His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the maha- and -atman , however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god.
Published in the midst of the Psychadelic Era, Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light is an epic tale that dances on the line between Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is not as trippy, perhaps, as his Amber series; but it creates an unusual world, immersed in Eastern mysticism and Hindu Mythology.
It has been fifty years since the soul of the Boddhisatva ascended to Nirvana. Still, his followers and his friends pray for his return. A group of his saffron-robed followers are staying in a monastary of Ratri, goddess of the Night, tucked away at the foot of a mountain.
It was in the days of the rains that their prayers went up, not from the fingering of knotted prayer cords or the spinning of prayer wheels, but from the great pray-machine in the monastary of Ratri, the goddess of the Night.
The high-frequency prayers were directed upward through the atmosphere and out beyond it, passing into that golden cloud called the Bridge of the Gods, which circles the entire world, is seen as a bronze rainbow at night and is the place where the red sun becomes orange at midday.
From the very beginning, we get this mixture of myth and tech; the language is that of legend and mythology, but details pop up which tell us we are seeing a science fiction story through a mythological veil.
The story is actually set on an alien planet, that was colonized long ago, (how long? The text is vague and rather inconsistant about that point), by settlers from Old Uratha. Somehow -- and once again, the story is vague about how this came to be -- some members of the original crew gained powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men. At first, they used these powers to set about taming the wild and dangerous planet. Those were wild and exciting times full of adventures which have long since passed into myth. Over time, however, those with powers set themselves over the colonists without them, and adopted the titles and personnae of gods selected from the Hindu pantheon. The gods kept all the technology for themselves, most particularly the mind-transfer technology which allowed them to transfer their consciousness into cloned bodies, becoming in effect a technological version of reincarnation.
One of their number, Sam, also known as Kalkin and the Binder, (and nearly a dozen other names; sometimes it's hard to keep them straight), turned against the gods, and to fight them, revived the teachings of an ancient philosopher of Old Uratha, taking on the role of the Buddha. But the gods defeated him, and imprisoned him by transmitting his soul into the great magnetic belt surrounding the planet.
Lord Yama is the god of Death and was once the artificer of the gods; creator of incredible wonders of technology. He was also Sam's implacable enemy, until circumstances brought them both to the same side. Now he has built a device, hidden in Ratri's monastary, to draw Sam's atman back to the human world.
He is aided by Ratri, who had aided Sam in his earlier campaign and had been punished by the other gods; she is only permitted to reincarnate into old, weak bodies which are incapable of manifesting her full powers. She can raise her Aspect -- that is, take on a physical form of power, in her case that of an incredibly beautiful woman -- but only for short periods; and her ability to wield her Attributes -- that is, her powers -- is greatly diminished. She risks the further displeasure of Heaven by helping Yama because she knows Sam is their only hope of defeating them.
Tak is another friend of Sam's who has faced the displeasure of the gods. Formerly the Chief Archivist of Heaven, he has been punished to ever walk the earth in the form of an ape. He is shrewd and observant; and even his friends tend to underestimate him.
After sending up many kilowatts of prayer through the great metal lotus he constructed on the monastary's roof, Yama has finally succeeded. He has captured Sam's atman, dragging it by electro-magnetic force out of Nirvana, and transferred it to the body prepared to house it. At first, Sam seems confused and disoriented. He is not happy to have returned to physical existance. "Why could you not have left me as I was, in the sea of being?" he asks.
"Because a world has need of your humility, your piety, your great teaching and your Machiavellian scheming," Yama replies.
Although Sam's body is in good physical condition, Yama worries about the state of his mind. His half century in Nirvana has changed him. Tak observes Sam sitting and looking at a seed, and notices that he is squinting at it. That is not the way he once taught one should regard nature. "He does not meditate, seeking with in the object that which leads to the release of the subject," Tak says. That is the way to Enlightenment. Now Sam seeks to do the reverse. "He tries once more to wrap himself within the fabric of Maya, the illusion of the world."
Yama and his friends resolve to wean him away from ascetism by providing him with physical stimulation; good food, "a courtesan or three", and long walks in the outdoors. And it seems to be working. But still Yama worries, because he fear the gods may have noticed his experiments and may investigate. And because now Sam has taken to going off on his own.
One day, Tak follows Sam on one of his rambles and comes across Sam conferring with a hideous monster and surrounded by what look like living thunderbolts. Sam and the monster are playing dice.
Afterwards, Yama explains to Tak that what he saw was not actually a demon; and here is one of my favorite passages; the one that in my opinion tips the novel into the Science Fiction side rather than fantasy:
"If by 'demon' you mean a malefic, supernatural creature, possessed of great powers, life span and the ability to temporarily assume any shape -- then the answer is no. This is the generally accepted definition, but it is untrue in one respect. ... It is not a supernatural creature."
Tak does not see what difference this makes, but Yama continues:
"Ah, but it makes a great deal of difference, you see. It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy -- it is a matter of essence. The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom, and the unknown. Some do bow int that final direction . Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unkonwn, but never to the unknowable."
Yama goes on to explain that the Rakshasa were the original natives of the planet, creatures of pure energy. They once had corporeal forms like humans. "Their quest for personal immortality, however, led them along a different path from that which Man followed." Sam was the one who defeated the Rakshasa, using his power of electromagnetic manipualtion to bind their energy-forms into magnetic bottles. Much later, though, he released some as part of his campaign against Heaven. Now, Sam was going off to gamble with them, putting his own body up as stakes. "It must have been the only way he could call upon his life-will, to bind him again to his task," Yama muses; "by placing himself in jeopardy, by casting his very existence with each roll of the dice."
The next day, a stranger calling himself Aram arrives at the monastary. He claims to have taken a vow of poverty and begs leave to stay the night. The beggar seems very knowledgable on the subject of philosophy, and intensely curious about the saffron-robed followers of the Buddha who are also staying at Ratri's monastary. He asks the monks if some new teacher has arisen or perhaps some old one returned, whom he might learn from.
Yama confronts the traveler. "Why do you spell your name backward, Lord of Illusion, when all your words and actions herald it before you?" The itinerant beggar is actually Mara, god of Illusion. The two gods engage in battle. Mara changes his form, several times; ultimately taking on the shape of Kali, the goddess of death and Yama's former lover; but in the end, Yama breaks the Dreamer's neck.
This makes their situation even more urgent. The battle took place in front of witnesses and and half the monastary saw a god murdered by another one. The gods possess technology to scan minds and replay memories, which is used by the Lords of Karma to judge which souls are worthy of reincarnation. It is only a matter of time before Heaven learns what happened.
It's up to Sam to persuade the monks that what they saw was different than what actually happened. It's a difficult task, and one Sam is reluctant to perform. His time at One with the Universe has made him less comfortable with sophistry than in past lives.
"Who asked you to lie about anything?" Yama says. "Quote them the Sermon on the Mount, if you wnat. Or something from the Popul Voh, or the Iliad. I don't care what you say. Just stir them a bit, soothe them a little. That's all I ask."
So Sam preaches a sermon to the assembled monks; one which encourages them to doubt their own witness of Yama's battle. He also plants the seeds of a new dualism: Beauty vs. Ugliness. "It is difficult to stir rebellion among those to whom all things are good," he explains to Yama. "If such a one does not choose to believe in good or evil, perhaps then beauty and ugliness can be made to serve him as well."
As Sam and his friends leave the monastary, they see the Thunder Chariot, a fighter jet designed by Yama for the god Shiva, passing overhead. Sam's war against the gods is entering a new phase. They board a ship bound for Khaipur, where Ratri owns another establishment; less holy than the monastary, but no less venerable; which they can use as a base.
Sailing down the river, Sam contemplates his past lives...
NEXT WEEK: Chapter 2; Sam's reminiscences begin. Siddhartha comes to town to buy a new body; but the world has changed. He chats with an old friend, a new deity, and makes the decision to challenge Heaven.