Canopus in Argos: Archives. By Doris Lessing. New York: Alfred A. Through her prolific work from to the early 's, Mrs. Lessing acquired a deserved reputation as one of the most intelligently discriminating of contemporary English novelists, her characteristic mode of fiction being a traditional novelistic one in which individual fates, caught in a tangle of social and political circumstances, were rendered with moral and psychological nuance. The first of her experiments with more visionary modes was ''The Four-Gated City'' , which was followed by somewhat
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Canopus in Argos: Archives. By Doris Lessing. New York: Alfred A. Through her prolific work from to the early 's, Mrs. Lessing acquired a deserved reputation as one of the most intelligently discriminating of contemporary English novelists, her characteristic mode of fiction being a traditional novelistic one in which individual fates, caught in a tangle of social and political circumstances, were rendered with moral and psychological nuance.
The first of her experiments with more visionary modes was ''The Four-Gated City'' , which was followed by somewhat Then, as she approached her 60th year, she conceived the idea of writing a ''space fiction,'' which became ''Shikasta,'' Rather unexpectedly, as she explains in the preface to that novel, she found this particular mode of fantasy so exhilarating that she was drawn on to write two more volumes, ''The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five'' and ''The Sirian Experiments,'' just published.
A fourth novel has been promised, ''The Making of the Representative for Planet 8,'' and there is no way of knowing where in space and time the series will end.
The two previously published ''Canopus'' books -the first of which is intermittently intriguing, the second, continually enchanting - have elicited a good deal of admiration but also some perplexity and disgruntlement, especially from readers with fond memories of Doris Lessing the realistic novelist.
Nettled by the expressions of dissatisfaction, she feels impelled to explain her purpose once again in a preface to the new novel. Here she reasserts an affinity proposed in her earlier preface between what she is doing and sacred literature, myth, legend, while she puts greater stress on a seriously entertained notion that reality may be more mysterious than we imagine.
Lessing confesses to not literally believing that alien beings are secretly mining our moon, as they do in her novel; but the supposed evidence of U. In sum, Doris Lessing invites readers to see the series ''as a framework that enables me to tell I hope a beguiling tale or two; to put questions, both to myself and to others; to explore ideas and sociological possibilities. It may not be entirely clear what all this has to do with science fiction, a term I have so far avoided.
Before attempting, however, to define more precisely the genre Doris Lessing has adopted, let me recount the basic plot machinery of ''Canopus in Argos'' and provide some notion of what happens in the latest volume. The galactic empire Canopus, having won a war with its rival Sirius, offers generous terms of peaceful cooperation in which the Sirians are allowed to conduct evolutionary experiments in the southern hemisphere of earth, while the Canopeans pursue their own experiments in the northern hemisphere.
After the radical disruption of a state of primordial unity, the Canopeans assign to our planet the name Shikasta, which is said to imply abandonment and catastrophe, though the less perceptive Sirians persist in calling it by its prelapsarian name, Rohanda, the Fair. The terrestrial experiments of both empires are disastrously subverted by the infiltration into Shikasta of agents from the evil planet Shammat, dedicated to divisiveness and destruction.
The book ends with a denouement common to both science fiction and ancient apocalyptic literature: After a universal cataclysm World War III, tactfully elided by the novelist , a saving remnant begins to establish a new world founded once more on principles of harmony with the cosmos. The second novel of the series takes a holiday from these historical and eschatalogical concerns, locating its lyric and legendary action in the fabulous Zones that are somehow adjacent to Shikasta but not really part of it, and concentrating on the relation between the sexes.
In fact, she deals mainly with a series of exotic earlier periods, in contrast to the narrator of ''Shikasta,'' Johor, who speaks at great length of the 20th century. Ambien II, the narrator of ''The Sirian Experiments,'' offers more novelistic interest than her counterpart in ''Shikasta'' because Johor has the Canopean disadvantage for fiction of virtual moral perfection.
Ambien II, who at first sees galactic life according to her relatively dim Sirian lights, can make her account of Shikastan history a gradual revelation of her own growth in moral knowledge. The thematic argument of ''The Sirian Experiments'' is reminiscent of an early Kurosawa film: An elusive, enigmatic, occasionally provocative but profoundly benevolent master the Canopean administrator Klorathy subtly leads to enlightenment a disciple Ambien II who is by turns rash, foolish, headstrong, imperceptive, but finally brave enough and persistent enough to learn the difficult truth.
The story Ambien II tells is a panorama of the possibilities of civilization and barbarism, ranging from a matriarchal version of Atlantis just before its engulfment, to the Aztec cult of human sacrifice, where Shammat reigns supreme, to the Mongol hordes sweeping over the Moslem East and the Conquistadores ravishing South America.
At one point, we are given back-to-back accounts of a dystopia, the Aztec kingdom of crushing priestly oppression, and a utopia, a happy but fragile democracy just on the other side of the mountains, and we are explicitly told that ''they illustrated extremes of what is possible on this planet. From the vantage point of her low-flying spacecraft, she describes, in a spectacular virtuoso set-piece, the sudden tilting of the earth on its axis and the ensuing global cataclysm of ice and snow.
Is all this, strictly speaking, science fiction? And what has the writer gained by turning away from the riches of individual experience that are the great, fascinating subject of the realistic novel? Doris Lessing calls her ''Canopus'' series ''space fiction'' rather than science fiction, and I would infer that she associates the latter with what others have pejoratively termed ''technology fiction'' - the narrative projection into the future of a world of omni-competent, dazzlingly intricate machines extrapolated from our own nascent technology.
Doris Lessing alludes only in the most elliptical fashion to the actual machinery of her extra-terrestrial civilizations, and her excursion into the future in these three books is limited to no more than 10 or 15 years from the present in the last pages of ''Shikasta. Let me suggest that the genre to which this kind of writing most directly belongs is what Northrop Frye has called the ''anatomy'' - a kind of fiction, as Frye notes, that is ''a combination of fantasy and morality'' and that ''presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern.
When Johor in ''Shikasta'' comments on the 20th-century proliferation of engines of mass destruction, ''looking from outside at this planet it was as if at a totally crazed species,'' he sounds altogether like the King of Brobdingnag responding to Gulliver's account of modern European warfare. Ambien II's characterization of earth as ''a squalid and unsatisfactory planet full of brutes who could be relied upon for only one thing - to kill each other on one pretext or another at the first opportunity'' might easily be the voice of a Houyhnhnm rebuking Gulliver for the perverted way of life engendered by his fellow-Yahoos.
There is, I think, a delicate interplay between the fantasy and the morality that comprise any anatomy, and in the first of the ''Canopus'' novels, moralistic purpose often threatens to overwhelm the fantasy or, rather, the fantasy often is too transparently calculated for moralistic ends. This is a tendency reinforced by the author's decision in that novel to represent the world as a simple Manichean division between the forces of good, Canopus, and the forces of evil, Shammat.
In ''The Marriage Between Zones Three, Four, and Five,'' fantasy is given much freer play, and what looks at first like a schematic feminist allegory of the relation between the sexes proves to be full of the constant charm of the unexpected, the discoveries of an imagination surrendering itself to the momentum of its own narrative and visual inventions. Ambien II, though immeasurably superior to all the creatures of earth she loftily overviews, strains to see more of the moral universe than her Sirian eyes are accustomed to take in.
All three of the ''Canopus'' novels are built on ascending ladders of vision. In ''The Marriages,'' we move up a steep spiritual slope from Zone 5 through Zones 4 and 3 to Zone 2; in the first and third novels, we rise from the lethal tunnel-vision of Shammat, lamentably imparted to humanity for its ruin, to the imperfect vision of Sirius, and then to the steady clear sight of Canopus. One of these is particularly noteworthy.
Klorathy, Ambien II's mentor, invites her to stare at a wall on which he projects, apparently through some mental process rather than by a mechanical apparatus, an arresting panoramic display of Shikastan history unfolding:. Klorathy's curious visual display is essentially an ideal image of the anatomy form as Doris Lessing uses it in ''The Sirian Experiments,'' the book's accelerated and distanced scenes of humanity having been devised to put us as readers into the same relation to them as that in which Ambien II stands to the encapsulated pictures on the wall.
Admittedly, it is in some ways an awkward and risky maneuver for a writer to turn in this manner from the intimate and subtle hometruths of the novel to the intellectually defined global truths of the anatomy. Doris Lessing's fictional projection device does not always operate with the perfect authority attributed to Klorathy's. Nevertheless, in this latest volume of the ''Canopus'' series - because in many scenes she remains, for all her didactic urgency, so splendidly a writer, reveling in the complex movement of evocation - she does often draw us directly into her rendering of history as a true if simplified version of the actual events, achieving at moments a largeness of vision beyond the horizon of the conventional novel.
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Occasionally the digitization process introduces transcription errors or other problems; we are continuing to work to improve these archived versions. The first of her experiments with more visionary modes was ''The Four-Gated City'' , which was followed by somewhat Robert Alter's most recent books are ''A Lion for Love: A Critical Biography of Stendhal'' and ''The Art of Biblical Narrative,'' which will be published in May.
Klorathy, Ambien II's mentor, invites her to stare at a wall on which he projects, apparently through some mental process rather than by a mechanical apparatus, an arresting panoramic display of Shikastan history unfolding: ''I Home Page World U.
Canopus in Argos Series
Canopus in Argos: Archives is a sequence of five science fiction novels by Nobel Prize in Literature -winning author Doris Lessing which portray a number of societies at different stages of development, over a great period of time. The focus is on accelerated evolution being aided by advanced species for less advanced species and societies. The novels take place in the same future history , but do not relate a continuous storyline. Each book covers unrelated events, with the exception of Shikasta and The Sirian Experiments , which tell the story of accelerated evolution on Earth through the eyes of Canopeans and Sirians , respectively.
DORIS LESSING IN THE VISIONARY MODE