Monday, October 4, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Lord of Light, Part I - This is reality, the Nameless.

Links to each part of the review: Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart Six

Earth is long since dead. On a colony planet, a band of men has gained control of technology, made themselves immortal, and now rules their world as the gods of the Hindu pantheon. Only one dares oppose them: he who was once Siddhartha and is now Mahasamatman. Binder of Demons. Lord of Light.

Well, this is the big one. Lord of Light. The strongest story by my favorite author. I've touched on some of his other works in passing.

I sometimes split my longer reviews into several segments, and that's what I'm going to have to do here, otherwise, my review, like rivers, will threaten to flow on forever.

I guess I'll open with a little more preamble than usual. I forget when I first read Lord of Light. After Amber, Jack of Shadows and Roadmarks, but before This Immortal. I know that influenced a lot of the stories I tried to write in high school. So, I was about 15 or 16, I would guess.

One of the most interesting bits of trivia about the book is that it was used as cover for a CIA operation.

Wikipedia describes it like this: "In 1979 it was announced that Lord of Light would be made into a 50 million dollar film. It was planned that the sets for the movie would be made permanent and become the core of a science fiction theme park to be built in Aurora, Colorado. Famed comic-book artist Jack Kirby was even contracted to produce artwork for set design. However, due to legal problems the project was never completed.

Parts of the unmade film project, the script and Kirby's set designs, were subsequently acquired by the CIA as cover for an exfiltration team for six US diplomatic staff trapped – in Tehran but outside the embassy compound – by the Iranian hostage crisis. The team had a version of the script, renamed to Argo; they pretended to be scouting a location in Iran for shooting a Hollywood film from that script."

This website has more details, plus a link where you can buy some Jack Kirby Lord of Light art! (If not for yourself, buy for me. My birthday is coming up this month!)

I still think Roadmarks is the most cinematic of all of Zelazny's works, but I would not say no to a Guillermo del Toro directed adaptation using Kirby's concept art.

I've been listening slowly, an hour or two every day. offered the book at one time, but no longer does so. (Though, interestingly, I was able to download it when I installed the Audible app on my phone.) I assume it's some sort of right issue.

The introduction to the book is by a guy named Jim Kelly. He gives a broad outline, gushes about what he likes about it and offers up some random quotes, which is pretty much what I'm doing with my reviews, so it was kind of cool to see someone else approach it in that fashion.

One phrase that stuck out was his observation was that Roger Zelazny "was just 30 years old and at the height of his powers" when he wrote the book. "At the height of his powers" seems like such a Zelazny-esque phrase. (Specifically, it made me think of "...for his Jenny was a specially designed deathcar, built for him by the Archengineer of the Geeyem Dynasty, far to the East, and all the cunning of that great artificer had gone into her construction" line from Devil Car.

The audio book is wonderfully performed by Victor Bevine. I'm glad I could get a chance to listen to this on audio. It's interesting to hear the names of the gods and concepts pronounced correctly rather than the bizarre mangling I was giving them as I read. He gives a beautiful reading. I have some Zelazny books read by the author, some of which are really good (A Night in the Lonesome October, which I'll be reviewing before the end of the month, springs to mind) but he has a strange meter when reading some of his other works that can sometimes be distracting.

I loved the scene with Mara. Reproducing what I love about it would entail posting the entire exchange, so I'll just say that everything about it is perfect, and spelling your name backwards never fooled anyone.

Sam's sermon is flawless I thought of it when I was blogging about my infant daughter and how I was constantly amazed at how quickly she incorporates new skills into her activities. As adults, when we learn something new, we tend to keep it at arm's length until we determine where it belongs in the set of categories through which we define our world. I wasn't at that point familiar with the concept of schemata, but that's pretty much what I was trying to say. She was still developing her schemata at that point, and she wasn't trying to understand things, but experience them, but through that experience comes understanding.

Allow me to illustrate with a Zelazny passage:

"Names are not important," he said. "To speak is to name names, but to speak is not important. A thing happens once that has never happened before. Seeing it, a man looks upon reality. He cannot tell others what he has seen. Others wish to know, however, so they question him saying, 'What is it like, this thing you have seen?' So he tries to tell them. Perhaps he has seen the very first fire in the world. He tells them, 'It is red, like a poppy, but through it dance other colors. It has no form, like water, flowing everywhere. It is warm, like the sun of summer, only warmer. It exists for a time upon a piece of wood, and then the wood is gone, as though it were eaten, leaving behind that which is black and can be sifted like sand. When the wood is gone, it too is gone.' Therefore, the hearers must think reality is like a poppy, like water, like the sun, like that which eats and excretes. They think it is like to anything that they are told it is like by the man who has known it. But they have not looked upon fire. They cannot really know it. They can only know of it. But fire comes again into the world, many times. More men look upon fire. After a time, fire is as common as grass and clouds and the air they breathe. They see that, while it is like a poppy, it is not a poppy, while it is like water, it is not water, while it is like the sun, it is not the sun, and while it is like that which eats and passes wastes, it is not that which eats and passes wastes, but something different from each of these apart or all of these together. So they look upon this new thing and they make a new word to call it. They call it 'fire.'

"If they come upon one who still has not seen it and they speak to him of fire, he does not know what they mean. So they, in turn, fall back upon telling him what fire is like. As they do so, they know from their own experience that what they are telling him is not the truth, but only a part of it. They know that this man will never know reality from their words, though all the words in the world are theirs to use. He must look upon the fire, smell of it, warm his hands by it, stare into its heart, or remain forever ignorant. Therefore, 'fire' does not matter, 'earth' and 'air' and 'water' do not matter. 'I' do not matter. No word matters. But man forgets reality and remembers words. The more words he remembers, the cleverer do his fellows esteem him. He looks upon the great transformations of the world, but he does not see them as they were seen when man looked upon reality for the first time. Their names come to his lips and he smiles as he tastes them, thinking he knows them in the naming. The thing that has never happened before is still happening. It is still a miracle. The great burning blossom squats, flowing, upon the limb of the world, excreting the ash of the world, and being none of these things I have named and at the same time all of them, and this is reality, the Nameless.

This reminds of a line from Jack of Shadows: "Each of you colors reality in keeping with your means of controlling it."

That only takes us up to the end of the first chapter, but I have to stop here. I dearly love all of Roger Zelazny's writing, but as the man says, he's at the height of his powers here. The meter, the poetry, the philosophy, all work some sort of alchemy to produce what I believe is the greatest science fiction novel ever written.

I'll be back soon with the second part of the review.


  1. George R. R. Martin gives a shout out to Lord of Light:

    --Chris DeVito

  2. Not only that, but he mentions Have Space Suit - Will Travel and The Stars My Destination, another two of my favorites.