloved Kali, and in so doing makes a personal enemy of Yama.
  4. Sam enters Hellwell, a huge pit where he had bound the demons centuries earlier. He negotiates with their leader, Taraka, for allies in his struggle. He frees Taraka to see the world above, but Taraka betrays him by taking possession of Sam's body, promising to resume the bargain "later." While in control of Sam's body, Taraka deposes a local maharajah and takes over his palace and harem. As Sam recovers control of his body, he finds himself becoming more like Taraka, enjoying the pleasures of the flesh. In turn, Taraka takes on some aspects of Sam, and ceases to revel in his life of pleasure. Sam tells him he has suffered the Curse of the Buddha, which is revealed to be a conscience and guilt. Soon after, Agni, God of Fire, arrives to kill Sam, finding instead two spirits in one body. Agni destroys the palace, while Sam/Taraka flees to Hellwell. They decide to free as many demons as possible before the gods arrive. However, even the full might of all the demons of Hellwell cannot stand against the gods. A mere four of the gods, Yama, Kali, Shiva, and Agni, are able to hold off the demons and pursue Sam. Despite his own powers, Sam is captured and Taraka leaves him. Sam is told that he is to be taken to Heaven and made an example of, lest the other gods try to emulate his rebellion.
  5. In the place called Heaven, Yama and Kali are to be married. Tak of the Bright Spear is the Archivist of Heaven, but is suspect because he was fathered in lifetimes past by Sam. However, Tak's main concern is seducing comely demi-goddesses such as Maya, the Mistress of Illusion. Sam is more or less free to wander Heaven, even trysting with Kali, who would like to have him back as her lover. He preaches to any who will listen, and the gods allow this, hoping to flush out sympathizers. However, Sam knows of some of his old gadgetry locked away in one of the museums in Heaven, and with the help of Helba, the Goddess of Thieves, he attempts an escape using a belt that amplifies his powers. This fails, and Kali, disgusted with herself and with him, persuades Brahma to order a human sacrifice, namely Helba and Sam himself, to celebrate her wedding. Sam is set free once more to flee for his life, hunted by the White Tigers of Kaniburrha, some of whom may be reincarnated gods, perhaps even Kali herself. Tak attempts to protect Sam by killing the tigers, but is struck down by Ganesha. For this, Tak is sent out of Heaven in the body of an ape. The wedding proceeds, with Sam apparently dead.
  6. Brahma is dead. He has been murdered by persons or gods unknown. Vishnu, Shiva, and Ganesha gather to quickly arrange a replacement. They decide that the only viable candidate is Kali. However, for her to be reincarnated as Brahma (a man), her short marriage to Yama must end. Yama is appalled at how coldly she accepts this. Next, Shiva is found murdered. Yama throws himself into investigating the deaths. His friend, Kubera, approaches the demigod Murugan and accuses him of the murders, finally addressing him as Sam. It appears that Sam has become part-demon, and can survive without a body. He displaced Murugan's spirit as Murugan was about to occupy a new body for the wedding feast. Kubera uncovered the deception by examining the brainwave records from the transfer. Instead of turning Sam in, Kubera offers to help him escape. Sam refuses, determined to kill as many gods as he can. Since Kubera's friend, Yama, is the obvious next target, Kubera tricks Sam, who has forgotten what a great warrior the fat old man was, and in a bout of Irish Stand-Down (in which two men take turns hitting each other until one cannot continue), knocks him out and prepares to flee on the giant bird Garuda. They recruit Ratri to stop Yama from interfering, and take her along. They flee to the city of Keenset, which is undergoing a technological revival, and is marked for destruction by the gods. Eventually, Yama, feeling betrayed by Kali and the other gods, joins them. With Yama's weaponry, and various allies, including the zombie army of Nirriti the Black, they fight a titanic battle of gods, men, and monsters, killing thousands of men, demigods, and eventually some gods as well. They go down in defeat, but not before dealing a crushing blow to the hierarchy of heaven. Yama apparently commits suicide, but some suspect that he has invented a remote reincarnation device. Ratri is exiled from heaven and condemned to wander the world in a series of homely bodies. Kubera had hidden himself in a vault, held in suspended animation. Sam, having proved himself unkillable, is instead projected into the ring of ions around the planet, known as the Bridge of the Gods. However, the gods win only a pyrrhic victory. The most powerful deities, such as Yama, Brahma, Shiva, and Agni, are now dead or sworn enemies of Heaven. Others have gone into exile rather than fight against Sam. While Brahma/Kali is exultant, Ganesha realizes that the days of Heaven are numbered, and he must look out for himself.
  7. In the final story, Sam has been returned from Nirvana. Sam, together with Yama, Ratri, and Kubera, plan their next move in their campaign against heaven. They are joined by the drunken god Krishna, who is a great fighter when sober, and who has wandered the world since he went into exile rather than fight at Keenset. Meanwhile, Nirriti, a Christian and the former chaplain of the original ship, has amassed great power in the southern continent. He is laying waste to cities in his attempts to stamp out the Hindu religion that he hates. He has acquired enough technology to challenge anything the gods can muster, even if they resort to "the tall man of smoke who wears a wide hat," apparently a reference to a nuclear device. He is also allied with the freed demons. At first he seems to be a natural ally for Sam and Yama, but they entrust the demon Taraka with conveying a message to him, and Taraka is determined to fight Yama, to prove that Taraka is the mightiest being on the planet. Thus Taraka falsely tells them that Nirriti has refused, and instead they ally with Brahma to defeat Nirriti, if Brahma will consent to their demands. This alliance defeats Nirriti in a final battle, despite Ganesha's attempt at betrayal, but at a huge cost. Brahma (the former Kali), fatally wounded, is conveyed from the battlefield by Yama. Later, Kubera finds Yama with his "daughter", whom he calls "Murga". She is retarded, and Yama admits that this was due to a botched mind-transfer. Kubera, always ready to help his friend, uses his powers to stimulate Murga's mind. Sam sees Tak restored to a young body, as is Ratri. Sam then leaves, no one is sure where to. Myths build up around his life and his departure.

Characters

The novel has a range of major and minor characters, each with a backstory which, in some cases, is deliberately vague with the intent of intensifying a sense of mystery. While many of the characters bear the names of Hindu gods, wear similar clothing, and carry items that the gods are traditionally depicted with (such as Kali's necklace of skulls), they are never intended to be interpreted by the reader as Hindu gods; they are humans masquerading as gods in order to secure power. To devout Hindus the novel may appear to be blasphemous, but Zelazny was respectful of Hinduism and had clearly read widely in the subject.

The gods live in Heaven, an artificial plateau in the polar regions "where only the mighty might make their home." It is covered by a giant dome for defense and weather control. Heaven is divided into the Celestial City and the Forest of Kaniburrha.

Major characters

Minor characters

Film version

In 1979 it was announced that Lord of Light would be made into a 50 million dollar film. It was planned that the sets for the movie would be made permanent and become the core of a science fiction theme park to be built in Aurora, Colorado. Famed comic-book artist/writer/editor Jack Kirby was even contracted to produce artwork for set design. However, due to legal problems the project was never completed.

Parts of the unmade film project—the script and Kirby's set designs—were subsequently acquired by the CIA as cover for the "Canadian Caper": the exfiltration of six US diplomatic staff trapped by the Iranian hostage crisis (in Tehran but outside the embassy compound). The rescue team pretended to be scouting a location in Iran for shooting a Hollywood film from the script, which they had renamed Argo.[4][5] The story of the rescue effort was later told in the 2012 film Argo.

Notes

  1. ^ "1968 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. http://www.worldswithoutend.com/books_year_index.asp?year=1968. Retrieved 2009-09-27.
  2. ^ "1967 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. http://www.worldswithoutend.com/books_year_index.asp?year=1967. Retrieved 2009-09-26.
  3. ^ "...And Call Me Roger"": The Literary Life of Roger Zelazny, Part 2, by Christopher S. Kovacs. In: The Collected Stories of Roger Zelazny, Volume 2: Power & Light, NESFA Press, 2009.
  4. ^ Mendez, Antonio J. (Winter 1999). "CIA Goes Hollywood: A Classic Case of Deception". Studies in Intelligence 43 (1). ISSN 1527-0874. OCLC 30965384. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/winter99-00/art1.html. Retrieved 2009-11-18.
  5. ^ Bearman, Joshuah (2007-04-24). "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans from Tehran". Wired Magazine. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/15.05/feat_cia.html. Retrieved 2007-04-25.

References

External links