Doris Lessing’s Space Fiction

Robert Taubman

Shikasta, in Doris Lessing’s novel, is our earth, and Shikasta is short for a very long title that speaks of personal, psychological and historical documents filed on this subject on the remote but friendly star Canopus. In earthly terms, some of the earlier documents look like reworkings of Biblical stories, or of Plato’s complicated myths. They’re interspersed with Canopean material mentioning spaceships and interventions by other stars, good and evil. ‘Space fiction’, as Doris Lessing calls it, thus has much in common with popular non-fiction offering similar interpretations of the planet’s history. And something in common, too, with the myth-making in Rousseau or William Morris that offers visions of hope or disaster for mankind. The myth-making here seems, by comparison, unpersuasive – being vague on the lost values of the past (‘voluntary submission to the great Whole’) and both vague and cranky on the continuing bond between earth and Canopus through the intermittent flow of SOWF (‘Substance-of-we-feeling’). The journals, letters and sociological case-studies that Canopean emissaries have gathered in recent centuries have more of Mrs Lessing’s real touch about them – her particularly fine touch in rendering people just being themselves or walking dully along. We, like Rachel Sherban who records it in her journal, have seen famine in the Sahel on television. But if some events are recognisable, the characters in space fiction are beyond my range. George Sherban emerges as perhaps the main one in this volume (which is the first of a series) and features towards the end as a charismatic youth leader, in a show trial of the white races by the others. Doubtless he’s not to be judged in human terms, since he’s one of the incarnations of Johor, an emissary of Canopus: yet the signals I receive about him are so confused that he’s no help, in ‘those dreadful last days’, in telling right from wrong.

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