The scholar Brian Attebery in his book Strategies of Fantasy writes that works of science fantasy can be divided into two categories: the beautiful and the damned. No middle ground to be had, technology and the supernatural remain relative to the era, and combining them is disastrous to the point of comedy or successful to the point of being a mind-opening experience. Falling into the latter category, Lord of Light, unlike many of Zelazny’s other works of science fantasy, is a flawless blend of the archetypes of science fiction and the mythologies of Hinduism and Buddhism. The result is simply the peak of imaginative literature.
Working with Indian history, particularly the time of Buddhism’s rise to rival the teachings of Hinduism, Zelazny plays off this opposition to tell the story of Sam, the man who was a god but wasn’t. One of the original members of a spaceship crew stranded on an unknown planet, Sam rejects the totalitarian ways of the crew who have made themselves out to be gods, ruling the populace with superior technology while satiating their own desires for worship and power. Forming alliances with demons and gods, Sam brings the Hindu pantheon to life in his fight against it, the Buddhist doctrine of right to life for the masses emphasized in his attempts to crash the gods’ party. Sam does not always survive the epic battles, but then again reincarnation is just a matter of technology. The novel is divided into several sections that do not follow upon another logically; this cyclical story of Sam’s triumph must be pieced together like mythology itself, the story unable to be told another way.
In short, everything about Lord of Lightworks. The vivid imagery, the narrative structure, the dialogue, the use of Buddhist and Hindu folklore, the character motivations, the colors, the crackle, the connection to culture — everything propels Lord of Light into the highest ranks of science fantasy. Quite simply, it’s a masterpiece that anyone calling themselves a fan of speculative fiction must read.