This Immortal & Lord of Light

May 10th, 2005

I was recently reminded, somewhat vividly, how long it had been since I had read Lord of Light, which (since it is truly one of the greatest SF novels ever printed) I deemed required immediate correction. Since I had recently acquired a second-hand copy of Zelazny’s first novel, This Immortal (which was re-released in hardback not long ago by I Books), I thought I would give these a go as a paired reading. A hunch which proved, I think, very rewarding.

To read This Immortal is to begin at the beginning of Zelazny’s career as an SF novelist, already building a powerful reputation in the genre’s short form. It is a story of the Earth as it often appeared in SF of the 1960s, wasted by nuclear war. The war was many centuries ago, however, and mankind survived it, albeit only at the fringes, in areas that weren’t important enough to be direct targets. That remnant of mankind, however, was contacted by (mostly) benevolent extraterrestrials. Much more advanced than humanity, they found our kind to be entertaining and inspiring in our art and our culture (and our bodies, in the case of human females), and mankind (most of whom having fled with the aliens to their distant worlds) rebuilt itself as the lower class of their alien hosts, and sold its homeworld, entire, to be their resort for tourism.

Our first person narrator, Conrad, is a very important figure in the administration of the Earth-as-theme-park, he is the Minister of Arts, Monuments, and Archives. He’s also a mutant, although he doesn’t generally like that being bandied about, one who has lived significantly longer than any human being should have, blessed also with great strength and extraordinary senses, although it is all wrapped up in a package of mediocre and flawed appearance. He’s got a gimpy leg, and one eye is blue while the other is brown, but in general he wouldn’t look particularly out of place in a uniform with an X on the breast. Conrad’s history, or perhaps histories, are obscure, but he’s not at all fond of Earth’s babysitting aliens, or the way they’ve purchased Earth and its inhabitants…which makes it particularly galling when he’s asked to play tourguide to one particularly important one as he goes on Safari to some of the wilds of Earth. Still, one does what is required, and he vows to accompany the alien and protect him from the dangers he might bring along the way.He might have reconsidered had he realized that revolutionaries and infamous assassins would also be in the party, but if there’s one thing Conrad isn’t short on, its a sense of responsibility.

From there on out this is an adventure story, with significant doses of intrigue and scenes of monumental derring-do amongst settings and figures with deep mythical resonance. More importantly, it’s the world’s first glimpse of Zelazny the Novelist’s take on archetype, on the Everyman-Superman. In Conrad one can easily see foreshadowed some of Zelazny’s strongest characters, particularly Corwin of Amber…and the star of our next title, Lord of Light.

The most important thing to be said about Lord of Light, perhaps, is that there’s not much left to be said about it. This is not just an excellent novel, but a truly important one. Here, Clarke’s Third Law is taken to its next logical extension: That magic-like technology of a sufficiently advanced nature is indistinguishable from divine action. The wielders of technology need not be mere wizards and sorcerers…they can be gods. It confronts this idea directly, asking not only whether this is inevitable or desirable but also whether it is necessary…or even relevant, if true enlightenment might be a better state and can be achieved in a more…natural fashion? It accomplishes all of this while giving the reader a bit of an education in far Eastern theology, and also proposing some interesting ways in which technology could make cycles of reincarnation, gods, and demons a reality.

Sam, the protagonist of Lord of Light shares many of Conrad’s characteristics…supremely confident but not without a certain sense of humility. Desirous of a simpler life, where leisure is the chief concern, but with an unescapable sense of responsibility. Powerful beyond what appearances would suggest, but not invincible by any means. Willing to decieve and to destroy that which they most love for what they perceive to be the greater good, when that choice. Con-man and Saint, Warrior and Playboy, Terrorist and Noble…Zelazny takes the heroic qualities of Conrad and writes them larger and more clearly in Sam.

I was surprised when I took a look at the copyright information for Lord of Light. This book reads as the work of a matured talent, someone who has figured out where to take chances and how to make it work, where This Immortal felt rushed in places…like Zelazny had a lot more canvas left to cover, and paint to fill it, but lacked a clear idea (or perhaps just time) to get from the clear image at the center to the bits the edges should have had to complete the piece. But Zelazny published these two books one the year after the other. Even granting that …And Call Me Conrad, the original shorter form version of This Immortal, was published the year before, that such a difference could be felt in so short a period is nothing less than staggering. I can’t even imagine how one could get all the research done that must surely have been necessary to produce something like Lord of Light in that span.

In conclusion, This Immortal is a good book, but very much a product of its time. Unless one is desperate for science fiction where Greeks or Greece are prominent, or is specifically making a study of Zelazny, or finds it in a charity sale for 81 cents and could use some mostly light reading (like me), I wouldn’t advise the general reader to seek this one out. Lord of Light, however, is certain to be a timeless classic. I add my voice to that of countless others as I insist that you to read this book. I doubt you’ll regret it.

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