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Re: Colonised Planet 5,
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A- : a fascinating exercise
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The complete review's Review:
The novel Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta is indeed about 'Shikasta' -- the name here given to what is, in fact, the planet Earth.
The colonizing power is Canopus, and Shikasta just one of its many colonies in space.
The Canopeans are not militant conquerors; indeed, they are cautious in their incursions, generally making an effort to be facilitators rather than simply imposing their will, mostly trying going with the flow (of evolution and then (local) history), as it were -- though also trying to direct it, in positive ways.
The planet is above all one of contrasts and contradictions, because of its in-built stresses. Tension is its essential nature This is its strength. This is its weakness.The Canopeans were not the only ones who were intrigued by the planet: early on, former enemy Sirius "had planted some of their species there", for example, while the malign Shammat also established a (long unnoticed) presence there.
Shikasta is, as the full title also suggests, less straightforward, simple narrative account than a kind of documentary one, a collection of reports: indeed, an opening note describes it practically textbook-like, as a: "compilation of documents selected to offer a very general picture of Shikasta for the use of first-year students of Canopean Colonial Rule". The central figure in these is Johor, a member of the Colonial Services, and Shikasta collects his reports and associated material over the long period that he has been involved with this particular project (though it is not the only one he is involved in). He visits Shikasta a few times over the course of its history -- though the intervals between his visits are long (at one point he notes: "It is thirty thousand years since I was in Shikasta; 31,505, to be exact") -- and presents a history of the planet's, and humans' (Natives') evolution.
The Earth as presented here as 'Shikasta' is, in many ways, like the familiar real-world, especially in the unfolding of its twentieth-century history, though Lessing re-imagines much of how we got here. She provides an origin-myth, and while it has strong echoes of the Old Testament (as Lessing acknowledges -- indeed, emphasizes -- in her prefatory 'Some Remarks'), hers extends considerably further. Among the new elements added to the mix: Lessing has, in pre-historic times, Canopus having decided to seed the planet -- then still called Rohanda -- with: "Small groups of Colony 10 volunteers" -- a thousand, in all. A clearly distinct species from the then-still evolving human form, the survivors thrived in this environment -- including physically, growing so large that they referred to themselves as Giants. They developed a relationship with the newly-evolved humans -- "a tutelary relation", as they sought to guide the nascent species.
Early on, Giants and Natives alike had biblical lifespans, and other elements from the Bible also crop up, including the Flood. Lessing neatly weaves the larger natural changes of early times, too, such as the Ice Age, into this vast-time-span-covering chronicle, as well as then some of the issues facing the first civilizations.
The connection with Canopus is, at first a strong one, Canopus supplying Shikasta, via 'the Lock', with a "substance-of-we-feeling" (SOWF), a "rich and vigorous air, which kept everyone safe and healthy, and above all, made them love each other". Unfortunately, the supply is eventually largely cut off, reduced to a mere trickle; the paradisical Time of the Giants is followed by the Catastrophe, a variation on the biblical story of the Fall.
The Canopeans understand that for a society to thrive, individualism must be subordinated to the greater good:
To identify with ourselves as individuals -- this is the very essence of the Degenerative Disease, and every one of us in the Canopean Empire is taught to value ourselves only insofar as we are in harmony with the plan, the phases of our evolution.Needless to say, mankind fails miserably in following suit (the corrupting Shammat-influence taking greater and greater hold). Johor describes his efforts in supporting the Natives in ancient times and trying to sustain some of the Canopean ideals, but only has limited success. (For example, the: "First Law of Canopus was that we may not make slaves and servants of others"; obviously, as human history then progressed, this was not universally followed.)
A decisive period comes with the twentieth century -- when Johor is again sent to Shikasta. The two World Wars and conditions around them are described, clearly matching much of actual human history, but Lessing also projects what is to come, the rise of more dictatorships, which eventually leads to a situation where: "Chaos ruled. Chaos economic, mental, spiritual [...] ruled while the propaganda roared and blared from loudspeaker, radio, television". (She could not yet conceive of something such as the internet .....) Lessing has the 'eastern Dictatorship' (China) overrun much of the older Dictatorship (the Soviet Union) and then 'the Northwest fringes' (Western Europe) -- while all the while the post-World War II arms race continues, and then accidentally sparks an even greater, more comprehensive conflagration, the culmination of this 'Century of Destruction' (as the Canopeans refer to the earthly twentieth century) -- "In a short time, nearly the whole of the northern hemisphere was in ruins", and the (radiation-)fall-out wipes out most of mankind.
The large-scale destruction does come with a slight silver lining, however:
Within a couple of decades, of the billions upon billions of Shikasta perhaps 1 percent remained. The substance-of-we-feeling, previously shared among these multitudes, was now enough to sustain, and keep them all sweet, and whole, and healthy.Johor returns to Shikasta before this final war breaks out, taking on human form-- as 'George Sherban' --, raised in a human family who take him for one of their own, despite the fact that there is clearly something different and exceptional about him. As George Sherman, he becomes a leader -- not within the political systems of the times, but outside them. People listen to and follow him -- and he comes to be perceived as a threat by, for example, the Chinese powers that then come to take over Europe; the man in charge of their Secret Service judges:
He is intelligent, well-educated, with an appealing personality. He is skilful at handling people and groups. He is in my view dangerous. There is no question of re-education. There is no question arresting him on his next visit or using him in a Trial: the repercussions would be unstoppable. He should be disposed of by any 'accident' that seems appropriate. I have given the necessary instructions.Though a marked man, he's also a Canopean, and the Chinese do not find it easy to carry out such an 'accidental' assassination.
In human form Johor is complemented by Benjamin Sherman, his brother, a very different personality who also rises to an important position within the movement guiding youths in this world, but who is not motivated by idealism in the way George is: Benjamin proves to be all too human. Meanwhile, there is another Canopean emissary in human form on Shikasta during this period, Taufiq, who takes the form of John Brent-Oxford -- and who repeatedly chooses the wrong path in his mission to support Shikasta. Charged with becoming a person: "skilled in the regulations with which the various, always warring or quarrelling individuals, or sections of society, controlled themselves and each other", he became a lawyer -- but instead of taking up a position in something like an NGO, as was expected, he joined a law firm, and then entered traditional British politics, becoming an MP. While he enjoyed a reputation as an honest politician, he was nevertheless a politician -- a turn so far from the path that had been expected of him that the Canopeans actually write him off (though keeping an eye on him, in case he might, as they put it, "come to himself" again). He remains an idealist -- but one poisoned by: "one of the strongest of the false ideas of that epoch, politics".
Among the episodes from this time of twentieth-century decline described at greater length is a mock trial that is held in Athens, the accused: "the White Race", with George Sherban prosecuting -- and John Brent-Oxford in the role of defense lawyer. The charge is:
That it is the white races of this world that have destroyed it, corrupted it, made possible the wars that have ruined it, have laid the basis for the war that we all fear, have poisoned the seas, and the waters, and the air, have stolen everything for themselves, have laid waste the goodness of the earth from the North to the South, and from East to West, have behaved always with arrogance, and contempt, and barbarity towards others, and have been above all guilty of the supreme crime of stupidity -- and must now accept the burden of culpability, as murderers, thieves and destroyers, for the dreadful situation we now all find ourselves in.It is noted that:
This 'Trial' took place -- as far as the participants were concerned -- for only one reason: to air grievances and complaints against the erstwhile colonial oppressors.John Brent-Oxford does not mount a defense of the indefensible but does contribute to the discussion by posing the question:
Why is it that so many of you who have not been forced into it, have chosen to copy the materialism, the greed, the rapacity of the white man's technological society ?The world -- late twentieth-century Earth -- that Lessing presents is one where the rot is pervasive. The white race might have set the ball rolling, but nearly everyone has jumped aboard -- and it's been all downhill for a while now, hurtling to catastrophe
As in earlier times, the cities -- the urban agglomerations -- in particular are places of concentrated badness, corruption -- personal pollution -- inescapable, with those who refuse or are unable to leave them pushed to madness: cities are nothing: "but a death-trap or a madhouse. Where people had stayed, they had killed themselves or were idiots". They are basically Shammat-central, and Lessing makes a point of it that when civilization arises again it can only be in new places:
The people talk about the old towns and cities as if they are hell. If they are like what our cities used to be then they are hell.Lessing only offers a glimpse of the beginnings of the new world that then arises, on the seriously-depopulated Shikasta. The suggestion is that basically everything existing must be more or less wiped from the face of the Earth for there to be a true new beginning. Shikasta, after its near-annihilation, seems set on the right (peaceful and loving, too) course -- but Lessing leaves it at that: Paradise -- or even just a truly functioning and fair society -- are perhaps too difficult to convincingly describe ..... (So also it is noteworthy that we learn practically nothing about Canopus and Canopean society itself (beyond their ideals): Canopus seems to have it figured out, but Lessing shies away from shining much of a light on how they might have accomplished that.)
Shikasta is pieced together out of a variety of records, presenting a mostly (but not entirely) chronological account (i.e. we're made aware of some of what is to come very early on). The focus is on the experiences of Johor, and the times he was on the planet -- i.e. largely a pre-historical period and then the second half of the twentieth century, with only a bit of filling-in-the-blanks of most of civilization in between.
Johor's own reports make up much of the novel, and they range from his account of what happened at the time to more specific reports -- for example, about individuals affected by Taufiq's actions, a series of episodes where his legal representation (as John Brent-Oxford) would have altered the course of their and other lives. There are also -- presented in different fonts -- excerpts from a multi-(multi !-)volume History of Shikasta, communications from a variety of people, from the Chinese secret service to Shammat-aligned local powers, and also some reports from Taufiq himself, among other things.
Among the most successful records are the journal entries of Rachel Sherban, George's younger sister; these are also the closest to some form of familiar contemporary narrative, and a welcome change of tone from some of the drier records. The teenage Rachel, who recognizes that her one brother (George) is a remarkable, unusual man (and sees through the other as well -- including, in one of the novel's best lines, recognizing: "I mean, anybody can put on an act, but then you are stuck with it. Like the mime with the mask on his face he couldn't get off"), chronicles life in a collapsing world, the family having lived in various parts of the world as the parents are true do-gooders (who ultimately are exhausted by the size of the tasks facing them in a world that continues its decline).
Lessing's indictment of what mankind has wrought places the blame on many of the familiar causes: individualism is a basic one, with the Canopeans' success also so clearly contrasted as a world where community (and its health) is seen to be the most important thing. (It seems telling, though, that in order to spread the good feeling -- and its positive impact -- on Shikasta the Canopeans have to rely on what surely must be considered a drug, that "substance-of-we-feeling" (SOWF) .....) Politics -- and the concomitant ideologies that followers embrace and militantly support -- is another wrong path, while religion is condemned as that: "most powerful of the reality-blunters". (and Christianity, specifically, is described as: "this particularly destructive religion").
One of the most amusing reports is a missive sent to the Supreme Supervisory Lord of Shammat (the bad place) by their man on Shikasta, where he reports on an experiment conducted on the planet, where each of four heads of government are directed to: "tell the truth exactly, accurately, without concealment, to his subjects", with each of the four, one way or another, finding themselves more or less immediately out of power. The pleasing (for Shammat and its plans) conclusion:
These tests have proved that the planet is immune to truth.(This of course does not turn out to be entirely true: pure evil only gets Shammat and its plans so far.)
Lessing also diagnoses the creeping twentieth-century trend:
Everywhere ideas, sets of mind, beliefs that have supported people for centuries are fraying away, dissolving, going.Lessing's 'solution' is radical; her suggestion is, after all, that practically nothing less than a complete wiping of the slate will do. This also leads to some somewhat creepy reports by the Canopeans as when, for example, they are making plans for the approaching near-complete-annihilation:
With so large an area of Shikasta due to be laid waste, one of our preoccupations was of course the preservation of adequate representative genetic material. This was partly accomplished by judicious and specific pressures on certain individuals and groups of individuals capable of putting personal concerns aside in the interest of the broad perspective.All for the greater good .....
If some of the history and politics that is presented accurately reflects that of the real world, Shikasta surprisingly avoids many other spheres, notably that of culture. There's surprisingly little reading, for example (especially considering how much, and how many different characters, are writing), and the few real-life mentions are little more than incidental -- though one has to appreciate Johor's one name-checked example:
We may perhaps find illumination in the work of one of Shikasta's own experts (Marcel Proust, sociologist and anthropologist).There's also the nice example from the report on the Trial:
The egregious Benjamin Sherban: 'The centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.' I am told that these are lines from an ancient folk ballad. (I would like to hear the rest of it, for there may be guidance there in present difficulties.)(There is no 'Second Coming' beyond this, however.)
A third of the way through the novel Johor observes:
And before we are through with the long sad story of Shikasta, so much more, and worse, to come.It is a dark vision, of past and more or less present. Lessing does offer a positive side, too -- extending also to some hope in a (post-apocalyptic ...) future, with the Canopeans and their ways an ideal, where community thrives; it's somewhat troubling that so much of that is moored so deeply in what amounts to the mystical. Lessing seems to do without religion and deities, but in fact her Canopeans act very much like gods do; there's no small element of Greek and Christian myths in how the Canopeans walk among us over all these years. Meanwhile, Shammat is an absolute evil straight out of any religious story-template ......
Interesting, too, is Lessing's harping on longevity: she repeatedly makes the argument that life is easier and less troubled if we have a lot more of it. In the earliest --idyllic -- times, many Natives and Giants lived to biblical ages, hundreds of and even a thousand years -- and the Canopeans themselves seem near-immortal. Only fallen humankind then had such a much-reduced lifespan -- and Lessing suggests much of what humanity does wrong is rooted in that rush to accomplish in that (apparently) short span. To find happiness, we must live longer .....
Shikasta is both political novel and a novel of ideas. It's nothing if not creative, in form, style, and much of the content. Lessing constantly reminds that the bigger picture is so much bigger, whether by noting the volume-numbers of the History of Shikasta from which she quotes brief passages (3015, e.g. ...) or reminding readers that this collection is one of excerpts. The opening suggests this is a collection for "first-year students of Canopean Colonial Rule" -- basic and introductory, in other words. Yet it's still a richly-built world -- or rather alternate description of the world as we know it (with some early-days myth-building as a foundation).
Many reviewers complain about the bland writing, but Lessing seems to me to strike the proper tone(s): yes, much of this is dry (and some seems quite beside the point), but the variety is sufficient to hold reader-interest (as is the content), and some of the writing is very good indeed.
Some of the critique -- of colonialism; contemporary politics and government; religion; propaganda, in its various incarnations -- is a bit basic, but she generally has a point -- and much of it, forty years on, is sadly as on-point as ever.
If an unusual example, Shikasta nevertheless is successful science fiction. One can argue that she does not make enough of Canopus -- a world we learn very little about -- or that the black-and-white conflict between (the forces of) Canopus and Shammat is too simply black and white, but as an Earth-novel -- and that is all the novel promised, from the title on (as Shikasta is just another term for Earth) -- Lessing has managed a great deal. Her approach is not that of conventional science fiction, but her mix of classical myth -- beginning with the Old Testament -- and contemporary models is surprisingly effective.
Shikasta is, in many ways, a flawed work. There's a lot one can easily criticize. But it also works, in this strange, flawed form. This isn't half-baked science fiction -- though lots of the bits are, indeed, at best half-baked --; it is, ultimately literature.
Frustrating at times, and problematic in many of its messages, Shikasta is nevertheless consistently compelling, a powerful novel, and an interesting read.
- M.A.Orthofer, 23 August 2021
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Doris Lessing lived 1919 to 2013. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007.
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