Lord of Light

A couple weeks ago I reread Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, a favorite novel from my memory of 1967 by listening to the new audio book edition from Audible Frontiers.  For days afterward, I hammered out an ever wordier review that I never could finish because what I kept striving to say became ever more complex and out of my grasp.  So welcome to try number two.

Here’s my problem.  Forty-one years ago I read Lord of Light and thought it deserved its book of the year, 1968 Hugo Award, that made Zelazny, as well as Samuel R. Delany, the new comets streaking across the science fictional sky.  Lord of Light took a traditional idea of colonizing a new world and jazzed it up by blending in Hindu mythology.  It was colorful, had lots of vivid scenes, and Zelazny deserved high praise for trying to do something new and break out of John W. Campbell’s vision of space opera.

Fast forward to our future and I read Lord of Light again.  It’s not the same book – well, I’m not the same reader, so the exact same book came out different this time.  In the 1960s, New Wave science fiction felt sophisticated compared to 1930s and 1940s classic science fiction, but looking back now, Lord of Light seems primitive and crude, like The Skylark of Space felt when I read it around the same time I read Lord of Light the first time.  Lord of Light is still clever and somewhat vivid, but now I feel like Zelazny didn’t spend enough time developing his ambitious fantasy.

The idea of tech savvy first colonists setting themselves up as gods and enslaving their descendants in a pre-tech world is a far out concept, although I don’t know what Freud would have done with the idea.  The idea is so anti-science fictional that’s it’s amazing to think that it won the Hugo that year, now that I’m looking backwards.

The trouble with this contrived plot is it has no philosophical weight, a quality that makes science fiction novels have lasting power.  That, and the fact that the characterization is so minimal that it has zero emotional impact.  There are people that still love this story, but I’m not one of them.  So, do I savage a classic novel of my beloved genre, or do I promote it as a worthy read for historical purposes?  In my first attempt to review this story I struggled to find all it’s positive aspects and compare them to great SF/F that’s been written since then.  But the more I work to find comparisons, the more I realized that the field of writing has evolved, even for the lowly science fiction genre, leaving Lord of Light shipwrecked in the past.

I’m currently reading The Little Book by Selden Edwards, a literary time travel novel that is so well written, so imaginative, so deep in characterization that it makes the once dazzling Lord of Light fizzle.  I also listened to Heinlein’s 1951 Starman Jones just after Lord of Light and it still shines.  Why?  Heinlein had great science fictional ideas, but he also had characterization and good page turning plotting, at least in the 1950s.  Lord of Light would make a great comic book – it has colorful scenes, super heroes and the depth of characterization that matches the average DC or Marvel comic.

I know my science fiction friends think I love to make inflammatory statements like the one I’m about to make, but I don’t.  Writers outside of the science fiction and fantasy genre are taking science fictional concepts and writing much better stories than the guys inside of the genre.  Look how Michael Chabon swept our awards this year.  Read The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Life of Pi, Never Let Me Go, The Sparrow, His Dark Materials, Cloud Atlas, and other outsider novels that build their stories around our fantastic themes.

Part of Zelazny’s failure is he wrote for a genre where he had to hammer out the books.  If he had worked on Lord of Light with the same time and applied study as J. R. R. Tolkien did for his books, Lord of Light would be a fantastic SF classic.  Instead it’s basically a foundation for a great SF novel. The forty-one years since 1967 has up the ante on what it takes to write a stand-out SF novel.  If a young new writer took Zelazny’s idea and made it into a genuine statement about reality, space exploration and added real characterization she would be a new comet blazing across our science fiction skies.

To understand what I mean, read Lord of Light and imagine how it would be filmed.  It might have much of the feel of the recent Transformers, Ironman and Hellboy movies.  That’s okay if all you want is an ephemeral summer blockbuster that will seem silly in forty years.  I just finished reading Edith Wharton’s An Age of Innocence (1920) and I’m now reading The House of Mirth (1905), and these books have lasting power.  To last, you have to have something to say, not preaching like later Heinlein, but careful observations about our reality.  Wharton is brilliant at observing communication between men and women. 

All Zelazny did was take ancient super heroes, now called Hindu gods, and created a science fictional setting to justify their returned existence, which essentially is what every super hero comic does.  They are flashy action myths that offer no hidden parables.  We assume Sam is the good guy and the gods of this planet’s heaven are the bad guys, but that was never justified by skillful writing.  Lord of Light was written just as the the 1960s was about to peak in its social transformations, and Zelazny fails to even try to tie it in – what a wasted opportunity.

Now imagine writing a philosophical novel that realistically tries to capture what it’s like to become godlike.  Let’s say in the future we have access to virtual worlds where artificial beings dwell, but we don’t want them to know about our world.  This has all kinds of philosophical possibilities.  Then imagine using such a setup for first person shooter wars.  How limp would that be?  That’s sort of what Zelazny did.

Zelazny faintly hints at greater possibilities in wayward places within Lord of Light, but his plot is so thin about overthrowing heaven that we never feel that that it goes beyond setting up battle scenes.

I wish I could write fiction.  This is an exciting time to be a writer.  Writing techniques have evolved to dizzy heights of sophistication.  Yes, I urge you to listen to the new edition of Lord of Light to see why 1967 science fiction was so exciting then, but don’t accept it as a great novel, instead imagine how to retool it with modern writing technology.

I think science fiction has been coasting for years, with the exciting new Turks coming from outside of the field.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s lot of sense of wonder left in science fiction, at least I hope there is, but the genre tends to be a record label repacking old hits rather than putting time and money into finding new forms of music.  I don’t read many new novels from within the genre any more, but I still try to read a certain number of novellas, novelettes and short stories from the best-of anthologies every year. 

There’s no lack of far out ideas.  What’s needed is a New Wave of story telling techniques.  In this decade, the new Zelaznys and Delanys are coming from outside of the genre, so SF isn’t getting the credit.  To the larger outside world, only a tiny handful of true SF novels have caught the attention of their bigger pond.  The most famous is Ender’s Game.  Novels like Neuromancer and Snow Crash are on the distant radar of a few non-science fiction readers, but for the most part, the world of science fiction is as isolated as the star writers known to MFA majors.

The place to be are those tables in bookstores, near the front door, that display the trade paperbacks of titles that stay on them for months, if not years – the books that all the hardcore bookworms read.  The ones that get produced as audio books, studied by book clubs and made into movies.  These are the books that surf the cresting wave of popular literature.  SF and fantasy books are seldom seen on these tables, and that’s because the SF/F/H genre writers aren’t using the latest writing techniques to tell their stories.

It’s not about literary quality, not in the academic sense.  It’s why books like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series are stacked on floor all around these tables.  I know my science fiction fans think I keep bashing the genre, but I’m trying to be helpful.  Twilight succeeds where other fantasy books fail because most genre books are tone deaf to emotion and characterization.  Lord of Light will never be a classic outside of it’s tiny puddle because it measures almost absolute zip at expressing emotion warmth, and barely climbs to the level of one-dimension for its characters.

I’m not trying to be nasty here, but I know it sounds like it. If you’ve never read any good novels, and spent your life reading within the science fiction genre, then Lord of Light will feel brilliant.  Compared to E. E. Doc Smith, Edmund Hamilton and most of the other SF up to the 1960s, it is.  In terms of storytelling plotting, it doesn’t even get up to average Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter novel.  Where Lord of Light shines is fantastic ideas.  Science fiction is a literature of fantastic ideas.  What I want to see are SF novels that mix great ideas with good story telling.  Can you imagine the success of SF if science fictional ideas could be conveyed with the storytelling techniques of J. K. Rowling?