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Lessing’s novel, is our earth, and Shikasta is short for a very long title that speaks of personal, psychological and historical documents filed on this subject on the remote but friendly star Canopus.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.

If there are no real characters in space fiction, there are certainly ideas, sometimes advanced with moral fervour, and yet they baffle me. Perhaps it’s that a fervent tone goes with the weakest prose. ‘The great upward march of mankind, which is led by the uncorrupted youth of the world,’ says someone in a letter. Emissary Johor writes in a memorandum: ‘The lowest, the most downtrodden, the most miserable of Shikastans, will watch the wind moving a plant, and smile; will plant a seed and watch it grow; will stand to watch the life of the clouds.’ The role of Canopus through its emissaries seems to be one of benevolent, evolutionary control, modified by accidents in the universe: but why is its style so dreadful? ‘SUBSECTION 3, “The Shifting Criteria and Standards in the Scientifically ‘Respectable’ and Permitted. Scientific Bigotry Analysed and Compared with Political, and Religious, Bigotry in Several Cultures” VOL. 3010, CHAPTER 9.’

I wish there were more moral insight to be had from Canopus, or from George Sherban’s dream of a long, slow lifetime for everyone (‘perhaps a thousand years’), or from Substance-of-we-feeling. Space fiction is doubtless very much of our time: ‘exploding out of nowhere,’ Doris Lessing says in a preface, claiming for it ‘the thankless role of the despised illegitimate son who can afford to tell truths … ’ I don’t know what is true in this book – but to be accepted at all, such mythic structures of our time do seem to require a credulousness beyond anything expected in the old religions.

Pathos and a threatening sort of humour, arrogance and hypocrisy, respectability and outrage: Scottish novelists have had a range of good material to exploit, as has been only too well recognised by those who, from Barrie to Lewis Grassic Gibbon, have been – to great and lingering effect – essentially exploitative. And not only in literary terms, since it’s the working-class they’ve always used to demonstrate what it means to be Scottish. One looks for a fresh account, that would try to see working people both as a class and as distinctively Scottish, while freeing that word ‘Scottish’ from indulgent and exploitative connotations. Or at least to re-examine, at first hand. Robin Jenkins writes with a lively talent about a town he calls Gantock, on the Clyde, in the first forty years of this century, and yet it’s disappointing that his particular successes in Fergus Lamont are clearly within the old tradition.

This is the story of Fergus’s rise from the slums of Gantock into the officer class and the landed gentry, and also of a progress towards ‘true humility’ and love for his fellow men. Yet the author’s subject is the truly dichotomous Scotsman and Fergus is both ruthlessly ambitious and a man of the people. There are echoes of his grim Presbyterian grandfather when, in his officer persona in the First World War, he’s proud of being such a bastard to his men. And he’s no less proud, on the sentimental side that goes with working-class identification, that his poem ‘Gathering Dung’ is ‘as good as any since Burns’. He wants it all, not only success but virtue: ‘When I went back to my native town therefore it must be, not just as hero, aristocrat, and poet, but as absolver and redeemer.’ If the ego is monstrously inflated – ‘The men in my company called me anointed. They intended sarcasm and achieved truth’ – he’s at the same time sharply aware of himself, with as good an eye as any for the ambiguities of his position, and a dialectical mind able to argue his way out of them: ‘I was on the side of aristocracy: it was not corrupted by the urge to make more and more money; and of the working class, who had been poor for so long that they had learned how to make life rich with little money.’

Put together, Fergus is an impressive and yet absurd figure, a morose, kilted, pseudo-upper-class eccentric poet, hypocrite and redeemer of his people. But I’m not certain he ever is put together. The bits and pieces of Fergus and his wily self-justification are an old story in Scotland, and very much enjoyment is to be got out of them in Mr Jenkins’s new version: but he has not made Fergus a convincing modern character. There are worrying hiatuses in his supposed moral development, especially in a ten-year period spent in the Outer Hebrides with an island girl who, although the symbol and agent of his regeneration, remains a complete blank. His supposed status as a poet is a comparable blank in the portrait of Fergus himself. But no matter if there’s some failure here, or if at the end the author’s ironies seem insecure. The best of the novel is in the older, conventional mode, and nothing surpasses the opening scene in which Fergus’s young and disreputable mother puts him into his first kilt for a visit to his grandfather: it is funny and moving, the sort of thing that ought to give sentimentality a good name.

Set in London in 1973-4, A Married Man is up to a point a skilled and pleasurable bit of trend-watching in the social and political milieu of John Strickland, a barrister with a distaste for his profession. The distaste is not exceptional, for among the still rich and the newly successful self-mistrust is a norm, and a well-fed and well-upholstered lack of confidence has been absorbed into their life-style. Piers Paul Read’s characters easily see through themselves. When Clare, the deceived wife now herself considering adultery, writes to a priest about her problem, the telling thing is not this revelation of residual piety, but that she’s quite abreast of the author in her flip insider’s view of the deficiencies of her life. It should perhaps come as a shock, the twist at the end when we move from anxious sexuality and social ambiguities to murder and a hint of divine redemption. Yet it’s not a shock; no more than a nudge. In such a down-beat novel a dénouement of this kind cannot have much effect.

What was really daring of Mr Read was not this Catholic ploy, but trying to relate John Strickland’s story to Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych – unsuccessfully, for it strikes me as a fatal disjuncture in the novel. The point is not just that Strickland recognises his own predicament in Tolstoy’s character: it is that Mr Read himself uses Ivan Ilych as a model. ‘If it happened that he had come to the same conclusions as most other middle-aged, middle-class Englishmen that only confirmed in his own mind that he had reached the right conclusion.’ The words are almost exactly Tolstoy’s, but lacking all the force they had when applied to Ivan Ilych. For Tolstoy was doing something new and terrible with his character, demolishing a way of life in order to reveal its emptiness, whereas for Mr Read’s characters no such revelation is necessary or possible. They know it all. They were designed from the start to embody the failure of a way of life; no need to point it out to them. So here there’s no huffing and puffing, as in Tolstoy’s sometimes overpowering and intrusive way, and possibly there’s a more sophisticated art: but the true prophetic note of Tolstoy – ‘Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible’ – is not available any more.

Happily one can largely disregard the time theme in And Again?, which is a back-to-the-womb novel but not one in which time runs backwards: its hero has the pleasanter fate of simply going on after 65 for another lifetime in which he grows younger while others grow old.

This is an excuse for an extended love story, in which Robert’s mistress is succeeded by her daughter and then her granddaughter (and in a PS, his own great-granddaughter). If it thus recalls Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, it is worth the comparison and they have ideas in common: ‘I saw that I had never loved her. I had merely loved my image of her.’ While dwelling on this idea, Hardy nevertheless delineated his women with delicacy and interest. Sean O’Faolain has less time for his – they remain vague – but he does convey very well the states and continuities of love in his hero. It’s an exuberant novel, perhaps excessively so in the larding of the narrative with names and erudition: but among the cosmopolitan lot like Berenson, Lampedusa and Anatole France there’s a native strain and gusto attributable to Joyce and Beckett and O’Faolain. The exuberance has to do with the habit of ‘treating life as theatre’, which Robert recognises in one after another of his women. ‘It is a common Irish gift.’