Book Review

Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta by Doris Lessing

part one of lessing's sci-fi quintet

Doris Doris Doris Lessing.

I think I have, this calendar year, acquired about as many books by Doris Lessing as I have read books in total.

I mean, that’s definitely not true (even tho I’m posting fewer blogs, I’m still reading like two or three books a week because there’s still nothing going on in my life other than working for money and walking for Cubby, the latter of which I often combine with reading tbh), but it’s the kind of lie I’d like to be caught in.

I have bought ten, possibly eleven, Doris Lessing books since bookshops reopened about a month ago. This will keep happening, because each time I read one I am overwhelmed.

Lessing is the first “new favourite writer” I have had for years and years (maybe even since Malcolm Lowry), and certainly the first (what’s the word for wrote many books – oh) prolific writer I’ve ever found myself compelled to read through the oeuvre of.

Oh, actually, scratch that, I forgot about James Baldwin lol.

Does my 2021 deep dive into Lessing and Baldwin show something positive or something negative about my growth as a person? My personal development?

Does it evidence a stultifying of my reading and thought or instead a continued change? Am I trapped in the 20th century? Am I refusing to address contemporary issues and engage with contemporary intellectuals by spending so much time in the thought and writing of those who are dead? (Baldwin was about five years younger than Lessing, tho she – obvs – lived a lot longer)

Probably, yes.

I’m not really existing in the present in any regard. There is no present. The continued present that hasn’t changed in a year or more or more or more. Change must a-come, but I fear it never will.

I spent the last week of March (and will likely spend the first weeks of April) reading Lessing’s five volume sci-fi/”space fiction” series, Canopus in Argos: Archives.

Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta (1979)

This, like The Golden Notebook, is truly one of the most spectacular novels I’ve ever read.

Collected notes and documents – archives – put together by the representatives of a benevolent alien empire as they recount the history of a planet known as Shikasta.

The narrative takes us from colonisation, with the planet split north/south between Canopus (the narrator[s], the archivist[s], except for three or four pages) and Sirius, their former enemy and now ally. Their mutual enemy, Shammat (a more successful splinter from the Puttorian Empire) is trying to subvert the harmonious, happy, satisfying, life that Canopus and Sirius have created on Earth, and they are so susceptible to infiltration because, for hundreds of thousands of years, Canopus kept the planet in such perfect balance the creatures who lived on it never learnt fear or watchfulness.

This is the first quarter of the novel. Weird alien species, an explanation of the near-eternal existence of souls and reincarnation established as fact, strange religions, adventures on an increasingly dangerous planet… and then it is revealed that the agents of Shammat have interbred so much with the pure, good, creatures Canopus sent to populate Shikasta that their ability to emote and to care for others and to see the cohesion and wholeness of the universe has evaporated. And they have become human and, yes, Shikasta is Earth.

The next quarter of the novel retells mythical (including Biblical) narratives with the interventions from the divine explained as interventions from Canopus, and the evermore corrupted and self-important Shikastans losing their ability to hear and heal from the aliens. 

In the second half of the novel, we move beyond (what was then) the present, as China colonises Europe, generation-based and class-based revolutions happen globally and the aliens send down more and more representatives to try and push humanity as a species away from total annihilation, which is what Shammat wants, as they (I think) feed on chaos.

This makes Shikasta sound like a proper sci-fi romp, but other than the first third or so, it feels much more like speculative fiction; there is nothing supernatural or unexplainable, and the aliens who come to earth are always inside a human body and thus limited in what they can do by these physical constraints. Some, alas, are corrupted by flesh and fail to complete their tasks, waking up after death in “Zone Six” with their alien memories flooding back and a creeping shame about their lack of integrity.

Lots of things happen. There are lots of characters and stories and narratives, and it’s almost confusing but it’s not, and it’s almost confused but it’s expertly controlled. It’s-

I dunno. It’s a very very very good novel. One of the best I’ve read. 

A towering colossus.

Subverting genre expectations and expectations of standard narrative structures and ah-

overwhelming

it overwhelms

it is very very good

2 comments on “Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta by Doris Lessing

  1. Doris Lessing! You should read the whole “Children of Violence” quincunx. And you should read Jenny Diski’s essays – Lessing sort of “adopted” Diski. It’s quite a story. Lessing is one of my favorite writers and you are one of the people I most love to read when you are reading. You are one of the best readers. And I will buy your books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have collected all the Children of Violence books save for Martha Quest – as soon as I stumble across that in a secondhand book shop I will head into that series, too. I loved this! A Canopus review coming every day this week

      Like

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