Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Lord of Light part 4: The Binder Bound

Continuing a look at Roger Zelazny's novel Lord of Light.

On a planet where the human colonists have established a society based on ancient Hindu culture, and where the members of the original crew have used high technology and science-spawned super-powers to assume the role of gods, one man has decided to challenge the Heavenly Establishment.

In last week's chapter our hero, who is called by many names, including Sam, began his campaign against the gods in an improbable manner: by preaching nonviolence. Taking the name Tathagatha, (the One who has Attained), he planted the seeds of Buddhism, a subversive element in the Hindu-based culture established by the gods. The gods sent Yama, the deathgod, to kill him; but Sam managed to escape and, having accomplished his goal, has left his disciples to start a new phase of his campaign.

When the human colonists first came to this planet, it was already inhabited by beings the humans called Rakasha, after the demons of Hindu mythology. The Rakasha once had physical bodies, just as humans do; but in their own quest for immortality had learned to dispense with physicalities and exist as beings of energy. But unlike other energy beings in science fiction, these are not creatures of Pure Intellect; they are creatures of Pure Id. The arrival of the humans reminded them how much fun physical forms were; and so they preyed upon the humans, stealing their bodies when they could.

Although never directly stated, it is implied that the crew of the colony ship originally cultivated their superhuman powers to be weapons against the Rakasha and the other powerful creatures of the planet. During those early years of warfare against the shapeshifting demons, Lord Kalkin, also known as Sam, led the fight. With his power of electrodirection, he was able to constrain the energy-based Rakasha into magnetic bottles, which the gods placed into a mighty cavern called Hellwell. It is for this reason that Sam is also known as The Binder of Demons.

Now Sam returns to Hellwell. He needs allies to aid in his war against Heaven and he's desperate enought to make a deal with a devil.

Hellwell consists of a deep shaft going down into one of the highest mountains and connecting with a complex system of caverns. It's entrance is a huge bronze door set near the top of the mountain with a complex pressure lock and an inscription reading roughly:
"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."
Sam enters the mouth of Hellwell and descends the long spiral path to its bottom. As he goes, he passes glowing balls of flame trapped in niches in the rock that call out to him: "Free me, Master, and I will lay the world at your feet!" "Free me! Free me!" they say; some threatening, some pleading. Sam ignores them and continues to the very bottom of he well where the largest one, a blaze twice his hight, pulsating and twisting behind its invisible barrier. "So, Hated One, you have returned!" It is Taraka, chief of the Rakasha. He recognizes Sam despite his wearing a different body. "I look upon the flows of energy which are your real being -- not the flesh which masks them."

Sam sits down and begins to dicker. He wants Taraka's help in fighting Heaven, but wants to make sure they can strike a bargain. The Rakasha are notoriously decietful and honor only gambling debts. But he releases Taraka on a trial basis to have him scout out the Celestial City's defenses. As soon as he is released, Taraka tries attacking Sam -- just to see if the Binder's powers are as formidable as they were in the old days. They are; and Sam easily stuffs the genie back into his magnetic bottle. Contritely, Taraka agrees to do as Sam wishes.

The Rakshasa flits off on his reconnaissance mission. As Sam waits the other captive Rakasha wheedle, threaten and curse him until he tells them all to shut up. Finally, Taraka returns with the information Sam wants. The Celestial City is covered by a dome these days, but it has openings large enough for one of his kind to enter; and other doors for men to pass through.

Sam plans to return to the kingdom he once ruled as Prince Siddhartha and raise an army. With an army of Rakasha to aid him, he intends to sack Heaven. This sounds like fun to Taraka and he promises that his people will follw his commands. Sam decides that he'll just have to trust the demon.

Sam goes through the caverns an releases about sixty or so of the Rakasha, and then sits down to rest. As he dozes, he dreams of running, being pursued by some unknown threat whose shadow lies cast before him. He awakens to find that he is no longer in control of himself; his body has become possessed by the Demon lord.

"...how does it feel to be bound yourself, Binder -- in your own body?" he hears his own lips say.
"I did not think any of your kind capable of taking control of me against my will -- even as I slept.""To give you an honest answer," said the other, "neither did I. But then, I had at my disposal the combined powers of many of my kind. It seemed worth the attempt."
Taraka assures Sam that he will carry out his promise to attack the gods -- it sounds like fun; he doesn't know why the idea never occurred to him before -- but not just yet. First he wants to party with his new-found freedom and his brand-new body. Sam protests that there is no time to waste; sixty-six demons are now loose in the world who weren't before and the gods are going to notice pretty quickly. Taraka dismisses Sam's worries. It's not like Sam can do anything about the situation.

Taraka takes Sam to a nearby kingdom and usurps the throne. Sam is mostly unconscious through this next part, getting only occasional kalidascope glimpses of bacchanalia. Sometimes, he sees the world as the demon sees it, people stripped of their physical forms and revealing their passions and desires as dazzling patterns of energy.

One day, Sam has a shocking realization.
Siddhartha had visions of riding through the streets of the town on the back of an elephant. All the women of the town had been ordered to stand before the doors of their dwellings. Of these, he chose those who pleased him and had them taken back to his harem.. Siddhartha realized with a sudden shock, that he was assisting in the choosing, disputing with Taraka over the virtues of this or that matron, maid or lady. He had been touched by the lusts of the demon-lord, and they were becoming his own. With this realization, he came into a greater wakefulness, and it was not always the hand of the demon which raised the wine horn to his lips, or twichted the whip in the dungeon. He came to be conscious for greater periods of time, and with a certian horror he knew that, within hemself, as within every man, there lies a demon capbable of responding to his own kind.
But Sam has also been gathering his own energies and finally feels strong enough to attempt to wrest control of his body from the demon.

"Oh man of many bodies," Taraka says as they engage in psychic battle, "why do you begrudge me a few days within this one?"
"It is because I am what I am, demon.... I am a man who occasionally aspires to things beyond the belly and the phallus. I am not the saint the Buddhists think me to be, and I am not the hero out of legend. I am a man who knows much fear, and who occasionally feels guilt. Mainly, though, I am a man who has set out to do a thing, and you are now blocking my way. Thus you inherit my curse -- whether I win or whether I lose now, Taraka, your destiny has already been altered. This is the curse of the Buddha -- you will never again be the same as once you were."
Taraka summons his fellow Rakshasa and under their combined force Sam is once more subdued; but the words of the Buddha stay with him.

Sam returns to the nightmare revelry; but now Taraka's demon minions have joined the party and the Rakasha's bacchanal has taken a turn into Hieronymous Bosch territory. Yet Taraka is not happy. "My pleasures diminish by the day! Do you know why this is, Siddhartha? Can you tell me why strange feelings now come over me, dampening my strongest moments, weakening me and casting me down when I should be elated...? Is this the curse of the Buddha?"

The curse is one which Taraka has inflicted upon himself. Just as he has forced Sam to partake of his hedonistic lusts, so has he partaken of Sam's revulsion of his own depravity. And thus the demon has learned the thing humans call guilt. He now bears the taint of conscience, and it will be forever with him.

But Taraka has tarried too long. As Sam feared, the gods have caught up with the. Agni, the god of fire, comes to the palace Taraka has appropriated. None can flee him, for his telescopic goggles can see to the farthest horizon as well as into the infared and ultraviolet spectra; and the wand he bears, devised by Yama himself, fires a beam of energy so powerful, it is said that Agni once used it to score the surface of one of the moons.

Sam urges Taraka to flee, but the demon is curious as to how tough Agni really is. It's his chief flaw; Taraka always wants to test every opponent he meets to see how he measures up. He reassures Sam that he doesn't have to worry about his body being destroyed."...I have strengthened your flames after the manner of my own kind. If this body dies, you will contine to live as a Rakasha."

A brief skirmish with Agni is enough to convince Taraka that Sam was right. Wrapping his energies around Sam's body they fly back to the refuge of Hellwell. Sam knows that even Hellwell will not withstand a determined assault by the gods. He's sure that next time Yama will come, "the One in Red... who drinks life with his eyes..." Sam and Taraka liberate the Rakasha still imprisoned to give them a fighting chance.

Before too long the thunder chariot of Shiva, the mighty fighter jet designed by Yama, lands on the mountain and four gods emerge: Yama, the deathgod; Agni, god of fire; Shiva the destroyer whose trident disintigrates atomic bonds; and Kali, goddess of destruction, whose death-gaze matches Yama's own and who's skull-scepter emits a sonic attack. Their weapons and their powers are capable of destroying even the bodiless Rakasha; and the demons find that they cannot get close to them because they have been treated with a kind of "demon repellent." Despite a spirited defense, the best the demons of Hellwell can do is slow their progress.

Seeing the futility of the fight, Taraka finally agrees to retreat. Under the cover of the Rakasha's attack they bolt past the gods in an attempt to steal the thunder chariot. It almost works too; but before Sam can get the jet's engines to warm up, Agni shows up. Using his electrodirection powers, Sam causes Agni's fire wand to malfunction; but then Yama and Kali arrive. Their combined death-gazes drive Taraka out of Sam's body and knock Sam unconscious.

Sam wakes up in chains in a small compartment aboard Shiva's thunder chariot. "Brahma is particularly anxious to see you once again," Yama tells him.

"But I am not especially anxious to see Brahma,"

"Over the years, that has become somewhat apparent." Yama is a master of understatement.
The two enemies have a friendly little chat. Yama asks him what demonic possession feels like.
"To have one's will overridden by that of another? You should know." 
Yama's smile vanished, then returned. "You would like me to strike you, wouldn't you, Buddha? It would make you feel superior. Unfortuantely, I'm a sadist and will not do it." 
Sam Laughed. 
"Touché, Death," he said.
Yama once again extends the possibility that Sam might be forgiven if he elects to join with Heaven and speaks about the nature of godhood; "Being a god is beign able to recognize with one's self these things that are important, and then to strike the single note that brings them ino alignment with everything else that exists... Those who look upon gods then say, without even knowing their names, 'He is Fire. She is Dance. He is Destruction. She is Love.'..."

Sam is unimpressed. "If someone asks you why your'e oppressing a world and you reply with a lot of poetic crap, no, I guess there can't be a meeting of minds."
"The goddess of dance was once the god of war. So it would seem that anything can change." 
"When I have died the real death," said Sam, "then will I be changed. But until that moment I will hate Heaven with every breath that I draw. If Brahma has me burnt, I will spit into the flames. If he has me strangled, I will attempt to bite the executioner's hand. If my throat is cut, may my blood rust the blade that does it. Is that a ruling passion?" 
"You are good god material," said Yama.
Whatever happens, Sam will not be executed just yet. He will be permitted to attend the wedding. Yama and Kali are going to get married.

NEXT: Chapter 5: How do you solve a problem like Siddhartha? The gods discuss what to do with Sam; old lovers reunite; Sam plans a heist and has a conversation with a jackbird. All this and the phantom cats of Kaniburrha. Is this the end of the Lord of Light?