Doris Lessing Gets It Right: The Future of Earth (“Shikasta”)

Doris Lessing

First, I must insist that Nobel winner Doris Lessing gets it right in her “space fiction.” In her neglected 1979 novel, Shikasta – the official title is unnecessarily wordy, Canopus in Argos: Archives Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta – she unflinchingly relates the history and the future doom of Earth ( Shikasta), borrowing freely from myth and the Old Testament. The hero, Johor, a quasi-angelic agent from the galactic empire Canopus, shapes human history at the Edenic beginning of Earth, and works even harder to correct its course after agents of Shamat, a criminal (quasi-devil) planet, corrupt the humans. And so, more or less, angels and devils, inhabitants of planets with different systems of belief, compete for the good and bad in Earth/Shikasta.

You’ve got to settle in slowly at first, but soon you’ll be turning the pages. The mythic and Old Testament origin stories, the versions of the flood myth and the Tower of Babel, are clever but can be monotonous; the pace picks up when Lessing reaches the twentieth century and then unfolds the drama of a future that we are beginning to experience. Many of the characters, who shudder at the prospect of returning to Shikasta after death but must line up to be reborn, become activists in their new lives and struggle to help the starving, uneducated, sickly masses.

You will recognize the problems killing this planet : climate change, melting polar ice caps, poisoned water, polluted air, droughts, epidemics, World Wars, overpopulation, dictatorships, famine, genocide, the dominance of the military, poverty, riots, bombs and other weapons of mass destruction. In fact, this is almost our present, and this future was already irreversible in 1979 when Shikasta was published. Certainly we were well- informed about the environment, but the culture of fossil fuels was out of our control – particularly because we could never, as Lessing says, quite “take it in.”

Shikasta was the first of five books in the Canopus in Argos series. In general the critics disliked these novels, especially Ursula K. Le Guin, who, having traversed the same territory in some of her anthropological science fiction, perhaps felt competitive: she complained that Shikasta read like a debut science fiction novel. George Stade of the New York Times mocked Lessing’s SF but said she succeeds when her storytelling trumps her rants. And then he adds that he prefers the theosophic rants of D. H. Lawrence to Lessing’s. (Oh my God, I wonder if he ever suffered the rants in Kangaroo and The Plumed Serpent. And I’m a fan of Lawrence!)

Well, no one likes a doomsayer, and Lessing is hardly an optimist. In the Iliad no one likes the Greek guy who tells the ugly truth. And I wonder if Lessing’s thorough documentation, written in the form of official reports, documents, letters, and journals, might have not only have bored some readers but upset them. It was too literary for science fiction readers, and too SF-y for literary readers.

Lessing reworks some of the material from her 1969 novel, The Four-Gated City, which is three-fourths bildungsroman and one-fourth science fiction. One of the characters, Lynda Coldridge, who has spent years in psychiatric hospitals but actually has a kind of supernatural ability to know things others did not, appears in Shikasta. A psychiatrist asks Lynda to writer about her illness: her papers tell us that “hearing voices” was more of a sixth sense killed and distorted by psychiatric care. And so Lynda and the psychiatrist fight heir own underground resistance movement as they look for others like Lynda.

The most important character in the novel is George (the agent Johor, the being from a superior planet who has helped Earth for millennia). He has been painfully reborn into a human body, so that he may help the luckless, starving, and ignorant by telling them thing that matter, cheering them up and helping them survive. But on one of his many walking tours (fuel is scarce and so is transportation), he writes a letter to his girlfriend Suzannah about his qualms.

…and when talk starts about the awfulness, then it is as if people are not hearing. Not that they are not listening. Not hearing. They can’t believe it. Well sometimes I look back and it is such a little time, and I can’t believe it. I think that dreadfulness happens somewhere else. I don’t know how to say that. I mean, when awful things happen, even to the extent we have all just seen, then our minds don’t take them in. Not really. there is a gap between people saying hello, have a glass of water, and then bombs falling or laser beams scorching the world to cinders. That is why no on seemed able to prevent the dreadfulness. They couldn’t take it in.

Today there are many Shikastans suffering: that has hit home during the pandemic. As Johor says, we thought “that dreadfulness happens somewhere else.” This is not Lessing’s best book , but it is a very interesting one. And that is the reason to read it.

2 thoughts on “Doris Lessing Gets It Right: The Future of Earth (“Shikasta”)”

  1. The Shikasta books and your summer twenty!
    Le Guin had a point, but Lessing has virtues of a debut SF novelist too. She misses some of SF’s tropes and – perhaps because she doesn’t know they’re tropes – she handles others well.

    1. The structure is odd, and the first 100 pages very slow. As for plot… finally it appears when George is born into a human family. But I found the whole thing riveting when I first read it, so am wondering if my expectations of lit have changed. She was an avid SF reader, she said in her preface, and thought the genre was changing the novel.

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