Book 1: Re: Colonized Planet 5 – Shikasta. Personal, Psychological, Historical Documents Relating to Visit by Johor [George Sherban] Emissary Grade 9, 87th of the Period of the Last Days
This is the first of five “space fiction” novels that Doris Lessing wrote in the late 1970s, early 1980s, and finally in the early 1990s. I call it “space fiction” because she calls it “space fiction” in the opening “Some Remarks” of the collection. They were published separately and then together, and then went out of print.
The structure of the first of these novels is of a series of reports, excerpts from local histories, and other kinds of similar documents. It’s presented as an anthropological study but with a much heavier bent on narrative and story-telling, as it is a novel. Lessing tells us in the opening section that she felt like speculative fiction would allow her to have more freedom in presenting the issues she wanted to discuss in the novel than straight-forward allows, and given then space her writing (the dying throes of colonial Africa) I tend to want to trust her.
The novel proposes Earth as a kind of biological experiment between two rival colonizing forces: Canopus and Sirius. These force each use parts of Earth (because of its habitability) to perform planet-seeding experiment in sociology and other kinds of areas of study, and the resulting chaos, bloodshed, power, control, and terror that defines Earth’s human history is the result. This book is a shortened version of that history told mainly through the Canopean representative on Earth, Johar, who is called on Earth George Sherban. He acts as a kind of paternalistic Colonial voice. The parallels between the Earth we see, the voice used to describe it, and the events that take place and the latter half of 20th century’s de-colonization are both striking and obvious, but the detached voice, removed from the political situations of race, nationalism, and capital allow for more striking criticism to take place.
Book 2: The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five
This book is far from the first or last of its kind. This is a on-the-ground version of events from the previous book. Not so much as a retelling of the same story, because in fact it’s a very different story altogether, but a retelling of a perspective. Gone is the colonial voice of George Sherban (Johor) and his ilk, and instead we get the collective story-tellers of Zone Three, a put-upon area of Canopus on Earth (Shikasta) as their culture is threatened by the violent political outreaches of Zone Five, whose warlike nature looms over the marriage between its leader Ben Ata, and our Zone Three protagonist Al Ith. The resulting novel is sort of the opposite of a comedy of manners, because this novel, like a lot of Doris Lessing is relatively humorless, but does involve the kind of marriage and blending of cultures that biological impulses of love, sex, and marriage allow for.
This is a very interesting follow-up to Re:Shikasta if only because of how very different it is in content and form. This is a novel, a relatively straight-forward form of a novel, but telling of a completely alien culture. And because it’s written by someone imminently competent like Doris Lessing it’s absolutely wonderful. Whole careers are wasted on this kind of material that she sort of rattles off in a year after her first novel from the series. She has that kind of way of a lot of other literary figures dabbling in genre (Margaret Atwood, David Bowie) of using her sheer force of talent to complete own a genre like this.
Some books this reminds me of sans judgment: Seed to Harvest collection by Octavia Butler, The Best of All Worlds by Karen Lord, the Hainish novels of Ursula Le Guin, and Culture books by Iain M Banks. This book left me both exhausted and excited by the remaining three in the series.
Book 3: The Sirian Experiments – The Report by Ambien II, of the Five
The Sirian Experiments flips the scripts in a lot of ways from the first two novels and takes another look at the history of the conflict between Sirius and Canopus, but now through the lens of an envoy from Sirius. This change does a lot for the story. Sirius is less powerful and more cunning and deceitful as a colonizing force than Canopus, but it’s also more recognizable as a culture. Maybe it’s how Lessing’s novel sees the difference between the different colonizing forces. For example, I know from The Grass is Singing she is definitely more sympathetic and aligned with the British presence in Africa than she is the Dutch, but the Dutch might be considered more scrappy and resilient in the long run, as opposed to the more staid and boring, but more powerful British concern. Regardless.
In this novel, we see a couple different kinds of stories being told. For one, it’s the story of multiple different colonizing experiments, where populations are uprooted, shifted, destroyed, retired, and interacted with. It’s a more hands-on kind of situation than say the longer term experiments of Canopus and so of course the results vary considerably. And the resentment at the hands of the colonized and experimented forces is much much deeper. This feels very much the companion piece to Re: Colonized Planet 5 Skikasta than book two was, and I bet the next two will bear out the same. This is the meat, and those are the salad.
Book 4: The Making of the Representative for Planet 8
This is another of the more one-ff books of the five. Not to say that any one of them isn’t but this is one of the ones that feels like a singular tale, so much as a continuation of the broader narrative of the whole collection. In this novel we are on Planet 8 of the Canopean colonial empire, and its representative there is realizing the colony is doomed. Because of various conditions on the planets, namely the fast approaching of an ice age, the colony is unlikely to survive. Reaching out to Canopus over and over, the representative is able to contact Johar, from Book 1, but ultimately what feels able to be saved is only the story.
The very best Star Trek The Next Generation episode is “The Inner Light” where Picard is transposed into a lifeform’s final decades on a dying planet relates to the story here. This is final word on a civilization, and through the lens of a character whose otherwise life expectancy is millenia, this death feels especially deep. And so reading this novel has a kind of panic/deep sadness to it. This is the non-Imperial view of empire, the death of cultures under the empire while the empire is not particularly threatened. There are a lot of versions of this story in world literature, where an outside force is eradicating an entire culture, and often those stories are told through perspectives of assimilation such as the children of the newly synthesized country/empire after, or through the eyes of the colonizing force. Here, it’s through the eyes of a kind of sacrificial voice of the empire itself. And it’s bleak. The fear of losing the entire story and how that loss feels deeper than the loss of an individual is saddening and powerful.
Here’s what it feels like:
“What was our planet, which was out of so many? And, as we swept on there, ghosts among the ghostly worlds, we felt beside us, and in us, and with us, the frozen and dead populations that lay buried under the snows. Inside caves and huts and mounds of ice and snow and peoples of our world lay frozen–the carcasses of these were held there for as long as the ice stayed, before it changed, as everything must, to something else–a swirl of gases perhaps, or seas of leaping soil, or fire that had to burn until it, too, changed…must change…must become something else. But what these had been, our peoples, our selves— were with us then, were us, had become us–could not be anything but us, their representatives–and we, together, the Representative, at last found the pole that was the extremity of our old planet, the dark cold pole that had been built, once, to guide in the space-fleets of Canopus, when they visited us. There we left the planet, and came to where we are now. We, the Representative, many and one, came here, where Canopus tends and guards and instructs>
Book 5: Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire
This is the final book in the series. There is both a sense of finality at the end of this one, with the closing off of the narrative in a meaningful way, but also a sense of continuance beyond the novel, as the story ends in an ellipse.
This novel is told through the exchange of communications, small historical documents, reactions to events, and accountings of various goings-on. And so, like the first novel in the series, the story is often told in fractures and other slips of narrative rather than the continuous stories in the second and fourth novels. In this novel, yet another planet system, this time “Volyen” is attempting breach beyond its boundaries, declare itself an empire, and begin colonizing additional planets. Canopus, far superior in military might and political force is not threatened by this move, but is wary, and so it monitors the situation. Sirius, however, much smaller and less mighty is threatened, and sees this incursion as a potential act of war, along with a financial rivalry. And so the novel shows how the two empires conduct a kind of proxy war over a planet in their shared purview. And so this novel deals with a kind of de-colonization/power vacuum situation as forces draw back and leave room for opportunism. While Canopus is not an aggressor in this book, it’s sheer size and influence do allow for the violence that occurs throughout.
There are a few subplots that happen along the way as well. I want to close though with a passage from this novel. I am read to leave Canopus behind.
“But I have made my point. Which is not the slaughter of millions upon million, either by negligence or intention; not the imposition of the machinery of Terror; not the enslavement of populations. But that all these developments were described in words for purposes of enslavement, or manipulation, or concealment, or arousal; that tyrants were described as benefactors, butchers as social surgeons, sadists as saints, campaigns to wipe out whole nations as acts beneficial to these nations, war as peace, and a slow social degeneration, a descent into barbarism, as progress. Words, words, words, words…And when local diagnosticians told them of their condition, they cried enthusiastically, ‘What wonderfully interesting words!’ and when on as before.”