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Canopus In Argos: Doris Lessing’s Science Fiction Novels

R. William Attwood By R. William Attwood Published on May 12, 2017
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Doris Lessing

Nobel laureate Doris Lessing is best known for her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, a semi-autobiographical account of life as a single mother in 1950s London. It came to be adopted as a key text of the women’s liberation movement, but it’s at least as important for its innovations in literary structure and style.

What is most likely to strike the reader about The Golden Notebook, however, is its uncompromising realism. The novel is both a faithful document of its times and a painstaking investigation—at times it feels like an inquisition—into the obscure corners of everyday thought and feeling.

So it’s strange, when you begin to delve deeper into Lessing’s (intimidatingly enormous) catalogue of published work, to discover Canopus in Argos, her five-volume cycle of novels about an alien civilisation. Rooted in her fascination with science fiction and her deepening exploration of Sufi spirituality, Canopus in Argos is a mesmerising literary achievement, and one which has been unfairly overlooked in part because it is undeniably ‘sci-fi’.

Lessing herself did not embrace the label, but not because she disdained science fiction. On the contrary, she thought of science fiction as the ‘despised illegitimate son who can afford to tell truths the respectable siblings either do not dare, or, more likely, do not notice because of their respectability.’ 

She preferred to describe Canopus in Argos as ‘space fiction,’ to some extent out of modesty: her novels were not, unlike many of the sci-fi novels she admired, intended as scientifically rigorous explorations of new and possible technologies. For Lessing, an extraplanetary setting was a way to shine a new light on the contemporary social and political problems which had motivated her work from the beginning of her career.

She was born in Southern Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe), and from an early age she was uncomfortable with the racial segregation that was normalised there, but it wasn’t until she encountered communism that she found a structure in which she could articulate her political feelings. She remained a member of the Communist Party for decades, and although she never wholly embraced the Party line on literature and its political function, her early novels and short stories are forthright on the subjects of white supremacy and patriarchy. 

The Golden Notebook constituted a new departure. Although its critique of patriarchy is insightful and damning, its feminism consists above all in a lovingly truthful portrayal of female experience. Its honest accounts of female friendship and sexual desire, menstruation and harassment were unprecedentedly frank and, in 1962, shocking. It would be nearly a decade before the novel found its audience in the emerging women’s liberation movement.

While The Golden Notebook turns away from social critique and towards a frank self-examination, it finds in its scrutiny of inner life plenty to say about the power of political society to warp and maim that life. In part the novel is a portrait of a breakdown, a breakdown precipitated by the difficulty of being a ‘free woman’ in a patriarchal society, the pain of being a communist who has lost faith in the cause, and—last but by no means least—the impossibility of being a realist novelist who doubts the integrity not only of literary realism, but of the ‘real’ world itself.

In the second volume of her autobiography, Walking In The Shade, Lessing speculated that:

when I wrote The Golden Notebook I had so thoroughly reached the end of a whole spectrum of ideas, thoughts and feelings that the world I had excluded as “impossible,” as “reactionary,” was surrounding me, pressing in, making its claim. 
I began a systematic search for something different.

This search lead her away from communism and towards the work of Idries Shah, a Sufi teacher and writer. Of her spiritual life under his direction, she says in Walking In The Shade: ‘I shall simply state it: this was my real life.’ 

Unsurprisingly, her new direction produced a different kind of fiction. Lessing’s experiments beyond the borders of literary realism ranged from the all-too-plausible dystopia of Memoirs of a Survivor to the psychotropic wackiness of Briefing For A Descent Into Hell, before she began her first ‘space fiction,’ Shikasta: Re: Colonised Planet 5.

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Shikasta masquerades as a school textbook, a ‘compilation of documents selected to offer a very general picture of Shikasta for the use of first-year students of Canopean colonial rule.’ It charts the activities of Johor, a colonial emissary to Shikasta, one of the empire’s more awkward planets:

You will observe over the larger part of the sphere a smear of liquid. It is on this film of liquid that the profusion of life depends. (This planet knows nothing of the little scum of life on its surface: the planet has other ideas of itself, as we know; but that it not our concern here). The point of the exercise is this: to understand that the proliferation of organic possibilities, the harvest of potentiality which is Shikasta, depends, from one point of view, on a scrape of liquid that could be drunk in a moment by a passing star, or shaken off like puddle-mud from a child’s ball during a game if a comet came in from elsewhere.

On his first visit, Johor and his Canopean comrades seed Shikasta with suitable species and help them to develop in a harmonious way. There is no violence, and all Shikasta’s different species work together in the face of Shikasta’s instability. This is what Canopus wants, and Canopean rule seems to be benevolent, although Lessing never quite settles the question of what motivates the Canopeans—after all, we are reading a Canopean textbook, and all colonists tend to assume their rule is benevolent. 

The rest of the textbook compiles the letters and diaries of people who knew the incarnated Johor as ‘George Sherban,’ an African-born Jewish American who becomes the leader of a political movement. His efforts culminate in a spectacular show trial in which the oppressed peoples of Earth prosecute white Europe for its crimes.

It’s a vast plot, encompassing the whole of human history and three separate alien civilisations, not to mention a number of ‘Zones’ which lie in concentric circles around Shikasta—although not, it seems, in a physical sense. The train is kept on its rails only by Lessing’s exquisite control of tone. Sometimes Shikasta has its tongue in its cheek and is wickedly funny. At other times it is deadly serious, looking down the barrel of nuclear holocaust and refusing to blink. Its alternative history of Earth offers all kinds of amusing heresies and ironies, and the latter part of the novel, concerning the adventures of ‘George Sherban’, is an almost inconceivable achievement: a realistic, indeed convincing, portrait of an extraterrestrial prophet.

But the greatest of Shikasta’s many pleasures is the supplementary documentation strewn throughout the main narrative. These documents record the reactions of Canopean emissaries to the bizarre and despair-inducing behaviour of Shikastans. Through the lens of Canopean civilisation—which values harmony and emotional integrity above all things—Lessing offers startlingly original, witty and moving accounts of our human failings.

Lessing felt ‘set free,’ by space fiction, ‘both to be as experimental as I like, and as traditional.’ The next volume of Canopus in Argos, with its Blakean title The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five, ‘turned out to be a fable, or myth.’

It investigates those mysterious Zones that surround Shikasta, although Shikasta itself does not feature in the narrative. The Zones have a spiritual relationship to life on our planet, but it’s a complex and ambivalent one. The marriages of the title are contracted between the ‘Kings’ and ‘Queens’ of different zones: it’s something the Canopeans require, but the monarchs themselves are dismayed. The story which follows is, amongst other things, an experiment in which Lessing attempts to extract the essences of masculinity and femininity so that she can study them in isolation.

The third volume of Canopus in Argos returns to Shikasta, relating the troubled planet’s history this time through the eyes of a more sinister alien civilisation, while Volumes Four and Five concern the activities of Canopean emissaries on planets other than Shikasta—although of course these planets have something to teach us about our own struggles. Each volume is a new departure for Lessing—as a writer and spiritually—but the accumulative effect has a power all its own.

The cycle as a whole can perhaps be thought of as a Gulliver’s Travels for the twentieth century: a series of visionary fables that illuminate the author’s time in a way that transcends mere allegory or satire. But to compare Canopus in Argos to anything at all feels dishonest. It is unique.

I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.


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