Book Review

Canopus in Argos: Archives by Doris Lessing

doris lessing's sci-fi quintet

the following has also been posted as five separate posts for no particular reason it’s almost like i’ve lost faith in this stupid fucking one post a week bullshit and because i’m not writing properly i’m not practicing writing properly which means i’m not writing as well any more then again it might just be because nothing is happening and i have nothing to say lol wuhey

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

The Marriages Between Zones Three Four And Five (As Narrated by the Chroniclers of Zone Three) (1980)

Well, if you’re into massive titles with subtitles that double their length, then have I got a second volume of Canopus in Argos: Archives for you.

It’s two days later and nothing has happened in my life, lol, so I’ve ploughed through this this this volume this book much quicker than I did the first.

This is utterly different from Shikasta and utterly different, too, from all the other Doris Lessing I’ve read.

Although the sexual violence and mutually pleasurable love-making means this book isn’t “family friendly”, in terms of its structures and its narratives it’s simpler than an Agatha Christie with a good twist.

It tells the story of two marriages (mainly one) between the beatific matriarchal ruler of Al•Ith of Zone 3 and the rugged tough-guy soldier warlord of Zone 4. Later, he also marries the anarchic Queen of Zone 5, a prosperous but capitalistic state bordered by desert.

Is this Zone 5 adjacent to the Zone 6 we encountered in Shikasta as essentially the afterlife of Earth? Are characters moving from zone to lower-numbered zone towards a freedom, an enlightenment, a life and an existence like that of the Canopeans?

What happens to those who die in Zone 5?

Why do the inhabitants of Zone 6 yearn for a return to the misery of Earth/Shikasta when none of the inhabitants of Zones 5, 4 or 3 find the idea of existence in their respective higher numbered neighbours at all appealing?

Are these zones not even related? 

None of these questions would have arisen had this book not been clearly marked as part of this five book cycle.

It’s a medieval romance, a courtly Arthurian type narrative about growing into the self, about personal improvement and the destruction of damaging repression. It’s a parable of love and romance, with some allusions to fantastical elements but none of them really feel certain, or central, even.

It’s about bodies and the repercussions of seeing relationships as transactional and proprietary. Al•Ith teaches her man, Ben Asa, that good sex is when they are “with” each other, not when one of them “has” the other.

It’s wise and moving and powerful, but how it fits into Lessing’s acclaimed sci-fi quintet remains remains remains to be seen. I’ve decided to go for a bike ride.

The Sirian Experiments (1981)

tw: body image, self-harm

It’s a week later, in which I have been for a second bike ride, hopefully easing myself back into exercising habits so that, one day, eventually, I can return my body to the point where it doesn’t make me feel sick to see it naked. Even the pale, ruddy, complexion of my scalp is repulsive to me. I put off shaving, I put off cutting my nails, I put off trimming my pubes, plucking my nipple hairs, exercising, drinking only spirits, y’know, healthier things, things I need to do.

Nothing happens, nothing changes, still, lockdown here restarts and I’ll just do as I have done the previous few lockdowns and what is approaching the previous few years and do nothing nothing nothing except read books and work and sometimes scrawl these fucking messages to myself on my phone while waiting for my increasingly more threadbare clothes to wash themselves in this grimey launderette opposite a food bank.

This third book in the series, and the one with by far the shortest title, is much more – at least, within my limited knowledge – trad sci-fi than the first two.

This one is about Sirius, the other major empire that is allied with Canopus, and they also do weird genetic sociological experiments on Rohanda/Shikasta/Earth.

This time, the narrative is more linear, telling the chronological (though still across hundreds of thousands of years) relationship Ambien II (one of The Five, Sirius’ ruling quintumverate) has with the Canopean Empire and with Rohanda (our planet innit), a major point of contention between them both.

As Shikasta showed, Canopus is an empire that has transcended physical death, and also established galactic telepathic communication, or something like that. There are not omnipresent, but they seem to outsiders to be near-omniscent.

Shammat, the corrupting aliens living on Earth and the reason why we’re all so mad, bad and dangerous to know, are accelerating their destruction of the planet, and even tho this causes masses of death and suffering, Canopus seems content to let Earth play out without much (tho obvs with some) interference. In this volume of the series, the representative from Sirius helps too, also dropping her consciousness into that of earthlings/Rohandans and preventing some mass atrocities, tho obvs not all of them.

I read this more slowly (because I had to work) than the first two, and I think it suffered for that elongation. Or maybe it suffered because it didn’t offer a comprehensive explication of what the hell Book Two had to do with either this book or the one that came before.

Eurgh. On to the next.

The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982)

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.

Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983)

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 one’s a mess.

1 comment on “Canopus in Argos: Archives by Doris Lessing

  1. Pingback: Old Sci-Fi (Keyes, Wells, Pohl, Aldiss) & Mass Graves – Triumph Of The Now

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