Book review: Roger Zelazny’s ‘Lord of Light’

I hated this book. And not just this one. This book has a style that I cannot stand that occurs in many other books, such as ‘Thus spake Zarathustra’ and the collected works of Herman Hesse, but most notably ‘Sidhartha’ and ‘Demian’.

Normally this wouldn’t matter. I read a bit (or at least I try to) and I don’t like a fair amount of what I read. But recently I helped an acquaintance here edit some short stories. These stories were amateurish, and made for vague writing that I don’t really care for. But the vagueness occurred again this book. I prompted me to but together a review, and to talk a little about what isn’t vague, as well as what is. I imagine that this is a controversial opinion, particularly considering how popular this book is. In fact, it is considered a corner stone of the genre., but I think I have a safe argument. So let the fun begin.

This quote is just to establish that I understand that all texts are, by necessity, vague. This is by no means my first rodeo in semiotics. A book shouldn’t say everything, as that would overload the reader. But it must give something, and that something most have a referent the reader understands. However, some unscrupulous writers circumvent this by stringing words together and letting the reader assume whatever the hell they want. Some readers, for reasons I cannot fathom, consider this kind of writing deep, engaging, or interesting.

Let’s take a closer look (emphasis my own)

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.

This is from the first page of Lord of Light. I can forgive the absurd prayer machine from the previous line, as this is meant to be science-fiction. But I cannot be so generous as to forgive them high-frequency. Here I am already confused. Frequency of what? Frequency is a measure of how often something occurs. It doesn’t make much sense in this sentence. If the prayers were occurring at a high frequency, the sentence ‘Millions of prayers were being received every second’ would make much more sense.

Ok, even I recognize that I am being an asshole here. The word frequency has come to have a bastardized meaning, something akin to power. It is meant to have notes of electricity. I just expect a little more of my sci-fi. Ok, i’ll forgive it.

But we move onto the really fun part. I don’t know what ‘that golden cloud’ is. I am then given some information to help ground it. I know that it circles the entire world, and looks like a bronze rainbow. So, with this I am imagining some kind of superstructure that wraps around the planet, as do Jupiter rings. Setting aside the impossibility of such a structure from an engineering point of view, I am curious to why anyone would call something that is bronze in color golden, or why one would call it a cloud if it circles the planet, as clouds clearly don’t. But what really throws me off is the bit about it being the place where the red sun becomes orange at midday. Now, if there were a giant ring structure around the earth then yes it would discolor the sun. But when and if this would happen would be dependent on where on the planet the observer was standing. It wouldn’t necessarily happen at noon.

Let’s try another.

it was not doubted that the Gods of the City would have him to die the real death were they to learn

This one really chaps my ass, as it shows the kind of flawed reasoning that often comes in religion and religious texts. Death is totalizing. It is the only thing about it that is significant. You can’t non-sarcastically but an adverb on ‘dead’ to modify it, because dead is dead is dead. It is pointless to say something is ‘totally dead’, as that would imply that something out there is ‘kinda dead’. It is pointless to talk about a ‘real death’ because there is no ‘fake death’ to compare it to.

He was known to be wiser even than the Lord Kubera in the ways of the Universal Fire.

I have no idea what the universal fire is. I have no idea. I have no idea how to give this information weight. I have no idea what it is mean to say about Yama, or for that matter Lord Kubera. Is the Universal Fire a book? A religion? A science? The problem is not only that I don’t know, but that from the text I am reading, there is no way to know. My possible courses of action is either to make some kind of assumption, keep the information in limbo until it is clarified, or forget about and not care.

and the giant metal lotus he had set atop the monastery roof turned and turned in its sockets.

This is window dressing. It gives you an image, an the image is ‘cool’ in that way that reeks of orientalism and I generally have no respect for. So bloody what? Why should I, or anyone else, care that this guy has a metal lotus that spins? I could have one on my roof, as could anyone really. What does it say about the character, or the plot? For that matter, what if Dr. Evil had one? That last bit wasn’t a stupid joke; it is meant to deliver a point that giant spinning metal loti (don’t know the plural) reveal absolutely nothing  of any worth.

As for this last point I want to say something else. I am all for science-fiction as aesthetic, but I think the aesthetic has to lead to a point. In truly masterful writers like Samuel R Delany, it feels like every detail is there for a reason. Here, I don’t think it is the case. It feels like window dressing, specifically the kind that came about in the 1960’s where everyone smoked a little too much pot, thought that everything was related to everything else, and punctuated sentences with useless words like groovy.

I could go on and on about why this book is awful, but I am hoping to keep these posts a bit shorter. I would like to point out that these comments came from about one page of text.

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