Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Back to sci-fi – just finished Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. The book was first published in 1969 and supposedly won the Hugo Award a year earlier in 1968.

This is one of those sci-fi books that gets called “Sci-Fi” even though you could really think of it as “Fantasy”. But I’m not complaining about that. The more high-tech your sci-fi is, the more it comes to resemble magic. In Lord of Light you have a group of individuals who have ownership of very advanced technology. They live in a fantasy environment called “Heaven” that they have shaped to their desires. Equipped with immortality, mind powers, and dazzling technology, these people have become gods. They rule over the world, keeping the rest of humanity in a dark age.

The gods have fashioned themselves after Hindu gods and set up a Hindu religion that the people follow. Those with “good karma” get resurrected into new bodies (with the help of technology). The conflict comes when one man fights against the oppression of the gods.

I enjoyed this book. Throughout the book we get hints about how this society came to be established. The origins are never explicitly stated, but it was interesting to piece the clues together. Religion is obviously a strong theme in the book; I felt I would have gotten more out of it if I were more familiar with the Hindu religion. There is also a bit of Buddhism in there. I was amused at the somewhat poor representation that Christianity was given. The religious aspects gave the book a deeper level than a plain sci-fi romp with energy creatures, sword fights, mental magic, and tactical nukes. Mixed in with sci-fi/fantasy entertainment are some very thought-provoking ideas and philosophies.

An excerpt from the back of the book:

“Kali, Goddess of Destruction; Yama, Lord of Death; Krishna, God of Lust; all are opposed by him who was Siddhartha, who is now Mahasamatman, Binder of Demons, Lord of Light.”

There is an except from the book that I really liked. A demon (Taraka) has possessed the body of the main character (Siddhartha) and done maliciously hedonistic things with it. This was after Siddhartha had released him from his prison in “Hellwell”. After a time, the demon begins to find that he does not enjoy the pleasures of the flesh as he once did:

“My pleasures diminish by the day! Do you know why this is, Siddhartha? Can you tell me why strange feelings now come over me, dampening my strongest moments, weakening me and casting me down when I should be elated, when I should be filled with joy? Is this the curse of the Buddha?”

“Yes,” said Siddhartha.

“Then lift your curse, Binder, and I will depart this very day. I will give you back this cloak of flesh. I long again for the cold, clean winds of the heights! Will you free me now?”

“It is too late, oh chief of the Rakasha. You have brought this thing upon yourself.”

“What thing? How have you bound me this time?”

“Do you recall how, when we strove upon the balcony, you mocked me? You told me me that I, too, took pleasure in the ways of the pain which you work. You were correct, for all men have within them both that which is dark and that which is light. A man is a thing of many divisions, not a pure, clear flame such as you once were. His intellect often wars with his emotions, his will with his desires… his ideals are at odds with his environment, and if he follows them, he knows keenly the loss of that which was old – but if he does not follow them, he feels the pain of having forsaken a new and a noble dream. Whatever he does represents both a gain and a loss, an arrival and a departure. Always he mourns that which is gone and fears some part of that which is new. Reason opposes tradition. Emotions oppose the restrictions his fellow men lay upon him. Always, from the friction of these things, there arises the thing you called the curse of man and mocked – guilt!

Know then, that as we existed together in the same body and I partook of your ways, not always unwillingly, the road we followed was not one upon which all the traffic moved in a single direction. As you twisted my will to your workings, so was your will twisted, in turn, by my revulsion at some of your deeds. You have learned the thing called guilt, and it will ever fall as a shadow across your meat and your drink. This is why your pleasure has been broken. This is why you seek now to flee. But it will do you no good. It will follow you across the world. It will rise with you into the realms of the cold, clean winds. It will pursue you wherever you go. This is the curse of the Buddha.”

Taraka covered his face with his hands.

“So this is what it is like to weep,” he said, after a time.

Siddhartha did not reply.

“Curse you, Siddhartha,” he said. “You have bound me again, to an even more terrible prison than Hellwell.”

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