Roger Zelazny has the reputation of being one of the most interesting and innovative speculative fiction writers of his generation. His Amber novels are regarded as classics of fantasy and Damnation Alley is highly regarded to this day. Unfortunately it wasn't until recently that I got into his work, starting with his Hugo-winning 1967 novel, Lord of Light.
The setting is the distant future. Earth - now called Urath - is nearly forgotten. Mankind has settled a distant colony world, but the original crew of the colonisation ship have, through advanced technology, become extremely powerful beings and taken on the mantle of the Hindu gods. The general population is kept in harsh, downtrodden servility to these deities. Advanced AIs and the gods judge the 'karmic debt' of each person when they die, deciding if they are to be reborn in another human body or reincarnated as an animal or elevated to godhood. It is the ultimate hierarchal structure, designed to keep the powerful in power and the downtrodden under the heel. Every time a major technological discovery is made, the gods crush it with merciless force to ensure that the status quo continues.
One person thinks differently: Mahasamatman. He is one of the First, but has never claimed to be a god. But then, he has never claimed not to be a god. He refuses to believe in the innate superiority of the gods and finds what they have done to the people they were supposed to be protecting and serving repellent. To this end he carves an identity for himself as the Lord of Light, Buddha, and seeks to bring about the end of his world...
Lord of Light is an exceptionally clever, thought-provoking and intelligent novel. It is an incredibly fresh work. 1967? It could have been written yesterday. Zelazny is a funny and poetic writer, approaching each chapter, each interlude and each character from a slightly different angle, sometimes invoking rich mythic imagery. He bears some influences on his sleeve: at some moments the book feels like a Hindu cover version of The Dying Earth (complete with Vancian dialogue exchanges), but only momentarily. The mystery of how a futuristic, space-faring civilisation became a dramatic reenactment of Hindu mythology is never fully explained, but Zelazny gives us enough clues to work out ourselves how it happened. He also packs a hell of a lot into this 300-page tome, including vast wars and battles, struggles with body-stealing alien entities, brief-but-intriguing philosophical discourses on the nature of humanity and humourous monkey episodes. It's a story about myth, power and absolute corruption that resonates as strongly now as it did forty years ago.
Lord of Light (*****) is yet more proof that Gollancz's SF Masterworks list is one of the best, most definitive lists of the SF&F classics anyone could ask for. It is available in the UK from Gollancz and in the USA from Eos.