Book Review: Lord of Light
I am not the go to guy for vintage scifi. I veer more towards fantasy and horror. I have a grounding in the subject because they all intermingle more than a little but some of the books that are now vaunted as classics of science fiction have completely passed me by until now. What this means is that I get to pick up one of a hundred books that the world at large has judged to be amazing and see them for the very first time. Talking about the way genres intermingle brings me almost inevitably to Robert Zelazny's Lord of Light. A book that both internally and externally combines myth, fantasy and science fiction to produce a remarkable whole.
The story of Lord of Light is two things and one. It is the story of an independent colony on an alien world, where the crew of the ship who transported the colonists have withheld all technology to maintain a social hierarchy with them firmly on the top. This story's central conflict revolves mainly around the technological means by which immortality has been achieved for humanity through a process of cloned bodies and body hopping. The ship's crew prevent the replacement of the faulty bodies of anyone that disagrees with their political views. Their views in this case being that advanced technology would just confuse the common people and it was better held in the hands of the elite. Those members of the original crew that disagree with the party line form an insurrection and wage war until an equitable peace is achieved and technological progress is allowed to spread across the colony. This is one of the two stories.
The second story is the lens through which all of the events of the first story are viewed. A retelling of elements of the Hindu faith. The native creatures of this planet are Rakshasa. The original crew are the pantheon of the gods. The process of body transferral is reincarnation, determined by karma, not simply a political agenda. It is against this religious domination that the protagonist, the titular Lord of Light, must fight. The tools which he uses to combat his foes are many and complex but one of the most insidious ways that the gods hold on the world is weakened is through the introduction of Buddhism as an alternative religion. Just as the “gods” use religion as an explanation and justification for their powers and position, so does Mahasamatman use philosophy to diffuse them. As a backdrop to his struggles we also get to witness the courtship of the Goddess Kali, from its beginning through to its bitter-sweet end.
All of these stories weave together seamlessly, creating a single captivating narrative with slightly purple prose. Nowhere is that more satisfying than at the very end of the story when the story, which had been threatening to become mythology all along, suddenly blossomed out into four potential endings for the Lord of Light, leaving it to the reader to decide which truth to believe in.