conceptual fiction
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
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I recently read about a gathering of experts who specialize in the study
of international relations. The purpose of the conference was to
explore why religious beliefs have seldom been taken into account in
academic work on how nations deal with each
other. Given recent history, this would seem
to be a serious oversight, huh? Yet readers of
Roger Zelazny’s
Lord of Light would never have
made that mistake. They would know that every
good conflict requires a powerful godhead.

This is a strange and fascinating book. How to
describe it? Imagine Edith Hamilton's
but with much better weapons. Better, yet, take a
large helping of Joseph Campbell’s re-working of
mythic heroes into contemporary role models.
Then add the razzle-dazzle of Marvel comic
books, and those great teams of super-heroes,
such as the Fantastic Four or X-Men. Mix in plenty of James Bond type
gadgets. Finally spice it up with large handfuls of mysticism and Eastern
spirituality. What you end up with is
Lord of Light.

The plot is simple enough. A group of tough characters have acquired
some radical technology, and they use it to set themselves up on a
colonized planet as quasi-deities modeled on the divine figures of
Hinduism. But one breaks away, reinventing himself as a Buddhist
alternative, taking on the guise of Siddhartha, and thus undermining
the more rough-and-tumble philosophy of his rivals.

The book opens: “His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he
was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however,
and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never
claimed not to be a god.” Sam the Maybe God? Even from this opening
gambit, you can detect the sweet mixture of high and low that
characterizes Zelazny’s clever concoction. Like other sci-fi books from
this same era—
A Canticle for Leibowitz, Dune, The Left Hand of
Darkness, A Case of ConscienceLord of Light shows that sometimes
the most fanciful settings can serve as excellent springboards for
looking at the peculiar role of belief systems in society.

Yet this is much more than a battle of theologies. In
Lord of Light, you
are only as strong as your technology, and each of the ruling deities has
enough military hardware to take on an army single-handedly. They
also occasionally enter into military pacts with
an assortment of odd and disturbing characters,
such as demons or zombies. In fact, if this book
hadn’t been published in 1967—winning a Hugo
award the following year—you would swear that
the author had grown up playing modern-day
video games.

This whole affair could come across as rather
corny, but Zelazny is a very deft writer, and
takes just the right tone – fabulistic with only
a touch of cynicism – to give his story wings.
And he throws it surprising twists and turns,
not typical of the sci-fi genre. Some thirty
pages into the book he unleashes a lengthy
spiritual discourse, from the mouth of Siddhartha, that works both on
the level of ideological manipulation and religious philosophy. By this
point, the reader knows that
Lord of Light will not be restricted by the
conventions of pulp fiction narratives. Zelazny also plays around with
the chronology of his tale, and carefully withholds many key elements
of the story until late in the game. These structural devices, along with
a heavy dose of borrowings from Eastern mystical literature (and often
direct quotes from spiritual works), uplift and transform a story that, in
the hands of another writer, would be a fairly conventional whizz-bang
adventure tale.

A writer of spy novels once shared with me an important rule of his
genre: “When you have a fight scene, make sure it goes on for a long
time.”  I laughed when I first heard it, but I now recognize the wisdom
of his advice.  Certainly Zelazny has learned the lesson well. When our
author needs fisticuffs, he delivers them in grand fashion.  His battles
are carefully choreographed, and unfold with both drama and elegance.
A fight between Lord Yama and Rild in the first half of the book
develops over eight pages, and stands out as one of the best
descriptions of one-on-one combat I have read anywhere.

There is a strange historical epilogue to this story. In 1979, a $50
million film version of
Lord of Light was announced. The plan to make
a movie collapsed due to various legal issues, but the CIA acquired
some set designs and parts of the script, and used them to set up a cover
for a team sent to Tehran—ostensibly scouting shooting locations, but
really to help rescue six members of the US embassy staff who had
narrowly missed being held prisoner during the Iranian hostage crisis
because they had been out of the building at the time. These half-dozen
people were in hiding in the Canadian embassy, and the
Lord of Light
pretext contributed to the CIA bring them safely out of the country.

An uplifting anecdote, certainly . . . but I would still like to see this book
made into a real motion picture. Certainly there are plenty of other
action-packed tales waiting for translation to the silver screen, but few
bring with them the ecumenical smorgasbord of contrasting ideologies
and concepts that the author draws on for this fine novel. Perhaps the
mythological deities of yore were the prototypes for all later
superheroes.  Despite this illustrious lineage, no novelist has latched on
to the dramatic potential of the intersection of spirituality and slickly-
paced adventure with more fervor than Roger Zelazny.
Roger Zelazny
Lord of Light

by Roger Zelazny
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
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Fractious Fiction
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Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
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More Words, Deeper Hole
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