The book that Argo forgot: SF Classic Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light

Gautham Shenoy March 10, 2017 9 min

Where does one begin to write about one of the finest and most enduringly popular SF novels ever written? By speaking about how it influenced the modern classic American Gods, whose author Neil Gaiman counts Lord of Light as one of his favourite books, as does George RR Martin? That it’s perhaps one of the most creatively twisted sci-fi adaptations of Indian mythology? That its cloaking of science fiction-as-fantasy or rather its magic-underpinned-by-technology is a great example of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third law, that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’? About how it uses science fiction to talk about religion and revolution, how absolute power corrupts absolutely, about freedom, the class system, suffering, social inequality, conflict and gender fluidity?

Perhaps we should just begin with this 1968 Hugo Award winning book’s own opening lines – it happens to be one of the best opening lines in any book, sci-fi or otherwise. This is how Lord of Light starts:

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha — and the  — atman, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god.

Covers of three different editions of Roger Zelany’s Lord of Light. One shows various motifs from Indian myth, another the Buddha, while one oddly only shows Krishna, who in the book is a minor character and a miscast god.

Written in the trademark style of Roger Zelazny, which combines ancient myth and modern technology, placing gods in a modern context, and exploring human psychology, philosophy and political systems with crisp dialogue — all in a lovely melange of symbolism, aphorism, anachronism, poetry and humour – Lord of Light tells the action-filled story of Sam and his rebellion against the gods. And if that wasn’t enough, the book abounds in twists, turns, intrigue, sin, back-stabbing, betrayal and many a battle.

A little bit of background here. Eons ago, the spaceship Star of India carrying human colonists from Urath (the long-dead and now-vanished Earth) land on a distant alien planet populated by hostile beings of energy. To survive, to defeat the indigenous creatures and to be able to colonise the planet successfully, the crew augment themselves with chemicals, genetic engineering, and technology to mutate themselves into stronger, powerful and immortal beings, and in the process take on specific attributes for themselves and set themselves up as gods modelled on the Hindu pantheon. Thus we have the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; the death god Yama who is also the creator of the fearsome technology and weapons that the gods wield; Kali, the goddess of destruction; Kubera, who is one of the Lokapalas or guardians; and Ratri, the goddess of the night. And yes, there is also Nirriti (nee Renfrew, the spaceship’s chaplain) who as a staunch Christian is disgusted by all this Hinduism plots to conquer and convert the planet with an army of zombies. Yes, this book has it all (I did say it was creatively twisted!)

These people-who-became-gods, over time, control everything on the planet, subjugating the planet’s population — progeny of their own and the passengers of the spaceship — expecting nothing more than subservience and absolute obedience to their rules. Heaven is nothing but the city in which these gods revel high above in the mountains and hell is nothing but the place in which the original inhabitants, the Raksasha – now considered demons – are bound and caged starting with their leader Taraka. The gods are immortal because of a technique of mind transfer, where they transfer their atman from their old bodies into new, with their powers intact.

It is this reincarnation technology – that these gods control and keep to themselves, apart from all the other tech of course – that gives them the power over the people. For the Law of Karma in this world is nothing but this: follow the rules and after you die, you will get reborn in a healthy human body of your choice. Displease the gods, and your new body may have genetic defects and physical handicaps, just punishment of course. Commit a crime against the order and you’ll see yourself reincarnated as an animal. As simple as that.

Three more covers of Lord of Light, two of which show a Buddha-like figure, while the SF Masterworks edition takes the title quite literally in its cover art.

Only one man, one of  The First, like the gods, decides to stand against them. Over many lifetimes, he has been known by many names – Kalkin, Siddhartha, Maitreya, Manjusri, Tathagatha, Buddha, and who is now Mahasamatman, Binder of Demons, Lord of Light. He personally prefers the name Sam. Sam is an Accelerationist, a person who believes that technology and knowledge must be freely available to all the people, and so sets in motion the process that leads to the birth of Buddhism, much to the chagrin of the other gods who won’t tolerate such culture-jamming tactics. In this sense Sam is like Prometheus who – in Greek myth – stole fire that the gods so jealously guarded and gave it to humankind. And like Prometheus, Sam shall face the wrath of the gods. The books then is the story of Sam’s rebellion, the birth of Buddhism (truly modelled on the very real Indian history of those times), how it comes to be and what happens next.

The last two paragraphs are just the backstory, not the whole story by any stretch nor do they even contain spoilers. The real fun is in the reading, and if it does get challenging, stick with it and you will be rewarded. So I shall say no more about the story except that it’s tightly plotted and gallops along at an even pace most of the time and canters in parts. The fights and battles are of course the most exhilarating parts, brilliantly described and action-filled, almost choreographed like a Peter Jackson epic battle. And to balance it, you also have musings on philosophy and of course, religion.

Lord of Light also contains one of the most famous puns in science fiction history (about halfway into Chapter 2; look out for it!). And speaking of chapters, it would be more fitting to think of them as episodes arranged in a more or less chronological sequence of events, with each episode an individual tale that come together to form a whole as the story progresses. Each episode is preceded by short intros that give context and background to that particular chapter (hot tip: the intros will be more enjoyable if you have a case of Freemanic Paracusia, a ‘disorder’ wherein you hear everything you read in the comforting voice of Morgan Freeman).

And all of this in just about 250 satisfying pages (at least in the 1971 Panther Books edition).

Two of Jack Kirby’s concept art for the Lord of Light project. Left: Royal Chambers of Brahma. Right: Pavilions of Joy. ©Barry Ira Geller. Via lordoflight.com

So if this book is so awesome, why wasn’t it made into a movie? It was, and called Argo. But, not really. And therein lies an interesting story.

In the mid-70s, comic book fan and lover of science fiction Barry Ira Gellar bought the movie rights to Lord of Light and wrote a complete screenplay based on it, along with a detailed script treatment. His plan was to use the sets of the movie as permanent structures that form the core of a SF-themed park called Science Fiction Land; a project that included luminaries such as the make-up wizard behind Planet of the Apes, John Chambers, author Ray Bradbury, the architect, inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller, and most of all, the king of comics, the legendary artist Jack Kirby who created the illustrations for all the characters, the locations and an overall visual world for the film. Unfortunately the project got embroiled in all kinds of legal tangles and charges of fraud and embezzlement and was abandoned.

The Argo connection

The script, along with Kirby’s illustrations, would lie in development hell till 1979 when some Iranian activists would storm the US embassy in Tehran during the Iranian Revolution and take the embassy staff hostage; all except for six people, who’d escaped and found shelter in the home of the Canadian ambassador, and had to be exfiltrated. Yes, this is the true story that the Ben Affleck movie Argo is based on. And when CIA agent Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) contacted John Chambers to identify a movie script they could use as cover (positioning himself and the other people from the US embassy as location scouts for a science fiction film in development), Chambers directed him to a project he’d worked on earlier. You guessed it, Lord of Light!

It was the Lord of Light script by Gellar that Mendez used, along with Jack Kirby’s illustrations, as a cover for himself and the six people. The Lord of Light movie – a name that the CIA changed to Argo – and its Indian elements and need for exotic locations, all fitted in well and supported their story. But just like in Affleck’s version the Canadians don’t do much – when in reality, the operation is called the ‘Canadian Caper’ for a reason – there is no mention of Gellar, Kirby, or Lord of Light in Argo the film.

Well, that’s Hollywood and its ‘based-on-a-true-story’ films for you.

A contest, and a giveaway!

But in more cheerful news, the #NWWonFD contest is back, and this time we’re giving away not one, but two copies of the SF Masterworks edition of this book! Because Lord of Light is two good .

Given what you read above, about how, in Lord of Light, reincarnation/rebirth and the Law of Karma are underpinned by technology, more specifically mind-transfer tech, we’d like to hear how you would – in the same vein – science-fictionally describe or explain any other divine rule, belief or practice of your choice. Could be from any religion/faith. Do submit your entries in the comments sections below before Thursday, March 16. You can also tweet to us with the hashtag #NWWonFD or leave a note on the FactorDaily Facebook page.

I wish you all the best! And Happy reading. I’ll see you next Friday with another edition of New Worlds Weekly, only on FactorDaily. Live long and prosper.

PS: Now you too, dear reader, know that the original Lord of Light was not R’hllor from A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones on TV), but Sam. Given that George RR Martin was a good friend of Roger Zelazny, perhaps we can confidently presume that R’hllor’s epithet was GRRM’s nod to a book he considers to be one of the five best SF novels ever written.

Lead Image: Lord of Light Concept art by Jack Kirby, titled ‘Chambers of Brahma’. Originally in B&W, coloured by artist Mark Englert. ©Barry Ira Geller Productions/Big Films Inc.