How Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light transformed into the CIA's Argo covert op
To facilitate the return of six US diplomats trapped in Iran, during the 1979 hostage crisis, CIA technician Tony Mendez concocts an incredible cover story: they're part of a film crew, scouting out locations in the Islamic republic for an epic science fiction movie. But one core prop is hard to find at short-notice: a convincing, ready-to-shoot screenplay.
Argo, a thriller directed by and starring Ben Affleck, dramatizes the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran, Iran, during the 1979 hostage crisis. To infiltrate the country and facilitate the diplomats' return, CIA technician Tony Mendez concocts an incredible cover story: they're part of a film crew, scouting out locations in the Islamic republic for an epic science fiction movie. One core prop: a convincing, ready-to-shoot screenplay.
The movie obscures its real-life origins, but it started with one of the 1960s most cutting-edge novels, Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light. Winner of the 1968 Hugo Award, Lord of Light was inspired by Buddhist and Hindu texts and chronicles the lives of people who who have mastered mind-uploading, genetic engineering and bodily transmigration. Zelazny's novel, like many of Philip K. Dick's most hallucinatory narratives, anticipated many of cyberpunk's thematic concerns.
In the late 1970s, a comic and science fiction fanatic by the name of Barry Ira Geller adapted Lord of Light into a screenplay, then recruited the country's best creative talent to take it from page to celluloid. Jack Kirby, the famed comics creator, illustrated the film's visual world. Planet of the Apes makeup master John Chambers advised, while science fiction author Ray Bradbury, architect Paolo Soleri and legendary futurist Buckminster Fuller also lent their talents to the project.
At some point during Lord of Light's development, Geller decides to focus his efforts—and investor money—on the Science Fiction Land theme park in Aurora, Colorado, inspired by the novel's message of technological liberation. While theme park attendees would have to buy tickets for admission, its technological revelations would be, in a manner of speaking, open-source.
His plans unraveled amid accusations of fraud and corruption. But Geller's project was ultimately reborn as the CIA's Argo cover-story, an integral part of "the Canadian Caper" in which the CIA rescued six American diplomats trapped amid the chaos of the Iran hostage crisis. That improbable story is detailed in Ben Affleck's new film, Argo—but the Lord of Light subplot is left out.
And so documentary filmmaker Judd Ehrlich, who has been working on a documentary on the Geller/Zelazny story for six years, is raising funds to tell the whole absurdly convoluted saga.
"Barry was this kid from the Bronx, who from a very young age was obsessed with comic books and science fiction, and would just read everything," said Ehrlich. "Zelazny's Lord of Light was a huge book that came out in 1967. And Barry wanted to adapt it. I think it spoke to him on a number of levels. A big part of the book is putting technology back into the hands of the people, and taking it out of the hands of the few. And through technology we could attain power."
Anyone who has read Lord of Light will note that it is, at heart, a story of shifting identities—the identities of people who constantly assume new avatars. As Ehrlich sees it, it's no surprise that it would appeal to Geller.
"There's also a story of reinvention in Lord of Light. People change bodies," says Ehrlich. "Barry has constantly reinvented himself. He's worn a lot of different masks through his life. This comes out in a much more literal sense when the CIA and Mendez—literal masters of disguise—get involved in the Argo ploy."
In the process, Geller managed to go from living in a $150 per month apartment to a house designed by one of Frank Lloyd Wright's disciples in the Hollywood Hills."
"I talk about him being this chameleon," Ehrlich said. "This is a guy who reinvented himself as this idea of a Hollywood producer. And, in fact, it really worked. Not only did he recruit all these creative people, but a bunch of investors, too. The creative people were all masters."
Added Ehrlich: "He really did get people to believe in his vision, which was the biggest-budget science fiction movie ever and the largest theme park in the world."
Buckminster Fuller was even enlisted to enclose the entire theme park in a floating Fuller Dome, similar to the futurist's proposal for a dome over Manhattan.
The problem was simple: Geller had never produced a film before and had absolutely zero experience in building theme parks. But his ambition was Walt Disney-sized.
"Ultimately Geller's plan with making a film of Lord of Light, and then the creation of Science Fiction Land, was to excite a new generation of people who would go to this theme park," said Ehrlich. "To create an incubator of science at the theme park that would do this groundbreaking research, and sort of put it out there for the public—not hold on to it, package it and take ownership for profit, but to give it to the world."
The city gave Geller and his collaborators—Kirby, Chambers, producer Jerry Schafer, football player Rosey Grier, all joined him from Hollywood—the red carpet treatment. But Geller's grand vision soon collapsed, the project coming to resemble a twisted pulp noir plot like Chinatown.
"Schafer said that there was a land deal for 200 acres," Ehrlich said. "They had $500 million dollars from the bank promised. They had this, they had that. It turned out there were all sorts of back room deals. Basically, the park promoters and half the government of Aurora ended up being indicted, including the mayor."
About a week later, the CIA's Tony Mendez took off for Tehran with Geller's script in hand. It was only around 2000 that Geller realized that his Lord of Light script—including Jack Kirby's designs—had made its way to the mastermind of the Argoruse, by way of John Chambers. Played by John Goodman in Argo, Chambers worked for both Mendez and the Science Fiction Land/Lord of Light project.
Chambers learned that that the CIA needed a cover story for its convoluted plan to rescue the hostages; Ehrlich is quick to point out that it's unclear if Chambers or Mendez conceived of transforming Lord of Light into the fake Argo production, but claims that Geller supposedly got the truth out of Chambers.
"Barry actually said he had a conversation with Chambers just before he died, in which Chambers said it was his idea and not at all Mendez's," said Ehrlich. "Chambers gave Mendez all of Jack Kirby's drawings and Geller's screenplay for Lord of Light. They just changed the name for their cover. In Affleck's film Argo, there's no Geller, no Science Fiction Land and no Lord of Light."
Asked about the genesis of his documentary, Ehrlich states that the documentary's former producer, Diane Bernard, came across the story in 2000 when she was working for Errol Morris on a short television piece. Morris got Mendez talking about the Argo mission, who in turn talked about the Kirby illustrations and Geller's screenplay.
"At that point she was thinking, 'Where did all these Kirby drawings and screenplay come from?'" says Ehrlich. "And she tracked it all back and found Barry. So that's when Barry found out, too, which is around the time that all this stuff was declassified."
"You do have people who wonder if the CIA could have had something to do with the downfall, so they had a clear cover," says Ehrlich, intrigued by the possibility of a conspiracy. "But, I don't know if there is any truth to that."
Given all the many layers of reality and fantasy, of simulacra, running through this saga, would anyone really be surprised if this were the truth?
One letter different, but a world apart.
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