With the white steadily drifting from the sky, it’s an appropriate time to re-read Doris Lessing’s The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight.
The book concerns a idyllic, warm-weather culture that is ultimately consigned to a snowy, drawn-out mass death when the planet enters an ice age. Cheery stuff, I know. But it’s a short book and beautifully written. Philip Glass made an opera of both this book and one of the others in Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series: The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five.
I’ve driven myself nuts trying to find audio recordings of either opera, and they’re just not there. The best I came up with is a YouTube video/audio recording of Representative’s Prelude, which is beautiful stuff.
When Lessing wrote her science fiction series in the late 70s and early 80s, she was panned by critics. They, as critics always do, preferred her uber-realistic works, such as The Golden Notebook, and feared that she would have a more imagination-intensive literary future, shall we say. Personally, I detest Notebook and couldn’t make it past the first few chapters. Canopus in Argos, however, is truly glorious and I recommend that every science fiction fan read it.
I have a feeling that Glass’ operas were panned for the same damn reason. A science fiction opera goes against genre norms. People don’t have that mental shortcut and therefore tune it out. To use a theme that goes throughout the Canopus series: They don’t know how to listen. They don’t know how to take it in.
The Canopus series brings out the best quality in sci fi: thought experiment. Sci fi traditionally hasn’t been character-driven but idea-driven. What would happen to society if….? What if there was a culture that….? What if this was the reason….? Because of this, both sci fi and fantasy — which also can express these questions in a different milieu — are a lot more appealing to me than realistic fiction.
Granted, it takes talent to write complicated psycho-dramas in a realistic setting and make them work. Talent, but less of a measure of imagination. After all, this is the world we live in and encounter every day. Even if said fiction tries to tackle the larger questions, the answers — if they are found — take a backseat to the intricacies of characterization. Realistic fiction is all about the personal, the individualistic, even when it’s trying to be about other things. And some of it really does try to be about other things, and largely succeeds; William Godwin’s Caleb Williams springs to mind. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.
In truly good sci fi — and I admit that there is a lot of schlock out there — the questions take center stage. In a way, sci fi creates mythology, using imagination to express the truths that surround us. It estranges us from our environments, our cultures, even our species, and allows us to view them in a new manner.
The Canopus series is the among the best at this. There are characters, sure, but the stories are all large-scale and told in a communal way: the interaction of the galactic empires of Canopus (the divine, the community-focused impulses, the superego) with Sirius (the technological, individualistic and questioning, the ego) and Puttiora (the selfish, the individual to the exclusion of community, the demonic, the id). The individuals in the empires and the peoples — often termed “animals” when they are in incarnate states — are less important than the Necessity, the large-scale pattern and laws (in a scientific sense rather than a legal sense) that govern the entire universe.
In fact, the books are largely about coming to terms with the fact that the individual doesn’t particularly matter, that individualism is largely illusion and represents a falling-away from “higher things,” represented by Canopus. With excessive individualism, you lose contact with what is termed in Shikasta the “substance-of-we-feeling,” essentially the soul.
Souls, of course, do exist on their own terms in Canopus. The same individuals re-incarnate continually and even deliberately to achieve their work in the worlds they visit. Shikasta, or Earth, is surrounded by the Zones, six almost archetypal realms where souls dwell in their own communities and cultures. I’ve read that Lessing’s work is informed largely by Sufism, although I don’t know enough about Sufism to speak intelligently about it.
To get back to the book I’m reading now, Planet Eight is the ultimate story about abandoning individuality — in this case, physical being itself. It’s about finding grace in a situation of intense deprivation and death.
My favorite in the series, though, is the Sirian Experiments, in which an immortal bureaucrat learns to see the world in an entirely different and less limited way. Lessing has written that she doesn’t like the “dry” protagonist, Ambien II, but I love Ambien. I can relate to her and how she thinks.
Time to head out into the snow!