Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why Is That So Good, pt. 3 - "They Called Him Mahasamatman"

When I first read Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, it messed up my prose style for three years. I was only a teen at the time, so I was fairly impressionable; but still. Three years...

And it wasn't just my mind that got blown. George RR Martin himself, now the most media-successful fantasist since Tolkien, wrote that when he read the first lines of that book, "a chill went through me, and I sensed that SF would never be the same. Nor was it."

Zelazny was a member of SF's New Wave, the late '60s-early '70s crew that emphasized style and literary quality in speculative fiction. JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Sam Delaney and others stood up for the idea that SF was as worthy an endeavor as any middle-brow offering by Lessing or Mailer. Zelazny had earned a Master's in Elizabethan Drama from my own alma mater, but he was also a passionate explorer of myth, folklore, martial arts, and Asian religions. He incorporated all of it into his work, making him perhaps the first writer of speculative fiction since Tolkien to ground his most successful stories firmly in myth. He did this years before anyone had heard of Joseph Campbell, before Star Wars reinvigorated the Hero's Journey concept, before Bruce Lee and then anime conquered American culture and made all of us aware of kung-fu. He was the guy at the top of Everest, waiting to hand us sandwiches when we arrived to stick our flag in the peak.

Lord of Light takes place on a colony planet after the destruction of Earth. The crew of the ship that colonized the place have monopolized technology to grant themselves immortality and superhuman abilities. The rest of the planet, occupied by the colonists and their descendants, has been recreated as the world of the Hindu scriptures, complete with castes and mechanically-aided reincarnation. But one of the crew, a formerly apolitical man named Sam, decides that the colonists deserve a break. He rebels, and as his fellow crew members have become the gods, he takes on the role of the Buddha.

So let's see what GRRM was talking about. Here's the first two pages of Chapter One, without the introductory summary and quotes with which Zelazny prefaced each chapter:

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. Silence, though, could.

Therefore, there was mystery about him.

It was in the season of the rains...

It was well into the time of the great wetness. . .

It was in the days of the rains that their prayers went up, not from the fingering of knotted prayer cords or the spinning of prayer wheels, but from the great pray-machine in the monastery of Ratri, goddess of the Night.

The high-frequency prayers were directed upward through the atmosphere and out beyond it, passing into that golden cloud called the Bridge of the Gods, which circles the entire world, is seen as a bronze rainbow at night, and is the place where the red sun becomes orange at midday.

Some of the monks doubted the orthodoxy of this prayer technique, but the machine had been built and was operated by Yama-Dharma, fallen, of the Celestial City; and, it was told, he had ages ago built the mighty thunder chariot of Lord Shiva: that engine that fled across the heavens, belching gouts of fire in its wake.

Despite his fall from favor, Yama was still deemed mightiest of the artificers, though it was not doubted that the Gods of the City would have him to die the real death were they to learn of the pray-machine. For that matter, though, it was not doubted that they would have him to die the real death without the excuse of the pray-machine, also, were he to come into their custody. How he would settle this matter with the Lords of Karma was his own affair, though none doubted that when the time came he would find a way.

He was half as old as the Celestial City itself, and not more than ten of the gods remembered the founding of that abode. He was known to be wiser even than the Lord Kubera in the ways of the Universal Fire. But these were his lesser Attributes. He was best known for another thing, though few men spoke of it. Tall, but not overly so; big, but not heavy; his movements, slow and fluent. He wore red and spoke little.

He tended the pray-machine, and the giant metal lotus he had set atop the monastery roof turned and turned in its sockets.

A light rain was falling upon the building, the lotus and the jungle at the foot of the mountains. For six days he had offered many kilowatts of prayer, but the static kept him from being heard On High. Under his breath, he called upon the more notable of the current fertility deities, invoking them in terms of their most prominent Attributes.

A rumble of thunder answered his petition, and the small ape who assisted him chuckled. "Your prayers and your curses come to the same. Lord Yama," commented the ape. "That is to say, nothing."

"His followers called him Mahasamatman..." The first paragraph of the book starts off as myth, and then immediately deflates it, going from the grandiloquent "Mahasamatman" to the prosaic "Sam" in two sentences. Not only is that contrast an attention-grabber from the start; it also lays the groundwork for a tension that runs through the entire novel: Are its main characters simply lordlings who have used technology to grant themselves superhuman abilities and immortality? Or are they, on some fundamental level, actual deities? The grand and metaphysical balloon is constantly punctured by a prosaic needle - and then reinflated.

The paragraph also tells you something immediate and fundamental about Sam, the protagonist: He's not above using ambiguity for political ends. He's a schemer.

And all of this ambiguity is wrapped in language that wavers back and forth between prose and blank verse, giving it an incantatory quality that Zelazny interrupts whenever he wants to move from the elevated to the realistic. Break it into clauses, and it reads like William Carlos Williams:

It was in the days of the rains
That their prayers went up
Not from the fingering of knotted prayer cords
Or the spinning of prayer wheels
But from the great pray-machine
In the monastery of Ratri
Goddess of the Night.

(The one time I was fortunate enough to meet Zelazny, he told me that he wrote poetry every day to sharpen his chops.)

Then there's the "pray machine." Notice that the mechanism has a spinning metal "lotus" on the roof. Of course, the lotus is a symbolic flower in Buddhism; it represents purity and rebirth, and its eight petals represent the Eightfold Way of Buddhist doctrine. But the lotus is also a wide, bowl-shaped flower...you know, kind of like a parabolic radio antenna. And this "pray machine" is offering many "kilowatts of prayer." It's one of the book's great running gags - yes, this Hugo winner has running gags - to use elliptical references and descriptions. Sam, Yama, and their advanced gear are seen from a devout, pre-technological perspective. A radio telescope is a lotus; a nuclear explosion is "the tall man of smoke who wears a wide hat." Beneath the language of deities and supernatural events are things that would be instantly recognizable to a modern reader. You can practically feel your mind spinning as you read, trying to visualize each reference, and wondering if it is alien, or truly familiar. It's another way to maintain that constant tension between the prosaic and the numinous.

There's a bunch of other terrific stuff in the book, but I'll save that for a later post. Or, you know, you can just buy the book and read it yourself.

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