Nandakishore Varma's Reviews > Lord of Light

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
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Feb 19, 15

bookshelves: science-fiction
Read from March 24 to April 05, 2012

Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment at the foot of the Bodhi tree and became the Buddha: his teachings swept across India, striking at the roots of decadent Brahmanism. The Hindu priests were understandably alarmed, but were helpless against the doctrine of the eightfold path as the stale air inside a room against the tempest raging outside. So they did the clever thing: after the Buddha's passing, they assimilated him and made him an avatar of Vishnu (in fact, they licked him by joining him). Perhaps this is the fate of all reformers!

This much is history. Roger Zelazny takes the bare bones of this story, adds the exotic ingredients of Indian myth and legend haphazardly, seasons it with the spirit of Prometheus who moved against heaven, and serves it up as a science fiction novel. For people who have not tasted exotic and spicy Indian dishes (at least not regularly), this is extraordinary fare indeed: alas, for my jaded palate, this is quite ordinary.

Zelazny writes superbly. The novel is structured imaginatively-as Adam Roberts says in the introduction, the author deliberately wrong foots us with the flashback. The language is rich and lush and a bit cloying, like India at its exotic best (or worst), seen from an “Orientalist” perspective. In an age when characterization was almost nonexistent in SF, Zelazny gives us rounded characters who behave consistently. The SF elements are also well developed and consistent with a technology so far advanced that it is “indistinguishable from magic” (to borrow from Arthur C. Clarke).

That the author is well acquainted with India is obvious. He knows the names of a lot of Indian gods (not only the Vedic pantheon – Murugan is a Tamil god). From the way the Kathakali performance is described in detail, I am almost sure that Zelazny has travelled in Kerala (my native place). The way each god’s “Attribute” defines him or her is more or less consistent with Hindu mythology – and it has been translated into scientific terms quite convincingly. And the way the “Rakasha” (the Rakshasa s and Asuras of Indian myth) have been described as elemental spirits of the planet, subdued and imprisoned by the human colonisers, closely parallels the real origin of these demons in folklore.

But once all the bells and whistles were removed, I found the story of a renegade god moving against the celestial dictators quite ordinary. If the whole Indian pantheon were not in the story, if it was just the tale of a plain “Sam”‘s rebellion, I do not think this book would have merited a second glance at the awards. It was sold under the label of exotic India, like many other orientalist offerings. One might argue that this was Zeazny’s intention, and that there is nothing wrong in it: I would tend to agree. His vision of using Indian myth to flavor a science fiction novel was (at the time of its publication) a bold, path-breaking move. Only thing is, I am not one of the intended audience!

I have one more caveat: Zelazny mixes and matches the gods and their attributes with a free hand (especially towards the end). Since these are not true gods but human beings who have taken on these attributes, this is technically OK, but it soon becomes a pot-pourri very difficult to follow. Also, in the process, he saw many of the gods only single dimensionally (this is most notable in the case of Krishna, who is seen only as a lecher).

I would recommend this book for people unfamiliar with Indian mythology. I am afraid those who are well-read in the same may feel disappointed.
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03/24/2012 page 10
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Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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message 1: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker I'm eager to see what you think of this.


Shovelmonkey1 Nice review. I shall add it to the great TBR pile immediately.


Nandakishore Varma Thanks, SM1.


message 4: by Kedar (new) - added it

Kedar Very insightful review. I have to get hold of this book now.


Manny Excellent review! I really like this book, but know so little about the Hindu and Buddhist traditions that it felt impossible to review it properly.


message 6: by Whitaker (last edited May 11, 2012 12:22AM) (new)

Whitaker Great review, Nandakishore. I'm not Indian and have only a passing knowledge of Indian mythology, but it's not something I consider "exotic", which is why I was so thrilled to see you were reading this. I definitely wanted an insider's eye view of the story. I read this year's ago and... Well, it's like fusion cuisine. I felt like I was eating a hamburger wrapped in a paratha and seasoned with cumin. The Indian-ness was only the outer covering.


Petra X smokin' hot The comment above mine (no. 6) made me think to tell you that I'm opening an Indian cafe (restaurant is too grand) in a couple of weeks (had an Indian takeaway last year) above my bookshop. What sort of snacks do bookshop cafes serve in India? Got any links to any sites for bookshop cafes please?


message 8: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Congratulations on opening the cafe! The next time I'm in London I shall check it out. Unfortunately I can't answer your query as I'm not from India but perhaps Nandakishore can. As for me I'm very fond of masala tea and gulub jammum.


Petra X smokin' hot My bookshop is in the Caribbean, not London. I've never had masala tea but I love gulub jammum. Where are you from?


Nandakishore Varma Petra, I don't have much experience bookshop cafes - my corner of India do not have them - but you can serve samosas and pakhoda (North Indian) or different types of vada (South Indian).


Petra X smokin' hot I'm going to suggest all these to my cook. She is Guyanese, ethnic Indian, but the food is quite different from the Indian food I get in London. Thanks for the suggestions :-)


message 12: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Petra X wrote: "My bookshop is in the Caribbean, not London. I've never had masala tea but I love gulub jammum. Where are you from?"

I'm from Singapore. :-)

Oooo, you must serve masala tea then. And ginger tea too. I'm sure you can google the terms for the recipes. Masala tea has cardamon and some other spices. Yummy!!


Petra X smokin' hot I love ginger tea. I was introduced to it by a v good friend who had the best internet cafe in Bali. He is from Singapore. I already looked up masala tea and it sounds delicious.


message 14: by Sam (new) - added it

Sam Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! You all are making me very hungry and there are NO Indian cafes in this country! :(


James Kinoshita Disappointing review that appears to miss the point of a clash of 3 great religions (although Christianity is only mildly represented). The reviewer is obviously seeing it from the Hindu perspective and takes mild offense at the portrayal of Hindu gods without seeing the deeper complexity of the story and appreciating its sweep in what is not a long book.


message 16: by Whitaker (last edited Jan 18, 2013 12:17AM) (new)

Whitaker James wrote: "Disappointing review that appears to miss the point of a clash of 3 great religions (although Christianity is only mildly represented). The reviewer is obviously seeing it from the Hindu perspectiv..."

I'm not sure why you think it misses the point since the reviewer starts his review by talking about the clash between Hinduism and Buddhism. I believe the point he is making is that the religious clash presented in the book is nothing more than a thin veneer; it's brown-face covering what is essentially a bog-standard story of independence as seen via the American vision of the world. This understanding is actually a somewhat deeper view of the book, looking past the exotic costumes that Zelany puts on his characters and seeing them for the Americans that they are underneath.


Nandakishore Varma James wrote: "The reviewer is obviously seeing it from the Hindu perspective and takes mild offense at the portrayal of Hindu gods without seeing the deeper complexity of the story and appreciating its sweep in what is not a long book. "

Obviously, being Indian, I can see it only from and Indian (not Hindu or Buddhist) perspective: that is the point of the last paragraph of the review.

I do not think Zelazny intended this novel as an allegory of Buddhism vs Hinduism (if he did, he has failed miserably). It is more of "Prometheus vs Zeus", the Hero who moves against the Gods. Actually, the whole idea of Buddhism vs Hinduism as understood in the West is incorrect, IMO. The Buddha's concepts took off from Kapila's Sankhya philosophy and the Upanishads, and the religions are not opposing forces as is usually portrayed. One is a refinement on the other.

It is not as much the portrayal of Hindu Gods that irked me, but the potential opportunities he wasted even after having such a colourful team of characters.


Vladimir Stamenov So refreshing to see such a great and mature review from someone that just says "it's good if you don't know the stuff and it's not for me" rather than blame the book or the author. I'm reading it at the moment and am captivated but I am aware that thsi has to do with my complete lack of knowledge in Hindu myth (I only know Shiva as destruction :D ). It's till a great book though, both in language and ideas. But I wonder, could someone reccommend some book which tells stories from Hindu myth in a concise and prose-like manner? Because I have of course heard of the Vedas and other "sagas", but I don't think I could appreciate them.


Nandakishore Varma Vladimir,

We Indians are so rich in Gods (330 million of them!) and myth that it is impossible to point to a certain book - we have eighteen Puranas (myths) and eighteen Upa-Puranas (one may call them "sub-myths"). I have not read any of them: my knowledge is solely from my background, and reading of adaptations at various stages of my life.

For anyone wanting a grounding in Hindu mythology, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are a must-read: so is the Bhagavatha, the story of Krishna. I do not know of a single resource which details all the myths, unfortunately. :(


Vladimir Stamenov Thanks, maybe I will check them out some time. :) I finished the book, it was qutie good though maybe a bit more closure at the end would have worked well. On the other hand, the vagueness and sense of someone telling a legend works well too.


Ankit Lal This is a story. The gods in the book are not real gods hence to portray Krishna as a lecher is to see it ass forwards. Its a lecher who has taken the form of Krishna because Krishna was the god easiest for him to reach his objectives with his raw allure. Bare bones analysis woudl reveal almost every story is nothing but a journey of the dispossesed to a realm of understanding and achievement.


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