Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review: Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny

Recently, I've had a block about reading anything longer than a magazine. This is highly unusual for me - given that my whole life has been defined, pretty much, by books.

Only an oral history of 70's punk has slipped through in the last month, and given that this mainly consisted of bitchy anecdotes about Tom Verlaine, I'm not sure this really counts.

So, in mild desperation, I've gone back to the old school to hit the classic SF and fantasy works on my shelves (note plurality of books and shelves), returning to my gateway drug.

Lord of Light takes up Arthur C Clarke's maxim that any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. It runs with it all the way to a colony world in the distant future, where those who have the technology have set themselves up as gods mimicking the Hindu pantheon to 'guide' the medieval majority. As is traditional in myth and science fiction, one man challenges the status quo and takes on the Promethean role of bringing science to the masses.

Yes, there are climactic battles, yes, sh*t is blown up in Bay-vian proportions. But what makes Lord of Light (LoL? LOL!) interesting is that the most potent action the hero takes is to counter the hierarchical, false Hinduism of his adversaries by taking on the role of Buddha. A faith with strong egalitarian and atheistic tendencies, Buddhism acts in LoL as prerequisite and smokescreen for reintroducing scientific curiosity.

Zelazny's sincere engagement with both religions gives the novel a curiously philosophical quality, where a character's attitude towards death and reincarnation is given as much air time as his actions. At several points, the main characters stop for some serious sermonising and chin-stroking and it's a tribute to the quality of the writing that these serve to enhance the power and atmosphere of the story rather than quicksanding it.

The climactic battle, on the other hand,, is over in less than less than four pages. Zelazny, you are the anti-Gemmell.
But it's the writing, with its rich characterisation and elegant detours into a remixed Indian culture,
which helps to rescue LoL from merely being Orientalism at play. While this is still a potential major weak-point in the novel, by hinting at the white origins of the so-called gods
artificially recreating medieval India, it arguably includes its own self-critique.

And for those less inclined to read between the lines, the only overtly white character is a crypto-fascist (thanks, Lister) necromantic Christian evangelist!

More clearly on the debit side, the main female characters are, respectively, a praying mantis and a passive victim. And before starting, you have to acknowledge that Z's take on Hinduism has everything to do with the myths and nothing to do with contemporary spiritual practice.

Lord of Light isn't an important book, or a great one, for all that it won a Hugo back in its day.('71). But it's still an extremely good planetary romance with frequent chin-stroking and occasional flurries of action.

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