#33 – Lord of Light Review – Roger Zelazny

lord of light

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I wanted to like this book, I really did. Check out that sweet cover of the glowing florescent Buddha! Science Fiction mixed with Hindu mythology and Buddhist mysticism? Sign me up. A world where humans use their advanced technological prowess to act like gods? Sounds fascinating. Unfortunately, what I thought would be a rousing philosophically tinged science fiction adventure story actually turned out to be a intentionally vague, highly confusing mess of Eastern religious platitudes, cardboard characters (given the names of Hindu gods), bad puns and yawn-inducing confrontations between good and evil. The book makes large leaps in time and setting without much warning, characters change names (and allegiances) on a number of occasions, and the narrative is hard to follow from one chapter to the next. Even the basic premise (that human refugees have used technology to make themselves god-like and all-powerful) is not fully explained until nearly half-way through the book – just long enough for me to be thoroughly confused and frustrated.

Lord of Light Summary: The story centers around a character named Mahasamatman (or Sam for short), the de facto leader of a rebellion against the ruling gods of the planet who have kept the masses oppressed under a rigid caste system and deprived them of the advanced technology that has allowed them to become so powerful. It isn’t until a good 100 pages into the book that it is revealed that these deities aren’t actually gods, but merely humans who have used their advanced technical and medical knowledge to become immortal. As a crew of colonists from a devastated Earth, they landed on this unknown planet and were forced to develop superhuman powers for themselves in order to survive. They eventually tamed the native inhabitants of the planet (referring to them as “Demons”) and have kept most of their own descendants in a state of arrested progress, fearing that any breakthroughs in technology may weaken their position. To complete the illusion of god-like importance, they even build themselves a fortress called the Celestial City as a stand-in for Heaven. With names like Yama the “God of Death” and Kali the “God of Destruction,” the colonists co-opt the Hindu mythological tradition in order to complete their metaphorical transformation from humans into gods. Add to that the ability to grant “Reincarnation” only to those who they deem worthy and you have the basis for total control.

Although Sam was one of the first colonists along with the other “Gods” and received many of the same benefits and powers that they did, he disagreed with them when it came to governing the populace of the planet. His view that the fruits of their technology should be shared with everyone rather than kept to the small circle of “Gods” was considered a threat to their power, causing him to be sent into exile (which is where he is returning from when the book opens). The rest of the book details his struggles to ferment rebellion against “Heaven” and free the population from oppression. The main way that he goes about instigating revolution is by the simple introduction of a competing belief system, Buddhism. That, along with his ability to control the pure-energy beings (demons) that were the planet’s original inhabitants, allow him to wage a fierce battle against the Gods.

Lord of the Light Review: While the story may sound interesting when you lay it out clearly like that, the actual telling of the tale is another story. I’m all for unconventional narratives and enigmatic storytelling, but when those things get in the way of a basic understanding of what is happening, when it is happening and to whom, that’s when you lose me. Now that I have a better grasp of what the book is about, I’m sure that a second reading would be much more rewarding. Unfortunately, there are too many better books out there that deserve a first reading to make me justify spending the time to give it a second chance. Maybe now that I’ve given you a basic outline of the plot you’ll enjoy it more than I did, who knows.

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August 26, 2010

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