Thursday, October 7, 2010

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Lord of Light, Part IV - Tears in Heaven

The fourth in a series of a six part review of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light.

Part One:Overview and Chapter One

Part Two Chapters Two and Three (Death & the Executioner)

Part Three:Chapter Four (Hellwell)

and an index of all my Zelazny posts can be found at this link.

I had previously considered Chapter Five or Lord of Light to be something of an interlude, so much so that that I was just going to recap it like I did for Chapter Two. As best I recalled, Sam goes to Heaven, hangs out for a little bit and then dies (for a little bit). However, in rereading it for the purposes of this review, I now have new respect for how interesting it all is.

Part of that is due to the fact that Lord of Light is actually structured as seven linked novellas, and any chapter can be read independently of the others. This self-contained structure is obvious in retrospect, but it never occurred to me until I read it in an essay in Volume 2 of the Collected Works of Roger Zelazny. So while a chapter might have highs and lows, you'll never have a wholly uninteresting chapter like you might in other books. I think that lends a unique strength to the narrative. I've said in my Amber reviews that Zelazny is very good at making exposition interesting. ("You were offered godhood some years ago in Mahartha, as I recall, and you mocked Brahma, raided the Palace of Karma, and filled all the pray-machines of the city with slugs ... " The Buddha chuckled. Yama joined him briefly and continued...), and that works in his favor. I've never read the chapters as stand-alone stories, but I think I'll try that as experiment after I finish these reviews to see how they hold up as such.

Also, Chapter Five introduces my other favorite character in the piece, Kubera, of whom Sam says "I know that you have never given your word and broken it, though you are as old as the hills of Heaven."

I love Roger Zelazny's characters, almost each and every one, but they are generally not nice people. I would not want to be between Dilvish and Jelerak. If I met Corwin in the course of my everyday life, I'd probably cross the street to avoid him. He's just too intense, and the qualities that make him an interesting fictional character would probably make him a bad human being in real life. Many of Zelazny's characters share these traits to various extents, but every now and then you get an exception, and Kubera is among the finest. He's a straight up decent guy. He just wants to drink soma and use his Attribute in the service of his friends, and that's that. He gets a bigger role in the next chapter, and I'll discuss him further when I get there.

Tak of the Archives is also a decent guy and he manages an explanation of Heaven's policies to Maya. One of the things that I like most about the book is that the counterargument is not unreasonable, that the motivations of the gods actually make sense when taken at face value. Even Sam agrees that, yeah, if things were working as intended, that this isn't a terrible way to handle things. Where he differs is the belief that the system is so corrupt that Accelerationism is better than the status quo. Tak on Accelerationism:

Now then, about Accelerationism, it is a simple doctrine of sharing. It proposes that we of Heaven give unto those who dwell below of our knowledge and powers and substance. This act of charity would be directed to the end of raising their condition of existence to a higher level, akin to that which we ourselves occupy. Then every man would be as a god, you see. The result of this, of course, would be that there would no longer be any gods, only men. We would give them knowledge of the sciences and the arts, which we possess, and in so doing we would destroy their simple faith and remove all basis for their hoping that things will be better, for the best way to destroy faith or hope is to let it be realized. Why should we permit men to suffer this burden of godhood collectively, as the Accelerationists wished, when we do grant it to them individually when they come to deserve it? In his sixtieth year a man passes through the Halls of Karma. He is judged, and if he has done well, observing the rules and restrictions of his caste, paying the proper observances to Heaven, advancing himself intellectually and morally, then this man will be incarnated into a higher caste, eventually achieving godhood itself and coming to dwell here in the City. Each man eventually receives his just desserts, barring unfortunate accidents, of course, and so each man, rather than society as a sudden whole, may come into the divine inheritance which the ambitious Accelerationists wished to scatter wholesale before everyone, even those who were unready. You can see that this attitude was dreadfully unfair and proletarian-oriented. What they really wanted to do was to lower the requirements for godhood. These requirements are necessarily strict. Would you give the power of Shiva, of Yama, or of Agni into the hands of an infant? Not unless you are a fool, you wouldn't Not unless you wished to wake up one morning and see that the world no longer existed. This is what the Accelerationists would have wrought, though, and this is why they were stopped. Now you know all about Accelerationism...

This chapter also introduces Ganesha the godmaker. He's the only real unambiguous villain of the piece, but he's smart.

"Lord of Destruction," [Ganesha] said, "I understand that you already seek reprisal against those here in the City who mark the words of Siddhartha with more than a smirk of dismissal."

"Of course," said Shiva.

"By so doing, you destroy his effectiveness."

"'Effectiveness'? Explain what you mean."

"Kill me that green bird on yonder limb."

Shiva gestured with his trident and the bird fell.

"Now kill me its mate."

"I do not see her."

"Then kill me any other from among its flock."

"I see none."

"And now that it lies dead, you will not. So, if you wish, strike at the first who harken to the words of Siddhartha."

"I gather your meaning, Ganesha. He shall walk free, for a time. He shall."

Zelazny says he wanted a strong woman for the story. As much as I love, love, LOVE his writing, I think he failed in that, for Kali never aspires to anything greater than the blade or the phallus, to paraphrase one of Sam's quotes from an earlier chapter. Her thinking is so shallow compared to Sam's or Yama's. Sam's observation, voiced earlier, that "She cares only for those who bring her gifts of chaos" is a pretty accurate summation of her character.

I really like the bit with Sam and Helba, especially the bolded part.

"Not while I wear the form of woman. As a man, I will undertake to steal anything from anywhere ... See there, upon the far wall, where some of my trophies are hung? The great blue-feather cloak belonged to Srit, Chief among the Kataputna demons. I stole it from out his cave as his hellhounds slept, drugged by myself. The shape-changing jewel I took from the very Dome of the Glow, climbing with suction discs upon my wrists and knees and toes, as the Mothers beneath me...”

"Enough!" said Sam. "I know all of these tales, Helba, for you tell them constantly. It has been so long since you have undertaken a daring theft, as of old, that I suppose these glories long past must be oft repeated. Else, even the Elder Gods would forget what once you were. I can see that I have come to the wrong place, and I shall try elsewhere."

He stood, as to go.

"Wait," said Helba, stirring.

Sam paused. "Yes?"

"You could at least tell me of the theft you are contemplating. Perhaps I can offer advice...”

"What good would even your greatest advice be, Monarch of Thieves? I do not need words. I need actions."

"Perhaps, even ... tell me!"

"All right," said Sam, "though I doubt you would be interested in a task this difficult...”

"You can skip over the child psychology and tell me what it is you want stolen."

Heh heh heh.

The end of the chapter is wonderfully lyrical and features some inspired use of incremental repetition. It is said...

It is said that on that day, that great day, the Lord Vayu stopped the winds of Heaven and a stillness came upon the Celestial City and the wood of Kaniburrha.

It is said that demons flitted invisible through the upper air, but feared to draw near the gathering of power...

It is said that there had been many signs and portents signifying the fall of the mighty...

It was said, by the theologians and holy historians, that the one called Sam had recanted his heresy and thrown himself upon the mercy of Trimurti...

It is also said that the goddess Parvati, who had been either his wife, his mother, his sister, his daughter, or perhaps all of these, had fled Heaven, to dwell in mourning among the witches of the eastern continent, whom she counted as kin....

It is said that, as he wandered the streets of the City, an ancient jackbird cycled three times above him, then came to rest upon Sam's shoulder...

It is said that the phantom cat who had his life, and that of Helba a little later, was really a god or a goddess....

It is said, also, that the phantom cat who killed them was not the first, or the second, to attempt this thing. Several tigers died beneath the Bright Spear, which passed into them, withdrew itself, vibrated clean of gore and returned then to the hand of its thrower. Tak of the Bright Spear fell himself, however, struck in the head by a chair thrown by Lord Ganesha, who had entered silently into the room at his back. It is said by some that the Bright Spear was later destroyed by Lord Agni, but others say that it was cast beyond Worldsend by the Lady Maya.

I always think of Tak of the Bright Spear when I put my pod in the single serve coffee machine. I drop it in and close the receptacle and it vibrates briefly and intently, and then, hey, there's my coffee!

The wedding party lasted for seven days, and the Lord Mara spun dream after dream about the revelers. As if by a carpet of magic, he transported them through the lands of illusion, raising up palaces of colored smoke upon pillars of water and of fire, escalating the benches at which they sat down canyons of stardust, striving with coral and myrrh to bend their senses beyond themselves, bringing onto them all their Aspects, wherein he held them, rotating about the archetypes upon which they had based their powers, as Shiva danced in a graveyard the Dance of Destruction and the Dance of Time, celebrating the legend of his annihilation of the three flying cities of the Titans, and Krishna the Dark moved through the Wrestler's Dance in commemoration of his breaking of the black demon Bana, while Lakshmi danced the Dance of the Statue, and even Lord Vishnu was coerced into celebrating again the steps of the Dance of the Amphora, as Murugan, in his new body, laughed at the world clad in all her oceans, and did his dance of triumph upon those waters as upon a stage, the dance that he had danced after the slaying of Shura, who had taken refuge in the depths of the sea. When Mara gestured there was magic and color and music and wine. There was poetry and gaming. There was song and laughter. There was sport, in which mighty trials of strength and skill took place. In all, it required the stamina of a god to bear the entire seven days of pleasure.

This is an awesome visual for a movie. If we can't get a live action Lord of Light then I'd settle for a kickass computer animated one, as long as it has this scene.

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