Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Posted Winter 2019
So, this one has been a long time coming. Between work, publishing my own novel, raising a one-year-old, maintaining a relationship with my wife, social life, Christmas, etc. the book review train came to a halt. But it's back! Full steam ahead and all that.
I read Lord of Light on a three day weekend trip my wife and I took in October 2018. To be fair, I started it a couple of days before the trip, but really devoured the nigh-majority of the novel during that short time frame. The reason: I thought it was amazing.
Disclaimer: I am a total nerd for mythology, ever since my old man gave me a copy of The Twelve Labours of Hercules when I was a lad. Greek and Roman, for the most part. At least, when I was little. In Grade Six, I did a Greek and Roman mythology enrichment course. I did some Greek and Roman Classics courses in university. Like I said, nerd.
But that is European stuff. Growing up in a small province in Canada, I was never really exposed to Hindu mythology. It wasn't until I reached my mid-twenties and had a mental health meltdown that was years in the making that I found yoga, which was a satisfying balm to my soul. As I became more immersed in the practice, I started reading books like the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana. Then I got into the likes of Ram Dass and scoured the Internet for more tidbits of the heroes and gods of the Hindu pantheon.
What a colourful and beautiful tradition. I am a huge sucker for larger-than-life stories, hero's journeys, morality plays: the pith and substance of classic myth. And Hinduism has that in droves. It also is a little more literal about the spirituality that is enmeshed in mythological tales from around the world. I actually began understanding my beloved Greek and Roman myths in a different light, now that I had this new and broader lens that exploring Hinduism gave me.
Back to the book. I had first heard of Roger Zelazny on Penny-Arcade, the video game comic / news site, years ago. Tycho had mentioned that he was a big fan of his stories about Amber, Zelazny's epic that spanned ten books (still working through that - on book six now). I did not read it at the time, but the name stuck in my mind. I cannot remember exactly what arcane mix of Google-searching an Wikipedia-browsing saw me discover Lord of Light on Amazon, but when I noticed that Neil Gaiman was effusive with praise for the man's writing, I knew I had to check it out.
The review - 5/5
The story is a unique mix of fantasy and science fiction, a genre-bending magnum opus about the depth of the human soul. Imagine a world where human beings have mastered science to a degree that effectively makes them gods. They are immortal, have wondrous powers thanks to technology, and they decide that they need to move on from Earth. They get on a ship, go to another planet, and reproduce. They then beam their children down onto the surface of the planet, refuse to give them any of their technology, and allow them to live out primitive lives in darkness, essentially starting from scratch without civilization.
The technologically-endowed humans decide to set themselves up as gods. In fact, the same gods of the Hindu pantheon. There is Yama, god of death. Igni, god of fire. Kali, deadly aspect of the goddess. Brahma, Shiva, Ganesha - they're all here. And they are all decidedly human, with all of the caprice and jealousy that one might expect. Kind of reminded me of the Greek and Roman stuff.
The protagonist of the story is Mahasamatman. He drops the maha (great) and atman (soul), and just goes by Sam. Sam is one of the original crew that arrived. He did not like what his fellow shipmates were doing, abusing their power by enslaving their children. The beginning is the story of his own resurrection, which is actually after quite a bit of intrigue has occurred. Without spoiling it too much for you, he gets into a fight and is killed (but remember - immortal!) and you find out exactly why and how that happens as the story progresses. The story jumps around through massive shifts in time on the planet (thanks immortality!) and there are a number of side-plot type stories that are just so damn rich. Sam himself acts as the Buddha, and literally does act - he plays the part based on memory banks. When one of his followers actually becomes enlightened, in the classic sense, Sam knows he has planted the seed for the liberation of all of the people from the clutches of the human-gods. But he still needs to actually depose them!
Cue the majestic fights with gods and demons.
In its whole, I read it to be a metaphor for the spiritual unfolding itself. The protagonist maintains throughout that he is just a regular dude, a guy trying to make the world a better place. But I wasn't convinced by his addresses to the reader where he tries to do just that. Or perhaps, maybe that simple human being thing is exactly what the myths are always trying to say. What was it they say about enlightenment? Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
I get the feeling that Sam, courageously putting the lives of strangers before his own, ready to sacrifice himself for what he knows is right - just being a stand-up guy, really - is exactly the thing that all the seekers are looking for all along.