Doris Lessing's First Sci-Fi Book Reads Like a Debut Novel

October 13, 1979

by Ursula Le Guin | November 18, 2013

photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

Doris Lessing takes risks, but does not play games. One does not turn to her books for humor or wit or playfulness, nor will one find in them any game playing in the sense of one-upping, faking, posturing. In her introductory remarks to Shikasta she states with characteristic straightforwardness what she sees as the modern novelist's debt to science fiction. Refusing even to take refuge in the respectability of "speculative fiction," she presents her book as science fiction, and I shall review it as such, gratefully; for science fiction has wasted far too much time apologizing to the pretentious and explaining itself to the willfully ignorant.

If I had read Shikasta without knowing who wrote it, I do not think I would have 
guessed it to be the work of an established author working with some awkwardness in a new mode; I am afraid I
 would have said: a first novel, typically
 earnest and overambitious, badly constructed, badly edited, showing immense promise; when this writer has 
learned the art well have a first-
ranker. ... Novel making is novel-mak
ing, whether imagination or observation dominates, and given Lessing's 
experience with the fiction of ideas and 
with near-future settings, the un-
shapeliness of Shikasta is surprising; the rambling title (which reads in full: Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta. Personal, Psychological, Historical Documents Relating to Visit by Johor (George Sherban) Emissary (Grade 9), 87th of the Period of the Last Days) is only too descriptive. To be sure, the subject is no less than a history of human life on earth, past, present, and future, not the sort of thing novelists who play safe, winners of fictional parlor-games, are likely to attempt. Lessing mentions Olaf Stapledon in her introduction, and, in scope, the book—especially as the first of a series—indeed vies with Last and First Men; but the almost obsessive organization, the unity of Stapledon’s thought, is wanting. The majesty of the vision is fitful. Sometimes it is majestic, sometimes is it little more than a pulp-Galactic Empire with the Goodies fighting the Baddies. Then again it goes off into allegory, like C.S. Lewis, for a while; and there are moments—the bad moments, for me—when it all seems to have been inspired by the Velikovsky-Von Daniken school of, as it were, thought.

The aesthetic incoherence is not due to the plurality of viewpoints, but it may be connected to Lessing’s use of the alien viewpoint: most of the events are recounted by an extraterrestrial witness. This is of course one of the basic devices of science fiction (and of pre-scientific ironic tales), but familiar as the technique is, it requires very great care. Only intense and continual imaginative effort by the author can keep the “alien” voice from sounding human, all too human—thus subverting the estrangement that is the goal of the technique, and so disastrously shrinking, instead of expanding, the universe. This is what has happened in those dreary backwaters of science fiction where the heroes fight the dirty Commies/Capitalists from Aldebaran. Lessing commits no such political imbecilities; it is more with ethics that the trouble lies, I think. The morality voiced by her aliens seems less universal than sectarian, and Canopus in Argos sounds strangely, at times, like a pulpit in Geneva.

The villains of the piece, from a planet called Shammat, part of the empire of Puttiora, remain off-stage. Though Shammat is the author of evil on earth, all agents of evil we meet in the book are human beings. But the agents of good we meet are not human; they come from Canopus. One is left in doubt whether mankind has any moral being at all; perhaps we are all puppets of either Shammat or Canopus. Certainly one gathers that humanity is incapable of doing good on its own, without direct and continual prompting by Benevolences from outer space. (The behavior of these guardian angels I personally find, on the evidence given, to be paternalistic, imperialist, authoritarian, and male supremacist. The latter trait is particularly galling; they claim to be bisexual, but if you notice, they always impregnate human women but never permit themselves to be impregnated by human men.) The picture, then, is, or resembles, one currently very popular indeed, that of the chariots of the gods, or dei ex machina; and the message is: in us there is no truth or power. All great events on earth result from decisions made elsewhere; all our inventions were given us by extraterrestrials; all our religions feebly reflect the glory of an unhuman Founder. We have done, and can do, unaided and by ourselves, nothing. Except, perhaps—this is not clear—evil.

András Goldinger

To find this projective ethic stated by a considerable writer, no hack or crank, is disquieting to me. Though Shikasta is not a Christian book, I think it is a Calvinist one: it affirms the radical irresponsibility of mankind. Salvation is not by works but by grace alone, not by the soul's effort but by intercession/intervention—for a few, the chosen, the elect: the rest consigned to damnation by judgment/holocaust/apocalypse. The theme has recently been common in pseudoscience, and of course is endemic in the revivalist movement. Its roots, I suppose are in the Near East; it turns up in the West in hard centuries, whenever people seek the counsels of despair. It has no claim to universality, however, since it remains unsympathetic and essentially unintelligible to the great cultures of the East. It is not a position sympathetic to most artists, either, since it leaves no room in the world for tragedy, or for charity.

There is much self-hatred in Shikasta—hatred of the feminine identity, the middle-class identity, the national, the white, the Western, the human—which all comes to a head in the strange episode of the Trial, late in the story, and there perhaps self-destructs. But there is no catharsis; the ethic of guilt forbids it. A brief Utopian coda rings false to my ear—the usual Luddite prigs sharing everything with nary a cross word. And all through these final sections the protagonist, Johor, in his last incarnation as George, stalks about bearing the White Man's Burden until you want to kick him. We never meet the Shammatians, we never meet the Sirians, and the Canopans are twits. But the humans. ... There is the story of Rachel; the story of Lynda; the story of "Individual 6"—the exact, brilliant, compassionate, passionate portrayal of human minds driven out of "sanity," forced on beyond. ... In such passages, Lessing is incomparable. Does she need to write science fiction to achieve them? Would there not be more place for them in a conventional novel?

She seems to have little real interest in the alien as such, little pleasure in it. Invention is an essential ingredient of science fiction, and she lacks or scants it, letting theory and opinion override the humble details that make up creation. Canopus and the Canopans remain dead words, a world without a landscape, characters without character. No games, no play. The Canopans are angels, messengers of God, but Lessing's concept of the divine excludes that Trickster who creates and destroys. No Coyote, no Loki, no Hermes. Life is real, life is earnest, and Shiva is not allowed to dance in this universe. Like Solzhenitsyn, like the late Victorians, Lessing believes in Reality, and that belief precludes pure invention, permitting only the "meaningful." The work will be not a mystery, but a morality. And so it is. And yet. ...

Every now and then she stops moralizing and looks around at the World she has gotten herself into; and at such times there is no doubt at all why she is there, or that she belongs there.

She does not write conventional fiction
 because she does not have a conventional mind. She is not a realist at all. Nor 
is she a fantasist. The old distinctions are useless and must be discarded. Before 
the critics can do that, we novelists must 
get on past them ourselves, clear past. It
 is not easy; no wonder Lessing moves awkwardly. But she moves forward, I
 would not wish to dwell upon things like
 SOWF, or substance-of-we-feeling—is 
the phrase or its acronym worse?—but 
maybe we had to go through SOWF to 
get to Zone 6. Zone 6—which is Hades,
 and the landscape of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and certain remote territories of the unconscious mind, and the Borderland, and more—is magnificent in conception and imagery.

Intellectual fiction, the novel of ideas, all too often slides down into the novel of opinions. Science fiction, gone self-indulgent, rants and preaches—with no more right to, despite its vast subject matter, than any other kind of art. Lessing's opinions, her diatribes against "science" and "politics" and so forth, are very nearly the ruin of the novel. But beneath and beyond the opinions, not fully under her control, perhaps even disobeying her conscious intent, is the creative spirit that can describe a terrorist's childhood with the authority of a Dostoevsky, or imagine the crowded souls crying at the gates of life—and this lurching, lumbering, struggling book is redeemed, is worth reading, is immortal diamond. 

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