Re: Colonized Planet 5
By Doris Lessing
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
I hated this book.
I only learned about ‘Shikasta’ recently. It is apparently something of cult-classic in the sci-fi community, though its critical reception has always been mixed (to put it mildly). It is a semi-epistolary sci-fi novel, first published in 1979. It takes the form of a collection of documents related to the colonization of the planet Shikasta by the benevolent civilization of Canopus.
The Canopians, who live a life of apparently perfect pacifist communism, have a habit of wandering around the universe seeding appropriate planets with alien intelligence. The M.O., I gather from the documents, is that they find a planet with suitably complex life, and they introduce a more “evolved” species into the ecosystem. This introduced species is responsible for teaching Canopian principles to the most socially complex species on their new planet, co-evolving with them into a hybrid species capable of staying in a sort of energetic-psychic connection with the Canopian mothership.
Shikasta (understood almost immediately to be Earth) is one of these seeded planets. However, the Canopian colonization of Shikasta doesn’t go according to plan: Shammut, a dark and corrupting enemy civilization, has infiltrated the planet, and manages to disrupt the connection between Shikasta and Canopus. The consequences for Shikasta are dire: several millenia of chaos must ensue, generations of suffering on the part of the Shikastans. Under the influence of Shammut, the Shikastans will succumb to baseness and greed. Unable to connect with Canopus, they will descend into warfare and factionalism which the Canopians will be powerless to stop.
Most of ‘Shikasta’ consists of reports back to Canopus from their emissary Johor. Johor visits Shikasta several times over its millennia of darkness, and, in the planet’s darkest hour (the 21st century), he will incarnate as a Shikastan in a desperate attempt to help save the planet.
This is a bad book. The writing isn’t technically bad, but, narratively, it’s a slog: boring, repetitive, and humorless. There is no plot, really – the entire book is just a string of dispatches from Canopian emissaries and the journal entries of one human, the sister of an incarnated emissary, who reads as more of a plot mechanism than a person.
And it is self-righteous in the extreme. ‘Shikasta’ is high-handed and morally absolutist, and even though I agree with many of its values, I do not appreciate being lectured to ad nauseum about my spiritual atrophy as though I were a cretin.
And that is exactly what ‘Shikasta’ does. It gives its readers absolutely no credit, either morally or intellectually. We are trusted to infer nothing, trusted to bring nothing to the table in the way of self-analysis or cultural criticism. Our spiritual squalor is spelled out for us with insulting obviousness; one feels as though Lessing imagined people would read this book and then, overwhelmed with astonishment, realize that their entire lives had been lies.
A few examples:
“But the extreme riches of the northern hemisphere were not distributed evenly among their own populations, and the less favored classes were increasingly in rebellion. The Isolated Northern Continent [North American] and the Northwest Fringe [Western Europe] also included large numbers of dark-skinned people brought in originally as cheap labor to do jobs disdained by the whites – and while these did gain, to an extent, some of the general affluence, it could be said that looking at Shikasta as a whole, it was the white-skinned that did well, the dark-skinned poorly…Inside each national area everywhere, north and south, east and west, discontent grew. This was not only because of the gap between the well off and the poor, but because their way of life, where augmenting consumption was the only criterion, increasingly saddened and depressed their real selves, their hidden selves, which were unfed, were ignored, were starved, were lied to, by almost every agency around them, by every authority they had been taught to, but could not, respect.” (p. 90)
“The religions of Shikasta are no less, even though they have lost their power to tyrannise: new religious sects proliferate, and ecstatogenous sects most of all. But what has happened is that the skies of Shikasta have been lifted: they have sent men to their moon, and machines to their fellow planets, and most people believe that Shikasta is visited by spacecraft from other planets. The words, the languages. of religion – and all religions rely on emotional, image-breeding words – have become weightier and more portentous: yet at the same time transparent and slippery…A certainty has gone, a solidity. Religion, always the most powerful of the reality-blunters, has lost its certainties.” (p.196)
Look, I’m sure, at the time it was published, it’s highly anti-colonialist, anti-racist message was a lot more progressive than it is now. I am not arguing, per se, with the message – I am arguing with the messenger. ‘Shikasta’ reads like socialism’s answer to Ayn Rand: it shares with Rand’s work a complete lack of irony, of levity, or of perspective. Like Rand’s writing, it is so worried that readers will miss the moral righteousness of the argument that it absolutely refuses to trust them; it always tells, never shows. As in Rand’s work, there are no characters worth mentioning, only vehicles for pedantry. Like Rand, Lessing’s tone is shrill and indignant, and, like Rand, she villainises everyone who does not agree with her. There is no complexity, no ambiguity in her worldview; the forces of religion, nationalism, capitalism, scientific secularism, are unredeemed and unredeemable. They are evil, so evil in fact that she ascribes them to the predatory machinations of a civilization devoted to evil and chaos. It’s fucking cartoonish.
And it’s boring! That’s really the worst part – ‘Shikasta’ is boring. Not content to lecture you on the inherent corruption of human civilization succinctly, Lessing goes around and around on this stuff. Nary a chapter goes by without a short essay on how unnatural Earth civilization is, how much happier we would all be if we lived in cities shaped in harmony with the cosmos or whatever. Surely some of that energy could have been devoted to coming up with an actual story, but no: ‘Shikasta’ is less a novel than it is propaganda.
I’m going to stop now. I could go on – I really didn’t like this book – but I’ll spare you. To sum up: ‘Shikasta’ is bad. It’s a bad book.