Sunday, 3 April 2011

Book #19 Shikasta by Doris Lessing


Sometimes we read a book because we choose it, but I think other times we read a book because it chooses us. I particularly feel that way about my favourite novel 'Cry The Beloved Country' by Alan Paton which seemed to me to wink at me every time browsed my school library shelves, willing me to pick it up. Another reason I think we choose books is because we know that someone else loved it or it had a great impact upon them, and we choose upon faith in recommendation from them. Or in this case perhaps more out of curiosity, as an experiment, an effort to know someone more through the books that mean something to them.

Which poses the question, can you learn more about who someone is through reading books they read? Or do your own feelings about literature and the different eras in which you read the book, colour your persepective making it essentially, a different book for you?

Having read Shikasta I think so, and that poses another interesting question for me - is it possible that no-one can ever read the SAME book because of that said issue. The fact that the experiences of life which we draw from and what those experiences lead us to draw from the novels we read are always going to be different?

Shikasta is the first in a quintet of 'space fiction' novels by the highly respected author Doris Lessing who won the Nobel Prize For Literature in 2007, so great credentials there. The quintet is collectively known as Canopus in Argos : Archives, which are in the first novel at least a set of historical documents relating to the struggle of the Canopus Empire regarding the difficult planet Shikasta.

Shikasta first known to Canopeans as Rohanda, is seen as a planet of promise and brought into the Canopus Empire, were they attempted to colonise it and bring it in line with the rest of the Empire. When this attempt fails they leave the planet largely to its own devices and watch horrified as it devolves. Shikasta is revealed to be our planet Earth.

Canopus continues to send agents in disguise to Shikasta to help change the course of events, and improve the conditions of Shikastans but any improvements largely breakdown over time. These interventions are cleverly shown to mirror the events and covenant of the Old Testament, we don't realise but Canopus is our master and God.

By choosing to use observers from outer space as her primary voice in the novel, it has a sense of detachment and superiority, Canopus judges but is not to blame.  The archive reports read as anthropology which as a writer is a different angle to take and for a reader makes a new experience.
Here Lessing uses the disgust and despair of the Canopeans to launch a blistering attack on 20th Century human behaviour and by doing so makes her novel something of a polemic.

This is for me what makes my response to the novel somewhat mixed.  It was published in 1979. In that era and in the 1980's which followed many things occurred or were occurring politically: The Cold War, Feminism, the rise of Capitalism, and Thatcherism and the breaking of the trade unions. Lessing's writing in Shikasta is clearly heavily influenced by the current events of the day. I imagine that those who cared about those subjects or were involved in them politically or personally found the novel mind-blowing, exciting and massively important and relevant.

I, however, reading it in 2011 living in the Post-x era with the benefit of history know that much of what is predicted did not come to pass, and society has gone for good or ill a very different way. One notable "mistake" if you like is that those in the novel living in The End Times do not have and never did have computers. This kind of thing makes the novel dated yet it remains a curiosity. 

I went up and down with this novel as I read it, liking it in parts more than others. I struggled with the last third, particularly The Trial, although the issue put on trial is very important and still a relevant question to this day, I found the notion of this issue having a trial itself and its written execution rather absurd.  It would never happen.

Given that this book is part of a quintet I bought all five at once, and, I'm not sure if I regret that now or not, I certainly like the concept and am interested to see how Lessing applied it to different situations and characters but I am wondering if I will also find the ideas and themes of the other four books similarly dated.  7/10


  1. Interesting point! I think it's true that any media we consume is ultimately coloured by our own life experiences and personalities- we just can't help it. And that certainly goes for books as well, which can be enormously frustrating as a writer; you are telling one story, but there's no way of controlling what a reader will truly get out of it. Add to that the fact that how you feel about a book or a film can be greatly influenced by how old you are, the times you live in and the stage of life you're at - for example, everyone told me I had to read the Alchemist, that it was a life-changing book, but I found it trite and boring. it turned out that the people who loved it had all read it when they were very young & looking for direction in their lives. Maybe if I'd been younger I'd have been reading a different book...

    So yes, I think even if it's only to a tiny degree, we can never read the same book. :)

  2. As a writer it reminds me of a story i was told about a poet, i believe it may have been Simon Amitage being asked to answer an A Level or GCSE question about one of his own poems and what thr poet intended and FAILING! We write what we write but it is only when it is an embryo and a baby that it is ours and when it goes out in the world it lives its own life. I think The Da Vinci Code is my Alchemist what a cack book. i've read several Coelho and have come to feel with the exception of one of his books, 11 minutes from which i did get something, that he is a bit Emperor's New Clothes, particularly the greater his output. :)