Potlatch 19: March 5-7, 2010


Book of Honor

From the beginning, Potlatch has not been an ordinary science fiction convention. Rather than selecting a Guest of Honor on whom the convention was centered, Potlatch focuses on the exchange of ideas, and equally honors everyone participating in the discussion. At Potlatch 2 we thought it would be neat to have a Book of Honor to focus our discussion and give everyone a common starting point. This has become a Potlatch tradition.

The Book of Honor Committee are very pleased to announce that we have selected Lord of Light, by the late Roger Zelazny, as Book of Honor for Potlatch 19.

Lord of Light was nominated for a Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1968, and won the Hugo Award in that category.

Lord of Light: Shining Example

Published in 1967 in hardcover, and awarded the World Science Fiction Award for best novel for that year, Lord of Light was a milestone in Roger Zelazny’s career. Until then, his best work was in the shorter lengths; he’d had success with a couple of novels, but they were first published in the magazines as serialized items, which were plumped and refined before book appearances.

I remember the excitement that surrounded Zelazny’s first Hugo win in 1996, for his 1965 novel, …And Call Me Conrad. In those days, the magazines ruled. Conrad’s win was based on its appearance in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – and it tied with a small item called Dune, which appeared in Analog.

Lord of Light came only a few years later; like many of Zelazny’s books and stories, it shared elements with Conrad (later retitled This Immortal in book form). The main character was immortal, or nearly so; he was outside of society; he went by more than one name; and he was so competent as to be able to do almost anything.

Lord of Light takes place hundreds of years in the future, on another planet. Nearly all the characters, including the hero, have taken on the personae and powers of the Hindu family of gods and goddesses. The main character prefers to be known as Sam, but is also known as Mahasamatman, Kalkin, Binder of Demons, Siddhartha, Maitreya, and Lord of Light. He is fighting the combined power of the other gods (although loyalties shift more than once), in order to bring freedom to the ordinary people of his world (people who, by the way, seldom get speaking roles in the book).

The gods, enhanced not only by technology but also by mutation, enjoy their absolute rule, and enforce a social structure right out of classical India. They are, we soon learn, the descendants of the crew of a colony ship, while those they rule are the posterity of the passengers who were the bulk of the colonists. The gods frown on any effort to bring scientific or technical improvement to common folk, calling this effort Accelerationism.

Sam combats the gods, at least at first, by teaching Buddhism. This has the desired effect of reducing fear of, and respect for, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Kali, Yama, and the others. Eventually, things get violent, especially when Sam frees the demons (the original inhabitants of the planet –- Sam was the one who imprisoned them).

The book is, by turns, intimate, ironic, epic, playful. I found an example of the latter on page 74 of my Eos trade paperback edition, on which an atrocious and carefully prepared pun surprises the reader.

I’m sure that people will have much to talk about after they’ve read or re-read Lord of Light. There’s the way Zelazny works and plays with language and story structure; there’s the place of religion in life and fiction; there’s the power relationships between ruler and ruled, and between lovers and their beloveds. I expect we’ll have other people look at the book in more detail, or through different analytic lenses in later Progress Reports and our Program Book. I’m looking forward to the conversations.

Jerry Kaufman

Fantasy disguised as science fiction disguised as fantasy: Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light

Science fiction and fantasy author Jo Walton discusses why she has never liked Lord of Light here.

Past Potlatch Books of Honor:

Potlatch 2, 1993 : Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Potlatch 4, 1995 : The Only Neat Thing to Do by James Tiptree, Jr.

Potlatch 5, 1996 : The Lathe of Heaven (video, based on the novel by Ursual K. Le Guin)

Potlatch 7, 1998 : The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

Potlatch 10, 2001 : Thunder and Roses by Theodore Sturgeon

Potlatch 12, 2003 : The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith

Potlatch 13, 2004 : The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

Potlatch 14, 2005 : A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Potlatch 15, 2006 : The Avram Davidson Treasury edited by Robert Silverberg and Grania Davis

Potlatch 16, 2007 : Dimensions of Sheckley: the Selected Novels by Robert Sheckley

Potlatch 17, 2008 : Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Potlatch 18, 2009 : Always Coming Home by Ursula K. LeGuin and Growing Up Weightless by John M. Ford