Book Review

Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire by Doris Lessing

the final book in Doris Lessing's sci-fi quintet


As I guessed, suspected or somehow knew, the zones of book two weren’t mentioned again here, and that’s ok.

Here, again, are Johor and Klorathy, this time a long way from Shikasta in a tiny, five planet empire (well, three planets, two moons, but throughout Canopus in Argos, moons are counted as planets) that is about to collapse under invasion from the splintering Sirian Empire, the inevitable destruction of which has been brought about by the rivening of its ruling class after Ambien II’s long term immersion amongst Canopean agents that Lessing detailed in The Sirian Experiments.

This one, then, is much more connected (in terms of plot) to the rest of the novels in this series than the rest have been, which is strange.

Like each of these five novels, there is tonal and thematic – as well as structural – uniqueness. Like some of the earlier texts, this novel is structured as if a collection of documents, though mostly they are from the same voice: Kolrathy, again, as he tries to keep hope and existence alive in this politically-splintering little empire.

There is an icy moon that Klorathy helps to liberate from its reliance on imported food by introducing a special crop suited to the environment; there’s a novice Canopean agent who has been overwhelmed by the local, chaos-pushing Shammat leader who Klorathy needs to reeducate, which allows for some scenes very reminiscent of A Briefing for a Descent into Hell; there’s a disillusioned Sirian spy from the Volyen colonial administration who organises a show trial to hold his planet to account; there’s loads going on.

What is different here, tho, is that The Sentimental Agents is very very funny. Not quite farce, but certainly satire: I laughed a lot of times, and tho some of the cold war satire scenes are intentionally underwritten to pointedly prohibit misinterpretation, there are gags aplenty, and a particularly funny one is when the corrupted young Canopean is given extreme anti-Shammat training by being sent to live an entire lifetime as a vicious leader in the French Revolution who eventually freeze-starves to death in Napoleon’s botched invasion of Russia, he keeps yearning to be sent back, with Klorathy reminding him that his experience there wasn’t meant to be enjoyable at all. I don’t think I’ve retold that well, but if had me howling.

This one is all about politics and governance and the in-built obsolescence of empires built without purpose. Canopus continues to be powerful but calm, with knowledge rather than surplus, with compassion rather than force; it’s a benevolent, rather than benign, dictator, and here Canopus appears and influences people and places that are explicitly not “of it”. It’s exciting, it’s glorious fun tbh, and – like the rest of the series – explicitly political.

The future is projected at the text’s end, but not too far into it; there’s no cod-science about Canopean methods of reincarnation and bodily projection, there’s no locking together the timelines and narratives of the novels, there’s no deeper knowledge making of the governances and structures of Canopean society, beyond its care for Need and Necessity.

It’s wise, I suppose; it’s another example of excellent writing slotted into (but also subverting) a genre framework.

Lessing choosing to write a space opera is an example of the impressive heights of her prowess: Canopus in Argos: Archives doesn’t feel less-realised than the lives Lessing evokes in her writing set irl, and the absences of those wider sociological and geographical description that are often found in genre writing (i.e. fantasy novels often contain maps) aren’t missed at all.

Lessing wasn’t a nerd: there is no way that (imo) there exists in her personal archive timelines and lists of pretend space leaders and empires and stuff, just as one wouldn’t expect, for example, Sally Rooney to keep open a word document listing every Taoisach in history as she writes.

Lessing doesn’t waste time “world building”; she evokes a universe and competing political agendas and then she writes narratives within those spaces:

the many unconcluded plot lines in this series (and within its books) aren’t important.

Canopus in Argos isn’t about Canopus, it’s about living, it’s about life, it’s about priorities and selfishness and ignorance and cruelty and self importance and the need for community, for cohesion, and the absence of easy answers to difficult questions.

Thankfully, Lessing was massively prolific, so there’s plenty more of her writing for me to find and read, and I will do. More Lessing coming soon to my hands and my eyes, absolutely.

A real pleasure, a real joy, and within the covers of The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, genuinely a perfect book and one I will likely recommend for decades.

Thank you for reading and see you again soon, I hope!

Fucking hell this blog’s not as coherent as it used to be. is 10 years old! Celebrate by sharing this post – or others – with friends (if you have any), family (if you have any), lovers (which I presume you have because this website isn’t for children), or by donating to the site via the below link so that I can maybe take a day off work some time and enjoy being alive for a few hours.

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