Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light
(1967, reprinted 2004 by Avon EOS)

I first came across the strangely named Roger Zelazny in 1973-4, when I borrowed a friend's copy of "The Science Fiction Hall Of Fame," which is composed of short stories published in the pre-Nebula era. This anthology included his story "A Rose For Ecclesiastes," a story which — as opposed to some in the collection — totally captivated me, telling the tale of a poet sent on an early Mars expedition to act as translator to the native population. I was so impressed that I resolved to lay my hands on anything by this author in the hope that his other work would reach the same dizzy heights.

A move to London in late 1974 certainly helped expand my small science fiction collection, as I began to frequent a somewhat bizarre shop in Camden Town which specialised in importing American books not available in Britain. Amongst the Zelazny titles which I purchased were The Doors Of His Face, The Lamps Of His Mouth (fabulous — in both meanings of the word — short stories including the aforementioned "Rose"), the first two books in the then being written Amber series, and a slim novel entitled Lord Of Light which, I was assured, had won the Hugo prize for best novel in 1967.

Nearly 30 years later, it seems that many a Hugo winning novel is no longer available, and so the good folks at Avon have taken it upon themselves to republish some of the excellent titles, including Lord Of Light. So this is a good occasion to look back on a piece of classic science fiction by a well regarded author: Zelazny died in 1995 as a result of cancer, but won six Hugos during his writing career.

The essence of the story concerns a group of colonists from Earth who travel to a distant planet and become like gods to the indigenous population, whose society is set up in imitation of Hinduism and ancient India. Reincarnation becomes possible due to the technical ability of the Earthmen, and the population pay fealty, using "pray machines," which resemble Las Vegas slot machines. One of the Earthmen — Sam, to use his colloquial name — becomes dissatisfied with the situation, and tries to lead the local population in revolt by a number of methods.

The writing is nothing like the style which Zelazny used in his short stories; indeed, the entire novel uses a mode of description which mimics the Hindu and Buddhist holy writings. Whilst this is definitely a technical tour-de-force, it also makes the book somewhat difficult to read, and it is certainly not the kind of book that one can pick up and browse at one's leisure. My copy runs to 250 pages, and whilst I often read at a pace of nearly 100 pages per hour, I have to slow down to about 50 pages per sitting in order to digest the dense prose, making a trip through this novel last nearly a week.

Although there are descriptive passages, in which Zelazny's skill at word play emerges, there are also sections of dialogue which vary between two characters holding a conversation to what amounts to extended speeches; for example, Tak of the Archives manages to talk for two and a half pages, whilst apparenly being undressed and caressed by someone. These speeches tend to the philosophical or theological, and I quote here part of an earlier speech (only half a page long) made by Yama, the Lord of Death, which demonstrates both the subject matter and also the style used in the book. Some might call this fascinating, whereas others might call it long-winded.

Godhood is more than a name. It is a condition of being. One does not achieve it merely by being immortal, for even the lowliest laborer in the fields may achieve continuity of existence. Is it then the conditioning of an Aspect? No. Any competent hypnotist can play games with the self-image. Is it the raising up of an Attribute? Of course not. I can design machines more powerful and more accurate than any faculty a man may cultivate. Being a god is the quality of being able to be yourself to such an extent that your passions correspond with the forces of the universe, so that those who look upon you know this without hearing your name spoken.

Like an onion, this novel reveals itself in layers. On first reading, it took me quite some time to realise what the novel was actually about, and subsequent readings caused me to think about subjects such as religion and immortality. Many books in the science fiction genre have also centred around these subjects (including those of my favourite SF author, Robert Silverberg), but none have attempted to approach them in the same way that Zelazny does here.

By the mid-sixties, the "New Wave" of science fiction writers had taken over the establishment, and this novel was an embodiment of all the New Wave had to offer as opposed to the earlier space opera trend so prevalent in science fiction. So it was highly appropriate that this thoughtful — although not totally devoid of action — novel should have been the choice of the SF fans who voted it a winner.

In view of that recognition, it is not surprising that a Web search for Zelazny and Lord of Light brings up many hits. There is even a Web site devoted solely to this novel, although this seems to be more about a movie adaptation rather than information about the book. Many of these sites present the story in a very abstract form, distilling the plot without hinting at the manner in which the plot is fleshed out. As a result, the unwary reader is likely to be surprised when he physically picks up the book to read (initially) a series of mystical tales about what seems to be India.

To all those who have approached the works of Zelazny via the Amber series, I can safely say that they will find it hard to recognise the pen of the same writer. I can also safely say that this slim novel is worth more on a literary level than all of the bloated pages of Amber, and so would heartily recommend it to all who look for some thoughtful philosophical fiction.

[No'am Newman]