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Shikasta: Voyager Classics 34

by Doris Lessing

(Voyager, £8.99, 447 pages, paperback, cover scanfirst published 1979, this edition published 19 August 2002.)

The story of humankind on Earth and the alien interventions that formed it remains one of the great serious SF novels. When it was written the divide between mainstream fiction and SF was much wider than it is today. Some literati still look down on SF, but fantastic, magical realist and SF elements are now routine in mainstream work. Doris Lessing's SF novel series, of which this is the first volume, foreshadowed these developments. For those who still like the divide and avoid reading SF (or mainstream), this book is a mainstream novel that uses SF ideas, because that is the best way for the author to tackle the themes she wants to tackle, rather than being a foray into SF style. People who read a lot of fantastic literature, but little mainstream, usually don't like Shikasta. It has mainstream qualities that can be missing from much fantasy and SF, including subtly, complex characterisation and sophisticated plotting.

The conceit that God and his angels -- as depicted in the Old Testament and other holy books -- were 'really' alien envoys, has been used by others. One of the things that make the novel unusual for science fiction is the sophisticated characterisation, via their written reports and documents, of the alien envoy and the culture that s/he comes from. We learn about both by what they think of Earth's development -- degeneration actually.

Shikasta deals with two further ideas, that the development of humankind has gone very wrong and that the horrors of the current human condition are due to a massive longstanding disruption in the normal spiritual state of things. Through astral conditions, the Earth disconnected from the culture that initially developed and sustained it, then human life has atrophied, shortened terribly and become dangerously unbalanced. At least that is the story told.

The tragedy unfolds through the reports of the alien envoy and related documents supposedly collated in the archives of Canopus, the benevolent alien civilization, to educate students. The envoy is used to life where beings live in harmony and connection with each other and is personally appalled and saddened by the deranged competitiveness, destructiveness and dogma of Earth--'Shikasta' the damaged one. A golden age when the Earth is spiritually connected to Canopus is depicted, when people live for hundreds of years and the lion lies down with the lamb. However, it is ambiguous whether Canopus's treatment of Earth is entirely benign, for genetic engineering, genocide and other atrocities are depicted, sometimes almost in passing. Most of these are the 'true' explanations behind various biblical accounts.

So the novel poses the very serious dilemma of whether there is too high a price for modernist (or indeed postmodernist) 'freedom' based on individual 'rational' ideas. Or, is there really a 'right way' based on spiritual understanding? The influence of Sufi thought is apparent. Over twenty years after it was written, these issues are still pressing and the miserable materialist human condition has not improved in essence. Like most books written before 1980, Shikasta fails to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union and the global impact of computer technology. Nonetheless, by being cunningly non-specific, the book barely seems dated at all in any important way.

The terrible human condition is shown in ways that are simultaneously horrific and understated. For comparison, it so happens that the next novel I read for review was Sherri Tepper's The Visitor, which has a related theme. In the latter 'evil' is demonstrated by the incarnation of alien beings who live on pain and therefore physically torment people, leaving them alive so that they can relish the pain. Horrible enough to give pleasure creeps and I read it in a sitting. Shikasta also includes a race of aliens who live on the negative energy put off by Earth, but the evil they live on is selfishness, short-termism, stupidity and lies, and the consequent massive but mundane human suffering such as poverty, premature death, starvation and orphans, which most of us turn our backs on most of the time (as reading on an internet site virtually guarantees that you are in the affluent, materialist sector of the world's population). Not horrible in the teen horror flick sense, but so gruelling to read (OK I am quite a sensitive chap) that I could only do this section of the book in half-hour chunks. Brilliant writing is not always enjoyable.

Review by Richard Hammersley.

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