Lord of Light

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Lord of Light  

Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Author Roger Zelazny
Cover artist Howard Bernstein
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction novel
Publisher Doubleday
Publication date 1967
Media type print (hardcover & paperback)
Pages 257 pp

Lord of Light (1967) is an epic science fiction/fantasy novel by Roger Zelazny. It was awarded the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and nominated for a Nebula Award in the same category. Two chapters from the novel were published as novelettes in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1967.

The context of the novel – modern western characters in a Hindu-Buddhist myth-infused world – is reflected in the 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."


[edit] 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 Buddhist text, 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 themselves from the action of the Great Wheel. This is what happens in the final chapter seven.

Where 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 in Zelazny's style of "anachronistic myth", one in which a mythical or legendary story has science-fiction underpinnings and features occurrences of 20th century American vernacular and habits, e.g. smoking cigarettes with Hindu gods, utterances such as "It's a Long Way to Tipperary", and "You fertility deities are worse than Marxists!", or the contest between two characters called "Irish Stand-down" where they take turns punching each other until one collapses.

[edit] Plot summary

Cover of Lord of Light, Panther edition.

Lord of Light is set on a planet colonized by the remnants of a destroyed "Urath", Earth. The crew and colonists from the 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 used chemical treatments, biofeedback and electronics to manipulate their minds to manifest superhuman powers. The available technologies also allowed near-immortality through reincarnation using the growth of new bodies and electronic mind transfer.

Over time, the crew gain great powers and manage to subjugate or destroy the native non-human races (which 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 the ability to manipulate electromagnetic forces, is a renegade crewman who has turned down god-hood, believes that technology should be encouraged for the masses, and the right of reincarnation should be available to all. Sam introduces Buddhism as a culture jamming tool and with this new religion, murder, and outright rebellion strives to cripple the power of the "gods".

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

[edit] 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 Nirvana of the Bridge of the Gods, a ring of ions around the planet, and restore it to a body. Sam's bodiless essence has been in this Nirvana since his capture after the battle of Keenset, because the last time the gods killed his body he returned and stole a new body from one of the lesser gods. When he awakes, he is horrified to be back in the flesh, having been aware of his ethereal condition the whole time. 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, 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. Recovering, Rild cannot carry out his mission and instead becomes one of Sam's pupils, eventually equalling 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".
  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 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 God 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 person 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, heaven wins only a pyrrhic victory. The most powerful gods, such as Yama, Brahma, Shiva and Agni, are dead or enemies of Heaven. Others have gone into exile rather than fight against Sam. While Brahma/Kali is exultant, Ganesha realizes that their days 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 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, fatally wounded, is conveyed from the battlefield by Yama. Later Kubera finds Yama with his "daughter", who 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.

[edit] Characters

Cover of Lord of Light, as published by Methuen in 1986

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.

The Gods live in an artificial city in the polar regions, on an artificial plateau, accessible only by aircraft. The entire plateau is covered by a dome, and is known as Heaven or the Celestial City.

[edit] Major characters

  • Sam is one of the original colonists of the planet. He thus belongs to the group who are known as the First, a diminishing number of people. As Sam himself says, "All the rest are dead, or are gods". He himself was a god, styling himself Kalkin. Thanks to his long life and many exploits, he is known by many names, such as Maitreya, Lord of Light, Manjusri of the Sword, Binder of Demons and so on. His major contribution to the ascendancy of the Gods was his use of his power of electrodirection, or mental control of electromagnetics, to conquer and destroy or bind the natives of the planet, who were beings of pure energy known to men as demons. Eventually disillusioned by the rise of the Gods, he retires to the life of Prince Siddhartha, until he finally rebels. In doing so, he creates more legends, and gains more names, including Buddha, The Enlightened One, Tathagatha, Mahasamatman or Great-Souled Sam etc.
  • Yama, the God of Death, is first Sam's enemy, then his ally. He is a third generation colonist with an unusual history. A juvenile scientific genius, he was mortally injured in an explosion, so that he had to be quickly reincarnated into the first available body, which happened to be middle-aged. He was "old before he was young", and did not have the same outlook as someone who has "known first love in the days of spring". As a result he is the cold, calculating master of arms and sciences, who has created most of the technology behind the power of the Gods. He is also a master swordsman, and has the power of death-gaze, which allows him to kill by looking his victim in the eyes. Asked by Sam how he can bear to serve a "bunch of drunken body changers" he puts forth a "higher cause" rationale. However he also is emotionally involved and eventually turns as a result of a betrayal.
  • Kali, Goddess of Destruction, also known as Durga, consort of Kalkin, and Candi the Fierce, is another of the First. Over the centuries, she has been Sam's lover, companion, wife, comrade-in-arms, and finally enemy. She yearns for the days when the planet was still wild and unconquered. As Sam warns Yama, who loves her, she loves only "those who bring her gifts of chaos". Like Yama, she has the death-gaze power, along with many others only hinted at. She also carries a weapon, the skull-wheel, which is some kind of ultrasonic emitter that causes confusion and oblivion, even to the demons.
  • Tak, of the Bright Spear, is a former demigod exiled to the world as an ape, as punishment for trying to help Sam while he was in captivity. He is also Sam's son, a fact of which Sam may or may not be aware. Tak rationalizes this away, because when people have many bodies, biological parenthood becomes meaningless. However, he helps Sam mostly because of that connection between them.
  • Kubera is Yama's friend and companion in an order of the Gods called the Lokapalas. No matter how he is reincarnated, his body always runs to fat. He is however, shrewdly intelligent and a master technologist, surpassing Yama in some areas. He has the unusual ability to invest inanimate objects with emotion, which he uses to create the Pavilion of Silence at Worldsend, a structure at the far end of the place known as Heaven in which rooms are dedicated to emotions such as Despair, Heartbreak, and Fear. This is a place of retreat for the Gods. After centuries of idleness as a God he eventually breaks with the rest and helps Sam.
  • Ratri, Goddess of the Night is Kubera's friend who is sucked into the conflict, not altogether unwillingly. She too is disgusted by the treatment Sam received in Heaven, and runs to Kubera after she witnesses Brahma's last twitches when he is poisoned. Eventually she helps Kubera escape Heaven with Sam. Her power is to cast Night across any area, which is used in the Battle of Keenset. After that battle, because she is judged to have been merely weak-willed in helping Sam, she is expelled from Heaven to wander the world in bodies that can not express her powers, or her beauty. In spite of this she can occasionally summon the strength to become the Goddess whose "radiance drives out the dark". In character terms she provides an emotional counterweight to Yama's hatred and Sam's zeal.

[edit] Minor characters

  • Jan Olvegg, also known as Olvagga, or Janaveg, or Janagga, is another one of the First. In fact, he was the Captain of the colonists' ship. Sam encounters him in exile while still contemplating his own rebellion. He identifies himself to Olvegg with "It's a long way to Tipperary". Olvegg, who at first cannot recognize Sam because of his changing of bodies, brings Sam up to date on the rise of the Gods since Sam retired, and thus precipitates Sam's campaign. He is later captured by, and forced to fight for, Nirriti the Black. Olvegg is a Christian, although far less fanatic than Nirriti in spreading his faith.
  • Rild, later called Sugata, is an assassin and master swordsman, a holy disciple of Kali and thuggee. He is sent to kill Sam while Sam is reviving Buddhism by playing the Buddha, but instead becomes a convert and, eventually, as Sam puts it, the real Buddha since it is he rather than Sam who attains enlightenment. This has some similarities to the tale of Angulimala.
  • Trimurti, composed of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, rule in Heaven. However, Brahma is weak-spirited, mostly concerned with "his" manliness, since "he" is a reincarnated lesbian woman. Shiva is an "old warhorse" whose main power is a trident made by Yama, which can kill or disintegrate. Shiva also uses the "Thunder Chariot" a nuclear powered aircraft. Vishnu, the Preserver, was the architect of the place called Heaven, but is a passive god who goes along with Brahma's machinations, which in turn seem to be driven by the influence of Kali and Ganesha.
  • Ganesha is a manipulator, an insider, the self-styled power behind the throne. He pushes the other Gods to consolidate their power, even to the extent of persuading them to allow Sam to preach while held captive in Heaven, hoping to tempt sympathizers into revealing themselves. As the power of the Gods wanes, he tries to maintain his position by betraying them to Nirriti. Asked if he trusts Ganesha, Nirriti replies "Yes, but I would give him his silver afterward", a clear reference to Judas Iscariot, Nirriti being a Christian.
  • Agni, God of Fire, is at first a fearsome being armed with a wand that emits the Universal Fire, evidently thermonuclear in nature, which destroys anything it touches. The wand itself can only be held by wearing a special glove, presumably to protect the holder. He also has goggles that enable him to see in infra-red and ultra-violet radiation, and for immense distances. It is said he scored the faces of the moons with his wand, while standing on the ground.
  • Taraka, Lord of the Rakasha, is a demon, an energy being. Like the rest of his kind he was bound by Sam in the early days, but he is set free by Sam as part of a bargain to marshal the demons to oppose the Gods.
  • Nirriti the Black was originally Renfrew, the chaplain of the colonists' ship. A staunch Christian, he is disgusted by the ascendancy of Hinduism on the planet and eventually sets himself up with an army of zombie soldiers to conquer and convert the planet. (Nirriti portrays solo meglomania when compared to the Gods.) This character is deeply ironic, a Christian who comes to be known as "The Dark Lord", leader of an army of "Soulless Ones" who have no will of their own but kneel to accompany him in his prayers when so ordered. His final irony is to die in the arms of the false Buddha, Sam.
  • Mara, Lord of Illusion can project illusions across great distances, a power that the Gods use both for entertainment and in battle. He is the one God who can stand against Sam and Yama at Keenset where both exert their full powers, being able to misdirect their attacks. Likewise he frustrates Sam's attempt to escape Heaven by confusing him as to the way out of the dome. Despite this his character is not much in evidence in the novel, only his actions. In the first story he appears in disguise attempting to find out what Yama is doing, but when confronted, apparently unable to use his powers of illusion effectively against Yama within a limited space, the Death God breaks his neck, thus killing him.

[edit] 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 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 an exfiltration team posing as Hollywood location scouts in Tehran in order to rescue six US diplomatic staff who escaped the Iranian hostage crisis by virtue of being outside the Embassy building at the time.[1][2]

[edit] Song

"Lord of Light" is also the title of a song by Hawkwind, possibly named after the Zelazny novel, although there is no direct reference to it in the lyrics. Hawkwind also recorded songs based on Zelazny's Damnation Alley and Jack of Shadows.

There's also a song from the heavy metal band Iron Maiden named "Lord of Light", but there is no direct reference to the novel in this song either.

[edit] Influence

Certain elements of the story, notably the use of technology to appear as and even become gods, have surfaced in other stories and films, such as Stargate and its spinoffs, where Egyptian themes are employed rather than Vedic ones. In the computer role-playing game Fallout, producer Tim Cain used Sam as a model when deciding the possible positive actions of the main character. [3]

[edit] Notes

[edit] References

  • Levack, Daniel J. H. (1983). Amber Dreams: A Roger Zelazny Bibliography. San Francisco: Underwood/Miller. pp. 50–53. ISBN 0-934438-39-0. OCLC 10344075. 
Preceded by
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert A. Heinlein
Hugo Award for Best Novel
Succeeded by
Stand on Zanzibar
by John Brunner

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