Lord of Light
I have mentioned before that I often, through the blindest of coincidence, read books in quick succession that inexplicably share themes, despite a superficial lack of any similarity. This happens enough that I am inaugurating a brand new, irregular column called “Throwdown!” where I combine the books into one improbable review. As part of the fun is my stumbling on these crazy connections, “Throwdown!” is by necessity an unplanned, whenever it pops up kind of post. This time I’m tossing one of SF’s hottest newer voices in the ring with an acknowledged master of the art, as Charles Stross and Roger Zelazny pick apart anti-technological authoritarianism.
These two may not seem like a natural pairing. I’m sure Stross has read Lord of Light at some point, as it is widely hailed as a classic of speculative fiction, but I would not place him in the Zelazny clan were I to create SF geneologies. Stross is Hard SF, with a smidgen of zany space opera, while Zelazny is, well, Zelazny. He’s kind of his own subgenre, where New Wave meets The Sixties and casually subverts the hazy border of science fiction and fantasy. Nobody was more surprised than I when both sets of characters started arguing about the exact same things, setting up a bizarre dialogue across several decades and subgenres.
I read Singularity Sky first, so it gets to fire the opening salvo. Stross is one of those authors that exploded on the scene during the ten year break I took from SF. (High school, college, and living out of the country always conspire against reading for pleasure.) I’ve been racing to catch up since discovering him a year ago, reading things in random order as I come across them in the library. He is part of the UK Invasion that occasionally leaves me despairing that US science fiction is going the way of US manufacturing. We may have to institute non-tariff barriers lest the brilliance across the pond do the same thing to our once proud SF industry that the Japanese did to our TV sector. Sky is apparently his first published novel, but I saw little of the awkward rough edges that often populate debuts. Stross is nothing if not confident; fortunately his books live up to the bravado.
Like Vernor Vinge, his literary godfather, Stross is deeply concerned with the Singularity, that moment when either a) technological change reaches critical mass and blows far beyond what society is prepared for, b) the emergence of AI, or c) some combination of the two. In Sky‘s case, the Singularity happened once on Earth, which triggered the events that set the stage for the book, and then another Singularity happens on a distant colony planet and triggers the events recorded in the book. Said events are intensely political, because every political system we have ever tried is built on an economy with scarcity at the heart of it. The Singularity ushers in a post-scarcity economy, which explodes whatever political system is in place. Where Stross crosses the streams with Zelazny is in his target society.
The New Republic is an authoritarian semi-empire encompassing several worlds, within which there are strict rules on technological advance. Innovation breeds instability, which in turn threatens the ruling elite, so technology is carefully controlled and suppressed with the aid of a reactionary religion. The Festival, about which the less explained the less spoiled, stumbles upon a backwater Republic world, drops a rain of mobile phones on the unsuspecting populace, and unleashes a technological fever dream on feudalists and their Marxist antagonists. As the New Republic Navy scrambles to regain control, a pair of observers/agents from post-Singularity Earth tag along for the ride and attempt to influence the outcome. Throughout, the characters argue over stability, suppression, and control versus innovation, opportunity, and entropy.
Lord of Light is a very different animal. Hugo winner, respected classic, and genre bending product of the Sixties, this book has probably never been paired with a Charles Stross work before. Zelazny being what he is, I’m certain that there have been theses written about him in general and this book in particular. I doubt that I have anything new to add to a critical discussion whose page count must run to several multiples of the original book. I grabbed it on the same day as Sky during a trip to an unfamiliar library branch in town, deciding that it was high time I put another notch in the Hugo Winner tally; I even read them back to back. I almost fell out of my bus seat when, in the middle of a wild story about men who have taken on the identity of Hindu gods and oppress the colonists they delivered to a planet far from Earth, a character who had chosen to re-enact the founding of Buddhism starts debating with Brahma whether or not to encourage technical development among the plebes.
It goes without saying, or at least it should, that the authors come down on the side of Science. No gazing fondly into the mists of time for Stross or Zelazny, it’s full speed ahead with industrial revolution and goodbye (eventually) to cholera. Stross in particular is honest about the human cost of development, because there is always a cost, but neither of them see any romance in peasants grubbing around in the dirt when technology could provide them with machines, soap, sandwich presses, and other trappings of civilization. This is an obvious clue to those who can’t decide if Lord of Light is fantasy or science fiction, as few self-respecting fantasy authors would be so gleeful about leaving gallant knights, fair maidens, swords, and serfdom behind.
Aside from this shared theme, there is little tying the two books together. Stross writes a brash, fast-paced tale with a solid base of both science and political economy, plus a whiff of Iain M. Banks nuttiness. Zelazny is the poet laureate of SF, somehow packing enough story, humanity, barely hinted at history, and philosophy to last at least a trilogy, all in the word count that some authors spend in their introductory chapters. He accomplishes, without ever seeming to try, the level of literary depth that so many other fantasy authors reach for, but ultimately fall short of. They strive in rather obvious fashion to Say Something, while Zelazy gives the impression that he tossed off the chapter before breakfast. This is all important, because, as any artist knows, it is the illusion of effortlessness that elevates a work to greatness. His book is full of the Sixties, with its anti-authority tropes, pacifist moments, and the mysteries of both India and Buddhism, while Stross is plugged into the latest debates about AI, economics, and the limits of empire. In spite of this, both arrive at the same conclusion, finding consensus in a conversation they might not even realize they were engaged in. Onward, indeed, to sandwich presses.
Rating: Continuing with the Old Meets New theme, Maradona coaching the Argentine National Team, perhaps? But without the cocaine, frenetic emoting, arguments with the media, or a be-suited Slip’N’Slide maneuver after a critical goal.