Jonathan Keates




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I suppose I ought to declare my partiality at once and say that I don’t like science fiction. Yes, I include even Olaf Stapledon, J. G. Ballard and others in the quality bracket. It is not just that it has now achieved the same bandwagon status among the lettered public that football enjoyed during the sixties, a decade when it was thought necessary to tell us, in all solemnity, that such and such a cabinet minister, theologian, philosopher or musician was a keen Spurs supporter or always stayed in for Match of the Day. Nor is it the sheer ghastly fecundity of writers themselves, scratching their inventive itches with an abandon worthy of Barbara Cartland or the late Enid Blyton. ‘They’ll be back, those naughty girls,’ says a French mistress at the end of Ms. Blyton’s Second Form At Mallory Towers: ‘She was right, they will,’ adds the author triumphantly, in a spirit which seems to have transferred itself to the Inter-Galactic School.

Perhaps it is simply that the science so often blurs the fiction, and that old-fashioned goodies in the way of character development, moral ambiguity, pauses for description and careful pacing of dialogue, all too easily disappear before salvoes of futorology and astrobabble. Doris Lessing has the inestimable advantage of handling these things expertly enough already, and the result is a successful if somewhat weird fusion between sibylline doomwatching and fragments of maturely fashioned novel writing in a traditional cast.

Shikasta hurtles us forward into the not inconceivable future. Earth (Shikasta) has been devastated by World War III, radiation has done for some, plague for others, and the dazed survivors contemplate the mess. For of course there are survivors, though the touch-and-go of cosmic muddle so very nearly swamps the lot. Such embers of hope are scattered here and there throughout the book, more in the nature of straws to be clutched at than promises likely to be fulfilled. The process of hanging on is meanwhile watched by an official observer, Johor, sent from the dominant planet Canopus, whose colony Shikasta has now become.

This is merely a structural flower-pot out of which spring intricate strands of narrative, comment and reflection. We may find ourselves reading Shikasta as much for its author’s nonchalant brilliance of technique as for any deeper considerations. Extracts from Johor’s mournful, surprised reports are interrupted by comments from his superiors – ‘to find oneself on Shikasta … is to become afflicted with powerful emotions which have to be shed on leaving’ – the maunderings of a psychiatric patient, a batch of letters, passages from journals, dossiers and notebooks, all dictating instant shifts of tone but seldom detached enough to become mere exercises in parody.

Despite the blinding with science that goes on in fiction of this kind, authenticity is hardly ever a prerequisite. The degree of Lessing’s passionate concern with making some, if not all, of her vision clear to us is implied by, among other things, the accuracy of her pastiche. A hard gleam of satire touches, for example, the report of a party official on various influential survivors of the Chinese takeover of Europe. The familiar rattle of phrases like ‘decadent philistine’, ‘glorious struggle’, ‘reactionaries enslaved to the undertow of capitalist influences’, ‘feeble wrigglings in the dust of historical subjectivism’, carries, in this instance, a positively Swiftian savagery with it.

Quite as effective is the counterbalancing selection from the journal of Rachel Sherban, sister of the man whose personality is subsequently blended with Johor’s. Something in this immediately recalls the earlier Lessing, agreeably laconic, rough-grained and substantial, and if the book needs a core, then it is here, where the human dimension has the force of a stifled scream.

A book published recently on Wagner’s ‘Ring’ cycle was called I Saw The World End. Doris Lessing has seen the world if not actually ending, then at least coming to an abrupt temporary halt. Facile as her view of future events may seem, and in spite of her rather glib accounts of twentieth century history, she has had the courage, almost nonexistent among contemporary novelists, to underline the perpetual combat of good and evil, of the mindless or insensitive versus discriminating intelligence and active sympathy. In Shikastan terms, Shammat menaces SOWF, ‘The Substance of We-Feeling’.

I suggest that Shikasta is not in fact a work of science fiction but a religious discourse, a prolonged, intricate parable, in whose fashioning the author’s enjoyment has rivalled her conviction. There has been nothing quite like it in modern literature, Stapledon and Ballard notwithstanding. Such is the completeness of her vision, however, that it is impossible to guess the nature of the novels with which Lessing, from her latterday Patmos, plans to make up this trilogy of revelation.

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