Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Lord of Light

Roger Zelazny Lord of Light (1967)
I started this several times and never really got very far. On this occasion I made it to about page fifty and then started again. The text was engrossing and very readable, but I found myself somehow unable to retain the basic details of what I was reading, what had happened and to whom. I made it about a hundred pages in and found myself in the same position, so I went back to the beginning and started all over again for a third time, and I took notes...

Siddhartha the Buddha is reincarnated as Mahasamatman, his essence reclaimed from the Golden Bridge through technological means by Yama-Dharma, the Death God, with the help of Tak, a monkey, and Ratri, the Goddess of Night. Many agents of the existing theocracy fear the return of the Buddha, so this is done in a secretive manner. Unfortunately the operation is detected by Mara, the God of Illusion, who approaches the monastery disguised as a beggar, a monk from a wandering order. Yama exposes Mara's true identity and slays him in a fight, from which the group realise that they cannot stay where they are, for those of the world outside have become aware of them. The Buddha meanwhile gambles with indigenous energy spirits, winning his wager and securing their service. As the group set off, the Buddha recalls the details of his past life.

As a youth, he visited Mahartha, the Capital of the Dawn seeking reincarnation, as was his due. It transpires that his once technological people, brought to this world from distant Earth, have succumbed to the new dark age of a society kept in its place by the ruling theocracy, a group of whom Sam - as he is known to his companions - was formerly a member. Where once this elite took upon the roles of Gods within the Hindu pantheon to rule as the Deicrat party, now they are those Gods, headed by the Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; and as such they have outlawed the Accelerationist party - which proposed that new human colonies settling on distant planets should be progressive. They have suppressed technological development and hold their people in servitude subject to the laws of karma and reincarnation.

Sam and his warriors stay at the hostel of Hawkana, keeping a low profile. He learns the lay of the land from Jan Olvegg, an old sea captain of his former acquaintance, then visits Brahma at his place to enquire why reincarnation is now governed by such restrictive laws. He recognises Brahma as a reincarnation of Madeleine, a former acquaintance, which angers the God. Brahma agrees to facilitate Sam's reincarnation, but it is clear that the offer is not all it seems. Sam drugs Shan, a travelling warlord and fellow guest at Hawkana, hypnotising him into believing that he is himself Mahasamatman. Shan goes to claim the reincarnation which he believes is his due. Sam encounters the warlord in his new body, and recognises it as that of one who suffers from epilepsy, confirming his fears about the prevailing theocracy. He raids the Palace of Karma with his men, and they steal away with the reincarnation technology.

Later, or possibly earlier, Sam is set up as a teacher in the city of Alundil where he is known as Tathagatha, or the Enlightened One. Rild, a follower of Kali comes to the town with the intention of assassinating Tathagatha, but instead becomes a disciple known as Sugata, following a battle fought with Yama. Yama slays Sugata and then himself seeks to kill the Buddha, being in the service of the ruling theocracy. He fails, and Sam tells him that he has already slain the true Buddha, because when Rild changed from an assassin to a disciple, he achieved true enlightenment.

Sam journeys to the underworld to enlist the aid of the energy beings which were banished when humanity first came to the planet. They engage the Gods in a huge battle, during which Sam attempts to steal Shiva's terrible chariot. He is defeated by the Gods Agni and Yama blah blah blah…

There's more, but by this point I'd grasped enough to keep hold of what was happening and I was bored of the homework assignment I'd given myself. For what it may be worth, the above covers roughly the first two thirds of the novel.

Lord of Light takes place on a distant planet settled by humans whose society has taken on the form of ancient Indian society, complete with reincarnation and a ruling elite of polytheist Hindu Gods. It reads mostly like Buddhist parables, or how I imagine Buddhist parables must read based on my having watched Monkey on the telly when I was a teenager; so there's a tendency for characters to deliver statements utilising words such as behold and yonder to one another, and there are many conversations of the kind which ask us to consider the birds in the trees, and so on and so forth. The novel is heavily allegorical, and so the style in which it is written works very well, being both appropriate to the argument and serving the atmosphere; but it probably helps if you're better acquainted with the literary territory, which is why I had problems. That said, it's a testament to the quality of the writing that whilst I lost track of a few things, I was nevertheless able to re-read some of this novel three times in quick succession without being bored. Lord of Light's great success is in its philosophical depth and how well it communicates certain ideas about the nature of reality and our understanding of the same. The novel expects the reader's undivided attention, which is only fair given the elegance of the arguments set forth, but the bottom line - at least for me - was that unfortunately it took me about two weeks to get through the thing, what with all the re-reading. I tend to finish most novels in three or four days, and so a certain degree of fatigue was probably inevitable here, regardless of the quality of the writing; so to summarise, it's a great book, but a sense of humour might have alleviated some of the heavy lifting, and it probably helps if you care about Buddhism, which I don't.

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