Author: Roger Zelazny
UK Publisher: Gollancz
Genre: Science fiction
Imagine a distant world where gods walk as men, but wield vast and hidden powers. Here they have made the stage on which they build a subtle pattern of alliance, love, and deadly enmity. Are they truly immortal? Who are these gods who rule the destiny of a teeming world?
Their names include Brahma, Kali, Krishna and also he who was called Buddha, the Lord of Light, but who now prefers to be known simply as Sam. The gradual unfolding of the story – how the colonization of another planet became a re-enactment of Eastern mythology – is one of the great imaginative feats of modern science fiction.
My dad and I didn’t generally overlap on our reading tastes very often. He was always disappointed I couldn’t get through Lord of the Rings, while I was shocked at his distaste for “that Pratchett man”. There were a handful that we shared. The Incredible Journey was one, and Lord of Light was another.
It’s not an easy book to read. The first chapter is 40 pages long, and dense as hell. I stumbled over it a few times, and it took several attempts before I was able to get into it. It also jumps you in at the end of events, in a lull before the final reckoning, before catapulting you back to somewhere around the middle and letting you pick things up again from there. The nature of this first chapter can make it quite hard to get into the narrative, it’s by necessity of the story slow and the speech is very formal. When we skip back in time, everything becomes more dynamic, and we start to get more of an understanding of the setting and plot.
That said, it’s still never explicit. There’s a lot of reading between the lines, a lot of allusions to things but no direct explanation. It takes a while before the mention of multiple moons makes you realise you’re on another planet, and still other off-hand comments for you to find out that the gods we are following are the original colonists from a space ship centuries ago. The creatures they refer to as demons are the original life forms of the planet, and the people who worship them as gods are their descendents from previous bodies.
It’s a fascinating book, one which doesn’t give you any information for free. You have to work to keep track of the timeline, and the relationships, and the different names. Uncovering the deeper backstory comes from inferences in conversations, asides in description. You aren’t given a handy summary as a prologue, and this can make the book seem inaccessible when you first begin – it definitely put me off a few times as a teenager. It took several runs before I was able to push through that opening.
Of course, it’s not a book without potential issues. It’s a book written by a white American man, taking the figures from Hinduism and Buddhism and writing about them as if they were humans, petty and power-hungry, striving for domination and revenge as they squabble among each other. The Buddha figure doesn’t believe in Buddhism, although he is inspired when he finds someone who does fully embrace the religion and find true enlightenment. Reincarnation isn’t to do with your actions but whether the people who run the machines for reincarnation want you to do well. Those people claim to be gods, but are really suppressing technology in society to ensure their own appearance of otherworldliness. It doesn’t always sit entirely comfortably, and it’s definitely something I’ve noticed more on re-reads.
Looking at Zelazny’s back catalogue, exploring the themes of mythologies and religions isn’t uncommon. However, there is a difference between looking at the mythologies of dead civilisations (Norse, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece) and taking on the active religions of extant cultures that still practice these religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Navajo religions). The inclusion of Christianity in the list of cultures he explores is interesting, because it can give the impression of “equal treatment”, except Christianity is only explored in one of his short stories, while the rest are given whole novels. Is this appropriation? Is he taking the religions and beliefs of other cultures and using them for his own benefit without considering the lives and worship of the people who follow these religions? While I realise this is a hot-button subject today, I think it’s important to consider. Lord of Light won the Hugo award for Best Novel in 1968. Would it have been received so well today? Would it have been published in the same form? I looked to see if there was any criticism on this element, and actually found a review by a Keralan reader who felt that Zelazny had clearly researched his topic well, but suggests that without the spin of the exotic from the Indian myth the story would otherwise not be groundbreaking. This seems a fair comment, and the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition even includes a foreword that does make note of the fact that there’s some Orientalism at play here, which I appreciated.
I will say this with some confidence, however – it was unusual to find books with a cast almost entirely of non-white ethnicities in SFF in 1968, not to mention one so critically acclaimed and widely praised. The ideal outcome of this would have been for it to open a wave of greater representation within the industry at the time, to encourage not only more characters of different ethnicities, but also more authors to give their own voices and stories. How would this book have read if it were told by someone from South or East Asia? Sadly, this wasn’t the case, and it’s taken decades for the long-overdue work to make SFF a more diverse publishing community.
This is a book that is written with artistry in every phrase and word. It’s rich and elaborate, and while it can feel slow to get going, once you get past chapter one it’s like the whole story rushes at you like a cork out of a bottle. The premise is elaborate and brilliant as well, and this is a book that will make you work for the outcome, but you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something when you finish it. While it falls foul of cultural issues we’re more aware of today, it still stands out as a critically acclaimed SFF classic that puts cultures other than white, Western European ones at its centre.
- A richly described and complex novel that takes Hinduism and Buddhism as a basis for its futuristic culture on another planet, and shows how religious messages can be used to control society when the intention behind them is control rather than support.
- The opening is dense and can be tricky to get through, particularly when combined with the unusual plot structure, but once you finish chapter one and are given a few more pieces of the puzzle, it all starts to become much clearer.
- Looking at reviews by readers from India, it seems that Zelazny’s research was robust and he understands the religion well. It’s definitely unusual for an SFF book from the 1960s to have a cast almost entirely of South Asian extraction, but while there is perhaps an element of Orientalism in the setting, I never felt like the characters themselves were fetishised, although I note that I am the last person to be able to judge this.
Rating: 4/5 – I’ve always thought the first chapter let the rest of the book down, but if you can get through it the rest of the book is wonderfully creative and philosophical.