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on 7 September 2003
In brief: Science fiction meets Hinduism in one of the most surprising, intriguing and enjoyable books I've come across in a while. Highly recommended.
The story centres on an off-Earth colony which has come to be utterly dominated by its founders, who rule with the names, personalities and even the attributes of Hindu gods. With the injection of SF technology, social and political control pivot upon Hindu tenets with a futuristic twist. Reincarnation functions through personality-storage and cloning, allowing effective immortality for the gods, and some very bad karma for any who oppose them. The populace is held in a permanent low-tech state to ensure it continues to need its gods; innovations that might benefit mortals, such as the printing press, are swiftly eradicated.
Stylistically, too, it is brilliant. The whole thing takes the form of a Hindu epic, in terms of both language and structure. The hero, Sam, rebels against the gods by (literally and figuratively) taking on the Buddha role, preaching against the priesthood and the oppressive rituals and strictures which bind society. And through this, Zelazny brings out some of the most interesting implications of his blend of SF and myth, exploring how the 'gods' have merged with their masks to truly _become_ their mythic roles.
Finally, and importantly, _Lord of Light_ also contrives to be a truly entertaining read. Deservedly a classic.
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on 8 May 2003
Zelazny was a very bright shooting star when he first appeared on the fantasy/SF radar some 35 years ago, a new writer of power, originality, insight, and depth. Lord of Light was his third novel, and it exemplifies all these qualities in grand style. Combining the Hindu/Buddhist mythos/religion with the science-fictional concepts of true re-incarnation via technology-enabled body swaps, set on world dominated by those who have access to the technology, and are thereby effectively real gods, this book is a powerful statement of character, philosophy, and morality.
One of the main strengths of this book, as we have a large set of fully realized characters, each with their own motivations and desires, whose interactions form a complex weave of happenstance and emotional intertwinings, that give the novel a unique order and flow, and are sure to evoke multiple responses in the reader.
The prose style is more than adequate to the task here, sometimes brilliantly, almost poetically descriptive, at other points understated, leaving items just slightly nebulous, ready for the reader's imagination to complete. And the religious statements will burrow into your mind, forcing little cracks of enlightenment and quiet meditation. The story is not told in linear order, which some may find a little confusing, but as each piece of the story is unfolded and wrapped into the whole, it forms a mosaic that layers in your mind, building a tightly interlocked edifice of strength and stature.
Zelazny here has managed to create an archetype, a legend for modern times, with real relevance to the reader's everyday life, with a great promotion of life philosophies without preaching. Sadly, Roger is no longer with us, there will be no more of these brilliant tour-de-forces, but this will stand as one of his finest gifts to the world. A gift that everyone can enjoy and appreciate.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
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on 10 April 2004
This is a superbly crafted piece of writing which is a proud addition to the SF Masterworks re-releases. Beautifully written with never a wasted word, 'Lord of Light' works perfectly on every level. Thousands of years ago colonists wrested control of a planet from various dangerous indigenous creatures. With their vast technology giving them the ability to 'reincarnate', these people now wield God-like powers over the planets populace who are ignorant of their origins, kept in a state of technological childhood with advances stamped on by the 'wrath of the Gods' in order to maintain control. With the power the original colonists have at their disposal they model themselves on the pantheon of Hindu Gods, with each God having certain responsibilities within the 'Heaven' they keep themselves in. Enter 'Sam', one of the Firstborn original colonists who now believes the people have the right to decide their own destiny without meddling from the Gods. Sam begins to spread the word Buddha amongst the peoples of the planet, often generation after generation, slowly building a separate following of peoples to those beneath the yolk of the Pantheon, attempting to bring about change through peaceful means. But Heaven sees the threat and acts accordingly.
So much goes on in this book that I can do nothing but lessen it by trying to describe what happens in a couple of paragraphs. The book reads in a wonderfully ambiguous way- by never going into details about the technology you get the feeling that you're reading an excerpt from some 'Hindu Myths and Legends' book, then a certain turn of phrase, or a certain Gods power remind you you're reading science fiction.
This is genuinely that very rare thing- a timeless Sci-fi story!
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on 8 April 2008
My all time favourite. I've read many SF and fantasy books but Lord of Light tops them all. It's not merely the inventive and multi layered story or the enigmatic and intriguing characters, but also the author's brilliant style of writing that makes the book almost perfect. Roger Zelazny was (he died in 1995) a man of very few words, so you have to read his books very precisely, absorbing every word, in order not to miss anything.
Lord of Light is basically about Sam, a renegade 'god' and his resistance against the rule of the established gods. These gods are, in fact, former crew members of a star ship, which crashed on a distant planet millenia ago. After a fierce battle, the crew managed to defeat the planet's indigenous inhabitants and confined them to a far-off place called Hellwell. They adopted the identities of Hindu gods and developed a technique to 'reincarnate' in new -artificial- bodies. They conveniently kept all technical know-how involved in the complicated reincarnation process to themselves, as it proved a highly effective means of keeping their offspring under their thumbs.
Lord of Light is not an easy read, particularly because the story is written in a non-chronological order. At first, this may be quite confusing but it will soon become clear that it is the only way to get the essence of the story properly across. The story itself may seem pretty straightforward, but it is certainly not a linear narrative. There are various aspects woven into it; religious, social, and political matters are dealt with in an almost casual, but awe-inspiring manner. The story's protagonist Sam, a man of many names and identities, is an inspiring individual, a leader and a teacher. His initial opponent and later ally is Yama-Dharma God of Death, a cold, cynical and arrogant man, who's character is probably even more important to the story as Sam's. The author himself once put it this way: my first intention was to let Yama die at some point in the book, but then I realised that the strength of Sam's character would be seriously weakened by Yama's death, so I decided to keep him alive.
Zelazny must have made an in-depth study of Hindu culture and religion before he wrote this book. Many of the names, Aspects and Attributes of the self-proclaimed gods, especially those of the most important ones, are actually based on the characteristics of present day Hindu gods and goddesses. As a result, the book allows you a pretty good insight in Hindu religion and culture, and, although it's a bit o.t.t now and again, the story never loses any of its credibility.
Mandatory reading for fantasy and SF fans! A bit of advice: read the book at least twice for a better understanding.
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on 12 February 2003
From the Nineteen Sixties comes Zelazny’s imaginative and psychedelic vision of a human colony run amok on a distant planet. The settlers, endowed with fantastic technology, are given powers which allow them not only to take on the roles of the Gods of the Hindu pantheon, but to make reincarnation a reality.
Those deemed worthy are reborn in new vat-grown bodies while those deemed less karma credit-worthy come back as animals, or sometimes not at all.
The novel follows Sam, who is Mahasamatman, Binder of Demons, Lord of Light, aka Siddhartha; Tagatha; Buddha…etc etc. Unhappy with the decadent behaviour of his fellow Gods he plans a revolt against Heaven to end the inequality between them and their worshippers.
It’s an absurd premise, but Zelazny’s masterful style transforms it into a credible and compelling novel.
It’s written in the language of Myth and Legend – interspersed with relevant passages from the Upanishads – which is occasionally, and sometimes amusingly, dragged into the focus of reality by Sam’s laconic ‘Urath’ wit and terminology.
For all its mythic nuances and Science Fantasy shell, ‘Lord of Light’ is rooted very solidly in Science Fiction. Although occasionally drawn into the psychedelic and fantastic world of Gods and Demons we are always drawn back to the fact that these creatures were once human, changed beyond recognition by what are merely very powerful toys.
Zelazny explores this theme again later in his Amber series, where Corwin (like Sam) is estranged from what is essentially a family of Gods and is forced by circumstance to return to bring change to their somewhat stagnant and decadent society.
This novel, however, has more to do with Absolute Power Corrupting Absolutely, set against a background of a war of ideologies.
It’s an interesting point to make in Late Sixties America where Anti-government protests were at a peak. ‘Sam’ after all, is a euphemism for the spirit of America itself so maybe there is a case to be made for seeing this as Zelazny’s allegory of American society rising up to change the status quo. The Sixties of course, also brought us a fascination with all things ‘Eastern’ (as the Twenties did with all things Egyptian) and Zelazny certainly exploits that here.
Interestingly, one of the seminal SF novels of the Sixties, ‘Dune’ follows a remarkably similar plot line, in that an exiled member of the aristocracy – thought to be dead – joins the common people and rises up against a decadent system of government.
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on 27 February 2012
There's a quote from George R.R. Martin on the cover of this book. It says, quite boldly I think, that it is "one of the five best sf novels ever written". This is the first Zelazny novel I've read, so I had no clue whether I'd like his writing style, and I deliberately found out as little as possible about the story beforehand because I like to discover these things for myself. I knew that the Hindu gods were involved but that was about all. When I started it I thought immediately that I wasn't going to like it much. The first chapter is one of the most bewildering things I've ever read. I had to keep reading and re-reading bits to try and make some sense of it.

I got there in the end. Some of it still made no sense to me, but I got the basic idea. I still thought I wasn't going to like it, and even thought it might be one of the rare books that I didn't finish. So what happened after that was a bit of a surprise. The second chapter is one of the most awesome chapters in any book I can remember reading for a long time, and it maintains that level for much of the rest of the book. There's the occasional dip but nothing that breaks the pace too much. The story is one of those that starts at the end, and then goes back in time to tell how the characters reached that point in time. I don't want to spoil it too much, because working out what was going on was part of the fun for me. If I'd known the following it would have made things a bit clearer in the first chapter so, if you'd rather not know, skip the next paragraph.

Far in the future mankind has colonised an alien world. They travelled there on a generation spaceship called The Star of India. The crew decided to keep the technology they took with them to themselves, casting the passengers out to start from scratch. The result is that now, hundreds of years later, a medieval society has grown and the crew have taken on the guises of Hindu gods, using technology to give them powers. This technology has also made the transferring of souls from one body to another possible, resulting in near immortality. Again, the 'gods' have taken this under their control, and dictate who is entitled to it. They have also used drugs to enhance and alter their brains, again resulting in extraordinary powers. Mahasamatman - Sam, or Buddha - is an 'accelerationist', who wants to give the technology back to the people, and leads a revolt against Heaven.

The really clever thing that Zelazny did, I think, is that he walks a very fine line between science fiction and fantasy. He leaves the reader to figure out the powers he's describing. For instance, in one sequence a god is fighting demons (I won't explain that, it's another one of those aspects of the book I really liked) with fire and, although Zelazny writes it in such a way that it seems like some magical power it's fairly obvious that the person is actually using some kind of futuristic flamethrower. But this is how the technology is explained throughout the book - as powers used by the gods - and it worked for me brilliantly.

Is it one of the five best science fiction novels ever written? I don't know. Unlike George R.R. Martin, I haven't read every single sf book out there in order to make the comparison. It is, though, one of the most brilliantly constructed and told stories I've read in the genre for a while - despite that first chapter - and I'm sure there are still multiple layers to it that I haven't even figured out yet. It's not a book that will be going to the charity shop anytime soon.
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on 29 July 2011
The predominating theme of Lord of Light is the strong (the gods) prevailing over the weak (mankind). The gods having been the first to colonise a new world, with the aid of their technology, have established themselves as deities presiding over an ever growing technologically inferior populace. The protagonist Sam (also known by other names) who was also of the First eventually comes to rebel against this way of life desiring to improve the lives of mankind by sharing technology.

The narrative structure of Lord of Light owes much, I think, to its success. The first chapter is set late in the narrative placing you instantly in the rich world based primarily upon Hindu religion, philosophy, deities and the terminology surrounding thus. Not only this we begin to see the use of technology by those ordained by Heaven signifying the not all powerful nature of the gods and goddesses. The exotic nature of the content may initially be out of touch to the reader who is not familiar with the subject but it tantalises the senses inviting you onward and indeed the following chapters, which take us back over the events surrounding Sam leading up to chapter 1, slowly begin to unfold this quaint world in a very accessible and stylised manner.

Although the book reads well it is quite short and many of its characters were not as stirring as I'd hoped they would be. There are also a host of other gods and goddesses who just amount to names on a page and fail to bring anything meaningful to the table. The major battles too were not as palpable as others in the field of science fiction and fantasy. Also, Zelazny at one point late in the book incongruously began using words like thy, thou and thee which only served to take the reader out of the moment. There IS much here however. The boundaries between science and the metaphysical and how this can be perceived. The fear of those with power of losing that power. The desire for those without it to wield it so they can shape their own destiny. Religion, faith, belief, hate, love, intrigue, strife, war and change.

Overall it was a worthy read even though I feel the ending could have been a bit more powerful.
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on 13 August 1999
Nothing more can be added to the praise given Roger Zelazny for his work. This is one of his greatest, most compulsive books. It is one of the greatest regrets I have that I never met him. The skill with which he blended myth with characterisation and story in this work is staggering. If you have not read this then you have failed to begin your understanding of science fiction. Read this work! Read it again and again! BUT, not in this edition ... shame upon the publishers for a poor production of a magnificent book
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on 27 July 2010
What an amazing book! The background is so: a group of space-faring, technologically advanced humans discover a method for transferring their consciousnesses to different bodies, thus escaping death and achieving immortality. Their prowess with science also enables them to develop Attributes, incredible supernatural powers which they retain as they transfer bodies. With these talents at their disposal, they do what any self-respecting human would do - incarcerate the native inhabitants of a comfortable planet and subsequently settle down into the demanding task of spending eternity there in fornication and pleasure-seeking. They set themselves up to rule as gods (adopting for themselves the names and appearances of the ancient Hindu gods) over the resulting progeny, going so far as to enforce principles of karma and reincarnation on them, and preventing them from advancing out of the iron age.

The protagonist Sam is no saint, but eventually decides he doesn't approve of this state of affairs and resurrects the religion of Buddhism on the planet to start an uprising against the gods, his former crewmates. The story follows his struggle to overthrow them, jumping between different points in time to describe how his understanding of the actions of his fellows grows, and how he recruits and loses different allies.

The book is rich and brilliant, and very enjoyable to read. Other reviewers complain of its complexity, and opaqueness. On my first reading I found it difficult as well, but have found subsequent re-readings to reveal more and more of the story, my appreciation for the book growing each time. It is possibly now my favourite book.
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on 21 June 2000
What a bizarre and quirky book. At times quite confusing, it actually turns out that although the first chapter happens in the present, the next 200 pages take place in the past in flashback, and fill out the background to the main characters, but never in an obvious way, making some of the main player appear to have switched sides without explanation... Towards the end, as the narrative moves back towards the present we finally see how the characters got to the position at the start of the novel, and they gather forces for the final apocalypse.
The tale reads almost like episodes from a religious fable rather than a contemporary novel, and though containing sci fi elements, it would perhaps sit more comfortably in the fantasy genre alongside the works of such authors as Michael Moorcock. All about the desire of a few corrupt colonists to force their world into a technological dark age and keep it there, and the rise of Accelerationism , the drive to allow technological advancement amongst the masses. Towards the end of the book there are oblique references to atomic weapons, guided missiles, death rays, laser weapons, chemical warfare etc etc as the full arsenal is brought out for the decisive battle between the forces of change and those of oppression. A strangely engaging novel, very distinctive and unique in its style, well worth a look.
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