I found a paperback copy of Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness at the College Hill Bookstore on Thayer Street in Providence, Rhode Island sometime in the mid-nineteen-seventies. Though I was frequently, literally, starving during my college years, I occasionally could not resist buying a book, even buying a new book. I could not tell you why I had not heard of or read Zelazny before, but for some reason, despite his great popularity, neither the Jacksonville Public Library where I grew up nor the Brown University Library, where I practically lived, had a copy. I can assure you I checked at the University Library before I spent the money.
I am a critical person, by nature, yet the opening scene of Creatures of Light and Darkness blew me away. The book was about creatures who played the roles of Egyptian gods, using advanced (and mostly fanciful) technologies. Highly satisfied by the read, I soon bought and devoured Zelazny's Lord of Light. It is still a book very much worth reading. In it a planet has been colonized and a society set up resembling the Hindu mythology of ancient India. The original colonists are immortal and powerful, using technology they have brought with them to the planet. However, they have populated the planet with their descendants, who are their subjects, and are lacking in technology and mostly impoverished. The "gods" are able to reincarnate themselves and their descendants using an advanced technology; karma consists of whether the gods like you or not. They can refuse to reincarnate you at all, or incarnate you into a lower class or even a lower life-form.
In short, a repressive regime of the worst sort, like Tibet before the Chinese replaced the old system of religious repression with a new system of bureaucratic repression. Lord of Light is about rebellion, and there's nothing I like so much as a good rebellion. The rebel leader is one of the original space-travellers, and he realizes he needs a religious myth to counter the crap the "Hindu" gods have promulgated. He chooses Buddhism for his liberation theology. The entire book is a tour-de-force that in itself places Roger Zelazny as one of the truly great writers of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, for me anyway, by the 1980's Zelazny was grinding out sword and sorcery trivia in his Amber series. I'm sure they were popular enough, with people so depressed about the political and social realities that pure fantasy was (and still is) preferable to any thought-provoking book. I don't keep close tabs on the science fiction world anymore, not with the forests needing defending and the rent needing to be paid, so I was surprised to learn that Zelazny died in 1995. This information came on the jacket of a review book I received, Donnerjack, co-written by Zelazny with one Jane Lindskold, apparently a fantasy writer of some fame. Donnerjack promised to be of the same calibre as Lord of Light, a last hurrah for a great writer. The book takes William Gibson's imagined cyberspace (which we are now beginning to see on the Internet) one step further in the direction of pure fantasy.
It seems that, in the somewhat distant future, computers are no longer digital but field-oriented, and some sort of crash allows the equivalent of the internet to create spaces of its own which are not only not under the control of their human programmers, but which have ecologies and strange creatures that evolve within them. Programmers, engineers, and scientists will find more than a few passages where willful suspense of disbelief is necessary, but the average computer or television user, who has no idea of how the thing actually works, will have no problem accepting the fantasy. It seems that this second reality, called Virtu, is ruled by three major and a host of minor gods, who are believed by humans to be artificial intelligences. However, these gods believe they are the original gods of Earth, and that the creation of Virtu has merely allowed them to be revitalized. For good measure, to avoid any criticism that would come from attacking an extant religion, Zelazny and Lindskold, doubtless on the advice of lawyers and corporate marketing people, choose to take these evil gods from the Babylonian pantheon. No one worships the Babylonian gods anymore (except maybe Newt or Saddam), but Donnerjack posits that they will be recreating their religion a few decades from now. Even cooler, Baal et al have discovered a way to pass from Virtu into ordinary reality, where a cadre of true believers already awaits them.
Needless to say, there's a young male hero, and a not-quite-as-highly-developed young female hero, who must stop this terrifying invasion by the Artificial Intelligences/Babylonian deities. Zelazny (or is it Lindskold, who is credited with The Pipes of Orpheus?) uses the myth of Orpheus as a starting point for this leg of the story: an engineer, who has fallen in love with a virtual woman, makes a bargain with Death. The virtual woman is not only resurrected, she is allowed to cross over into the real world. There she gives birth to a son, also named Donnerjack, who can move between the two worlds at will. There are many enchanting passages in Donnerjack, in particular the stories of the rogue programs who escape to the wild spaces of Virtu. There are places where the reader is certainly encouraged, if not forced, to think about metaphysics, ontology, and the nature of consciousness. Yet despite its complexity, the book is surprisingly lacking in depth. The Artificial Intelligences are not developed into interesting characters, although they hold the most promise. Despite the threatening invasion of the terrible ancient Babylonian deities, the world of Donnerjack is as dull as a suburban mall, and the demon AI's are far too easily defeated. Nevertheless, on the whole, Donnerjack is well worth reading. When you're done with it, be sure to read Lord of Light, which is the superior book, because even decades later, it's much more a metaphor for what's really going on around us.
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