The novel is set on some colony planet of Earth. The whole planet has become inhabited by the descendants of the original colony. The original colonists are still around because they’ve discovered the technology to create new bodies for themselves as their previous ones. They have assumed the identities of the Hindu pantheon, complete with technologically generated powers. They keep the inhabitants of the world locked into a strict caste system. They have literalized karma and reincarnation and they decide who is worthy to join their ranks and after how many lives. Against this stands Sam, who has taken on the identity and ideology of the Buddha, as well as beings made of energy, the original inhabitants of the planet, rejected as demons by the rulers. He uses Buddhism to undermine the gods. I’m not familiar enough with either Hinduism or Buddhism to know how well he hews to those ideologies, nor how they would play to a practitioner of either religion. I know that he has created a complex and interesting story as the colonists mythologize themselves.
The novel is very smart about how ideologies can be twisted to purposes at odds with their core. There’s a cynicism on the part of the “gods”. To some extent they buy into their own lies, but they are really using a version of the Hindu ideology to subjugate a world. Similarly, Sam uses an ideology in which he doesn’t believe to undermine the others. Blind adherence to ideology is one of the most dangerous things in the world, regardless of the ideology. And the novel raises a question that I think about often in terms I hadn’t considered: can an ideologue be dissuaded from an ideology without replacing it with another that functions in the same way? There’s a paradox here; even taking the stance that ideology is dangerous is an ideology. And everyone has an ideology. I acknowledge that paradox fully. Nonetheless, ideology, when it becomes more important than people and more important than the facts, is dangerous. You don’t have to do a deep dive into history to find examples. Sam could have used other religions as the counterpoint to the faux Hinduism here. He says that he chose Buddhism over Islam because of the the fraught history between the two in his memories of Earth history. He simply needed an ideology that ran counter to the prevailing one. Zelazny’s answer to my question of do you need an ideology to fight an ideology is yes. I’m unable to think of a good counter argument at the moment, and that scares me.
If the book were written today, no doubt the body swapping would lend itself to a more contemporary conversation about gender. But I don’t think the prose or the structure of the story would change much, nor would its commentary on class. It is beautifully written and structured, and has a lot to say about how power is gained and wielded, and how those without power can be manipulated by those who have it. I think its reputation as a classic of science fiction and fantasy is well-earned, even as I think it deserves more consideration out of the genre. It certainly resonates well with things that I obsess about.
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