Graham Sleight's Yesterday's Tomorrows: Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing, of course, is much more than a writer of science fiction. Her body of work, stretching from the late 1940s to the present, covers a huge range of themes, both drawn from her life and from the times she’s lived in. (She was born in Persia and brought up in Rhodesia, as they then were, but has lived most of her life in the UK.) She is certainly the only writer to have been Guest of Honour at a World SF Convention and the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her main SF work – the novels listed here – were written between 1979 and 1983, and together form a sequence called Canopus in Argos. If nothing else, they display a full knowledge with the possibilities of the genre, including very visible influences from people like Clarke, Stapledon, and Le Guin. Most have rather longer ‘‘real’’ titles – the first, for instance, is listed on the title page as Re: Colonised Planet 5 Shikasta: Personal, Psychological, historical documents relating to visit by Johor (George Sherban) emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Last Period of the Last Days. All are couched as ‘‘found documents’’, produced within the galactic empire governed, sometimes shakily, by the Canopeans – whom we discover more about as the series goes on.

The first book can be explained simply by saying that Shikasta is Earth. It is the longest and, in many ways, the most ambitious of the books. Its premise is that Earth’s history has been shaped by Canopean influence for some years, with the aspiration of fulfilling its inherent promise. But by the time of the main narrative – the twentieth century, in our terms – the experiment has gone wrong. The narrator is sent to Earth in the form of a human, George Sherban, to observe, record and see if he and other Canopeans can right the situation. Reading Shikasta now, one is struck firstly by how much it’s a product of its Cold War times. The twentieth century is a hinge point in Shikasta’s story because of the threat of nuclear war is the logical culmination of humanity’s misdeeds up to that point. The impact of this point is amplified, not lessened, by Lessing’s determination to represent points of view outside the Anglophone world. Sherban’s reports are determined to take in perspectives from India, Africa, and areas of the world outside the conventional Cold War arena. The central thing that Shikasta’s science-fictional frame enables Lessing to do is stand outside world history and comment on it with a kind of anthropological detachment:

For long periods of the history of Shikasta we can sum up the real situation thus: that in such a place, a few hundred, or even a handful of individuals were able with immense difficulty to adapt their lives to Canopean requirements, and thus saved the future of Shikasta.

There’s more than a hint of Stapledon here, and the idea in a book like Last and First Men (1930) that everything is measured by a higher standard, the standard of the ultimate civilisation that’s narrating the books. The danger, in a book like Last and First Men or Shikasta, is that it will seem dry or didactic. Stapledon avoids this by the seemingly endless inventiveness of his imagination. Lessing’s profligacy of ideas is of a different kind. She keeps finding new ways to describe, to anatomise, the human endeavour she’s describing: unlike Stapledon’s books, Shikasta incorporates a range of different viewpoints into its narrative. But the question remains: what exactly is the Canopean perspective the book is written from? What are its strengths and limitations? Self-perspective is always the most difficult kind of perspective.


The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five starts to provide this outside view of the Canopeans. It’s the story of the interaction between different world-views – different societies – within the Canopean sphere of influence. (A literal sphere of influence: the picture it presents us with is of the Zones as concentric spheres encircling the Earth/Shikasta, like the crystal heavens of medieval Christian theology.) Of all the Canopus novels, it’s the one that most directly engages with issues of gender, since the tension it depicts is between a patriarchal society in Zone Four and a matriarchal one in Zone Three.

It’s also the book most reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work, both in its details and its architecture. There’s a sense that both authors are interested in intense examination of certain kinds of societies. Despite both Canopus and Le Guin’s Hainish setting being vast interstellar canvases, both have a kind of achieved simplicity in how they’re structured and knowable. Here, for instance, is Lessing’s viewpoint character in The Marriages encountering a familiar place:

Up she went on to the many levels of the roofs and walked there watching the sun sink down and set the mountains alight. All our capital was spread out below, with its familiar streets and gardens. There was not a house, or a square, or a public place that she did not know – often from inside and very intimately, out of friendship with its inhabitants, but at least in appearance, its frontage, roof, pattern of windows – all part of the habits of her own mind. But she was not welcome here now.

The important thing here, I’d suggest, is that although the viewpoint character’s gaze is clearly very knowing, it’s not the gaze of ownership. Even without that last sentence, there’s no suggestion that this vista is something to be ruled over or managed. An especially precise kind of seeing and knowing is what moves this passage. The comparison to Le Guin is also apt in thinking of The Marriages as embodying a conflict between two seemingly opposed principles. Just like Anarres and Urras in The Dispossessed, the two Zones here are literalisations of very different worldviews.


The Sirian Experiments is a sequel of sorts to Shikasta. In Lessing’s cosmology, the Sirian worlds are a semi-affiliated chunk of the Canopean empire who participated in the shaping of Earth/Shikasta before things started going wrong. It’s a story of complicity, and what you do when you realise you are complicit in something that’s wrong. The narrator, a female Sirian named Ambien II, is part of the early extraterrestrial contingent on Earth, or Rohanda as it’s known at this point. The direction in which Rohanda should be steered has become a contested issue. There are three parties with a stake in it: the Canopeans, the Sirians, and another empire, the Puttiorans.

It’s explicitly a story of colonisation and its consequences, for part of the action of the book sees people from elsewhere in the Canopean empire resettled on Rohanda. The consequences of this, and of the Puttioran intervention on the planet, end up being dire and tragic. Ambien’s narrative veers from relatively abstract scientific speculation (‘‘The atmosphere of Rohanda is 80% nitrogen. Yet its mammals subsist on less than 20% oxygen. The idea was to breed an animal capable of living on nitrogen, or at least a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen’’) to the agonised and personal. In the end, Ambien is exiled away from Rohanda, and her memoir – the text of the book – is denounced as a forgery by the Sirians: Ambien, they say, is suffering from ‘‘mental disequilibrium.’’ The Stalinist parallels are all too clear. This is, in the end, the story of a Fall – the fall of our own world.


The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 is the shortest, and in many ways the simplest, of the five books. Like its predecessor, it’s a tragedy. Planet 8 is a world within the Canopean empire that’s afflicted by the sudden onset of an Ice Age. At first its inhabitants. Of all the books, it’s the one that makes the most direct appeal to the emotions, as we see a civilisation coming to terms with its own end. Admittedly, much of its knowledge and culture is uplifted into the eponymous ‘‘representative,’’ but much also dies in the process. Even more than The Sirian Experiments, it’s a personal book. Unlike any of the others, though, it’s also a book about landscape and physical sensation: the encroachment of the ice, and the measures taken to try to survive it, are vividly conveyed.

The representative of the Canopean empire here is Johor, who was incarnated as George in Shikasta. The central question that he wrestles with, along with the people of Planet 8, is that of agency. In the face of something as implacable and literally elemental as the coming climatic shift, what can and should individuals do? On one level, the answer is simply ‘‘nothing,’’ but that’s not to deny the very human impulse to try to survive and preserve what’s worthwhile. (In this respect, the book can be seen as a precursor of Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia Winter (1985) from a few years later.) The book concludes with a lengthy afterword from Lessing in which she discusses the influence of Robert Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole on both this volume and The Sirian Experiments. The same themes emerge: whether it’s brave or stupid to persist in adhering to one’s selfhood in the face of a world that couldn’t care less. Persistence, in other words.


The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire again focuses on a particular corner of the Canopean empire away from Earth. But it’s very different tonally from the other books in being almost a satire, and certainly a commentary on how language is used in society. More than any of the other books, it’s concerned with – and couched in – the language in which power is exercised. The language of law and the language of politics fill the book, as does the language of evasion. And not only spoken language, either:

He was wearing another semi-uniform. These are not uniforms of or for anything in particular, but most young people throughout the Volyen ‘Empire’ wear self-invented uniforms. This is because they have been conditioned by recent wars and colonial uprisings, which were all fought in uniform.

So the fact of wearing a uniform in this environment becomes a piece of communication or performance, even though the uniform has become entirely unanchored from its function. This is, in microcosm, the idea that the book returns to again and again. Language of all kind becomes cut adrift from the reality it’s supposed to represent, sometimes by accident, sometimes wilfully.

The story itself – of a power struggle between the Volyen people, their government, and the adjacent Sirian empire – is almost irrelevant, and certainly less important than the way in which it’s told. What matters is the tone, more cynical, witty, and barbed than in any of the other books. Perhaps significantly, more than any of the others, it does not really end – although change certainly takes place during it. The struggle for power, and the distortions it causes in language and thought, will always continue.


As I hope I’ve demonstrated, the five novels in the sequence are pretty varied, so any generalisations about Lessing’s aim in them will end up being reductive. But each of them can be seen as a kind of thought experiment about certain traits and ideas. The first, Shikasta, stands on its own because of its scope and the directness of its engagement with existing human history. Each of the remaining ones is, in its way, more abstract than the first. As I said at the start, Lessing’s knowledge of SF is evident throughout: in addition to the names I’ve mentioned already, there is a certain Cordwainer Smith-ish strangeness from all the books in their description of an imperium that we, as readers, will never fully apprehend. And it’s easy to see that the devices of SF allowed Lessing ways of addressing her concerns that she’d never have had through mimetic fiction. The scope of a book like Shikasta, or even The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, would simply not be possible outside a fantastic frame.

The one thing I’d emphasise, though, about all the books is that for all their scope and ambition in tackling big ideas, they’re not dry or too didactic. Apart from the preoccupation with nuclear war in several of the books, there’s rarely the sense that the author is using them as a hobby-horse – and the nuclear war issue only stands out because of the changes wrought since the end of the Cold War. They’re all told smoothly and skilfully, with a keen sense of pacing; despite the formalities of the found documents, the authors’ intensity of feeling often burns through. When we say, as we often do inside our community, that SF is a literature of ideas, these are the kind of books we should be pointing to.


This column was first published in the February 2011 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

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