Lord of Light
by Roger Zelazny
1968 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
Let me make this one brief: it's brilliant. Lord of Light is one of the greatest science fiction novels I've ever read and it contains a strong fantasy element for those who like that. It is easily Roger Zelazny's best work and shows you exactly why he was one of the biggest science fiction writers of the New Wave. If you haven't read it yet you need to go out and get a copy now and read it before continuing on with your life, it's that good.
There you go, all done. See you later.
What, you want more? Well, if you insist.
I should say that I hadn't read Lord of Light before I started my project of reading all of the Hugo winning novels. In my younger days I stumbled across the spiritual sequel Creatures of Light and Darkness and I hated it. I could barely get into the book and I don't think I made it through a hundred pages before moving on to something else. Eventually I went through that fantasy phase that so many people go through and I discovered Zelazny properly through his Amber series (I need to offer an apology here to Zelazny fans; I was one of those foolish youngsters who were demanding more Amber above other things and for that I am now sincerely sorry). I never did go back and read Lord of Light, though, because of my bad memories of Creatures of Light and Darkness.
That was a very big mistake. Lord of Light is what you'd get of Doc Smith and J.R.R. Tolkein got high together while watching a Bollywood epic.
In the distant future humanity has colonized another planet and has developed technology that really is indistinguishable from magic. One of the first generation of colonists, Sam, has been enjoying decades of living the high life as a ruler in a distant land but has returned to the big city to get a fresh young body so he can continue his life of immortal decadence. He finds that while he has been away the rest of the first generation of colonists have set themselves up as the Hindu pantheon and are handing out new lives only if they think they can control the person getting the new incarnation. Sam won't stand for this so after conning them out of a new body he procedes to set himself up as the Buddha. Then he along with his sidekick the God of Death wage an extended war with the gods (okay, not really sidekick but that does sound better than "barely tolerated companion").
Now just packing the book solid with the absolutely mind blowing conflict (quite literally in this case) might be enough to make it an entertaining read but this conflict is built on some of the most interesting entities you can imagine. Sam is by far the most human and we can identify with him but the gods themselves have been corrupted by their absolute power. Kali in particular is as terrifying of a woman as you'd expect Kali to be. She's the most extreme but all of the gods show a kind lost humanity which some of them go on to try to recover over the course of the novel.
It hits all of the themes that Zelazny will go to over and over again but this time it's all done perfectly. Rather than the loose ties with Greek mythology in This Immortal he closely binds Lord of Light with Hinduism and Buddhism. The retooling of those stories with the science fiction framework lends the book an epic quality.
Zelazny's prose is at a peak in Lord of Light as well and I can let it speak for itself. It opens with, "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." And so you're immediately plunged into this being a modern version of the Buddha. He plays with language throughout the novel such as when, "Vishnu Vishnu Vishnu regarded regarded regarded Brahma Brahma Brahma. They sat in the Hall of Mirrors." This kind of thing gives the book a poetic quality and takes us back to the mythic epic even when Zelazny goes into his 60's hipster dialog.
Perhaps the best thing that I can say about Lord of Light is that it left me wanted to know more. I know about as much about Hinduism and Buddhism as the next informed American: hardly anything (well, I know a little bit about their beliefs which gives me a leg up on most Americans). Now I want to know a bit more just to satisfy my curiosity.
So Lord of Light is well written, jam packed with fascinating ideas, featuring a culture almost never seen in western science fiction or fantasy, and is all around one of the best books I've ever read. I could not recommend it more highly. My initial paragraph is really all you need to know.
Sadly I suspect that not many people share this opinion. The copy I have is a former library book and it happens to be a Gregg Press edition. Gregg Press did a set of high quality limited editions of certain major science fiction works in the 1970's so I can place when this book was acquired fairly accurately. In addition, the tape holding the mylar cover on was rotting which drove me to remove it so it has been there for quite some time. Between 1979 when the book had to have been acquired and the point where the library got rid of it my copy of Lord of Light had been checked out once in 1993. To that lone reader I congratulate you on your good taste.