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.
Yet this is much more than a battle of theologies. In Lord of Light, you are only as strong as your technology, and each of the ruling deities has enough military hardware to take on an army single-handedly. They also occasionally enter into military pacts with an assortment of odd and disturbing characters, such as demons or zombies. In fact, if this book hadn’t been published in 1967 — winning a Hugo award the following year — you would swear that the author had grown up playing modern-day video games.
This whole affair could come across as rather corny, but Zelazny is a very deft writer, and takes just the right tone – fabulistic with only a touch of cynicism – to give his story wings. And he throws it surprising twists and turns, not typical of the sci-fi genre. Some 30 pages into the book he unleashes a lengthy spiritual discourse, from the mouth of Siddhartha, that works both on the level of ideological manipulation and religious philosophy. By this point, the reader knows that Lord of Light will not be restricted by the conventions of pulp fiction narratives. Zelazny also plays around with the chronology of his tale, and carefully withholds many key elements of the story until late in the game. These structural devices, along with a heavy dose of borrowings from Eastern mystical literature, uplift and transform a story that, in the hands of another writer, would be a fairly conventional action and adventure tale.
A writer of spy novels once shared with me an important rule of his genre: “when you have a fight scene, make sure it goes on for a long time.” I laughed when I first heard it, but I now recognize the wisdom of his advice. Certainly Zelazny has learned the lesson well. When our author needs fisticuffs, he delivers them in grand fashion. His battles are carefully choreographed, and unfold with both drama and elegance. A fight between Lord Yama and Rild in the first half of the book develops over eight pages, and stands out as one of the best descriptions of one-on-one combat I have read anywhere.
There is a strange historical epilogue to this story. In 1979, a $50 million film version of Lord of Light was announced. The plan to make a movie collapsed due to various legal issues, but the CIA acquired some set designs and parts of the script, and used them to set up a cover for a team sent to Tehran — ostensibly scouting shooting locations, but really to help rescue six members of the US embassy staff who had narrowly missed being held prisoner during the Iranian hostage crisis because they had been out of the building at the time. These half-dozen people were in hiding in the Canadian embassy, and the Lord of Light pretext contributed to the CIA bring them safely out of the country.
A nice angle, certainly… but I would still like to see this book made into a motion picture. Certainly there are plenty of other action-packed tales waiting for translation to the silver screen, but few bring with them the ecumenical smorgasbord of contrasting ideologies and concepts that the author draws on for this fine novel. Perhaps the mythological deities of yore were the prototypes for all later superheroes. Despite this long lineage, no novelist has latched on to the dramatic potential of this intersection of spirituality and whiz-bang adventure with more fervor than Roger Zelazny.