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This was the 15th winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in March 2020.
Real life as the sixties started to come to a close was tumultuous and it's not too surprising to find science fiction following suit. The Hugo for Best Novel in 1968 went to Roger Zelazny for the second time in three years. He'd first won with his debut novel, ...And Call Me Conrad, mostly better known nowadays as This Immortal, and I rather liked that book. Unfortunately, much of what I didn't like about it grew into Lord of Light.
I struggled early and often with this book and really can't say that I found much enjoyment in it. What worked for me were the core ideas, which are wild and wonderful. Two thirds of the way through, I found myself explaining what was going on to my better half because they're exactly the sort of ideas to pass on. This would be a great choice for a book discussion, because there's so much here to talk about, in hindsight, from the ideas to the way that the author chose to frame the story that explores them.
But in hindsight, after reading the entire book, because it takes a while to make sense and it all sounds better than it actually is.
For a start, it's a set of linked stories much more than it is a novel, two of the seven chapters having been published separately in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. These chapters aren't presented in order, the first an introduction, after which we leap into flashback for the next five, before a climactic final chapter that continues from the first. The initial problem I found was that I didn't realise this until a long way in.
Partly this is due to the flashback chapters taking place in isolation from each other with sometimes vast periods of time in between them. Some of the characters, being effectively immortal by shifting their consciousness into new bodies as a technological form of reincarnation, have multiple names and multiple bodies, which appear to be completely different ages, so it's tough to keep track of who's who, especially when they act in completely different ways at different points in time.
It's also in part because, on a first reading without the bigger picture in mind, there seems to be no reason for us to be told these particular stories in this particular order. It all seems highly arbitrary. I often wondered if Zelazny actually had a point to all this or whether he was just happy to be philosophising at us for hundreds of pages at a time. Even the genre is hard to nail down, because this is a science fiction story that's predominantly told as fantasy and that's often deliberately jarring.
Eventually, it makes sense and I'll try to explain so, if you're new to this one too, you can avoid a lot of the pain. We're on an alien planet in a dark age for the dominant "human" population, even though the Hindu gods are real and living up to the myths we know. That's because they're not gods at all; they're actual humans from Earth (or Urath) who arrived on this planet on a colony ship. Their advanced technology allows them to pretend to be gods and so "guide" the civilisation of the natives.
The core of the novel is a conflict between these "gods". Most of them seem to be happy to preserve the status quo, leaving the natives in the dark ages by suppressing technology like the printing press when it shows up, so they can lounge around in Heaven, in the form of a domed city and forest situated on the North Pole, enjoying themselves. Sam, however, is an Accelerationist, believing that the right way forward is to gradually introduce technology to the natives. By the end of the book, this turns into war.
I love this core idea and there's a lot more to it than I've explained above in a mere couple of paragraphs. The First, the surviving members of the crew of the Star of India, transplanted an entire culture to a new planet for the sole reason of perpetuating their own power. That's huge. They each adopt a godly persona, one of the Hindu deities, and shuffle around if one is killed so that they appear immortal. They're not far off, because reincarnation is a reality here through body transfer, reserved for the gods themselves or a few others who are seen as appropriate. That leads to the full caste system and a whole textbook in worldbuilding.
The next genius step is for Sam to undermine this age-old system by becoming the Buddha. Could there be a better way to turn people away from a religion than by founding another one? Best of all, while he's a fake Buddha with his major hidden agenda, he manages to convert an assassin sent by his opponents and that assassin eventually achieves enlightenment, effectively providing a real validity to the fake religion. There are so many levels here.
In a way, this is one humungous LARP, with a planet as a playground and eons as a timeframe, where one player decides to change the rules mid-game, to an overwhelmingly negative approach from the rest. Oh, and millions are part of the game without that knowledge. There are so many ways to look at what the author did here and each may add to our understanding of why it was seen as a special achievement back in 1968.
One way is to look at it as layered myth. A bunch of people create myths out of whole cloth, which over time generate other myths. We're given a bunch of stories that could be seen themselves as myths. And, the net result of these myths that we're given is to create more myths. What's the truth here? Does it really matter? When given a choice between the truth and the legend, then print the legend, right?
So I love the ideas and I'm sure that, over time, they'll resonate more and more as I realise some other aspect that I hadn't considered before. This is deep stuff indeed.
The problem is that Zelazny knows it and runs wild with it. At points, and I mean a lot of points, this becomes an exercise in philosophy that forgets it has a story to tell. I understand that he wanted to blur the genre boundary, allowing us to read this as fantasy or as science fiction. That means little explanation of technology, more hiding it behind curtains. For instance, in the second chapter, Sam, as an old Prince Siddartha, journeys to the city of Mahartha to visit a priest in what is quintessential fantasy. However, he's really there to barter for a videophone call to Heaven.
So, even though I love the ideas, I struggled with the book. I hated all the philosophising. I hated the vagueness, which instilled confusion to me, not mystery. I hated the fact that we're on an alien planet presumably in a far future time, but with constant reminders of our own time, through language or cultural references: "booze" here, and "taped" there and "sure" this and that. How would a peasant boy in a mediaeval city in an artificially created Hindu culture know how to play the Blue Danube on the violin?
All in all, this is one of those books that I'm happy to have now read but I wasn't particularly happy to actually read. The problem with that is that it self-perpetuates. Maybe you read it back in 1968 when philosophising was in vogue and you were as high as a kite and these wonderful ideas continued to resonate with you, so you remember it fondly. Maybe if you try it again, you might see how much of a struggle it is to actually read.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress | Stand on Zanzibar
Next month, Stand on Zanzibar, the first Hugo win to go to an author who wasn't American.
Last update: 15th April, 2020