Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lord of Light part 5: Heaven's Prisoner

When humans first colonized the planet, the original crew used their advanced technology to make themselves gods, ruling over the colonists and their descendants and establishing a society based on ancient Hindu culture. Sam, one of the First, has decided to challenge Heaven by introducing Buddhism. But his campaign against the gods has hit a snag. His attempt to recruit the Rakasha, the original natives of the planet, ended with him being posessed by the Taraka, chief of the Rakasha. Now he has been captured by his former comrades, the gods, and is being taken in chains back to Heaven.

Sometimes it sucks to be the Buddha.

During the late 1970s, there was a project to do a screen adaptation of Lord of Light. Comics legend Jack Kirby was hired to do some conceptual artwork for the project. The project, alas, never came to anything, (although it was peripherally involved in a CIA scam that saved some of the American hostages in Iran). I always wondered a bit about the choice of Kirby for the project: his cosmic epics seem a poor visual fit for Zelazny's story about Buddhism and Eastern mysticism. But reading this chapter, I can see the connection. Kirby wrote about and drew gods and beings who weilded god-like technology. He would have been right at home striding among the inhabitants of the Celestial City as he was in Asgard or on New Genesis.

The Celestial City is located at the planet's North Pole, high on a mountain range that has been artificially leveled into a plateau and covered with a huge transparent dome. Beneath the Dome of Heaven it is eternally summer, a veritable Xanadu. In fact, although Zelazny never mentions Coleridge, his description of the Celestial City does sound a bit like the "stately pleasure dome" from the poem "Kubla Khan."

Vishnu the Preserver, the divine architect and one of the ruling Triumvirate of Heaven, designed the city to be a perfect dwelling place for divine beings. To mantain a balance between Wilderness and Civilization, Vishnu established greenspace: a jungle within the dome adjacent to the city, the Forest of Kaniburrha. But to maintain the separation between the two, the great cats who dwell in the forest have been programmed so that when they wander from the Forest to the City they do not percieve the buildings or the people therein. Anyone who wanders from the City to the Forest, however -- even one of the gods -- is fair game. Fair is fair, after all.

In vingettes we meet several of the gods. We meet Kubera, divine craftsman and member of the Lokapalas. Kubera is an amiable, easy-going fellow with the power to instill his creations with emotions that can affect the people who use them. He is a member of the Lokapalas, a band of gods consisting of Agni, Yama, Krishna and himself, united by close bonds of friendship. He is a stout fellow, not only in that he is steady and reliable but also in that each new body he reincarnates into quickly goes to fat.

We see hairy Krishna, who plays music on his pipes which inspire drunkeness and lust in whoever hears it. He is also a formidable wrestler and greatest among the gods in terms of physical strength... when he's sober.

We meet Rudra the grim, god of hunting, with his bow of heat-seeking arrows, and Murugan, god of youth and fertility. Although he will deny being any more than friends, Rudra was once interested in Kali. When the mortal poet she spurned him for reincarnated as a jackbird, Rudra took to slaying every jackbird he saw. "I do not care for their singing," he says.

We meet Tak the Archivist, custodian of the library of Heaven, who bears a shining spear. Tak is actually Sam's son, although he doubts that Sam is aware of this. He is a philosopher with a wry sense of humor; and very much aware of the political undercurrents in Heaven.

We don't meet many goddesses; or rather, we encounter them, but they don't do or say much of significance. Kubera chats with Lakshimi the lovely. And then they have sex. Tak flirts with Maya, goddess of Illusion, as he explains to her about the Accelerationist political doctrine Sam has been preaching in Heaven. And then they have sex. One exception is Ratri, goddess of Night, whom we met in the first chapter and whom we see being pursued by the lustful Krishna. She decides she's had enough and uses her power over darkness to remind him that even if you're the god of Lust, No Means No.

In none of these cases is the sex explicit; the author just lets us know where things are going, and leaves it at that. But the it does sort of become a recurring theme.

"You fertility deities are worse than Marxists," Rudra grumbles to Murugan. "You think that's all that goes on between people." Well, considering what everyone else in this chapter is doing, perhaps Murugan has a point.

In a place called the Pavillion of Silence, on the outskirts of Heaven, Sam meets with Kali, also known as Durga. The Pavillion had been built by Kubera and each of its rooms resonates with a different emotion: Memory, Fear, Heartbreak, Dust and Despair. At one time, Sam and Kali had been lovers, back in the days when they first began forging their godlike powers to tame the planet and when the now goddess of Destruction was known as Candi the Fierce. She wants to reminisce about those days.
"Sam," she finally said, "were they not good?" 
"Yes," he replied. 
"And in those ancient days, before you left Heaven to dwell among men -- did you love me then?" 
"I do not really remember," he said. "It was so long ago. We were both different people then -- different minds, different bodies. Probably those two, whover they were, loved one another. I cannot remember."
Kali insists that they haven't changed that much, and that things could be just like the way they used to be between the two of them. Sam disagrees. "It is not really the man whom you have been remembering. It is the days of carnage through which the two of your rode together." He reminds her of Yama, whom she is about to marry; but she admits that she really only loves the Deathgod for his Aspect, not the man himself.

Kali offers to join Sam in his campaign against Heaven; but Sam knows that would never work out. "If I won my freedom and you joined with me and we fought, perhaps you would be happy for a time. But win or lose, in the end I fear you would be unhappier than before." Sam is trying to create a more stable, peaceful world and Candi the Fierce lives for chaos.

They argue; she becomes angry and spurns him. And he becomes more tender towards her.
"If it will give you any satisfaction in the end, I still care for you. Either there is no such thing as love, or the word does not mean what I have thought it to mean on many different occasions. It is a feeling without a name, really -- better to leave it at that. So take it and go away and have your fun with it. You know that we would both be at one another's throats again one day, as soon as we had run out of common enemies. We had many fine reconciliations, but were they ever woth the pain that preceded them? Know that you have won and that you are the goddess I worship -- for are not worship and religious awe a combination of love and hate, desire and fear?"
They end up in each other's arms and retire to the room called Despair. And then they... well, you can guess.

We see a conversation between Brahma, ruler of the Triumvirate, and Vishnu. Brahma has decided that for official purposes it will be decreed that the teacher known as the Buddha was actually Vishnu, who had taken human form to teach them the Way of Enlightenment. Since they haven't been able to root out Buddhism, Brahma has decided to assimilate it. But that leaves the question of what to do with Sam. Vishnu suggests incarnating Sam as a jackbird, but Brahma observes that someone else might wish to incarnate that jackbird as a man. For the time being, Brahma is willing to postpone his sentence.

Kali comes to him and asks that Sam be given another chance to renounce his opposition to Heaven and join the gods. She suggests that Sam's mind could be altered to make him more in line with the wishes of Heaven. Brahma is willing to entertain this notion and suggests that Kali come to his house for a day or three to help "convince" him. It so happens that her finance Yama is busy on a project that will keep him occupied for a few days. No need to guess where this is going.

Sam has a chance to speak with Helba the god and/or goddess of thieves. Helba is one of three transgendered characters in this novel. We've met Brahma, who was originally a woman who wanted to be a man, and who despite now possessing an extremely macho body still feels secretly insecure in his masculinity. Helba seems to be more comfortable about gender roles; the god of thieves switches gender with each new incarnation, alternating between male and female, so that no one remembers anymore what his or her original sex was.

Sam wants Helba's help in stealing an item from Heaven's Museum; a belt he once owned containing a device that helped him focus his powers of electrodirection. He needs that belt to escape from Heaven. Helba sadly informs him that she only steals things while in a male body, and that she is currently a woman. But the caper sounds intriguing...

"Come sit by me, Binder of Demons, and tell me of the days of your glory... and I will speak again of mine."

Dignitaries and demigods from all over the planet are now arriving at the Celestial City for the wedding of Death and Destuction; which provides ample distraction for Sam's heist. Well, almost.
Tak is summoned by an alarm in the Archives and arrives in time to confront Sam; but he finds he cannot attack his father, and Sam, using the Talisman of the Binder around his waist, binds the forces of gravitiation about him and flies off.

"Why did you not stop him?" Yama asks, arriving at the scene.

"I could not, Lord. I was taken by his Attribute," Tak lies.

But one more guardian stands between Sam and freedom. Mara, the Dreamer, intercepts him and casts a disorienting illusion about him. Once again, Sam is captured.

In what seems to be an irrelevant aside, (it isn't), Murugan arrives at the Hall of Karma to receive a new body to wear for Yama and Kali's wedding. It's not ready and he pitches a snit. "Brahma recommended the transfer, and he would be pleased for me to appear at the wedding party at Milehigh Spire in my new form. Shall I inform him that the Great Wheel is unable to comply with his wishes becasue it turns exceedingly slow?" The technician promises to have the body ready for him by tomorrow, and makes "an ancient and mystic sign" behind Murugan's back.

Kali has changed her mind again. She's decided she wants to celebrate her wedding to Yama with a human sacrifice: Sam's. "You are even more sentimental than I thought," Brahma replies. But given Sam's recent escape attempt, he agrees it's probably for the best.

From here Zelazny backs off again and the text assumes the voice of the storyteller. Instead of being shown what happens next, we are told what it is said happened. We are told that Brahma had Mara create a powerfull illusion allowing the Phantom Cats of Kanniburrha to see the City for the first time so that they can pursue Sam and Helba into it, hunt them down and kill them.

We do get a brief conversation between Sam and the jackbird-who-once-was-a-poet. The jackbird is overjoyed to see Sam, having prophecied his coming. Sam is currently more concerned about how he's soon going to exit life and so is less than impressed. The poet flies off and gets killed by someone's arrow. Then we go back to legend.

We are told that it is said that Tak of the Archives attempted to defend Sam and was able to slay two of the white tigers before the rest outnumbered him; and we are told that it is said that some of the cats participating in the hunt were gods wearing cat-bodies. The narration does not say if it is said that Kali was the one who personally ripped out Sam's throat, but the suggestion is there.

Afterwards, Kali and Yama are married. There is a celebration which lasts for several days. And more sinister things occur. Vishnu, revolted by the manner of Sam's execution, withdraws to his home. Varuna the Just leaves Heaven all together along with his retinue. Tak is tried for his involvement in the affair and condemned to be reincarnated as an ape until such time as Heaven decided to extend clemency. The Triumvirate begins compiling lists of gods who seem to have been sympathetic to Sam and his cause and who bear watching.

And on the last night of the celebration, a lone god goes to the room called Memory in the Pavillion of Silence and lingers for a time. And then laughs.

NEXT:  Chapter Six: Someone murders God; a whodunnit in Heaven; Kali gets a job offer; a desperate escape and Sam's covert campaign against the gods breaks out into open war.

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