Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

“I’ll be back.”
-The T-800, The Terminator

This column’s theme: Reincarnation: books where death is neither the end nor the beginning but more of a middle for the characters.

Sometimes you just can’t keep a good man or woman down, and this column it’s all about characters that constantly beat death and come back again – and not in the typical hey-there’s-something-at-the-door-don’t-open-it Monkey’s Paw way either. These people are fine, just sometimes sporting a different face and a bit more mileage on their souls and maybe some painfully gained wisdom.
So with that in mind, let’s start with a science fiction twist on the Hindu’s perspective:

So if you like:

Hindu gods
Buddhism
Using godlike technology to become, well, godlike
Troublemakers who took a comparative religions class
Authors with a very direct writing style

You might like

Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny

Overview

On a far future colony of earth, crew members of a colony ship have kept the technology to become incarnations of the Hindu gods and rule over the colonists. However one member of the crew seeks to overthrow them using a competing philosophy.

Sample passage

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 never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit.

It was in the days of the rains that their prayers went up, not from the fingering of knotted prayer cords or the spinning of prayer wheels, but from the great pray-machine in the monastery of Ratri, goddess of the Night.

The high-frequency prayers were directed upward through the atmosphere and out beyond it, passing into that golden cloud called the Bridge of the Gods, which circles the entire world, is seen as a bronze rainbow at night and is the place where the red sun becomes orange at midday.

Some of the monks doubted the orthodoxy of this prayer technique, but the machine had been built and was operated by Yama-Dharma, fallen, of the Celestial City; and, it was told, he had ages ago built the mighty thunder chariot of Lord Shiva: that engine that fled across the heavens belching gouts of fire in its wake.

Despite his tall from favor, Yama was still deemed mightiest of the artificers, though it was not doubted that the Gods of the City would have him to die the real death were they to learn of the pray-machine. For that matter, though, it was not doubted that they would have him to die the real death without the excuse of the pray-machine, also, were he to come into their custody. How he would settle this matter with the Lords of Karma was his own affair, though none doubted that when the time came he would find a way. He was half as old as the Celestial City itself, and not more than ten of the gods remembered the founding of that abode. He was known to be wiser even than the Lord Kubera in the ways of the Universal Fire. But these were his lesser Attributes. He was best known for another thing, though few men spoke of it.

The small ape who assisted him chuckled. “Your prayers and your curses come to the same. Lord Yama,” commented the ape. “That is to say, nothing.”

“It has taken you seventeen incarnations to arrive at this truth?” said Yama. “I can see then why you are still doing time as an ape.”

Takeaway

Zelazny’s strengths of a clear, no-nonsense writing style and a fascination with mythology and immortal characters are very much on display here. Lord of Light won the 1968 Hugo award for best novel, and, it being one of my favorite books, I’d have to say it was well deserved. The setting of a culture that has the technology to do literal reincarnation is an interesting way to bridge the fantastical and practical. Put on top of that the technology to become super human and it’s a perfect example of the old adage “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Here crew members became gods to fight the planet’s original inhabitants, and ended up ruling over the colonists. The plot follows the one crew member with enough old Earth history to pick an ability that might allow him to go toe to toe with the other gods, if they don’t take him out first. Then again, death may not be the end since everybody on this planet has a history of coming back in a different body.

Or if you like:

The movie What Dreams May Come
Authors Grady Hendrix and Christopher Moore
Some comedy with your tragedy
Do-overs

You might like

Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore

Overview

Milo has lived 9,995 lives, and has 5 more to get it right before his time runs out. Complicating this is his ongoing love affair with an incarnation of death, whom he’ll have to leave either way.

Sample passage

“Well,” said Floyd, “basically I don’t think my wife is very nice to me.”

“Why don’t you leave her?” asked Milo.

“I’m trying to be mature about things. Marriage is work. My parents didn’t raise quitters.”

Milo cast a tube lure waaaaaaay out, watched it splash down and then yanked back hard,and dropped a giant angry barracuda onto the deck, right in front of Floyd.

“Christ!” screamed Floyd. “What’s wrong with you?”

Floyd exploded in panic, dancing and spinning.

“Be mature about it,” suggested Milo.

The barracuda flipped into the air, snapping at Floyd’s hands.

“Give it time,” added Milo. “Fishing is work.”

The barracuda mowed through an empty beer can and went for Floyd’s ankles.

“The problem with a barracuda,” said Milo, “isn’t that you aren’t being mature. The problem is that it’s a barracuda. If you don’t like being in the boat with it, one of you has to go.”

Takeaway

This was interesting all the way through. It skips around between Milo’s incarnations in the past and future, and is tied together with his time in the afterlife when he hooks up with his girlfriend Suzie, a manifestation of death who’s getting sick of her job. His lives are funny, at times disturbing, and very, very well written. Poore is a master of dropping throwaway details that become setups for jokes later on, and this book had me laughing out loud at times, yet he still manages to create characters that the reader cares about. If you’re a fan of Moore or Hendrix, definitely check this one out. 

Or if you like:

Historical figures in your novels
Waterfront property
Series with a big question to answer
Geoengineering

You might like

The Riverworld series by Philip Jose Farmer

Overview

Everyone born before 2008 has been resurrected as youthful versions of themselves on a planet that is one long river valley. If one of them dies, they just wake up the next morning elsewhere on the planet. The big question, of course, is who set this up, and why?

Sample passage

He rose to his feet, knowing that his wounds would be healed and he would be whole again, but not quite believing it. Near him was a grail and a pile of six nearly folded towels of various sizes, colors, and thicknesses.

Twelve feet away, another man, also naked, was rising from the short bright-green grass. Burton’s skin grew cold. The blondish hair, broad face, and light-blue eyes were those of Hermann Goring.

The German looked as surprised as Burton. He spoke slowly, as if coming out of a deep sleep. “There’s something very wrong here.”

“Something foul indeed,” Burton replied. He knew no more of the pattern of resurrection along The River than any other man. He had never seen a resurrection, but he had had them described to him by those who had. At dawn, just after the sun topped the un-climbable mountains, a shimmering appeared in the air beside a grailstone. In the flicker of a bird’s wing, the distortion solidified, and a naked man or woman or child appeared from nowhere on the grass by the bank. Always the indispensable grail and the towels were by the “lazarus.” Along a conceivably ten to twenty million-mile long river valley in which an estimated thirty-five to thirty-six billion lived, a million could die per day. It was true that there were no diseases (other than mental) but, though statistics were lacking, a million were probably killed every twenty-four hours by the myriads of wars between the one million or so little states, by crimes of passion, by suicides, by executions of criminals, and by accidents. There was a steady and numerous traffic of those undergoing the “little resurrection,” as it was called.

But Burton had never heard of two dying in the same place and at the same time being resurrected together. The process of selection of area for the new life was random – or so he had always thought.

One such occurrence could conceivably take place, although the probabilities were one in twenty million. But two such, one immediately after the other, was a miracle.

Burton did not believe in miracles. Nothing happened that could not be explained by physical principles – if you knew all the facts. ” He did not know them, so he would not worry about the “coincidence” at the moment. The solution to another problem was more demanding. That was, what was he to do about Goring?

Takeaway

The Riverworld series encompasses a series of five books, and a number of historical characters as the that include from explorer (not actor) Richard Burton, Mark Twain, and Hermann Göring. Apart from the interesting character interactions here, there is the overarching question of who set this place up, and why. One of the interesting twists on resurrection here is that Richard Burton travels the planet by dying and waking up someplace else, though as it turns out this approach is not entirely without its problems. Twain takes a more pragmatic approach and ends up building a riverboat to search for the source of the river. Part of the enjoyment of the whole series is reading Farmer’s take on historical figures in a science fiction environment – it’s an interesting idea, and well executed here.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments, and stay tuned for my next column, where the theme will be: Sometimes Dead Is Better.

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