Colonists from Earth, using a mix of mental powers and high technology, have long ago subjugated the native inhabitants — and are now making themselves into gods, ruling over their descendants within a framework set up in imitation of Hinduism and ancient India. But even as the "Deicrat" consensus firms, there is dissent: Sam, one of the First, the crew of the original spaceship, remains an "Accelerationist", wanting to spread scientific knowledge to everyone. He starts a one-man crusade to bring down Heaven, a crusade that will lead him to the depths of Hellwell and to Nirvana and back.
Lord of Light is a lively novel with plenty of action — duels, battles, confrontations, defiances, and repartee. Following the structure of Indian epics, elaborated sub-stories adorn a simple overall plot, with each chapter an episode in Sam's war against Heaven: his taking up arms against Heaven, his revival of Buddhism and the attempts to kill him, his loosing of the demons, his capture and imprisonment in the Celestial City, his escape and defeat in a climactic battle, his return from Nirvana, and his final victory. (The first chapter is chronologically the second-last, which is a little confusing at first.) While few of the characters have much depth, they manage to be both human and, when they take on their Aspects and wield their Attributes, embodiments of fundamental forces. Sam himself is a crotchety old-timer and a con-man and a trickster — but also an embodiment of military prowess and defiance against odds.
The scientific scaffolding always remains visible — Shiva's trident is a device, "reincarnation" is done through body farms and mind transfer machinery, the heretic Nirriti uses guided missiles — and Lord of Light is clearly science fiction rather than fantasy. This is affirmed explicitly within the story by Yama, engineer and god of Death, explaining that demons are "malefic, possessed of great powers, life span, and the ability to temporarily assume virtually any shape" — but not "supernatural".
"It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy - it is a matter of essence. The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in that final direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either."
Which is a sentiment to warm the hearts of hard science fiction devotees, even without the "technology good, theocracy bad" plot elements.
Despite the underlying epistemology, the dominant "mode" of Lord of Light is mythic rather than scientific. Zelazny does more than raid Hinduism and Buddhism for props — he ends up touching on the genuinely numinous, evoking through language and mood something of the power of real religion and myth. Buddhism, for example, is introduced by Sam as a counter to Hinduism, but his own beliefs are ambiguous and when one of his disciples attains enlightenment, it is obvious that Buddhism has taken on a life of its own. Lord of Light sports quotations from Indian scriptures at the beginning of each chapter and uses themes and language and ideas taken from them throughout. At one point Sam delivers a three page sermon, for example, and the novel ends with
"Death and Light are everywhere, always, and they begin, end, strive, attend, into and upon the Dream of the Nameless that is the world, burning words within Samsara, perhaps to create a thing of beauty."This could easily have been tedious or trite but in Zelazny's hands it works. Myth and religion never actually break free from the scientific scaffolding, but they manage to make it irrelevant — one could almost consider Lord of Light a demonstration that their symbolic power does not rest on their metaphysical claims.
Despite its serious approach to religion and its success as epic, Lord of Light is at the same time rather light-hearted, sometimes verging on the flippant.
"It was early morning. Near the pool of the purple lotus, in the Garden of Joys, at the foot of the statue of the blue goddess with the veena, Brahma was located.
The girl who found him first thought him to be resting, for his eyes were still open. After a moment, though, she realized that he was not breathing; and his face, so contorted, underwent no changes of expression.
She trembled as she awaited the end of the universe. God being dead, she understood that this normally followed. But after a time she decided that the internal cohesiveness of things might serve to hold the universe together for another hour or so; and such being the case, she thought it advisable to bring the matter of the imminent Yuga to the attention of someone better suited to cope with it."Zelazny also includes a few truly terrible puns.
Somehow all the disparate components of Lord of Light — humour and epic, science and religion, action and philosophy — come together in a successful novel. The result is my favourite Zelazny work and indeed one of my favourite science fiction novels of all time. Though it won the Hugo award in 1968, it has I think been relatively neglected; it can bear comparison with the much better known Dune (and there are parallels with Herbert's use of Sufism in that work).