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Sci-fi: Religion and Science in Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light

Roger Zelazny was a classic science-fiction (SF) author, writing continuously during the mid—late twentieth century. His Chronicles of Amber series is considered to be his magnum opus, although I much preferred his 1967 novel Lord of Light . This might be because I am familiar with the mythos of Hinduism and prefer it to the more fantastical Chronicles. A SF book concerned with Asian religions captured the zeitgeist of 1967 when religions from the East were gaining credence, and technology was making massive leaps. Lord of Light won the Hugo award in 1968 (sandwiched between between the Summer of Love and Woodstock) with it’s portrayal of the war against the gods. A recurring theme in Zelazny’s work is humans becoming gods; using advanced technology, a group of humans made themselves gods modeled after the Hindu pantheon. They keep the technological origins of their power hidden so they are believed to be supernatural. The leader of the resistance, a Buddha-like figure, has the knowledge that it is not magic but merely technology. Reincarnation, karma, heaven, and godly power are enabled by this technology and are used to enforce obeisance to the “gods”.

The scientific basis of this technology is only nodded to, which makes Lord of Light an example of soft-SF. Hard-SF is that which makes a point to explain the details of the fictional science. Roger Zelazny did this on purpose, specifically straddling the genres of SF and fantasy, underlining the question of what is science and what is magic. Zelazny said:

On the one hand, I attempted to provide some justifications for what went on in the way of the bizarre; on the other, I employed a style I associate with fantasy in the telling of the story. I wrote it that way on purpose, leaving some intentional ambiguity, because I wanted it to lie somewhat between both camps and not entirely in either.

The details of the technology, the precise chronology of events preceding the book, and even the setting all remain purposefully ambiguous. For example, it appears that the setting is on an another world, or a radically altered earth. People who remember the previous state of affairs are called “first men” and are the original settlers of the land. The planet was occupied by other sentient beings such as energetic “spirits” who resist the colonization of the humans. The blurring of SF and fantasy tropes map onto the blurring of scientific and religious understandings of the world.

Two quotes are relevant here: Arthur C. Clarke’s law that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and William Gibson’s quote “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”. These two quotes form the premise of the social stratification in Lord of Light: the most technologically advanced become “magical” gods, while the technologically destitute become their subjects. The “gods” maintain the unequal distribution of technology by hampering scientific innovation and discovery among the population.

Mahasamatman (or “sam”) the central protagonist of the novel, plays a Buddha figure. However, Sam is not merely a religious figure, although he becomes one when it suits him. He is a tactician, military general, or whatever character is required in order to achieve the “fall of heaven”. This pragmatism and revolutionary attitude is supposed to parallel the Buddha’s.

In 1960’s America, Hinduism was widely understood as a better form of religion, a more liberal and less dogmatic religion, but still in the same broad category as Christianity. Lord of Light relates to Asian religions in a classic “religious” sense, as a way of organizing society and relating to the supernatural in a specific doctrinal way. This dogmatic religiosity is critiqued in the book, and is eventually overcome with the aid of scientific technology. In the novel, the orthodox religion of Hinduism with it’s castes and systemic inequalities is challenged by the unorthodox Buddhist-like movement. This is a prescient forecast of the then forthcoming cultural alliance of Buddhism and science.

How scientific progress changes the relationship to the divine is a central theme of the novel. That which cooperates with technological process is seen to be on the side of freedom and truth. In the novel, Zelazny paints the “Buddhism-like” religion as eminently practical and therefore a challenge to established orthodoxy and dogma - this religion promotes the spread of technology and science among the “unenlightened” masses.

In the history of the 20th century, cultural artifacts that were seen as “scientific” stood a greater chance of being adopted by mainstream society. The persistence of Buddhism is a particular example of this trend; perhaps the reason why religious “Hinduism” quickly fell out of style in the late 20th century was because of its failure to properly demonstrate its relationship to science. Particular elements of Hindu culture, such as yoga, acquired scientific validation to become bastions of modern liberal culture.

Lord of Light represents the beginning of a new religious narrative – it labels certain religious aspects as superstitious and others as scientific. American culture in the late 1960’s was a critical juncture for science and religion; youth culture was digesting the new influx of Asian religions, while trying to understand the scientific process that put a man on the moon. The integration between these two cultural realms is still being played out - we are still working out the questions of the 1960’s.