Lord of Light

Roger Zelazny (1937-1995) wrote some excellent, unconventional science fiction and fantasy stories. During the past few years I've been scanning the shelves at the used-book sale for one in particular: Lord of Light. I read it as a teenager when it came out in 1967. Last month I found a copy.

The verdict, upon re-reading after 4 decades? Lord of Light holds up fairly well. It's no literary masterpiece, major plot improbabilities distract, and of-its-time sexism occasionally creeps in. And it suffers from a weakness that is shared by J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and other novels that reach high: if powerful god-like beings exist, why bother with human-scale battles? That's like mustering an army of kittens to fight before launching the thermonuclear missiles. The scales of destruction are too disparate.

But setting all that aside, Zelazny's prose includes many fine bits, some of which still echo in my memory—arch humor and poetic passages that go beyond pretty. For instance, in Chapter Two's painting of a daybreak:

He seated himself upon a crate at the foot of a pier. The dawn came to lift the darkness from the world; and he watched the ships stirring with the tide, empty of sail, webbed with cables, prows carved with monster or maiden. His every visit to Mahartha brought him again to the harbor for a little while.

Morning's pink parasol opened above the tangled hair of the clouds, and cool breezes crossed the docks. Scavenger birds uttered hoarse cries as they darted about loop-windowed towers, then swooped across the waters of the bay.

He watched a ship put out to sea, tentlike vanes of canvas growing to high peaks and swelling in the salt air. Aboard other ships, secure in their anchorage, there was movement now, as crews made ready to load or unload cargoes of incense, coral, oil and all kinds of fabrics, as well as metals, cattle, hardwoods and spices. He smelled the smells of commerce and listened to the cursing of sailors, both of which he admired: the former, as it reeked of wealth, and the latter because it combined his two other chief preoccupations, those being theology and anatomy.

And at the beginning of Chapter Four, another soaring description:

Hellwell lies at the top of the world and it leads down to its roots.

It is probably as old as the world itself; and if it is not, it should be, because it looks as if it were.

It begins with a doorway. There is a huge, burnished metal door, erected by the First, that is heavy as sin, three times the height of a man and half that distance in width. It is a full cubit thick and bears a head-sized ring of brass, a complicated pressure-plate lock and an inscription that reads, roughly, "Go away. This is not a place to be. If you do try to enter here, you will fail and also be cursed. If somehow you succeed, then do not complain that you entered unwarned, nor bother us with your deathbed prayers." Signed, "The Gods."

It is set near the peak of a very high mountain named Channa, in the midst of a region of very high mountains called the Ratnagaris. In that place there is always snow upon the ground, and rainbows ride like fur on the backs of icicles, which sprout about the frozen caps of cliffs. The air is as sharp as a sword. The sky is bright as the eye of a cat.

(cf. HinduVsBuddhist (2008-01-01), ...) - ^z - 2010-04-12

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