Friday, September 15, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 6: Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny

I don’t know exactly when I read this book first. I read a lot of books in the later years of my home-schooling and the first of my traditional schooling, and the order in which I came to the next several titles in this series is lost to the mists of time. I found Lord of Light during a program of devouring all of Roger Zelazny, who I had found first through Nine Princes in Amber. Since I liked that book, I got everything the central library had of Zelazny, as was my pattern for finding new books at that stage of life. Roger Zelazny was far from the only author whose entire section I pulled from the fantasy and science fiction shelves. I was probably too young for much of the sex, politics, literary allusions, and sarcasm when I first read it, but I loved it anyway. I still love most of Zelazny, but Lord of Light is the book of his that I return to often, the one at the center of his portion of my heart.

Lord of Light is a novel intentionally based in Indian religion and mythology, drawing heavily on the iconography of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is about colonists of distant planet who have built a society that draws heavily on the iconography of Hinduism, and a revolutionary who introduces Buddhist ideas as an intentional disruption. For both Zelazny and his characters, the basis in real-world religion provides a wealth of potent imagery to pilfer and re-purpose. It was certainly brilliantly targeted for me, as child who devoured mythology in the form of modern novel adaptations, illustrated surveys of bowdlerized snippets, and eventually full texts in translation.

Lord of light filled me with a desire to read the Vedas and the Upanishads, before I actually knew what they were. I haven’t actually managed that yet. They don’t have nicely packaged popular translations the way British mythologies tend to. I think of reading them again whenever I return to Lord of Light. I’ll actually get to it one of these days, I swear.

I adored the mythic scale of the action in this book, and the intentional reference to gods and goddesses let the conflict shake the foundations of the world without seeming overdone or out of place. The characters battle over the whole world and course of its civilization, and nothing undercuts that scale. Like Tolkien, the narrative is comfortable with its own scale, with the conflict of good and evil, or perhaps beauty and ugliness. They are human characters with foibles and petty desires and memories of something ordinary, but they are also more than that. They have ascended, intentionally, to a plane beyond. They may not deserve their lofty positions, their power of the fate of so many, but they do not give the power up. They have chosen to ascend.

That’s part of what works so well in Lord of Light. The characters know they have become archetypes. They’ve adopted those roles on purpose, to reinforce their power. But even self-aware, the power narrative still controls them. This idea is never spoken aloud, but Lord of Light is suffused with the power of narrative causality. It’s characters are driven to play to type, and to pursue the arc of stories they know will end with their destruction, because that is the way the story ends. This power of the narrative to compel even self-aware actors once they enter it is a tacit demonstration of an idea I found made explicit in Terry Pratchett, and later in more than one book about fairies. I think its implicit presence here is one of the hooks that caught me deep enough not to let go.

When I first read Lord of Light, it made me feel worldly and knowing and mature. It did not make me any of those things, but it’s jaded, worldly characters and their references to history and literature and stories that I did not know, but that I was trusted, as a reader of the book to understand, made me feel like I belonged among the jaded immortals who had become the gods of their world through science and mysticism and raw ambition. It is very attractive, at thirteen, to imagine you belong in the company of living gods who have lived centuries in body after body, long enough that they no longer marvel at the wonder of a world and city shaped in their own divine image.

I do not really know if Lord of Light is a very good book. It is probably a good book if you like Roger Zelazny, which I understand to be one of those things, like marmite or black coffee, that provokes strong reactions on either side of the debate. I do know that it is a perfect book for me, then, when I was young, and now, when I am still relatively young, but understand more of the references. I return to it endlessly now because it is filled with comfortable nostalgia. It is a story made to work even when you already remember every word. I do not remember every word yet, but I may before I am done reading it. The story will still be right, proceeding with the orderly and satisfying pace of a ticking clock, or the bone-deep rightness of fairytale.

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