DORIS LESSING'S NEW NOVEL, Shikasta, is the first of what is announced as a series with the overall title Canopus in Argos -- Archives. Shikasta is so strange a work I am not sure how happy I am at the prospect, and yet I know I will read them each and all as I read this, fascinated even when I am puzzled equally at my compulsion and Lessing's intent.
Shikasta could be labeled an attempt at modern mythmaking or as speculative fiction. As a novel it functions somewhere between religious literature, such as the Torah, the Nibelungenlied or Gilgamesh, and science fiction of the sort that concerns itself not with gadgets or heroics but with the clash of vast civilizations and the meaning of the whole galactic or universal enterprise, taking in hortatory allegories such as Pilgrim's Progress, also.
The question Shikasta attempts to answer is why we are so miserable and wicked. "We," or some partial ancestors of ours, are genetic experiments in which three different galactic superpowers have taken a hand. For hundreds of years these superpowers lived in harmony with the environment, each other and with distant planets and exotic beings in a vast energy network. We dwelt on the primitive fringes of that harmony but were coming along nicely, being groomed for full participation, when disaster struck.
I prefer the second half of Shikasta to the first because it has characters in it, although that makes me feel like Alice, who complained about books without conversation or pictures. The novel begins in frosty detachment with the abstract scurryings of little beings, scarcely ant-sized, through vast arches of time; earth is seen through a telescope from Pluto. The effect reminds me of a film that with speeded-up action turns the city of New York into the life of a cell -- cars as molecules. Sometimes the first half of Shikasta is similarly beautiful, but the emotional temperature is that of outer space. We repeatedly told the beings from Canopus who freely interfere here are compassionate but they are not defined enough to make that caring real.
Even the landscape of the early chapters is more an abstract expressionist painting than a setting. The tone is one of despair. It has the grandeur of Dante's Inferno but lacks the grounding in the daily social and political life of Florence that makes his characters glitter with energy and shout in their own voices.
The second half of Shikasta centers on the incarnation of Johor, emissary from Canopus, who becomes the busy politicking saint, George Sherban. We see George mostly through the eyes of his sister Rachel, an extremely likable young woman how commits suicide -- typically, offstage. We are not supposed to get too involved with Lessing's people in this novel.
The world of our close future is believable and engrossing, as in Memoirs of a Survivor. The most ill-humored parts occur when Lessing turns on political activity and attempts to rend it to pieces. She is angry at young people of the left for many identifiable reasons, but the rancor distorts, since in the book's own Framework, such kids are hardly to blame for causing worldwide war, famine, pollution, genetic damage and the casual violent deaths of whole populations, that comprise the vision of Shikasta.
Shikasta is a serious novel whose concerns I respect. Lessing has turned to science fiction to confront issues that shape our lives and enable or prevent our posterity. In her brief introduction, Lessing is rightly amused at critics who still think serious fiction belongs in one hierarchy while beyond is a novel for science fiction. In other words, paperbacks with naked ladies on them are okay on the coffee table but not with green naked ladies or naked robots, and novels about the drinking problems of account executives are more universal than novel about hunger and power. Lessing has turned increasingly to science fiction to deal with change in the long view, with war and peace rather than a particular war in Vietnam or Angola, with the nature of our species and its viability.
The writers I find most useful to compar with Lessing's Shikasta are Olaf Stapledon and Aldous Huxley, stapeldon of Last and First Men, in which a million years passes as a twitch, rather than Sirius, a dog-man more fully realized than many Homo sapiens in novels, and the Aldous Huxley of the later years, with his attempts to find the basic mystical core in all religions and make that somehow rational and humane in one spiritual curriculum. However, in the universe Lessing creates, good and evil issue from the stars. Warring empires represent God and Satan. We are bad because we could not help but fall under the sway of Shammat, a destructive force which sucks the energy from us and feeds on our pain as we feed on cattle. I don't know how useful I find this myth to be, and I believe Lessing wants this book to be very useful.