In the first chapter of Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny — which won the Hugo in 1968 — the book's hero preaches a sermon about the futility of taking action in the material world.
Names are not important, he says. Words are not important. Attempting to describe some aspect of reality to those who haven't experienced it, he says, is a hopeless endeavor. Which is my way of saying that you might as well read the book, rather than count on me to do it justice.
If you have read it, of course, you'll know that he ultimately concludes that not all action is entirely futile — to struggle to create a more perfect world, to strive for "the balance and antithesis which will make it a thing of beauty," is noble. To be sure, I can hardly hope that this review will come anywhere close to the novel itself — basically the book I've had in mind since I started writing this series — but I can maybe hope a little of the story's beauty shines through. And I can definitely struggle. So let's begin:
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.
Where else to start, after all? As opening lines of novels go, Lord of Light's are among the best I've ever read, and based on how many people have quoted them to me in the last few weeks, the best a lot of you have ever read, too. In twenty-five words, they capture the best-loved aspects of the book — the seamless blend of antiquated cadence and insouciant modern vernacular, of modest sincerity and dry humor — and more, they tell us, in part, what the story is about.
But we'll come back to that. After all, in even greater part, this story is also very much about coming back.
As Lord of Light opens, Sam, our hero, is just coming back. For fifty-three years he has been imprisoned in the Bridge of the Gods — that is to say, for fifty-three years, the energy matrix that constitutes his self has been trapped in the ionic cloud circling the planet. The planet is not ours — not "vanished Uratha" — but another, colonized by a shipful of Earthlings thousands of years before.
Sam was among the first colonists to set foot on the new world; he and the rest of the First conquered it, using bioengineered psychic and physical powers and super-technology to subdue the native species, to make it safe for the rest of their ship's passengers. Or that was what they were supposed to do, anyway — in reality, many of the First used their godlike powers to set themselves up like actual gods over their fellow humans. Building a heaven atop a flattened mountain range, they took the names and attributes of Hindu deities, and then instead of sharing their knowledge, began to enforce a policy of suppressing even any technological advances the populace stumbled onto on its own, keeping the people in a perpetual dark age. The gods' nuclear weaponry is the stick they wield to retain their authority; the carrot is their control of the technology that can transfer one's self into a new body, so that one doesn't die the real death.
Those First, like Sam, who thought the common people ought to be given access to high technology, or at least permitted to discover it on their own, were gradually nudged out of Heaven. Lord of Light is the story of Sam's years-long campaign against his former companions the gods — including the woman who was once greatest love of his life, the goddess of destruction Kali — to overthrow them and restore justice to the world.
Sam's essence was exiled to the ionic cloud after his revolution against Heaven almost but didn't quite succeed. As the novel opens, a fellow revolutionary, the death god Yama — the greatest technologist and possibly most powerful of the gods — has found a way to retrieve him.
The first of the book's seven chapters is the story of Sam's return to the world of the living. The next chapter flashes us back many years to the real start of the story, when Sam — then called Prince Siddhartha — first discovered the extent of the gods' injustice and began his fight against it. From there we see him acquire a new body through trickery; found a new religion, a version of Buddhism, to undermine the power of the gods; make a jeopardous deal for help from the so-called demons who originally ruled the planet; survive execution in Heaven at the hands of Kali; and fail to overcome the gods in battle. These first six chapters of the book are structured in such a way that the last feeds into the first — a literary metaphor for Buddhism's six-spoked Wheel of Life.
This is a book about coming back. It's about second chances. It's about rebirth, from the conversion of one of Kali's servants, Rild, who is sent to assassinate the Buddha Sam and ends up becoming his chiefmost disciple, who even surpasses the master, to the reincarnation made tangible thanks to the body-transfer machines.
A story about rebirth must inevitably also be a story about death, so naturally, the book's other main character is Yama. For most of the story, Sam and the death god are enemies — cordial enemies, respectful of one another, but enemies. Yama, a brilliant teenager transferred into the body of an old man after a deadly accident, is perhaps the most dangerous of the gods, the builder of their most powerful weapons and tools and a lethal warrior in his own right. He is smart, but lacks a certain self-awareness due to his curtailed youth. Yama really shouldn't, as Sam points out, subordinate himself to the other gods, but he does, maybe in part because of a lack of confidence and definitely because of the sexual spell cast over him by an older, less scrupulous woman — Sam's ex, Kali.
At first glance, Kali and Yama would seem to make sense together. Indeed, in the third chapter, on his way to confront Sam the new Buddha, Yama — disguised as an ordinary soldier — stops at a temple to the gods, where a statue of himself and her stand facing each other. "We priests have alwas felt the two statues to be well situated," a priest there tells him. "They make a terrible pair, do they not?"
But though Yama and Kali are both death deities, "his is the way of the quick, clean kill," the book tells us, while she "is rather like a cat." Yama takes no pleasure in his business, while Kali is fickle, utterly self-centered, and in love with carnage and chaos for their own thrill. When Sam is held in house arrest in Heaven in Chapter Five, she meets with him in secret, and within minutes: offers to join forces with him against the other gods; retracts her offer; promises to abort her upcoming marriage to Yama if Sam will take her back; tells Sam she lied, she doesn't really love him anymore at all; and then sleeps with him. "I have not changed," she says to him, when he says too much time has passed since their time together. And she hasn't — she's as inconstant as she always was.
Sam is the counterbalance to Kali: He is constant, relentless, purposeful, persistent, despite taking a half-dozen different names or more throughout the course of the story, at least half as many bodies, and demonstrating a willingness to switch tactics whenever necessary. Yama tells him that to be a god means that "One rules through one's ruling passions." But Sam's only ruling passion is a passion not to be ruled, even by his passions.
This is where his real power comes from. As the verse from the Dhammapada that introduces the first chapter says:
He whose desires have been throttled,
who is independent of root,
whose pasture is emptiness —
signless and free —
his path is as unknowable
as that of birds across the heavens.
Sam's wish to be free is not a political thing; he is not rebelling against the gods because they are oppressing him. By the end of the second chapter (or the first, chronologically), he has acquired his own body-transfer machine and the means to keep himself and his friends alive indefinitely. He's clever and strong; he could go off into relative solitude and fend for himself just fine.
Instead, he is motivated to overthrow the gods on behalf of the mere mortals they're tyrannizing. Sam is compelled by love, genuine love, the love that comes only from intense and honest self-examination. (When he is literally possessed by a demon and his body is made to commit sadistic atrocities, Sam is courageous enough to acknowledge that a dark part of him — the sort of part that is in every person — reveled in it.) Such a love is confident enough to understand that everyone must be given the opportunity to live on their own terms, to make their own mistakes and then to learn from them; and compassionate enough that it refuses to turn away from helping others learn to rule themselves.
That's the only way there can be any true rebirth, any real conquering of death. Perseverance is necessary; but without self-reflection, perseverance results in nothing more than repetition. Whereas with authentic self-reflection inevitably arises an appreciation for the terrible struggle all selves face. One cannot truly learn to love oneself without simultaneously coming to love others. It is as unalterable as a law of nature: Love of life will engender further life, and further love. Love of destruction — Yama's love for Kali, or Kali's for herself — can only engender destruction.
After the priest comments on the appropriateness of the statues' placement, Yama asks the priest why no one has laid any sacrifices at his effigy's feet:
"He must feel offended," the disguised death god says.
"Not so, warrior," the priest replies. "For are not all living things, in themselves, sacrifices to Death?"
"Indeed, you speak truly," answers Yama. "What need has he for their good will or affection? Gifts are unnecessary, for he takes what he wants."
But a short while later, Yama enters the Buddha's grove alone, first to find hundreds of Sam's followers waiting to obstruct him, and then to receive a vision in which all of life itself rises up to protect the hero and is slaughtered. And already on his journey, Yama has slain Rild, who willingly went to his death to safeguard the Buddha. These are truly sacrifices — a sacrifice has to be given, not simply taken — and though he brushes them off with bluster, when Yama finally sits down to talk with Sam, one senses that the death god is beginning — faintly, jealously, but not dismissively — to realize he may be in the presence of a power greater than his own.
By the end of the story, Great-Souled Sam's love proves enormous enough to have won over Death himself, and a rebirth for the whole world — the end of the Kali Yuga — and even for Kali herself, who thereafter places forevermore before Yama in his shrine "the only devotion he receives, of flowers." Zelazny makes an explicit comparison, of course, between Sam's sacrifice and resurrection and restoration and that of Christ, which he could hardly have avoided doing, as at the time, the traditionally Christian U.S. was seeing an influx of Eastern philosophy, Buddhism in particular — but it's mostly only worth mentioning to note that it's not necessarily worth mentioning. Christianity, Buddhism — names are not important (or so at least this Christian believes).
The novel's opening lines return to close the story, and then Sam leaves the scene — as he must: Not only did he never claim to be a god, he also never wanted much to be one. Whatever his followers' opinion, he'll go his own way, just as he opts to call himself Sam.
We don't learn for sure which way that way is — his path is as unknowable as that of birds across the heavens — but it doesn't really matter: Elsewhere, the story will be the same, though the not-important names be different. What does matter is that Yama, we are given to believe, journeys with him. Together, they'll keep struggling to make the world more perfect — the balance and antithesis which will make it a thing of beauty.
"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner, from 1969.
Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.