When I reviewed Illium and Olympos by Dan Simmons I was quite impressed by how he managed to seamlessly blend the legendary ancient epic with post-singularity science fiction while staying true to both. I gave Simmons a lot of credit for the idea of exploiting Clarke’s Third Law to it’s fullest logical extent. Little did I know that such a thing has been done before, and much better by Roger Zelazny in late 70’s.
Zelazny is a household name due to the unyielding popularity of his anachronistic, heroic power fantasy series Chronicles of Amber. I only read 1 and a half books from that series, and never really thought much of them mostly because they were just that: fantasy. And you know how I feel about fantasy. Don’t get me wrong: Zelazny writes very well, and the series departs quite a bit from the standard Tolkienesque template all fantasy writers have to work of (as this is essentially the litmus test of the genre). It just didn’t do much for me.
I did however, very much enjoy his Lord of Light which is most definitely a work of Science Fiction, even if it reads much like Fantasy. Zelazny was able to seamlessly blend the somewhat exotic (to us Westerners) myths of the Hindu pantheon with a dash of speculative science fiction creating something very unique and awesome. So awesome in fact that many years later Dan Simmons successfully re-used that formula, but using the more familiar Homeric epic as the backdrop. The premise, and for the most part the overall plot arc are rather similar.
The big difference between the two however is that Zelazny has more style. His omniscient, third person narrator never really breaks character and recants the story as if it was an old legend. He is deliciously ignorant of the SF elements of the story. Only the characters themselves are allowed to break the facade and utter anachronisms or explain technological gadgets. This, in my opinion gives the book an air of mystery as initially the reader is not privy to the inner workings of this world. It is plain that the magic of the setting is not at all magical, that the individuals who call themselves gods are not at all divine, and that the two moons in the sky, and planetary rings suggest visible at night suggest the story is not taking place on Earth at all.
Part of the fun with this book is slowly unraveling the mysteries of the setting, so I wouldn’t want to spoil too much of the plot. It will suffice to say it is worth reading. The characters are rather vibrant and colorful, and you come to enjoy them. Zelazny is a great storyteller an he weaves the plot threads well in a non-linear fashion creating a tapestry of legends and allegories about an enigmatic hero who is sometimes a prince, sometimes an enlightened teacher, sometimes a traveler possessed by demons and sometimes counted as one of the mighty gods who forged the world. Each story is another piece of the puzzle that helps you understand the enigmatic opening chapter in which someone or some thing is yanked out of Nirvana and incarnated into a human body, to aid a conspiracy in plot to topple Heaven.
I should probably also add that the protagonist is actually someone I could easily relate to and identify with: Sam is the last of the Accelerationist. He is the Prometheus of his world: one who aims to advance the technological progress and bring about change at any cost. His ideals mirror those of mine and I would like to think that if I was in his place I’d embark on a similar quest.
If you liked Simmon’s Illium novels, I highly recommend this book. If you didn’t like them, it is still worth picking up, considering it is shorter, more succinct and strikingly different not only with respect to the setting but also to the writing style. It is just a joy to read.