Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny (1967)
‘SAM NEVER CLAIMED TO BE A GOD. BUT THEN, HE NEVER CLAIMED NOT TO BE…
The time: long after the death of Earth. A band of men on a colony planet have gained control of technology. With it, they have given themselves immortality and godlike powers.
And they rule their world as the Gods of the Hindu pantheon. Kali, Goddess of Destruction; Yama, Lord of Death; Krishna, God of Lust – all are opposed by he who was Siddhartha, and is now Mahasamatman, Binder of Demons, Lord of Light…’
Blurb from the 1971 Panther paperback edition.
From the Nineteen Sixties comes Zelazny’s imaginative and psychedelic vision of a human colony run amok on a distant planet. The settlers, endowed with fantastic technology, are given powers allow them not only to take on the roles of the Gods of the Hindu pantheon, but to make reincarnation a reality.
Those deemed worthy are reborn in new vat-grown bodies while those deemed less karma credit-worthy come back as animals, or sometimes not at all.
The novel follows Sam, who is Mahasamatman, Binder of Demons, Lord of Light, aka Siddhartha; Tagatha; Buddha…etc etc. Unhappy with the decadent behaviour of his fellow Gods he plans a revolt against Heaven to end the inequality between them and their worshippers.
It’s an absurd premise, but Zelazny’s masterful style transforms it into a credible and compelling novel.
It’s written in the language of Myth and Legend – interspersed with relevant passages from the Upanishads – which is occasionally, and sometimes amusingly, dragged into the focus of reality by Sam’s laconic ‘Urath’ wit and terminology.
For all its mythic nuances and Science Fantasy shell, ‘Lord of Light’ is rooted very solidly in Science Fiction. Although occasionally drawn into the psychedelic and fantastic world of Gods and Demons we are always drawn back to the fact that these creatures were once human, changed beyond recognition by what are merely very powerful toys.
Zelazny explores this theme again later in his Amber series, where Corwin (like Sam) is estranged from what is essentially a family of Gods and is forced by circumstance to return to bring change to their somewhat stagnant and decadent society.
This novel, however, has more to do with Absolute Power Corrupting Absolutely, set against a background of a war of ideologies.
It’s an interesting point to make in Late Sixties America where Anti-government protests were at a peak. ‘Sam’ after all, is a euphemism for the spirit of America itself so maybe there is a case to be made for seeing this as Zelazny’s allegory of American society rising up to change the status quo. The Sixties of course, also brought us a fascination with all things ‘Eastern’ (as the Twenties did with all things Egyptian) and Zelazny certainly exploits that here.
Interestingly, one of the seminal SF novels of the Sixties, ‘Dune’ follows a remarkably similar plot line, in that an exiled member of the aristocracy – thought to be dead – joins the common people and rises up against a decadent system of government.