Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Lord of Light, Part III - The Curse of the Buddha

This is the third part of a review of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light that will span at least four, and probably more posts. Part one is here and part two is here and an index of all my Zelazny posts is at this link.

We're now up to chapter four, which details Sam's descent into Hellwell.

I remember the first time I heard the name Hellwell. It was actually before I read Lord of Light and it was mentioned briefly in the introduction to a paperback copy of some book or another. I want to say it was Jack of Shadows, but it might have been one of the anthologies, but I'm away from my books now and can't check. Zelazny was talking about iconic moments in his stories. He said something about the descent into Hellwell. I was about fourteen or fifteen, I guess, and I loved all manner of sci-fi and fantasy, no matter how corny, and even then, I thought, "That's a stupid name."

And, years later, having read Lord of Light many times...I still think it's kind of a stupid name. A great concept, just kind of a lame name. Hey, lame name! That rhymes! Just like Hellwell!


Zelazny has written that he was originally going to kill Yama off in the middle of the book. I wonder if it would have been at the hand of Rild (which seems unlikely and would have spun the narrative in a completely different direction), drowning in quicksand (which would have been ignominious) or at Hellwell.

One thing you know for sure, though, is much like rocks shaped like skulls in kid's cartoons, any place named Hellwell is bad news. In Lord of Light, Hellwell is where humanity imprisoned the rakasha, the energy beings who were the indigenous population of the planet. (Yeah, kind of sucks to be them, but it was them or us.)

This chapter has two distinct parts and I love them both. The first is when Sam enters Hellwell, and winds up possessed as he misjudges the power the rakasha are capable of bringing to bear.

I liked his description of the act of possession, though.

There came a dream.

He was running.

His shadow lay before him, and, as he ran upon it, it grew.

It grew until it was no longer his shadow but a grotesque outline. Suddenly he knew that his shadow had been overrun by that of his pursuer: overrun, overwhelmed, submerged and surmounted.

Then he knew a moment of terrible panic, there upon the blind plain over which he fled.

He knew that it was now his own shadow.

The doom which had pursued him no longer lay at his back.

He knew that he was his own doom.

Knowing that he had finally caught up with himself, he laughed aloud, wanting really to scream.

Taraka uses Sam's body to terrorize the countryside. The bulk of the freed rakasha, like idiots, boil outwards into the world to sate their appetites, an action that draws the attention of the gods directly to Hellwell. When Taraka asks Sam why he begrudges him the use of his body, Sam answers with one of my favorite passages:

"It is because I am what I am, demon...It is because I am a man who occasionally aspires to things beyond the belly and the phallus. I am not not the saint the Buddhists think me to be, and I am not the hero out of legend. I am a man who knows much fear, and who occasionally feels guilt. Mainly, though, I am a man who has set out to do a thing, and you are now blocking my way. Thus you inherit my curse, whether I win or whether I lose now, Taraka, your destiny has already been altered. This is the curse of the Buddha, you will never again be the same as once you were."

Uh oh. This is turning into one of those "Hey! I liked this quote too!" reviews.

The second part of the chapter is when the gods show up and things really get crazy.

"Describe this stranger!" ordered Siddhartha, forcing the words through his own lips.

"He stands very tall," said the demon, "and he wears black breeches and boots. Above the waist he has on him a strange garment. It is like a seamless white glove, upon his right hand only, which extends all the way up his arm and across his shoulders, wrapping his neck and rising tight and smooth about his entire head. Only the lower part of his face is visible, for he wears over his eyes large black lenses which extend half a span outward from his face. At his belt he wears a short sheath of the same white material as the garment, not containing a dagger, however, but a wand. Beneath the material of his garment, where it crosses his shoulders and comes up upon his neck, there is a hump, as if he wears there a small pack."

"Lord Agni!" said Siddhartha. "You have described the God of Fire!"

"Aye, this must be," said the Rakasha. "For as I looked beyond his flesh, to see the colors of his true being, I saw there a blaze like unto the heart of the sun. If there be a God of Fire, then this indeed is he."

"Now must we flee," said Siddhartha, "for there is about to be a great burning. We cannot fight with this one, so let us go quickly."

"We cannot fight this one?" I think you're selling yourself a little short here. Don't you kick his ass in short order in a couple pages?

Agni had entered, and he pointed the wand.

"Do not move, Sam! Demon!" he cried, above the roar of the engines; and as he spoke, his lenses clicked red and he smiled.

"Demon," he stated. "Do not move, or you and your host will burn together!"

Sam sprang upon him. Agni fell easily when he struck, for he had not believed that the other would reach him.

Sam's power is that of electrodirection, mind over energy. It's kind of poorly defined, but it serves to bind the energy forms of the rakasha (thus the sobriquet "Binder") and disrupt the functioning of electrical circuitry, including Agni's fire wand. I do think it's kind of odd that Yama never undertook a study on Sam's Attribute. He never had Sam to study directly, but we know that he had undertaken intense research into the rakasha and I assume he could deduce the nature of the ability used to bind them. (On the other hand, it's possible that his research into the rakasha came after his departure from Heaven.)

Despite his best efforts, Sam is eventually captured. He has a rather civil conversation with Yama on journey to Heaven. I'm a sucker for a principled adversary, and the exchange is among Zelazny's finest. Two sincere, intelligent people discussing their irreconcilable views in a civilized fashion.

"What's First Base like these days?"

"You'll hardly recognize the place," said Yama. "If everyone in it were to die at this moment, it would still be perfect ten thousand years from now. The flowers would still bloom and the music would play and the fountains would ripple the length of the spectrum. Warm meals would still be laid within the garden pavilions. The City itself is immortal."

"A fitting abode, I suppose, for those who call themselves gods."

"Call themselves?" asked Yama. "You are wrong, Sam, Godhood is more than a name. It is a condition of being. One does not achieve it merely by being immortal, for even the lowliest laborer in the fields may achieve continuity of existence. Is it then the conditioning of an Aspect? No. Any competent hypnotist can play games with the self-image. Is it the raising up of an Attribute? Of course not. I can design machines more powerful and more accurate than any faculty a man may cultivate. Being a god is the quality of being able to be yourself to such an extent that your passions correspond with the forces of the universe, so that those who look upon you know this without hearing your name spoken. Some ancient poet said that the world is full of echoes and correspondences. Another wrote a long poem of an inferno, wherein each man suffered a torture which coincided in nature with those forces which had ruled his life. Being a god is being able to recognize within one's self these things that are important, and then to strike the single note that brings them into alignment with everything else that exists. Then, beyond morals or logic or esthetics, one is wind or fire, the sea, the mountains, rain, the sun or the stars, the flight of an arrow, the end of a day, the clasp of love. One rules through one's ruling passions. Those who look upon gods then say, without even knowing their names, 'He is Fire. She is Dance. He is Destruction. She is Love.' So, to reply to your statement, they do not call themselves gods. Everyone else does, though, everyone who beholds them."

"So they play that on their fascist banjos, eh?"

"You choose the wrong adjective."

"You've already used up all the others."

"It appears that our minds will never meet on this subject."

"If someone asks you why you're oppressing a world and you reply with a lot of poetic crap, no. I guess there can't be a meeting of minds."

Zelazny called the pair two aspects of the same character, and I have to agree. Fascinating to read them interacting, though. That's the perfect exchange illustrating their differences right there.

I feel some regrets about returning to a mere "quotes and commentary" method for my review here, but Zelazny's words are simply more eloquent than mine, so I leave you with Sam's promise to Yama.

When I have died the real death, then will I be changed. But until that moment I will hate Heaven with every breath that I draw. If Brahma has me burnt, I will spit into the flames. If he has me strangled, I will attempt to bite the executioner's hand. If my throat is cut, may my blood rust the blade that does it.

Yama tells him that he would be a good god, to which Sam replies "Good God!" Until next time.

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