Fantasy disguised as science fiction disguised as fantasy: Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light

I have never liked Lord of Light. If I’ve ever been in a conversation with you and you’ve mentioned how great it is and I’ve nodded and smiled, I apologise. The reason I’d have done that is because my dislike of the book is amorphous and hard to pin down, which makes it hard to defend when I know it’s a much loved classic. There’s also the thing when I haven’t read it for a while and I start believing that it must be the book everybody else seems to find, rather than the one I remember.

The story of Lord of Light is that a group of high tech people with ineluctable European-origin names like Sam, Jan Olvegg, Candi and Madeleine colonized a planet on which they are now pretending to be the Hindu pantheon.

No spoilers.

The local population consists of their descendants and the descendants of the passengers on the ship they crewed. This situation, where the privileged crew rules the unprivileged passengers, isn’t unusual, but having a story about it from the crew point of view is—though actually, as Lord of Light is 1967, it predates A Gift From Earth and most of the other examples I can think of. There are demons who were the original inhabitants of the planet, who happen to be beings of pure energy. The colonists live at a low tech level and in a culture that seems to be somebody’s approximation of ancient India. The “gods” enjoy a high tech level. There is technological reincarnation. Everybody, at the age of sixty unless they’ve been unfortunate enough to die earlier, goes to be judged by the gods, their past lives are seen in detail and they’re given a karmically appropriate new body—age, gender and species chosen by the gods. Most of the gods are not the original settlers—war and attrition and elimination of the opposition—but younger demigods who have been promoted. One of the First, Sam, wants to bring technology to the ordinary people and opposes the gods, at first by starting up Buddhism in opposition to their imposed version of Hinduism, and later by war.

It’s actually possible to argue about whether the book is science fiction of fantasy. It feels like fantasy, but there’s the clear science fictional and technological underpinnings of everything. But the “gods” have aspects and attributes—the attributes are high tech, the “aspects” are apparently psionic skills that work even in new bodies. There are things they do with technology and things they do with the sheer power of their mind—Yama has a death gaze, Sam can bind energy. The lines are blurry in more than one direction. This is one of my problems with it. I think Zelazny wanted it both ways, he wanted the mythic resonance, he wanted war in heaven, and he wanted it all to be grounded. I think he did this better elsewhere.

If someone wrote this book today, we’d probably call the use of Hindu mythology and Indian trappings cultural appropriation. In 1967, I think we call it getting points for being aware that the rest of the world existed. There’s absolutely no explanation for why the First decided on that system of control in particular. It clearly isn’t intended in any way as an authentic portrayal of India or Hindu religion, more a caricature set up deliberately to maximize the power of the “gods”. Then there’s the introduction of Buddhism. I’m not really comfortable with this—unlike the religions Zelazny used so well elsewhere, these are living religions.

My real problem with the book is that I don’t care about the characters or what happens to them. Every time I’ve read this book I’ve forced myself through it as a cold intellectual exercise. There are things about it that I can see are clever and were innovative when it was new. But none of the characters feels real. It’s written in omniscient, not the first-wiseass that Zelazny did so brilliantly, and I think it suffers from that. Sam’s motivations are obscure, the other characters even more so. It’s huge and mythic and it just doesn’t ever warm up for me.

The first time I read it I had the familiar sensation of thinking the book was too old for me and I should leave it for later. When I was a child books were finite—the house was full of them, but new ones seldom came into it. I didn’t discover the library until I was twelve. Books on the shelves got read and re-read, and if I couldn’t get into them, if they were too old for me, I’d keep nibbling at them. For the record, I eventually got old enough for Lorna Doone, George Eliot, and T.H. White, but I haven’t got there yet with Thomas Hardy. I think I was right that Lord of Light was too old for me when I was twelve—I couldn’t figure out that most of the book is a massive flashback, and the fantastical science fiction fantasy thing confused me. I didn’t like it, but I kept coming back to it. Now I do feel I understand it, but I still don’t like it. Maybe it’ll reveal itself to me as the masterpiece other people say it is when I’m sixty, but I’m not betting on it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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