(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Lord of Light was written at the height of Roger Zelazny’s powers and is considered to be among his finest books. It received the 1968 Hugo Award for best novel. Like his earlier novel, The Dream Master (1966), Lord of Light weaves a complex and compelling story, taking actual history and legend for its basic pattern and extrapolating outward. Although it is possible to enjoy Zelazny’s work without an in-depth knowledge of his sources, a passing familiarity with the fact and legend surrounding the historic Siddhartha may deepen the reader’s appreciation for the facility and brilliance of Zelazny’s craftsmanship.

Some primary points of similarity are that Siddhartha, like Sam, was familiar with warfare, being born into the warrior caste. Both turned away from luxury and privilege, leaving behind a wife and son. Both men were in rebellion against the propagation of misery and the oppression of the many for the benefit of the few. Sam was the Lord of Light and Siddhartha took the title Buddha, which means “the enlightened one.” The Buddha had command of the four elements. Sam commanded Taraka, king of the fiery demons; Garuda, master of the air; Dalissa, who made the waters of Vedra boil; and the earth that threatened to swallow Yama. Both heroes were possessed by demons in the bowels of the earth, and both faced their greatest personal challenges from Mara, the god of illusion. In an interesting case of cross-pollination, Zelazny’s Lord of Light has to be considered as an influence for Gore Vidal’s Kalki (1978), which takes the concept of ordinary people becoming Hindu gods out of the genre of science fiction and plants it firmly in the mainstream.

Although Lord of Light has received nearly universal praise, the work has its problems. Like many books that depend on a gimmick (placing the story of Buddha on another planet) for their impetus, the novel’s idea easily subsumes its characters. Sam’s life and motivations are templated and do not grow naturally from a clearly defined personality. The emphasis of plot over character, however, is a hallmark of classic science fiction and should not diminish Zelazny’s extraordinary achievement.