While Nebula voters focused on Samuel Delany in the late ‘60s, Hugo voters seem to have fallen in love with Roger Zelazny. While Zelazny’s This Immortal doesn’t hold up too well next to the book it tied for the honor in 1966, Lord of the Light has aged much better. This Immortal used an oddball future setting to create an irreverent take on Greek mythology, Lord of the Light takes the conceit even further by re-creating Buddhism on a distant planet.
Explorers from (a destroyed?) Earth have settled on a new planet and used their incredible technology to establish themselves as Hindu deities. They have achieved immortality and created incredible weapons and vehicles (flying chariots). They’ve also built a massive floating fortress that dominates the heavens, and they’ve even installed karma machines across the planet that evaluate the mortal inhabitants’ (their own descendants, many generations removed) qualifications for reincarnation into a new animal/human/divine body.
One member of this founding generation, Mahatasamatna, or “Sam” for short, has refused his godhood and resents the way his cohorts manipulate and repress the common people of the planet. He sets himself up as Siddhartha, re-founds the old Earth religion of Buddhism, and makes war on the gods. He even calls upon the planet’s original inhabitants – energy beings who have been recast as demons from Hindu mythology.
At the beginning of the novel, he’s lost this war, but Yama, the god of Death, has resurrected him for one last attempt at overthrowing their old friends. What follows is a series of episodes recounting Sam’s original war on the gods, which play out like a cross between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha with super-technology. There are a series of big action set-pieces full of flames, energy bolts and massive explosions. All the while, Sam remains laid back and unflappable, and it’s never entirely clear how much he believes the religious concepts that he in introducing versus how much he simply resents what’s been made of this new world.
Lord of the Light is an absorbing and exciting read, and I was much more caught up in this world than that of This Immortal. In the end, it’s an irreverent, rock-and-roll/action movie take on Buddhism, and I wasn’t entirely sure what Zelazny achieved by setting it on another planet in the distant future. It is interesting when the gods delve into their human histories, as when Sam and Kali discuss an old love affair, and maybe that’s the central effect that Zelazny was hoping to achieve.
Once again, I’d take the Hugo winner over the Nebula winner (Einstein Intersection). Both novels were highly original and fun, but Lord of the Light is more cohesive and seems to have more to say.