More Summer Reading: Doris Lessing’s “The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five”

On a summer reading scale of 1-10, how would I rate Doris Lessing’s science fiction novel, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, the second book in the Canopus in Argos series? Lessing is my favorite writer and I view her as a goddess; yet the title is so portentous that I was apprehensive about rereading. And I have not even typed the entire title yet: in tiny print, it goes on to say “as narrated by the Chroniclers of Zone Three.”

This short dogmatic fable (I know not what else to call it) is, in a way, about utopia and dystopia. The planet is broken up into five zones, which the jacket copy calls “indeterminate lands.” Zone Three is inhabited by sophisticated artists, singers, farmers, and craftsmen who live in peace and beauty. Like old hippies and the characters of John Updike’s fiction, they do not have monogamous relationships. Zone Four is ruled by a war lord and hence is always at war; it is also very poor and narrow-minded. Inhabitants rarely go from one zone to the other, mainly because the air is different, and they need special shields to breathe. But they also do not care about people from other cultures.

So when the “providers” (vague god-like beings we never meet) send a message to Queen Al-Ith of Zone Three that she must marry the military King Ben-Ata of Zone Four, all is topsy-turvy. Neither Al-Ith nor Ben-Ata wants this marriage. At first Al-Ith laughs, but Ben-Ata’s army meets Al-Ith and guides her to Zone Four, where she must live in a special house, which, before she teaches the rudiments of good taste to her husband and women friends, looks a bit like a bordello.

There is much unhappiness as a result of this culture clash, as you can imagine. I am still not sure what the providers were thinking! Al-Ith and Ben-Ati do not want to be together, and neither understands the other. But gradually Al-Ith teaches Ben-Ata that there is more to life than war. She thinks they are together because both zones have experienced low birth rates and illness among humans and animals, and their procreation of a child must be the purpose. Al-Ith’s teachings about art benefit Zone Four, but it is difficult to see what Zone Four gives Zone Three. The rebellious women of Zone Four do introduce her to their secret festivals, which are reminiscent of the rites of Bacchus recast as a women’s music festival.

And yet the outcome of Al-Ith’s travel to Zone Four is sad. She becomes an outcast when she goes home to Zone Three…an outcast with a purpose. But it is still tragic. As for Zone Five, I have not the energy to describe it, but it plays a very small role.

This is a clunkier book than Shikasta, but I do recognize Lessing’s themes and repetition of character from earlier novels: the heroine Martha Quest can be clearly seen in Al-Ith, particularly when it comes to politics and sex. (Martha is intensely radical before and during World War II, but she doesn’t discover good sex until Landlocked, the fourth book in the Children of Violence series.)

Doris Lessing said that she found “space fiction” freeing. In the preface to the first book in the series, Shikasta, she wrote: “The old realistic novel is being changed, too, because of influences from that genre loosely described as space fiction. Some people [in academia] regret this…. Space fiction, with science fiction, makes up the most original branch of literature now; it is inventive and witty; it has already enlivened all kinds of writing…”

By the way, Philip Glass wrote an opera, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, with a libretto by Doris Lessing , translated into German. It premiered in Heidelberg, Germany on 10 May, 1997. (See photo below.)

Lessing wrote brilliant science fiction in the late sixties and early seventies. My favorites are The Four-Gated City (the last part of this realistic novel segues into SF) and Memoirs of a Survivor. But I must say The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five is very slight. I read it quickly, and it went by like a summer breeze. I will have forgotten it by next week. If I were to give it a number…well, it would have to be Zone Three! No, really, did you think I would rate it with a number?

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