Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.
I recently read about a gathering of experts who specialize in the study of international relations. The purpose of the conference was to explore why religious beliefs have seldom been taken into account in academic work on how nations deal with each other. Given recent history, this would seem to be a serious oversight, huh? Yet readers of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light would never make that mistake. They would know that every good fight requires a powerful godhead.
This is a strange and fascinating book. How to describe it? Imagine Edith Hamilton's Mythology, but with much better weapons. Better, yet, take a large helping of Joseph Campbell’s re-working of mythic heroes into contemporary role models. Then add the razzle-dazzle of Marvel comic books, and those great teams of super-heroes, such as the Fantastic Four or X-Men. Mix in plenty of James Bond type gadgets. Finally spice it up with large handfuls of mysticism and Eastern spirituality. What you end up with is Lord of Light.
The plot is simple enough. A group of tough characters have acquired some radical technology, and they use it to set themselves up on a colonized planet as quasi-deities modeled on the divine figures of Hinduism. But one breaks away, reinventing himself as a Buddhist alternative, taking on the guise of Siddhartha, and thus undermining the more rough-and-tumble philosophy of his rivals.
The book opens: “His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.” Sam the Maybe God? Even from this opening gambit, you can detect the sweet mixture of high and low that characterizes Zelazny’s clever concoction. Like other sci-fi books from this same era — A Canticle for Leibowitz, Dune, The Left Hand of Darkness, A Case of Conscience — Lord of Light shows that sometimes the most fanciful settings can serve as excellent springboards for looking at the peculiar role of belief systems in society.