Lord of Light is hard to describe without spoilers up to the last third of the book, so I won’t even try. You have been warned: hic sunt ~~dracones~~ spoilers. Even adding this book to my “space monks” list is technically a spoiler.
Lord of Light is Hindu and Buddhist mythology, in space, with advanced technology, dialled up to 11. Sounds good? Sounds good.
You get to piece together the worldbuilding yourself. Zelazny is good at giving you enough details to allow you to make out a confusing picture, and then validating your guesses. A sci-fi staple, but I like feeling smart, so I won’t complain. Said worldbuilding comes down to this: Some humans, in the far-out future, can develop god-like psychic (but very real and technical) powers. This takes a ton of time and everybody can learn at most one of those, and then good luck figuring out how to use it well.
Humans travelled to a new planet. Here they had tons of descendents and nuked/imprisoned all native life forms. Then they went “oops, we shouldn’t give our dirty native children nukes to play with” and installed themselves as gods. Because religion is hard or they were lazy, they went with the Hindu pantheon – enough space for everybody and some variation. Also useful to keep everybody in check by using the whole reincarnation (which everybody gets, state-mandated, once they turn 60) thing as a way to keep dissidents in check (place them in a lower caste). They also suppress new technology like the printing press.
Some of the original travelers are not amused. Our protagonist is introduced thus: “His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam.” He uses Buddhism (because he knows how to use it with and against Hinduism) to get people to resist their technologically advanced gods, and leads a war against heaven. That’s it, that’s the story. It’s well-told, it’s fun, and it has aged well. The only really sketchy bit is how everybody is still straight and hung up on their birth gender (if they switched), but that’s still way ahead of its time and could also be written today – and at least Zelazny considered the question of gender swaps and reasonable reactions at all. Way ahead of his time.
What I found really interesting is that this is a take on cultural appropriation – after all, both parties just grab a convenient culture and use it to their own ends. I kept wondering if this book would have been published today, and if public reaction would’ve managed to see it as a commentary on cultural appropriation instead of appropriation in its own right. I’d like to think so, but then, I’m an optimist.