I read this book about 18-Jan-2014. I've read this book before. The book is copyright 1967. This note was last modified Wednesday, 22-Jan-2014 22:40:08 PST.
This note contains spoilers for the book.
I'm rereading my 5 best SF novels.
This one is based on Hindu and Buddhist ideas (as bent by the crew of the colony ship to control the colonists, and then bent by Sam to oppose the gods). Christianity features in it as Nirriti the Black, zombie master. Is it any wonder I love this book?
The main characters are mostly crewman from a colony ship, who have either take up work as gods of the Hundu pantheon or refused to do so and left Heaven. The big issue driving things is "Accelerationism", that is, whether the colonists deserve help and support from the crew.
There's clearly a lot of backstory that we're not given in any detail. There are (or were) a lot of native intelligent races on the planet, including at least the Rakasha (disembodied demons), the Mothers of the Glow, and witches on the southern continent; indeed, by today's standards it would not be even a remote candidate for human colonization. However, apparently they did colonize it, and there were extensive wars to bind the Rakasha, eliminate the Mothers of the Glow, and there's an ongoing war against the witches. Sam was active in at least the earlier wars, lifetimes, ago, and developed great personal power (his particular Attribute was electrodirection) and a major reputation. He has since retired and apparently stayed out of the major cities, since in section ii we see him discovering how things have become while he was away.
This book blurs the SF / fantasy line somewhat. While Yama is clearly an engineer and inventor, and while it's quite explicit that they're colonists brought to this planet from Earth in a starship, there's a lot of magic around. Gods have "attributes", extra-sensory powers of various sourts, which they practice and enhance (and supplement with technology). The natives also have magic of various sorts.
It's peak-period Zelazny, of course. He's playing with mythological themes at a high level, and his words are bringing us along for the ride. This is always wonderful. He still may be at his best in shorter lengths, but he's taking full advantage of the space to tell a big story in this novel.
In contrast with Dune, there are rather more powerful female characters with agency. The ability to switch body genders in a transfer may confuse that a little bit, especially since he plays a little bit with the first Brahma we encounter being hyper-masculine because he was born female and is trying to live up to the role, and not fully succeeding. He also falls for the convention of having pretty supporting girls around for the convenience of the main male characters. I don't remember any discussion or blatant assumptions about what is possible for men vs. women, though.
The chronology of the book isn't linear, something I didn't exactly follow the first times I read it. And something I don't generally approve of, especially if it extends beyond a simple framing sequence.
The book has 7 labeled sections (not specifically called chapters, parts, or anything else; each begins at the top of a page with a number in lower-case Roman numerals and some quoted header material).
By laying out each section and the main events in it, I hope to finally satisfy myself that it all connects up and makes sense.
Page numbers cited are from Avon paperback N187, third printing, September 1969.
It is said that fifty-three years after his liberation he returned from the Golden Cloud.
Sam, that is. Yama pulls him out of the magnetic cloud circling their planet, where the gods sent him when death had proven an inadequate solution to the challenges he made against heaven.
Yama and Ratri and Tak (in ape form) are gathered at her monastery for this. After pulling him back, they are investigated by several gods, first flying near in the Thunder Chariot, and then walking in on foot. They manage to kill Mara, Lord of Illusion (and, in later chapters, illusionists are the ones they have the greatest trouble fighting), and The Buddha preaches a sermon to blank it out of people's minds enough to avoid detection by the wardens of Karma.
The section ends with Sam setting out to meditate, apparently on his previous lives, thus setting us up for the flash-backs.
One time a minor rajah from a minor principality came with his retinue into Mahartha....
Sam, as Prince Siddhartha, rides into Mahartha to buy a new body. He discovers that the body merchants have become the Masters of Karma and are now an arm of the temples—one can't simply buy a new body any more, one must be examined for karmic status.
The pray-o-mats, coin-driven prayer machines, were also new.
He finds his old friend Jan Olvegg, also one of The First. Sam says he knew him when he was captain "of a ship which did not sail these oceans", which I take to mean he was captain of the colony ship that brought them there. (There could have been many colony ships, and Olvegg could have been somebody Sam knew as a sea captain on Earth rather than a space captain, of course. Olvegg says later (page 280) that his ship was the Star of India, which makes it the colony ship pretty surely.)
Olvegg tells Sam, and hence us, how things now stand. Which is not very well.
Sam goes to the temple and manages to get a telephone line to Brahma. They discuss his resurrection.
Sam then arranges for his friend and rival the Shan of Irabek to believe he is Siddhartha, and to claim the body Brahma has reserved for Sam. This he does, and as he is riding away it becomes apparent that Brahma has not dealt in good faith—the new body is epileptic. This gives Zelazny the excuse for perhaps the worst pun in science fiction: "Then the fit hit the Shan".
So Sam sacks the body shops and temples, arranges for some important new bodies (including his own), steals one set of transfer machinery, and leaves town kind of in a hurry.
This is clearly the beginning of the active phase of Sam's war with Heaven.
It is said that, when the Teacher appeared, those of all castes went to hear his teachings, as well as animals, gods and an occasional saint...
Sam introduces Buddhist teachings. Kali sends Rild to kill him, and due to some luck (Rild catches a fever and is nursed back to health by Sam's monks) and Sam's teachings, Rild is converted. Then Yama comes, manages to kill Rild, but is left by Sam sinking in quicksand.
It is told how the Lord of Light descended into the Well of the Demons, to make there a bargain with the chief of the Rakasha.
Sam frees the Rakasha that he had bound early in the colonization venture from where they are kept, locked up in Hellwell as well as bound individually.
Taraka, chief of the demons, manages to dominate Sam and share his body for a while, and strengthens Sam's "fire" so that he could survive without a body. And Sam teaches him enough of humanity that he learns to feel guilt.
The gods come to Hellwell, and manage to destroy or drive off the Rakasha, and capture Sam. It's Kali's ultrasonic skull that seems to be what really tips the balance, not any of the more powerful weapons. Sam is captured and taken back to Heaven.
Sam is held captive there some time, and talks with many gods. He learns that Yama and Kali are to be married (against the tradition of Heaven), and that Heaven does not currently plan to execute him.
From Hellwell to Heaven he went, there to commune with the gods.
This is pretty clearly a direct continuation of iv.
This is the section built around the white cats (albino tigers) of Kaniburrha. They wander that forest, and also wander into the city, but normally the city is cloaked from them so that while they wander it they think they're in the forest.
The gods talk and gossip and politic, and Sam spends considerable time with Kali and is even offered various chances at a reprieve (which may not be real).
We also meet Tak of the Archives (and of the Bright Spear) in human guise, explaining Accelerationism to Mistress Maya (who does not, in fact, want to be put down on the list that those asking for too much information on that subject are put on). His ending up an ape is a result of his actions here and in directly helping Sam.
Everybody is coming to Heaven for the wedding.
Sam plots, with Helba the prince of thieves (nominally retired during a female incarnation, but willing to help just this once), to retrieve the Talisman of the Binder from the museum. Tak catches them at it, but they escape him. However, "the third sentinel" does indeed stop him (an illusionist, again).
And various gods change their minds, and both Sam and Helba are to be executed by the phantom cats as part of the wedding celebration. Kali incarnates as a cat and does the job herself, in the end (despite Tak trying to protect his father Sam). Tak is transmigrated into an ape, and Ratri into a plain middle-aged body, in punishment.
During the time that followed the death of Brahma, there came upon the Celestial City a period of turmoil.
Another direct continuation from the previous section.
Brahma dies, mysteriously in that nobody they can place anywhere near the scene is guilty of the crime according to the psych probe.
Among many other problems, this requires them to find a new Brahma. They settle on Kali, still on her honeymoon with Yama. When they find them and bring them back, Kali decides to take the job, which, since it involves a body swap, automatically ends the marriage. Yama is not best pleased with this.
Meanwhile actual technical progress is happening in Keenset. The printing press is invented, and flush toilets (leading to the amusing story of the merchant Vama, who wished it to go on his karmic record that he started using the flush toilet several months before his was actually installed).
Krishna figures out what happened (though not how), and finds privately by comparison of old brain tapes that Sam is the killer. He goes and finds the god whose body Sam is now wearing to discuss it. And, unlike in a modern thriller, does not get killed himself. Sam was living as a force vortex thanks to Taraka strengthening his "flame", and used his talent at electrodirection to get the machinery to put him, rather than the customer, into the new body at a transfer. He and others, including Yama, leave heaven.
The new Lokapalas go to defend Keenset. There is a tremendous battle, but again in the end Mara and Brahma (using his screaming skull) carry the day and capture Sam and Yama and others. Yama escapes execution through some technical wizardry he wears in his turban, and is presumed to be alive somewhere. And Sam was transmitted into the magnetic belt around the planet.
Another name by which he is sometimes called is Maitreya, meaning Lord of Light.
Nirriti the Black is threatening a series of cities, and the gods are delaying defending them. Ratri, and Kubera, and Tak, are still pushing for acceleration, and are helping it along clandestinely.
Although I'm not finding explicit clues, I believe that this section takes up at the end of Sam's meditation that started at the end of section i, thus closing the flashback.
There's another battle, and Heaven is somewhat routed. Brahma is injured, and Yama attempts to rescue him (remember, this is his old love Kali still), and ends with a brain-damaged child. He is attempting to do what he can for her, when Kubera finds him and helps. It looks like the child may do well enough, however the romance does. It's a tragic romance all around and always has been.