Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lord of Light part 7: End of the Yuga

(Concluding my look at Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light)

As last we saw, Sam, the Binder of Demons and fraudulent Buddha has once again been captured by the gods after a bloody and destructive battle. To keep him out of their divine hair once and for all, the gods have used their mind-transfer technology to beam his consciousness into the magnetic cloud that encircles the planet. And here the narrative finally fits back to the first chapter, where we saw Yama, the god of Death, retrieving Sam's soul from Nirvana. Most of the novel so far has been one lengthy flashback; but now we are finally back in the present.

The Yuga is about to begin.

But before we rejoin Sam, we're going to visit with someone else.

Jan Olvegg was once the captain of the Star of India, the colony ship which landed on this planet in the legendary past. Unlike the rest of the crew, who used advanced technology to develop god-like powers and rule the other passengers as deities; Olvegg has been content to keep his head down and try to stay under Heaven's radar. We met him in Chapter Two, when Sam broke the Body Merchants of Mahartha. The young body Sam aquired for him then is ancient now, and Olvegg has spent many years sailing the southern seas. But now, his ship has been captured and he has been brought before Nirriti the Black.

Nirriti has been something of a boogeyman thoughout the novel so far, mentioned in passing, usually with a shudder. He is an enemy of the gods and commands armies of zombies. But his full story only comes out in bits and pieces.

Nirriti's original name was Renfew and he was the ship's chaplain. He objected to the crew making themselves gods, and eventually left their company, taking with him a group of his own followers and some equipment, including the body-transfer tech used by the gods to keep themselves immortal. Ganesha, the Karl Rove of Heaven, permitted him to do so under the assumption that it might be convenient to have an Enemy some day to use as a political scapegoat. Nirriti used the cloning equipment to make his army of "soulless ones", mindless minions with enough intelligence to follow orders, but no more.

He is a fanatic and one gets the impression he is more than a little unhinged. And yet, in the Second Chapter, Sam refers to him as his patron; and at the battle of Keenset, Sam accepts the zombies Nirriti sends in defence of the city. Yama distrusts him. Nirriti may be an enemy of the gods, but he is no champion of science or technology; and Yama fears that Nirriti would set up a theocracy as opressive as the one Sam seeks to topple.

Nirriti is delighted to meet Olvegg. "One of the First, and -- yes! -- a Christian!"

"Occasionally, when I run out of Hindi swear words," Olvegg admits.

Nirriti gladly welcomes a new ally in his crusade against the false gods of the Celestial City. For his own part, Olvegg would also be happy to see Heaven fall and agrees to join up with the Black One.

Taraka, chief of the Rakasha has also allied himself with Nirriti. Why a fanatical Christian would join forces with a demon is not explained. Perhaps Nirriti considers the gods to be the greater evil. Perhaps, (and this would be ironic), Nirriti does not consider the Rakasha to be demons because he knows that they are not supernatural and the demons he believes in are.

But we are more interested in Taraka's motivations. Although his kind left their physical bodies untold ages ago, he still seems to be driven chiefly by testosterone. He feels a macho need to test himself against every male he encounters. He respects Sam, the Binder, because Sam bested him long ago. He tried himself against Agni, the god of Fire, and was scared by the intensity of the Fire god's power. But Agni was killed by Yama, whose deathgaze is capable of sucking the life out of any creature, even one such as Taraka. And even the Binder expressed respect for Yama's power. Taraka's only encounters so far with Yama have been inconclusive, and he's been itching for a rematch.

Since Keenset, Nirriti has been amassing his power, building his zombies into a mighty army with armaments and sky gondolas. He is now ready to strike against Heaven. With the aid of Taraka's demons, Nirriti's forces have been working their way northward, city by city. Eventually, the gods will have to get involved.

Brahma, ruler of the gods, and Ganesha, his advisor, are discussing just this very thing. The city of Mahartha is about to fall to Nirriti's forces, and Brahma is recieving pleas for help from tha city's temple.

"In the old days I would have taken the thunder chariot--" Brahma gumbles.

"In the old days there was not thunder chariot," Ganesha reminds him; "Lord Yama --"

"Silence! We have a thunder chariot now. I think the tall man of smoke who wears a wide hat shall bend above Nirriti's palace."

The "tall man of smoke" pretty clearly seems to be an allusion to a mushroom cloud. The two decide to let Nirriti take Mahartha to assess his power, and when Nirriti tries to hold that city, "then let the man of smoke nod his wide white hat -- over Mahartha." Brahma tells Ganesha to recall Indra, one of their mightiest warriors who has been off-stage for most of the book fighting a vaguely-defined campaign against the witches of the Eastern Continent; and to warn those cities next in Nirriti's path: Lananda, Khaipur, and Kilbar.

It is in Khaipur, in the Palace of Kama, that Sam and his friends have made their new headquarters. The establishment is run by Ratri, goddess of the Night, under an alias, and is known profanely as the Fornicatorium. The last place anyone would look for the Buddha.

"During the weeks we have dwelled here in Ratri's palace, I have meditated on my past lives," Sam says to Yama. "They were not all failures, deathgod... Though Heaven has beaten me at every turn, each victory hs cost them much."
"Yes, it would seem you are a man of destiny. They are actually weaker now than they were the day you challenged their power at Mahartha. They are also relatively weaker. This is because men are stronger. The gods broke Keenset, but they did not break Acceleration. Then they tried to bury Buddhism within their own teachings, but they could not. I cannot really say whether your religion helped with the plot of this tale you are writing, by encouraging Acceleration in any way whatsoever, but then none of the gods could say either. It served as a good fog, though -- it diverted their attention from mischief they might have been making, and since it did happen to 'take' as a teaching, their efforts against it served to arouse some anti-Deicrat sentiment. You would seem inspired if you didn't seem shrewd." 
"Thank you. Do you want my blessing?" 
"No, do you want mine?" 
"Perhaps, Death, later."
While Sam has been indulging in multi-chapter flashbacks, Yama has been gathering their own forces. Kubera has returned. He escaped the fall of Keenset and has been covertly leaking technology over the past fifty years. He hooked up with Sam's former personal physician, whom Sam gave charge of the body tranfer equipment he stole from the Lords of Karma in Mahartha. Yama has also sent word to the small kingdom Sam used to rule back when he was Prince Siddhartha, and they are willing to send an army to aid their former ruler. Yama has also tracked down Krishna, a lechreous drunk much of the time, but one of the most formidable fighters of all the gods when he is sober. Krishna left Heaven rather than participate in the battle of Keenset. He did not wish to fight his brother Lokapalas, and has been an exile ever since. "Yama, Kubera, Krishna, and if you're willing -- Kalkin!" Yama says, addressing Sam by one of his oldest names. "We will be the new Lokapalas, and we will stand together!"
"I've been designing new weapons. It is a shame that there must be so many separate and exotic ones. It is quite a drain on my genius to make each a work of art, rather than to mass-produce a particular species of offence. But the plurality of the paranormal dictates it. Someone always has an Attribute to stand against any one weapon. Let them face, though, the Gehenna Gun and be fibrillated apart, or cross blades with the Electrosword, or stand before the Fountain Shield, with its spray of cyanide and dimethyl sulfoxide, and they will know that is its the Lokapalas thsy face!"
Sam suggests also enlisting the Rakasha and Nirriti. Yama resists both suggestions. The demons, he says, cannot be trusted; as for Nirriti, perhaps the best thing would be to stand back while he and the gods slug it out and then attack the victor. Yama asks if Sam can persuade his Buddhist followers to fight. "Possibly, but I might have to assume an identity I now find distasteful." He's developed some ethical qualms about using religion to scam people since returning from Nirvana.

Kubera reunites with Ratri in her garden. She barely recognizes him; he has gotten a new body and Yama's been keeping him so busy building things that he hasn't had the time to let it go to fat. Kubera apologizes for dragging her into exile that day in the Celestial City when he fled with Sam. She tells him not to feel guilty. "I would have left the City soon, at any rate."

Tak joins them. He has had the opportunity to gain a new body also, but has elected to remain as an ape for the time being because it is a useful form for spying. They discuss news about Nirriti and speculate on what Sam's plans may be. "I have always wanted to go to battle at the side of the Binder," Tak says. "In the weeks to come, I am certain that almost as many wishes will be granted as broken," Kubera replies.

Sam has decided on a course of action. He summons Taraka and has his carry a message to Nirriti. He is willing to ally himself and his supporters with Nirriti's crusade against the gods if Nirriti will agree to neither attempt to convert Hindus nor Buddhists by the sword, nor to try to repress technology as the gods have done.
"He knows that, if the gods were no longer present to enforce Hinduism as they do, then he would gain converts. He cas see this from what I managed to do with Buddhism, despite their opposition. He feels that his way is the only right way and that it is destined to prevail in the face of competition. I think he would agree to fair competition for this reason."
Sam tells Taraka to "look upon his flames" when Nirriti answers to see if he's answering truthfully, and then bring back that answer.

Before he goes, Taraka asks him, "Which one is the right way?"

"Huh? You're asking me that? How should I know?'
"Mortals call you Buddha." 
"That is only because they are afflicted with language and ignorance." 
"No. I have looked upon your flames and name you Lord of Light. You bind them as you bound us, you loose them as you loosed us. Yours was the power to lay a belief upon them. You are what you claimed to be." 
"I lied. I never believed in it myself, and I still don't. I could just as easily have chosen another way -- say, Nirriti's religion -- only crucifixion hurts. I might have chosen one called Islam, only I know too well how it mixes with Hinduism. My choice was based upon calculation, not inspiration, and I am nothing." 
"You are the Lord of Light."
Taraka also asks Sam if he could defeat Yama in battle. "I don't think so... I don't think anyone could." Sam does not realize the importance of this question.

The Demon Lord leaves Sam but does not go to Nirriti. He does not want Sam and Nirriti to join forces; not while Yama is on Sam's side. Taraka wants his rematch with Yama to determine which of them is the baddest badass on the planet. So he delivers Sam's message to the heart of a storm. "For the storm never lies ... and it always says No!"

But Nirriti does receive an offer from an unexpected quarter. Ganesha shows up in his camp. "You know I am a Christian sympathizer," Ganesha says, reminding Nirriti how he aided him in his flight from Heaven. Ganesha tells him that the gods plan to let Nirriti tire himself out taking the next few cities, then meeting him in force at the city of Kilbar; but Ganesha's own plan is for the demigods who have been dispatched to defend Kilbar to take a dive. A lot of the younger demigods are dissatisfied with Brahma's rule; and perhaps Ganesha has decided that this Brahma is not as malleable as the previous one. He does not say exactly what he gets out of all this; he merely asks Nirriti to remember his visit and his offer.

"Would you trust this one?" Olvegg asks after Ganesha has left.

"Yes, but I would give him his silver afterward."

Sam holds a council of war. Taraka has told him that Nirriti has rejected his offer. Nirriti's forces are advancing, city by city, up the river. Khaipur, where Sam and his friends are, lies right in their path. "We could not make a deal with Nirriti. Do you think we could make one with Heaven?"

This outrages Yama. Hasn't Sam's whole campaign been a war against the gods?

No, Sam tells him, the campaign has been about Acceleration; empowering the humans of the planet to improve their tech level and their lives without an oppressive hand over them. The gods have actually been doing very little these past fifty years while Sam dreamed in Nirvana to hinder technology; and humans have shown a greater willingness to defy the mandates of Heaven. "Since this is the situation as it actually exists, they have nothing to lose by acknowledging it. In fact, they could make it a show to their favor, as a benign gesture of divine graciousness. I think theat they would be willing to make the concessions Nirriti would not --"

"Heaven fell that day at Keenset," Sam continues. "Another generation, perhaps two, and its power over mortals will have passed... They have reached their peak. Their decline has set in."

Yama is still not happy. He has personal reasons for wanting Heaven to fall: he still has an obsessive love for Kali, his one time lover and wife who now wears the body and the role of Brahma; as well as an implacable hatred of her for her betrayal of him. Not a good situation. Sam promises that he will deal with Brahma.

As he did before in Mahartha, Sam calls Heaven through the local temple's communication system. "Who are you who wears the turban of the First and goes armed in the Temple," Brahma demands.
"Rild didn't kill me. The phantom cat who shall remain nameless did a good job, but it wasn't good enough. And now I've crossed back over the Bridge of the Gods. The Lokapalas have chosen me as their leader. We will defend Khaipur and break Nirriti, if Heaven will help us." 
"Sam... it couldn't be you!' 
"Then call me Kalkin, or Siddhartha, or Tathagatha, or Mahasamatman, or Binder, or Buddha, or Maitreya. It's Sam, though. I have come to worship thee and make a bargain."
Sam lays out his offer: roughly the same one he had for Nirriti. He wants Heaven to sanction Acceleration and religious freedom. In addition, he wants an end to the Lords of Karma's religious monopoly on reincarnation. "The first two merely amount to agreeing that something does exist and has a right to go on. The third will come to pass whether you like it or not, so I'm giving you a chance to be graceful about it."

Brahma agrees and tells Sam to untie the temple's priest. Then adds:
"After the battle, should we live, I would talk with you -- concerning mutual worshp." 
"You wish to become a Buddhist?" 
"No, a woman again..."
Unlike the Battle of Keenset in the previous chapter, we get very few glimpses of the Battle of Khaipur. Ganesha tries one last bit of treachery, attempting to stab Brahma in the back in the heat of the battle, but he is killed instead by Olvegg. Nirriti, clad in Kirbyesque battle armor, engages Brahma in hand-to-hand combat.

As Yama rides to Brahma's aid, he gets hit by several gallons of water. It's not a premature victory bath of Gatorade; it's Taraka, washing the demon repellant of Yama so that the two of them can fight. Now Taraka finally gets his wish; he gets to test himself againt the full fury of Yama's power. Brahma breaks Nirriti's neck but is attacked by Indra who tries to complete the betrayal planned by Ganesha.

Sam rides up to the scene in time to see Taraka as the demon's life is extinguished. "Oh foolish demon! ...It need not have been..." Olvegg is badly wounded. Nirriti is dying. Indra is dead. And so is Brahma.

Yama drops down beside Brahma, the deathgod desperately trying to revive the one who had been his lover. "Too late," says Nirriti, "Or rather, just in time. You're Azreal, aren't you? The Angel of Death..."

Furious, Yama slaps Nirriti, who responds by reciting the Beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in spirit... Blessed are they that mourn... Blessed are the meek..."

"'And blessed are the peacemakers,'" Yama snaps at him. "'for they will be called the children of God. Where do your fit into the picture, Black One? Whose child are you, to have wrought as you have done?" In disgust, Yama turns from the mad cleric; picks up Brahma and walks back to the city.

Sam, however, offers the dying man a drink from his canteen. Nirriti recognizes him. "You? You rose again?"

"It doesn't count," says Sam. I didn't do it the hard way."

One gets the sense in this poignant conversation that this was not the battle Sam ever wanted to win, or even to fight. "I agree with everything you said to Yama, and so do the followers of the one they called the Buddha.... Whatever the source, the message was pure, believe men That is the only reason it took root and grew."

"It was a greater will than mine that determined I die in the arms of the Buddha, that decided upon this Way for this world," Nirriti says. "Give me your blessing, oh Gautama. I die now."

The battle is over now, and Khaipur stands. Kubera brings the badly wounded Olvegg to the Halls of Karma and and finds unexpected carnage; all the technicians have been killed. The dead body of Brahma lies on one of the transfer tables. "Someone must have told Yama he couldn't use the machinery to try a transfer," Kubera says.

Tak has been given a human body again, and has decided to join up with Jan Olvegg, now healed, and go seeking adventure. "I'd like to see the rest of the world, Kubera, before you manage to mechanize all the magic out of it." He also looks up Sam to say good-bye. "I knew you'd win. I knew you'd find the answer."

"It was just a small battle," Sam insists. "They could have done as well without me."
But he does concede that "Something always manages to draw me near the tree that lightning is about to fall upon." It's not Desinty, he insists, "Rather an accidental social conscience and some right mistake-making, I fear." Sam turns down Tak's offer to come adventuring with him, and muses that perhaps he'll take Tak's old job and become Sam of the Archives. Tak finds this unlikely.

Kubera has finally tracked Yama down. He finds the deathgod holed up in an inn with a girl, scarcely more than a child, whom he is trying to teach how to speak. "She is my daughter," Yama tells Kubera. "Her name is Murga." The reader might miss it, but one of Kali's other names was Durga. "She is retarded," Yama continues. "She suffered some brain damage..."

"Congenital, or transfer effect?" Kubera asks. He's not stupid. Yama had attempted to transfer Kali's soul into a new body at the Hall of Karma, but Brahma was already too far gone. But none of this is explicitly stated, and Yama insists, "She is my daughter... Murga." The cycle of reincarnation has ended for Kali. She has been reborn, but is now a completely different woman; a blank slate.

Kubera offers to help; and uses his power to infuse inanimate objects with emotional states, he stimulates the learning centers of her brain. "The Lokapalas are never defeated."

The narrative ends by once again taking a step back into the voice of the storyteller. We are given four different accounts of Sam's departure. Some say he left Khaipur to put on the saffron robe of an anonymous monk. Some say that he was called back to Nirvana by the Powers Beyond Life. Others say that he adopted yet a new identity and walks among mankind still to carry on the fight defending the lowly from oppression. Then there are those who say he reconsidered Tak's offer and journeyed off to the Eastern Continent where new battles and adventures awaited.

Yama departed also, leaving his daughter in the hands of Kubera and Ratri; and he too may have ridden off into the east. The fate of both are unknown.
But look around you... 
Death and Light are everywhere, always, and they begin, end, strive, attend, into and upon the Dream of the Nameless tha is the world, burning words within Samsara, perhaps to create a thing of beauty. 
And the wearers of the saffron robe still meditate upon the Way of Light, and the girl who is named Murga visits the Temple daily, to place before her dark one in his shrine the only devotion he receives, of flowers.

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