Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Another Dimension- Lord of Light

I was finally able to make it to Another Dimension, one of the book-clubs hosted by Bucket O'Blood Books & Records at their Avondale digs. We discussed "Lord of Light", the 1967 novel by Roger Zelazny.

The novel, which won the Hugo in 1968, is a kind of science-fictional reenactment of certain elements of Hindu and Buddhist myth. In the far future, colonists from Earth settle a distant planet, and the original settlers conquer the energy-based inhabitants (afterwards classified as "demons") and develop not-entirely-spelled out powers themselves, that seem to involve psionic/genetic mutation as well as technological enhancement. Personal immortality technology, mind transference, and these powers combine to make certain of the early humans literally godlike, and they adapt the Hindu pantheon as a mode of being, keeping most of the rest of the population at a low technological level.

"Lord of Light" follows Sam, AKA the Buddha, AKA a bunch of other names, as he foments a rebellion against the gods to allow a more egalitarian approach to technology.

We had a fun discussion, with many intriguing tangential pop-culture asides, most of them, alas, not recorded here.
One of the things we tossed around was how well this matches other Hugo winners from around the same time-period--sandwiched in between giants like "Dune", "The Left Hand of Darkness", and "Stand on Zanzibar", this feels remarkably light, whimsical even. Which isn't a bad thing, but an interesting comparison. We also talked about how Zelazny's respect within the genre is sort of bigger than/detached from any one individual work, which is kind of an interesting status some writers achieve.

A lot of our critiques and commentary focused on the style of the novel and, as a secondary point, the size of the cast. While the core cast is very small, there's a huge number of secondary and minor characters who pop in and out, often with multiple names and titles, making it a little hard to follow at times. Zelazny also does sort of a mixed job with respect to communicating the import of the Hindu/Buddhist sources--I felt like there were a few scenes and characters that would only be effective if you knew the origin stories.

That said, and with the note that the style sometimes slips into an exaggerated formality clearly patterned on the Mahabharata, we liked a lot about the writing. Especially effective are the sudden breaks away from elevated diction, with characters smoking or speaking suddenly plainly and informally. Although this isn't exactly a knee-slapper, you can kind of tell that Zelazny is a funny guy, kind of revelling in his own quiet cleverness--my favorite example being the bit where Sam leaves a message for someone to "go to hell" in careful code.

We also talked about the framing structure, which is a bit odd. (Again with my recent obsession with story vs. discourse.) The 7-part novel is chopped up kind of oddly, and due to the complex, alien world it takes a bit to figure where/when you are in each chapter.

You're welcome.
"Lord of Light" was being developed for a film (and an amusement park, oddly enough) in the late 70s/early 80s before being shelved, and we talked a bit about that--the involvement of Jack Kirby, and the eventual use of the film's script in a CIA operation during the Iran hostage crisis (really). Some of thought that using "Lord of Light" for a major blockbuster seems odd, but we put it into context with Star Wars and the slew of myth-and-fantasy-fueled SF films of that era. Boorman's 1974 film "Zardoz", for instance, has a lot of plotting similarity to Zelazny's novel.

Star Wars draws largely on Taoism, and this is obviously Hindu/Buddhist-centered. We talked a bit about the use of different religious traditions in SF/F. Obviously the Norse traditions are pretty popular right now, and it seems like we're seeing more and more speculative fiction using figures from African traditions like Yoruba or Vodun. One thing we wonder is why there's so little SF/F overtly engaging with Abrahamic religions--fear of backlash? I couldn't help thinking of Gaiman's "American Gods" (2001), which is this amazing novel, and all about faith and belief in a lot of ways--yet it almost completely avoids any religious figure that has any living believers.

A big part of this is doubtless just drawing on diverse or less well-known traditions, for reasons of interest, but it's still an interesting trend and, I suspect, points to a real reticence to engage with Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim) religious belief in ways that could be construed as blasphemous or disrespectful.

The novel does have just a teeny tinch of Christianity showing up at the very end, with the revelation that Nirriti is not a demon, but actually the original starship captain, and a Christian, which makes his role as a sort of dark zombie-lord...confusing? And sort of hilarious? Also, while Sam mostly sticks to the Buddha for a model, there are notes of Martin Luther in there as well.

Because Martin was apparently
like: This world is too nice. Let's
throw some aggro monotheism
in the mix!
And we also noted George R.R. Martin's borrowing of "Lord of Light" in one of the religions of "A Song of Ice and Fire".

What else? We liked the Prayer-O-Mats! The battle scenes didn't work very well for us at all, a combination of the diction and confused stakes (technogods fighting, but also lots of regular humans showing up to get slaughtered). We liked Sam's demon possession and the way they contaminate each other. Tak's little speech about how genetic family ties are irrelevant in a body-switching culture was fascinating. Conversely, Yama's switch to Sam's side seems forced and abrupt, and reliant on Kali's body-switch. I found it a little odd that a society that routinely switched genders would be so heterosexual that a partner transitioning to a differently-sexed body would end the relationship.

We wondered what kind of music would be appropriate to play for this book (some kind of electronic/futuristic Indian style, an example of which we were unable to come up with), which led us into an interesting aside on music in the background of reading/writing, and SF/F connections to music like Moorcock's involvement with Hawkwind and Blue Öyster Cult. I was also reminded of Peter Watts' claim that he wrote "Starfish" (1999) while listening to Sarah Mclachlan's "Possession" at very high volume. (Incidentally, I'm really feeling the need to discuss Watts at a bookclub again, will have to push for that.)

A great discussion, with, as I mentioned, more intriguing cultural tangents than I could adequately record. Looking forward to attending more of Bucket O'Blood's discussions, and there's definitely room for more. Next up is Algis Budrys's "Michaelmas", Monday March 14th, and also keep your eye out for Bloody Reads, their horror discussion group. That info and more available on Positron's Upcoming Events page.

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