On of my few five stars. I don’t go into huge detail here, because the book is a classic (in its field). Still, if you have not read this and you are into fantasy or science fiction, you really should.
Roger Zelazny is one of the few science fiction authors that John Gardner, in his book On Becoming a Novelist recommends. Gardner tends to dislike most science fiction as he focuses on characters and superb writing in his recommendations.
Lord of Light has been on my top ten list for over thirty years, when I first read this at seventeen. I re-read Lord of Light every two years or so, to re-inspire my own feeble efforts at fantasy and science fiction.
Lord of Light blends the two genres—Fantasy and Science Fiction—together. This was written during Zelazny’s “beat” period, when he was exploring other religions and using his interests as stepping stones to his novels (another one is Creatures of Light and Darkness, written two years later, 1969). It was also three years before his huge success, Nine Princes in Amber, which to some extent type cast him and trapped him into a series that by the sixth book was weak at best. But, I digress.
It won the Hugo award and illustrated Zelazny’s graduation from short stories to full-fledged novelist—although he never fully abandoned the short story structure and even this was originally a shorter story/novella. It is told in flashback, my least favorite of techniques, but in the hands of Zelazny I soon forget. It is ostensibly about Sam, short for Mahasamatman, once a god, but now a Buddha doing battle against the gods. It does not take long for the reader to discover that the gods and reincarnation are due to technology brought to the planet millennia in the past. Sam is one of the original colonists, who has become disillusioned with the others who are taking on the airs of Hindu gods. He preaches the teachings of Buddha as a calculated method of bringing down the gods, but his teachings are embraced as the truth. This is a bit of phenomenology similar to that employed in John Carpenter’s Dark Star, where Doolittle talks the bomb (temporarily) out of exploding. The source of the idea may be suspect, but if it is truth it does not matter, the idea is still sound.
As with any great book, this succeeds not just because of the plot, which is good, but because of the characters and writing. The heroes are flawed, but interesting. The villains are hardly fully evil, in fact many are likable, or even empathetic. Ultimately, Zelazny is poking at religious institutions that exist for their own power. Along the way he gives a fun overview of the Hindu pantheon and all the gods are nothing, if not interesting. Well worth reading, by an author that shaped a huge number of authors for years.