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Literature / Lord of Light

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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. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit.

Lord of Light is a 1967 Hugo Award-winning Science Fantasy novel by Roger Zelazny, famously pushing the boundaries of the genre by leaning heavily on the Fantasy aspects.

On a far-future Lost Colony, the original crew of the Colony Ship have all somehow gained psychic powers. Using these plus rigorous controls on technology, they have set themselves up as the Gods of Hindu Mythology, and absolute rulers of the world, with Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva at their head. One of the original crew—the man known as Sam—is not satisfied with this state of affairs, and decides to start a rebellion, taking the identity of Buddha.

The novel is more-or-less Science Fiction, but relies heavily on Fantasy tropes. Zelazny's follow-up novel, Creatures of Light and Darkness, is almost exactly the opposite, a Fantasy (with Egyptian Gods) full of Science Fiction tropes. Though unrelated, the two works are often considered companion pieces. Lord of Light remains one of Zelazny's most popular and respected works. It also inspired a song by Hawkwind.


A film adaption of the book featuring concept art by Jack Kirby was planned in the 1970s, but ran into significant production issues. The script was later retooled into a more original story titled Argo, which suffered similar issues. In 1980, Argo's stagnant production was co-opted by the CIA as part of an operation to rescue a group of American diplomats during the Iran Hostage Crisis; these events were later dramatized in the 2012 Ben Affleck movie of the same name.


Lord Of Light contains examples of:

  • The Ace: Yama is pretty much the best at anything he puts his mind to.
  • Ancient Astronauts: And they're human astronauts, at that: the world was colonized by the crew and passengers of a starship, long enough ago that their offworld origins have been largely forgotten by the common people.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The ending implies that Sam went on to have further adventures in the Eastern continent, with Yama probably joining him at some point.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: Yama believes that the gods have become truly divine by identifying themselves so thoroughly with a single concept, such as love, war, or death, that they become it. Sam thinks he's full of it.
  • Animorphism: Having your consciousness transferred into an animal on your next reincarnation is a serious possibility.
    • Tak is punished by being given the body of an ape.
    • Kali voluntarily takes the body of a white tiger to hunt at times.
    • Mention is made of a poet who wrote verses not to the liking of the gods. He was turned into a jack-bird.
    • When Sam comes to the city in order to talk to Brahma, he's warned that people are evaluated for their karma and can be transferred into dogs as punishment; he should be very wary of any strays spying on him. Later, one of the Masters of Karma who was threatened into helping Sam suffers the same fate, howling as he watches his human body be destroyed.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Sam's exile to Nirvana: his atman is transmitted along self-perpetuating radio-waves. He's not very pleased at being brought back.
  • Assimilation Backfire: When Taraka possesses Sam, he gets more than he bargained for, getting infected with Sam's morality and sense of guilt.
  • Back from the Dead: Sam. Twice—once when executed in Heaven after the battle in Hellwell, once when he is exiled to Nirvana (see above).
  • Bad Habits: Sam privately admits that he's merely posing as the Buddha, and doesn't believe the dogma he preaches.
  • Badass Boast:
    • When his allies question his determination, Sam answers them with this:
    "I shall tear these stars from out the heavens," he stated, "and hurl them in the faces of the gods, if this be necessary. I shall blaspheme in every Temple throughout the land. I shall take lives as a fisherman takes fish, by the net, if this be necessary. I shall mount me again up to the Celestial City, though every step be a flame or a naked sword and the way be guarded by tigers. One day will the gods look down from Heaven and see me upon the stair, bringing them the gift they fear most. That day will the new Yuga begin."
    • Also:
    "There are only demigods and men upon the field," said Death. "They are still testing our strength. There are very few who remember the full power of Kalkin."
    "The full power of Kalkin?" asked Sam. "That has never been released, oh Death. Not in all the ages of the world."
    • Yama to Mara:
  • Baleful Polymorph: The gods' favorite means of punishing dissenters in their ranks is to transfer the minds of the offenders into the bodies of animals, instead of people.
  • Barehanded Blade Block: Yama does this to a telekinetically-driven sword, while armored, and is wounded anyway.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: After his return from Nirvana, Sam gives a speech to this effect to his followers, commenting afterwards that it's very hard to get people stirred up about fighting evil when they are taught that bearing suffering is good for their karma, but that fighting for beauty is an easier sell.
  • Blood Knight / Spirited Competitor:
  • Bring My Red Jacket: Yama wears red, though he tends not to be wounded as much as the trope implies.
  • Body Backup Drive: Everyone who uses the reincarnation machines, although they use breeding tanks to provide new bodies, instead of stealing them.
  • Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": This planet is not Earth, yet the gods have given Earth names to all the flora and fauna. The sole exception is slizzards.
  • Came Back Wrong: Being transferred to a new body after the old one has died causes brain damage. This happens to Brahma/Kali in the final battle.
  • Cavalry Betrayal: Indra and the demigods to Brahma in the end.
  • Character Filibuster: Sam gets one in almost every chapter. Tak and Yama also get in one each.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder:
    • Taraka. Even though he's a demon, this always surprises Sam.
    • Ganesha, a number of times. Twice in strategy and once literally.
  • Church Militant: Nirriti the Black.
  • Clarke's Third Law: The whole idea of the book is to explore this from the perspective of the people using the sufficiently advanced technology.
  • Combat Pragmatist: It would be easier to list the characters who aren't. For example, Yama fights Rild, a man who cannot be stabbed or cut. Yama eventually kills him by dragging him into the nearby stream and holding him under.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: "The curse of the Buddha", inflicted on Taraka as a punishment for possessing Sam. It's guilt—a human feeling, unfamiliar to the Rakasha, which Taraka contracted from Sam's mind.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: For a time after returning to a physical body, Sam is in 'divine withdrawal' leaving him unwilling to engage with the world. This alarms Yama and the others, who want their old leader back.
  • Corrupt Church: When one goes to apply for reincarnation, how much money one has offered to the various temples is taken into account when determining how one reincarnates. Automated "pray-o-mats" are set up to receive these offerings. Sam fills them with slugs, either for laughs or to introduce a new sin to the locals.
  • Crystal Spires And Saris: Heaven in a nutshell.
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Nirriti the Black. It becomes clear only near the end of the novel. He remains an antagonist, though.
  • Dark Messiah: Sam, definitely.
  • Deader Than Dead: To forgo reincarnation, or be denied it, is to "die the real death".
  • Deal with the Devil: Sam cuts a deal with the Rakasha to get them on his side in his campaign against Heaven. Naturally, they attempt to renege.
  • Death Glare:
    • Yama, being the god of death, can physically affect people with his, as well as just intimidating the hell out of them. He kills Indra and Taraka with it.
    • Mara is killed by both the Death Glare and having his neck broken. Combat Pragmatist, indeed.
  • Deface of the Moon: Sam once mentions the time when Agni burned the face of all three moons with his wand built by Yama.
  • Defector from Decadence:
    • Sam, of course, as a deliberate in-universe Buddha Expy, and most of his allies qualify as well. Subverted with Yama. Sam tries to convince him that he's too good for "the crew of drunken body-changers", but ultimately, he's pushed over the edge only because he was ditched by Kali.
    • Also, Nirriti the Black. aka Reverend Renfrew, the Star of India's chaplain who vehemently disagreed with the gods using Hindu Mythology rather than Christianity. His whole plan being to use the technology he managed to bring with him to bring down the heathens, though fully aware of leading monsters himself.
  • Deity of Human Origin: This concept is explored in this one.
  • Demonic Possession: Taraka, the first and most powerful Rakasha that Sam frees possesses him for a time.
  • Dirty Old Man: Krishna, technically. Later, he becomes a straight example while stranded in an old body.
  • Distressed Dude: The book opens with rescuing Sam's mind.
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul":
    • Sam seals his fate with the gods when he dares refer to Brahma by his birth name: Madeleine.
    • He also calls Kali by her birth name - Candi
    • Averted with Jan Olvegg, who's gotten very tired with the whole deity business and prefers to use his original title as Captain of the Star of India. Also subverted with Nirriti the Black, who still calls himself Reverend Renfrew.
  • Don't Call Me "Sir": Sam has dozens of titles, but likes none of them.
  • Don't Touch It, You Idiot!: The door to Hellwell is inscribed with the words:
    "Go away. This is not a place to be. If you do try to enter here, you will fail and also be cursed. If somehow you succeed, then do not complain that you entered unwarned, nor bother us with your deathbed prayers." Signed, "The Gods."
  • Due to the Dead: Yama commands that Mara be buried with the honors befitting a god.
  • Duel to the Death: Yama vs Rild, among others. As you might expect, anyone who duels Yama tends to die horribly. Agni also challenges someone to a duel after they insult Kali, killing them horribly.
  • Earth That Was: "Lost Urath."
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Mothers of the Terrible Glow are implied to be something like that.
  • Elemental Embodiment: Sam has a ring that gives him control of a bevy of fire elementals, which he won from a Rakasha in a game of craps.
  • Emperor Scientist: All of the gods have Psychic Powers, but it is their incredible technology that allows them to claim divinity and rule.
  • Energy Being: The Rakasha. There were apparently others before them, but the gods wiped them out.
  • Enlightenment Superpowers: Essentially the source of everyone's Psychic Powers and thus their alleged godhood.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: The demonic Rakasha will betray humans at every opportunity, with the sole exception of gambling debts, which they will always honor. This isn't for any ethical reason, it's just because they love gambling and know that if they don't pay up when they lose, no one will play with them any more.
  • Everybody Smokes: Quite a number of characters share a cigarette or have a smoke, Yama even fills a pipe which he later throws at someone. It's like most Roger Zelazny stories before he gave up smoking.
  • Evil Overlord: Nirriti the Black is a subversion. A black-clad conqueror who leads legions of The Undead in his quest to Take Over the World, he is actually a Church Militant Christian, and his hordes are Organic Technology robots, not zombies.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Renfrew asks for Buddha's blessing as he dies.
  • Fake Nationality: Invoked. A number of the original ship's crew would seem not to be actually Indian. They have names like Sam, Madeleine, Renfrew, and Jan Olvegg. Apparently the colonists they carried were mostly Indian.
  • Faux Action Girl: Kali, who is the only member of the four gods who raid Hellwell to be injured, only manages to attain victory with the help of her lovers (and a Brown Note-producing scepter Yama gave her), and is handily manipulated by several parties even after becoming the new Brahma.
  • Flashback Stares: The extended flashback scene that comprises the main body of the novel is indicated by the sentence "Sam stared ahead, remembering."
  • Flipping the Bird: implied after Murugan demands a new body from Yama (the groom to be) in honor of Yama's wedding.
    The Lord of Karma made an ancient and arcane gesture behind his back.
  • Gadgeteer Genius: Yama, crossing over with Mad Scientist, and making a brief stop at Science Hero.
  • Gender Bender:
    • The reincarnation machines can allow people to switch genders. Most don't, although Kali does when she becomes the new Brahma, and Helba (the Monarch of Thieves) has switched genders with every incarnation for so long that no one can remember what gender he/she was originally.
    • Old Brahma had done it too.
  • Genius Bruiser: Yama is both the world's greatest swordsman and its greatest scientist.
  • A God Am I: The "gods" now honestly believe themselves to be divine.
  • A God, I Am Not: Except for Sam (and Jan Olvegg), see the page quote.
  • God Couple: Yama and Kali. It ends badly.
  • God-Emperor: A whole pantheon of them.
  • Gone Horribly Right: The gods permitted Nirriti to take some technology and set up a home base so they could justify their oppressive practices by pointing at an external threat to their regime. But Nirriti quickly expanded his abilities beyond what the gods anticipated and rapidly became an actual threat, rather than just a bogeyman.
  • Guile Hero: Sam has potent powers at his disposal, but prefers to triumph through trickery.
  • Heel–Face Revolving Door: Taraka.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Yama, Ratri, Tak, Kubera, Krishna, and Rild all have them.
  • Hitman with a Heart: Rild, sanctified killer-priest of Kali.
  • How Much More Can He Take?:
    • Yama and Rild have one of these fights, since Rild is Made of Iron and Yama is the world's greatest swordsman.
    • Sam and Kubera play Irish stand-down for very high stakes.
  • How We Got Here: After the In Medias Res beginning, the second chapter jumps back to give us the back story.
  • Hyper-Competent Sidekick: Mara seems to be this to Heaven, especially after Yama defects.
  • I Have Many Names: He is Mahasamatman, Siddhartha, Buddha, Kalkin, Maitreya, Tathagatha, the Enlightened One, Binder of Demons, and Lord of Light. But he prefers to drop the "Maha-" and the "-atman" and be called Sam.
  • In Love with Your Carnage:
    • Kali only loves Yama for his Aspect as god of death.
    • When she says she still loves Sam, he says that she probably never loved him, and only loves the days in which they fought together.
  • In Medias Res: Lord of Light begins with Sam’s return from Nirvana (“recovering from the peace which passeth understanding takes time”, p. 15) to which he is exiled after the Battle of Keenset at the end of chapter six.
  • Irony: In Hinduism Ganesha is an extremely nice minor god. In this book, Ganesha is the extremely Jerkass power behind the throne.
  • Javelin Thrower: Tak, who has the status of a minor god, wields the Bright Spear, a throwing weapon augmented by super-technology so that, after each use, it vibrates itself clean and then returns to the thrower's hand.
  • Jerkass Gods: Oh, yes.
  • King Bob the Nth: The colony ship that carried the original settlers to the world of the planet's setting was called the "Star of India".
  • Longevity Treatment: The so-called "Gods" have mind-transfer technology that they use to reward or punish people. Be good, and you may end up with a bright, shiny new young body. Be bad, and you may end up with the old, worn-out body left by someone who was good. Of course, the Lords of Karma may claim to be a moral authority, but they are actually corrupt, helping the advancement of those who support the existing social order and diminishing those with opposing viewpoints.
  • Lost Colony: The setting. Earth is described as "lost Urath," although whether this means the book occurs After the End, or it simply means they can't get back to Earth, is left an open question.
  • Love Triangle - Yama loves Kali. Kali (in her own unique way) loves Sam. Sam loves his cause, and apparently not much else.
  • Luke, You Are My Father / Your Son All Along / Disappeared Dad: a rather twisty example in Tak, whose original body was originally sired by Sam. Tak himself doubts that Sam knows this and in the end is proven right, and doubts that it makes any difference to either of them. When Sam is being executed for the first time, Tak decides that it does make a difference for him, and tries to save him at the last minute.
  • Man Behind the Man: Ganesha is behind the Trimurti.
  • Master of Illusion:
    • Mara.
    • Maya, a young and minor goddess of illusion, mostly introduced as The Watson so Tak can explain to her what Accelerationism is and why he later helps Sam.
  • Master Swordsman: Yama, as well as Rild.
  • Meaningful Name: Sam's titular role is a reference to Buddha's enlightenment. It's also similar to Lucifer and his revolt against Heaven in Christian mythology.
  • Medieval Stasis: The gods keep the people of their realm permanently stuck in the Middle Ages, so as to keep them from eventually being able to challenge them. The gods who disagreed with this policy were called Accelerationists, and Sam is the only one left.
  • Mind Probe: The gods use these to determine which sins their subjects have committed, and therefore what bodies they are entitled to when they reincarnate. They also use them to weed out those of their own number who might break The Masquerade.
  • Nigh-Invulnerability: Kali treats various vital areas of her "holy executioners" with chemicals that make those areas impervious to harm.
  • Not in This for Your Revolution: Yama makes it clear he's on Sam's side purely for personal reasons.
  • The Nth Doctor: In-universe example: whenever a god dies before he or she can reincarnate, another god takes their place. If no gods are available, a demigod is promoted.
  • Our Demons Are Different: The Rakasha are Energy Beings, and the original inhabitants of the planet.
  • Our Souls Are Different: The atman can be transferred from one body to another, where it begins to slowly reshape the new body to match the original, at least to the point that the old body's Psychic Powers reappear.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: Nirriti the Black commands legions of organic robots, which are referred to as zombies.
  • Path of Inspiration: The gods use Hinduism to keep the rabble in line. For that matter, Sam admits that he doesn't believe in Buddhism, and is just using it to drum up followers.
  • Physical God: The pantheon claims to be this, but are actually just well-trained psychics who can Body Surf.
  • Playing Both Sides: Ganesha, near the end.
  • Power Armor: Nirriti wears a suit that "fights for him with the strength of many."
  • Pragmatic Villainy: The gods chose to exile Sam to Nirvana — meaning beam his mental pattern out into a "magnetic cloud" — because they couldn't kill him.
  • Psychic Powers: The true source of the gods' "Aspect" and "Attributes," honed over centuries of practice. Others also possess them. For example, a group of Buddhist monks at one point waylay Yama by collectively forcing him to sleep and have a symbolic dream.
  • Psycho Electro: The Rakasha, particularly Taraka.
  • Pun: The entire purpose of the second chapter is as setup for a single pun. It's "Then the fit hit the Shan", if you were wondering.
  • Punished with Ugly: Ratri is punished by being given dumpy, elderly bodies that cannot support her using her powers.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Explicitly so.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Everybody. Some, however, are older than others, being the Lost Colony's founders.
  • Rebellious Spirit: Sam simply isn't content to be one of the world's rulers.
  • Science Hero: Yama, the Death God, becomes this after his Heel–Face Turn. He's personally responsible for almost all the advanced weaponry on both sides of the war.
  • Schizo Tech: Necessary, so that the gods can maintain their "divine" cover when dealing with their followers, who are still living in Medieval Stasis.
  • Sdrawkcab Alias: Mara, the Lord of Illusion, disguises himself as a beggar named "Aram." Yama sees through this ruse.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: When he and the rest of the First conquered the planet, Sam bound the Rakasha inside Hellwell, a specially-created cavern inside a mountain. After he decides to embark on a campaign against Heaven, he releases them to serve in his army.
  • Shapeshifter Guilt Trip: Attempted during Mara's clash with Yama, resulting in Mara's death.
  • She Is Not My Girlfriend: Rudra, about Kali.
  • Shock and Awe: Sam's power is the ability to redirect electrons, which has a surprising variety of uses, such as calling down lightning or controlling mechanical devices. It's very hard to zap him with an Energy Weapon, because he can turn it off with his mind. Also useful for controlling and binding the Rakasha - a race of Energy Beings.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Characters use the typical Zelaznian style of low slang and high erudition.
  • Stop Worshipping Me: Sam doesn't insist on it, but he certainly does nothing that would encourage it.
  • Sufficiently Advanced Alien: Actually, sufficiently advanced humans.
  • Taking the Saffron Robe: While Sam's clear intention is causing trouble, Rild feels an actual vocation to becoming a monk.
  • Talking in Your Dreams: Monks put Yama in a symbolic dream.
  • Trans Tribulations: The first Brahma was originally a woman named Madeleine, and used the advent of "reincarnation" as an opportunity to become male. He continually frets that the women in his harem may be able to sense that he is "naturally" female.
  • Trickster Archetype: Sam is a classic.
  • Trust Password: Sam reintroduces himself to Jan Olvegg by reciting the first line from the chorus of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary".
  • The Unfettered: Sam gets a speech where he explains he will do absolutely anything whatsoever to overthrow the yoke of the gods over the people of the planet. In the end he is even prepared to ally with the gods in order to achieve this goal.
  • Unwanted Revival: When Sam is brought back from Nirvana, he is pissed that they took 'the ultimate experience' from him. He spends the next several weeks in 'divine withdrawal' leading to him spending a lot of time in quiet contemplation and refusing to engage with the world. Yama, Tak, and Ratri end up scratching their heads trying to find a way to get the former revolutionary leader back into the game.
  • Vibroweapon: The Bright Spear, which vibrates itself clean of gore.
  • Victory Is Boring: Kali/Brahma has this reaction after Sam's death, apparently, as she is willing to switch sides just to keep the conflict going.
  • Warrior Monk: Rild, both before and after his conversion to Buddhism.
  • Woman Scorned:
  • The World Is Not Ready: The antagonists use this as a justification for keeping their vast technology restricted to a tiny portion of the population. The protagonist calls them on it by asking why they've been actively quashing the spontaneous invention of technology. (The excuse given is that people aren't actually inventing tech, they're just rediscovering or back-engineering it based on stories, and the antagonists want them to be original. Or something.)
  • Younger Than They Look: Yama's backstory. A Teen Genius, he caused an explosion which mortally wounded him and had to be transferred for the first time to the only body which was available: a middle-aged man.
  • You're Cute When You're Angry: Sam infuriates Brahma by saying this to him, and referring to him by his old name— Madeleine.