Nov 9 2009 2:51pm

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.

Kurt Lorey
1. Shimrod

As far as the colonists "choosing" Hinduism, I think you hit upon it yourself, it was meant to maximize the power of the inhabitants of Heaven by using a conveniently existing mythos. Pure expediency.

The Chaplain fought against that across his incarnations (notice that even the Chaplain used the reincarnation technology because it was expedient).

Hinduism would have been a superior choice because it possesses a rather extensive (and flexible) pantheon, whose gods more often than not behaved very much as "normal" humans might while also possessing superhuman powers. Plus, it was easy to incorporate the various indigenous life forms into the mythos, simply by embuing them with behaviors/titles attributed to mythical beasts/demons of the Hindu mythology.

Maybe your criticisms were intentional on Zelazny's part here? A world is a big messy place, where most often the big picture and the little picture are obscure, and where the players aren't always sympathetic in nature.
Michael Alan Dorman
2. Michael Alan Dorman
I just re-read LoL a couple of months ago, and although I couldn't point you to chapter-and-verse right now, I think there are passages that suggest that the crew was of a northern Europeaen ethnicity, distinct from that of the colonists they were responsible for---and that that, in fact, was part of the justification for withholding technology from them "until they were ready".

So my reading wasn't that the choice of the Hindu pantheon was arbitrary, but that it represented the best tool of control available to them.

I also didn't notice mention of a requirement for transfer at 60, but I might have simply missed that.

I actually thought that the use of Buddhism was appropriate, considering it grew up in opposition to the very hierarchical system of the Vedic period, which LoL's society parallels (See Wikipedia for details).

And, in the end, Sam wants to find liberation for everyone, not just a chosen few, which was also one of the goals of the Buddha. I guess my affection for him stems from his willingness to pursue this goal even to the point of his own destruction.
Michael Alan Dorman
3. Jason 1110
I agree with you about this one, except to point out that third tier Zelazny still has sentences written by Zelazny in it. What I don't get is why Lord of Light is considered first tier Zelazny.

Overall, Roger Zelazny is my favorite SF author, on the strength of his short stories, Isle of the Dead, Call Me Conrad, and Creatures of Light and Darkness. Lord of Light, to me, isn't in the same league.
Michael Alan Dorman
4. MerryArwen
@2: Sam details why he chose Buddhism, at the end: he chose it because it was the easiest way to become a "messiah". He knew that Islam just exploded when in contact with Hinduism, and Christianity's Messiah had to be flogged, beaten, and nailed to a cross to die slowly over a period of starvation and dehydration, where all the Buddha had to do (given he already had access to the real Buddha's texts and teachings, and so didn't actually have to become Enlightened himself) was sit under a tree and then share revelation.

Jo: Interestingly, I intensely dislike most of Zelazney's "wiseass first"-person characters (none of them engage or feel sympathetic to me, and several of them I want to drop off a cliff and consider it a better job, with the narrator of "Unicorn Variation" a minor exception), and almost everything you dislike about LoL, I'm very fond of - it's big, it's messy, you can't tell if it's sci-fi or fantasy and I'm not sure it matters, and with the caveat that the women are largely what I'd expect of a '67-written novel, I'm very fond of almost all the characters.
James Goetsch
5. Jedikalos
It's strange and fascinating how tastes can be so different: I feel indifferent to all of Zelazney's work except LOL, which I have loved ever since I read it when I was twelve years old. Like MerryArwen above, I seem to love what you hate about the book, and am very fond of the characters. I wonder if we would find out that we even love the same books for very different reasons?

I love your reviews, by the way: they have led to a lot of book orders and re-readings from my long-lost scifi mad reading youth.
Liza .
6. aedifica
I hadn't realized how much I've forgotten about this book. I guess it's time to read it again! I remember liking it when I read it before, but I can't remember what I liked about it in particular.
Michael Alan Dorman
7. Alter S. Reiss
I think that what I like most about Lord of Light is it's got Zelazny prose at its most ambitious. The story is okay, more or less--the gender politics are a bit disturbing, but there's cool stuff in there as well, and I've always like Sam. But it's the prose that makes me re-read it, and there are some passages that leave me just gape-jawed in awe.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Jason, Alter: I'll grant you there are some beautiful sentences.
Michael Alan Dorman
9. azurite
The reason they chose the Indian/Hindu culture was that the name of the colonization ship is "Star of India." It's in the last chapter.
Rob Munnelly
10. RobMRobM
Jo - I'm a bit of a Zelanzy geek, and while LoL is not as good for me as This Immortal or the first Amber series (or Rose for Ecclesiastes, for that matter), it's pretty darned good. I like the conceit of humans using technology to become deities while still having human frailties, and Sam's decision to take self-sacrificing action to curb the excesses of his peers. I also recall without access to the book that "Sam" is not European but the short version of something like Masamatman (?).

jon meltzer
11. jmeltzer
The book is reflective of the time it was written, the sixties, as it's "really" about the Third World's emergence from colonialism. There are three factions of "gods", the colonialists. The first wants to train the people in technology to prepare them to rule themselves. They are the good guys here. The second wants to continue the colonial exploitation. The third wants to bring everyone to Jesus. All reflected in the real world of the fifties and sixties.

Personally, I would like to have seen a Nkrumah-Kenyatta-Nasser type figure emerge from the common people. Up against the wall with all the gods!
Tudza White
12. tudzax1
Well, I'm pleased to see there are some women here who liked this book. I was under the impression it was gender thing.

Really though, I find I still can't get through any more than the first couple chapters of A Tale of Two Cities and I couldn't tell you why.
Michael Alan Dorman
13. JoeNotCharles
I think the best way to describe my reaction to Lord of Light is "unsatisfied". There were a lot of cool ideas, but when the book was over I felt it hadn't done them justice.

@11 Would Sam's disciple who became truly enlightened and then got killed count?
Cathy Mullican
14. nolly
Oh, thank goodness it's not just me! I'd heard so many people raving about this, and then, when I finally read it -- just a month or two ago -- it just barely stayed above my "stop reading" point, and I gave it away after finishing it.

What jmelzer @11 says makes sense, and that might be part of the problem -- not only was that all before I was born, but British Empire style colonialism has never made sense to me at a gut level.

But more than that was a stylistic issue -- too much wordy description, not enough story happening. Or something like that; it's not that I dislike all description, but there's something about certain styles of it that annoys me, and this was tapping that button. (Gormenghast mashes it harder.)

And then there was that pun. Just the one. It's not a funny book. Why on earth is there a random shaggy dog story stuck into it?

tudzax1 @12 -- that's one of two Dickens I dislike. (Of what I've read, which is not everything, but rather a lot.) The oft-quoted opening is really the only good bit, IMO. (The other one I dislike is Dombey and Son.)
Kurt Lorey
15. Shimrod

Where did that interpretation come from? I'm afraid I don't agree.

Your "good guys" are just a bunch of elitist exploiters, demeaning/destroying the indigenous culture while attempting to superimpose their own version of a "good society" willy-nilly upon them.
Michael Alan Dorman
16. Doug M.
The default Zelazny book is a male coming-of-age story. The male in question may be very powerful (Corwin), rich (Isle of the Dead), or immortal, but he's still in some way immature -- either he's an aimless hedonist, or a trickster, or he's chasing goals (wealth, power, vengeance) that are not well considered, or he has no goals at all because he's stuck in a protracted adolescence (Doorways in the Sand). Sometimes we see several versions in one story (Jack of Shadows, where Jack starts off as a mostly aimless hedonist trickster, then becomes obsessed with vengeance) but the climax of the story is always the maturation of the male.

Maturation can come in several ways, but the most common are self-sacrifice (Jack of Shadows), death, or fatherhood (Creatures of Light and Darkness, first Amber series).

What makes LoL interesting is the way it plays with this. Sam seems like the standard Zelazny protagonist, but arguably the hero of the story is Yama. He, not Sam, gets the character development. He starts the book as a self-centered, thin-skinned adolescent; by the end, he's become much more thoughtful, much more mature, and a (symbolic) father to the infantilized Kali. He has the only character arc in the book, and it's not a bad one -- don't let his initial obnoxiousness put you off.

Zelazny only did this splitting effect a couple of times -- Creatures of Light and Darkness is the other good example -- and it's a pity, because I think it works well.

Also: LoL works as a classic buddy novel. Sam is worldly-wise and cynical, but wants to improve the world. Yama is an arrogant techno-nerd who refuses to believe the world needs improving. At first sight they can't stand each other; later, a woman comes between them and makes it worse; eventually, her betrayal brings them together; Yama learns idealism and service from Sam; they become good friends and comrades in arms; Sam eventually Goes Away (the mentor figure must die or disappear) leaving Yama to carry on the good fight.

Note that Sam the mature male gets a sex scene, while Yama the immature male does not.

I can see why you don't like it, but I think it's... very interesting. There's a lot more structure in it than is apparent at first glance.

Doug M.
Michael Alan Dorman
17. Doug M.
A few other thoughts:

-- I really liked the hints that Zelazny scatters through the book. Jan Olvegg, for instance, was clearly the captain of the ship (or _a_ ship? there might have been more than one) that brought the first colonists. But the origin of the colonists, the split between Nirriti and the others, the early history of the colony and its wars with the natives, the Mothers of the Terrible Glow... all these are just hinted at, alluded to, in a way that implies a rich and detailed backstory. This was very well done.

(Of course, probably no such backstory existed. Zelazny liked dropping hints, and had a lot of confidence in his own ability to retcon if need be. But still: it's well done.)

-- I can see why Jo invokes the Eight Deadly Words against Sam, but several of the other (male) characters have stayed with me. Yama, but also Kubera (a benevolent fat man, another recurring Zelazny trope), the reformed assassin, and of course Taraka. Zelazny makes us believe that an immortal creature might spend eternity playing King of the Hill. That's impressive.

-- The gods are ordinary people with superpowers. This is a key plot point. Sam gets it from day one. Yama, on the other hand, has drunk the Kool-Aid -- "He is Fire. She is Dance." etc. This might be improbable given that he's right in the middle of the fun, but Zelazny very nicely patches it with the whole 'Yama was never a child' thing.

-- In Zelazny's worlds, adulthood always comes at a price, so unambiguously happy endings are very rare. The only Zelazny hero who gets one is Dilvish... and (1) he's already literally been through Hell, and (2) of all Zelazny's male protagonists, he's probably the lightest, and grows the least. (Though Fred from _Doorways in the Sand_ is a close second.) Usually, the pattern is "though the hero has suffered greatly, he has now fought through to some sort of enlightenment". But since enlightenment is a solitary thing, Zelazny heroes usually end up alone, or nearly so. (Dilvish again the interesting exception.)

-- The Dilvish short stories and _The Changing Land_ -- IMO Zelazny's most sheer-fun extended work -- are another set of buddy stories.

Doug M.
will shetterly
18. willshetterly
Zelazny believed in unconventional art and tearing down class structures; it's no surprise he doesn't work for everyone.

Doug M., I generally agree with and admire what you've said, but I'll quibble with the theory he didn't know the back story. One piece of his writing advice that sticks with me: the writer should know things about the past that are never revealed in the story. He said at least once that led to a short story. (Alas, I can't remember the example.)

Now, writers lie to themselves at least as much as they lie to anyone else, so he may've just been a master of the retcon.
Michael Alan Dorman
19. Michael B Sullivan
RobMRobM: Sam is sometimes called Mahasamatman. He's also, um, Kukla? A Hindu god of lightning. And Siddhartha.

I'm not sure that it's ever set out in so many words, but I think that the book pretty strongly implies that "Sam" was his original name, before all of the god-games got started.
Michael Alan Dorman
20. Chris Willrich
Will Shetterly @ 18, I think that short story is "Dismal Light," which gives some backstory on Francis Sandow from _Isle of the Dead._

Great discussion. I love Zelazny's work, _Lord of Light_ included, like a raving fanboy, but it's fun to hear all these different takes on it, positive or negative. (I especially like Doug M.'s coming-of-age-story comments.) Admission: I read _Lord of Light_ pretty young, and it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out the middle section was a flashback. I just kept on going, confused, but eagerly following the bread-crumb trail of Zelazny's sentences.
Michael Alan Dorman
21. James S. Burbidge
Sam is Kalkin, who is, basically, the god of the End of the World. He is therefore identical to Cabell's Silver Stallion. (this may or may not be a homage.)
Michael Alan Dorman
22. Andrew S.
It's a shame you don't care about the characters and their situations, Jo: Tak, transmigrated into the body of an ape, with the memory of what it was to be human; Ratri, forced into an ugly body; Rild, who was sent to kill the Buddha and instead became him; Nirriti the fanatic; kindly Kubera; and the triangle of Sam and Yama and Kali, and how Yama and Kali ended up. I think they're amongst Zelazny's most poignant and memorable.
Michael Alan Dorman
23. nlowery71
I had the same experience with Lord of Light. It's such an interesting idea, but the story and characters were so opaque to me that I had a hard time finishing it. (I'm not old enough for Hardy yet, either. Return of the Native's relentless pessimism put me off his books twenty years ago.)

I can see why it's so well-regarded, though. Zelazny's creativity and originality are on full display, and I think that's a large part of what draws science fiction/fantasy people to the genre(s) to start with.
Michael Alan Dorman
24. Doug M.
Andrew S. @ 22, those are characters in interesting situations, but that doesn't necessarily make them interesting characters.

I liked Tak ("it is no easy thing to have such memories, and to be an ape") but found Ratri rather dull. She's the Good Female Character foil to Kali, but neither of them gets a character arc, inner life, or even an explanation for why they are as they are.

Kubera I wish we could have seen more of. There are some interesting gender issues raised with him. (Kindly fat man in a premodern setting suggests "eunuch", and then at the end he's in a distinctly maternal role. On the other hand, he beats the crap out of Sam in a very masculine form of ritualized combat.) Also, he just seemed like a neat character. Nirriti I think needed just a little more time on stage.

The way Kali ends up... agh. (Nor would it be the last time Zelazny would ruin a female character in order to complete a male character's arc of growth.)

In an earlier thread, someone suggested that the ending was potentially redemptive because Kali now had the chance, maybe, to not grow up a bloodthirsty homicidal maniac. I sharply disagree. One, it's Zelazny who made her that way, damn it. Even Taraka at least had a reason. Kali is Just Bad. And two, there are several male characters who are just as lethal. But the males get a redemptive character arc (Yama), a noble death of self-sacrifice (Rild) or at least a clean death in fair combat (Mara, Taraka, Nirriti).

There's a discussion to be had on female characters in Zelazny... but perhaps that's best saved for another thread.

Doug M.
David Dyer-Bennet
25. dd-b
I've listed this as my favorite Zelazny and one of the 5 best SF novels ever from when I first read it, sometime in the late 1960s. It completely grabbed me, and hasn't let go. I don't much care for most of the other Zelazny novels (partial exception for Doorways in the Sand and the first Amber book and Creatures of Light and Darkness); in particular I do NOT like This Immortal.

But your thoughts are still interesting. I kind of liked dancing the edge of sf vs. fantasy (Dune does this too). It was my introduction to Hinduism (and has not gotten me in bad trouble since; not that I take it all as, er, gospel). And I did like the characters. Sam, certainly, but Yama even more, and Tak, and Rild, and to some extent Taraka. The gods having magic powers did bother me even then, but there was so much John W. Campbell psionics and equivalent around (see also Dune) that I had lost much of my resistance when I first read this. And I always appreciate a book where the christians are the evil authoritarians, in this case zombie-master militarists.

The crew faction that wanted to bring the passengers up to tech sooner were "Accelerationists".

I think the colonists must have been Hindu, probably Indian, originally. The ship was indeed named Star of India. So that, plus the ease of integrating the range of weird powers the gods displayed, makes it the natural religious path of control. And Buddhism is historically a response to Hinduism, in exactly the way Sam used it (in addition to being, of course, many other things).

This book lead me to reading Hesse's Siddhartha, but I was not impressed. Not as well written as I was used to, and full of boring stuff.

The unexpected pun (this has already been mentioned above, but I would say that it constitutes a spoiler) was indeed out of place. I use it as my example of one of the darlings that one SHOULD in fact kill, and why.
Michael Alan Dorman
26. Michael Grant
About Sam's name: As the book says at its opening, "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." "Mahasamatman" means "Great-Souled Sam", and so he is referred to in the book. (The "Maha-" is the same as in "maharajah", the "-atman" the same as in "atmosphere", and "maha" + "atman" = "Mahatma", which is what gave the name away for me.)
Michael Alan Dorman
27. DBratman
I disagree vehemently with the apparent assertion that your second paragraph contains no spoilers.

To me, a large part of the appeal of Lord of Light is the first-time reader's attempt to figure out just what the heck is going on here.

A large part of our best literature has this effect - e.g. so who or what exactly is this Sandman who shows up at the start of Neil Gaiman's comic? - and readers with the hard-won knowledge that comes from persevering through the work are always eager to share that knowledge in summaries of the premise.

To my mind, they are missing the point and getting the work exactly backwards.
Michael Alan Dorman
28. Ellen Eades
@27: I disagree with your disagreement, DBratman. I read LoL as an adolescent and had absolutely no idea what was going on (and would have gotten a great deal more out of the book had I encountered some spoilers at the time). In part, this led to my overally "meh" response to it.

This year, LoL was chosen as the Book of Honor at the upcoming Potlatch convention in Seattle ( and so I reread it recently. I still have a "meh" response, for reasons well elaborated by Jo and Doug M. OTOH, I do have a deeper comprehension of it now ... in part thanks to spoilers in Wikipedia and elsewhere :)

Not too proud to use CliffsNotes, Ellen
Anna Victoria L
29. AnnaVi777
I didn't read through all of the comments, so forgive me if I repeat anything.

Okay, I must admit that this book didn't... hit you the way many of Zelazny's short stories do, nor did it have as much of an impact as the first-person books do. (Personally, I think it wouldn't have worked in the first person, given the character traits and intensely diverse plots that needed to be included.)

As for the book as a whole, I suppose the fact that is was neither Science Fiction OR Fantasy was what Roger wanted. That way, people could draw their own conclusions. Also, it would be a fun way to mess with the general population of readers.

As I stated earlier, though, it just wasn't very... impressive. It wasn't as long or humorous as the Amber books, as stunning as some of his short stories ( my favorites are the ones included in Manna from Heaven) or even controversial enough for people to really think about. Now, I must admit that it has its moments. The part about the demons and how they were just waiting for all of the humans to die was incredibly... striking. Zelazny does a great job with those sermons, and it isn't that he mocks the religion at all. No, it's more like... he's depicting a person who isn't secure in the faith that they had to choose. Similar to how young people feel when they reevaluate their thoughts on life. There was a real man in the book who became a prophet, and he was as great of a Buddha- or better- than Sam. (He was an assassin at first, but I'll overlook that for now.)

As for anything else, I can't really think of much, because I haven't read the book in a while, but I think I've said pretty much all I wanted to for now.
Steven Halter
30. stevenhalter
Hmm, interesting. I have pretty much exactly the opposite response to Lord of Light than Jo. For the subjective points of the review, I connect with Sam and the other characters. I am always amazed at the depth of the story. The book is only around 300 pages long, but there is enough material here for a "modern" epic multi volume work. But, for me, it flows in a wonderful fashion.
Why Buddhism is chosen is clearly explained in the book. The use of extant religions never bothered me. They are copies, except that truth is found even in the copying.
The review itself is a spoiler for anyone who hasn't read the book. The unfolding and realization of what is going on between the people and the gods is part of the first time magic.
There is also the wonderful section where Yama explains the line between fantasy and science.
Michael Alan Dorman
31. Ansel Chu
I think the main reason Zelazny picked Hinduism as the religion to enslave the people with is that it is as close to institutional slavery as one can see in the modern world. Where else can a whole group of people (the dalits or the untouchables) be treated as serfs? What other religion makes the separation of the haves and have nots set in stone and enforced by punishment in the next life? It is a beautiful system to favor the ones on top and keep it that way forever and ever amen.

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