On Doris Lessing's Space Operas

On Doris Lessing’s Space Operas

Doris Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series must be as little read as thoughtful, clever genre fiction by a bestselling Nobel recipient could possibly be. There are a lot of likely reasons for this, most of them not very good: politico-ideological disdain for Lessing’s idiosyncratic blend of mysticism and politics; the desire to continue to pigeonhole her as the Golden Notebook feminist rather than deal with the new directions taken by her later work, et cetera.

There are a few good reasons, too, that this series has missed an audience. The series is very uneven, no two of its five books alike in tone or texture or story, and so the transition into each new book can feel like a shocking lurch even if you enjoyed the last one. There is a pattern of sorts, though, as the series has a bit of the Star Trek-movie odd/even number dynamic – the first, third, and fifth volumes make up one overall storyline about the longue-duree interactions among the Canopean, Sirian, and Shammat/Puttioran galactic empires, with Shikasta/Rohanda/Earth as the fulcrum; the second and fourth volumes are brief, elegiac local myths or mythographies largely unconnected to that broader story. (In fact it might be easier to follow them if read in this order rather than the order of their publication.)

Further, and despite the frame provided by Lessing’s introductions and afterwords, the books don’t really read like science fiction. The introduction to Shikasta, in arguing for sci-fi’s contemporary relevancy, sticks to the phrase “space fiction,” presumably in order to emphasize space opera over “hard” macho technologism in which Lessing has no interest. But the books are quite unconventional even according to the relatively loose rules of the space opera; starships, shuttles, lasers, teleportation are barely mentioned, and usually treated from the disdainful perspective of the nearly godlike Canopeans, whose own little-described “technology” consists of a species of ritual, a deep knowledge of “the Necessity” that governs galactic events and possibilities, and the ability to reincarnate in terrestrial form as needed. Little time is spent on description of the assorted kinds of bipedal creatures populating the galaxy, and the rules governing their evolution and combination are not specified – indeed, to dwell in too much detail on the tekhne of such matters is a characteristic of the misguidedly rationalist Sirian imperialists, disdained (and eventually educated, in The Sirian Experiments) by the comparatively monkish, contemplative agents of Canopus.

So Lessing’s space fiction is science fiction only in a very loose way, not even “subverting” the expectations of the usual pulp reader so much as it ignores them, and Lessing seems more interested in bending the genre to her purposes than in engaging with its traditions or topoi. This is fine, of course, but perhaps indicative of its audience problems; and each book presents a new problem for the reader interested in puzzling out what Lessing is up to.

A bit of attention to each book will help illustrate the difficulty of accounting for all of them together.

Shikasta – I’ll use the short forms of the books’ parodically bureaucratic titles – is formally the loosest hodgepodge of all the books in the series, and also the only one to be much concerned with the Earth history we know. It frames Earth’s twentieth century (and all our recorded history) with a fantastical planetary prehistory, a lapsarian story in which the Fall (here, the mis-alignment; its mechanics are unexplained) has allowed the materialistic, warlike pirate planet Shammat to gain ground, and disrupted the flow of SOFF – the “substance of fellow-feeling” – from Canopus. Sirius’s experiments, Canopus’s efforts to channel the planet’s potential energies, and both empires’ seeding of the world with appropriate species (key among them the “Giants” who were meant to be interbred with us apes) are led astray. Earth’s history, the one that we know, becomes that of Shikasta, “the Broken One,” a violent history punctuated only by brief reminders of the potential plenitude of its past as Rohanda, “the Fruitful”; even Canopus’s chief agent, Johor, is seduced by power and fails to complete some of his various missions. But most of the interest of this novel – apart from establishing a galactic history that is revisited to more interest in The Sirian Experiments – lies on Earth in our own historical era: the most compelling moments in this novel use the sci-fi as a background in order to recontextualize human stories, in moving and economically told vignettes that capture whole human lives, often tragic ones, in five pages. Seeing human history from the rueful vantage of the immortal Canopeans plays, weirdly but well, into Lessing’s strengths as a traditional novelist – her feel for the understated psychological portrait and the quietly tragic historical situation. There are passages of beauty in the science-fictional parts of the novel too, but they pale beside the achievement of its wholly realistic moments.

The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five leaves the historical Earth behind entirely, so far as one can tell; it spins a fantasy-myth about the Necessity-borne marriage between the princess of a declining, self-satisfied utopia (Zone Three) and the king of a vigorous but lumpen feudal warrior kingdom (Zone Four), and his subsequent marriage to the queen of a nomadic raider tribe (Zone Five). This is a full-fledged fantasy story told with uncommon psychological and verbal grace, and if it were read separately from the rest of the series it would easily outdo almost any other supposedly literary stuff written in that genre, but its connection to the other Canopus books is quite oblique. What this story brings to the series, apart from its substantial intrinsic virtues, is that it allows a different angle on the mysterious historico-mystical rules of what the Canopeans call “the Necessity,” the demands of the times on those who live in them.

The Sirian Experiments revisits the prehistory of Shikasta (and that book’s form as a collection of imperial administrative records and letters), this time from the perspective of the chief agent of the technocratic, expansionist Sirian empire, and chronicles her slow education into the contemplative Canopean way of thinking over millennia, which finally leaves her at odds with the rest of her empire.

The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight returns to the local, this short book giving us the perspective of the people of a single dying planet (those whom Canopus had intended to move to Rohanda before it became mis-aligned) as it slowly succumbs to an endless ice age. The mood is elegiac, sorrowful, mournful, though painstakingly understated and without anything like wallowing; it is a story about coping with loss and grief on a planetary scale rather than an individual one.

The Sentimental Agents, on the other hand, is a farce. It returns to the triangular Great Game-style intrigues among the techno-imperialistic Sirians, the meditative Canopeans, and the piratical Shammatians – and is roughly simultaneous with the action of Shikasta and The Sirian Experiments – in the new terrain of Volyen, a relatively backward star-system far from Earth. But this time the book is a Swiftian satire against political rhetoric; unlike the other novels, this one sometimes reads as a relatively straightforward allegory, simply transposing a satirical account of the hypocrisies of post-1956 English Communism into a galaxy far, far away. It is bitingly funny at times, using a tone and vocabulary that none of the other volumes in the series even hinted at; we watch the endlessly patient Canopean section chief as he sends his sub-agents again and again to the hospital, needing to recover from a severe case of Rhetoric, and then watches them succumb to another wave of excited political verbiage. (The treatment is an immersion in history – Earth history – until one is sobered by the crimes enabled by those exciting words.) Though the politics behind the satire is probably just as dubious as it sounds – really just the most facile anticommunism of the anti-romantic/”realist” kind – the book is nonetheless a stitch, more fanciful and far lighter than its comparatively po-faced antecedent volumes.

It should be clear just from these thumbnail sketches that these five books have little in common with one another, apart from some characters and the general cosmo-history of their background and setting. What this really seems to be is a series of experiments. It is the record of an agile novelistic mind’s inquiry into the utility of sci-fi. Each book is its own answer to the question “what is the use of space opera now?” These novels read as if Lessing had set out to reinvent the genre from first principles, rather than reading or watching sci-fi and shaping her imagination to fit its contours. Seen in this way, measured by its own standards rather than the conventions of post-Doc Smith space opera, it’s a virtuoso performance and an inventive one: the creation of a series of different registers, from the mythic to the comic, in which stories about spacefaring civilizations can function as a kind of secular myth with which to reframe – or remake – twentieth- and 21st-century culture.