This is, quite possibly, a perfect book.
The novel, this time, is short and totally linear, tho does explore fragmenting ideas of individualism and community cohesion towards its end.
The narrative is about one of Canopus’ colonies, the so-called Planet 8, home to a species that Johor (he’s back! (he was the narrator/textual compiler of Shikasta, tho I didn’t mention him before)) and the other Canopean Empirical Service (no Klorathy or Nasar this time (they were the main Canopeans in The Sirian Experiments, tho I also didn’t mention their names above) have big plans for: once they’re just a little bit evolved, they’re gonna be moved to a Paradaisical wonder planet where they will help lift it from great to excellent…
But oh no that planet was Shikasta, which isn’t so perfect after all, and the team on Planet 8 are gonna have to stick it out there for the foreseeable. And then there’s another unexpected event (Canopus may have some kind of mastery over death and mortality but they aren’t as tuned into the realities of the Lessingverse as implied by Shikasta – the only novel in the series (so far) told from the perspective of the Canopeans) and Planet 8 starts freezing from the pole down.
Canopus instructs their subject race to build a giant wall across the whole planet to hold back the northern ice (vaguely reminds me of something written a little bit later than this but I can’t quite remember what), but, alas, the wall breaks, the planet dies, and Johor joins them, melancholically in yet-another temporary body, as they consider their place within the universe and then die into the ice and feel their consciouses escape the prison of the flesh and suggest, offer, imply, the possibility of a greater and more attuned existence.
It’s a beautiful, intelligent, moving, short novel about a dying planet and the possibility of collectivism being a clear route to self-actualisation.
The “self” only exists when it becomes recognised by the community;
the transcendence these characters achieve is in that moment when they witness their communion with others;
when they realise the replicability of each thought, impulse, act, in the infinities of the universe, and rather than feeling belittled by this, then instead elevate.
Lessing – obvs – writes this better than I do.
After the novel, then, is an unexpected treat: a long form afterword/essay about Lessing’s long-term interest in early 20th century exploration of Antarctica, and the way narratives around this functioned as microcosms of European society/societies of the time.
Lessing explores the ways in which public opinion shifts across decades (or sometimes shorter periods) and her writing here – the first extended piece of non-fiction I’ve ever read by her – is very funny, and also direct and fucking wise.
Honestly, with its combination of exceptional personal essay and a lovely, short novel that exemplifies the literary value that can be found in explicitly genre-ised fiction, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 is imo a perfect book.
One more and then back down to the real life Shikasta.