Wednesday, 16 June 2004

Roger Zelazny: Lord of Light (1967)

Edition: Mandarin, 1986
Review Number: 1244

This novel is a science fiction classic - or possibly a fantasy classic, depending on how you look at it. It takes a particular theme of the genre, the relationship between science and religion, especially the counterfeiting of magical or divine power using superior technology, and develops it about as far as it is possible to go in its particular direction. For in Lord of Light, set on a world colonised from the now lost Earth, the controllers of technology have created the system of Hindu myth in reality, with themselves as the pantheon of the gods, controlling the cycle of birth and death and reincarnation. The plot of the novel is basically describing an attempt by someone who though one of the original colonists has remained something of an outsider, becoming a wandering preacher who has modelled his teaching on that of the Buddha, and aiming to overthrow the existing order of things.

The second half of the sixties saw the appearance of quite a few of the science fiction genre's most famous novels, many of which have religious themes - Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, A Canticle for Leibowitz, the Traveller in Black series. Of course, this was picking up (and also feeding) the mood of the times; the hippies and the New Age movement didn't just influence the psychedelic music scene. More than any of the stories I've just mentioned, Lord of Light aims to recreate the atmosphere of ancient myth (Brunner's Traveller comes closest to it, and is also written in a similar style). It is eminently successful in this, full of characters who are clearly no longer fully human, who have become remote and detached, just as portrayals of the Hindu gods often seem to be, particularly to Western eyes.

Lord of Light can be wearing to read in large doses, but it is an impressive achievement by any standards. The main reasons it is hard to read are the difficulty in keeping track of the large number of names associated with each character, the deliberately wooden, mythic and stylised writing, and an occasionally confusing chronology (the first chapter, for example, comes near the end of the story). Persevere, and the rewards make it worth the effort.

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