Origin story: Lessing (1979), Shikasta

Shikasta was not entirely what I expected—or even partly what I expected at first, to be quite honest. Lessing’s first “science fiction” novel starts off as something of a clunky jumble, but eventually clarifies into a variant of the Shaggy God Story, the trope where the state of the modern world is explained as being in part down to alien intervention in deep history, and/or other cosmic malarky. On that basis I’m tempted to compare it to Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles, but the comparison is not hugely flattering to Lessing’s book, for reasons of technique (to which point I shall return below) as well as coherence and scope.

Perhaps most surprising to me were the distinctly New Age undertones. I’ve always pictured Lessing (on the basis of an admittedly slight familiarity with her work: The Golden Notebook, and a few collections of the later short stories) as a bitterly disappointed idealist-turned-realist/pragmatist… and there’s a lot of that in here, certainly, but the more wooish stuff still seems strange until you situate it historically. Written in the late Seventies, Shikasta is thus contemporary with the long boom of post-Sixties political cynicism, and the compensatory surge of pseudo-religions, occultism, UFO theory, and alternate megahistory: the age of Erich von Däniken and his ilk, of attempts to explain some of the stuff that archaeology had started to unearth, but which the rather sober positivist science of the time wouldn’t engage with at all through anything other than dismissal.

And so Lessing depicts deep history from the earliest days of life on Earth, an Edenic paradise of millennia-long lifespans and chummy megafauna, through to a a cataclysmic and dystopian end to what would be the C20th (by our own “Shikastan” count), as a derailed colonial experiment started by benevolent and superior aliens. The people of the Canopean empire (centered on Canopus) turned up first, with the aim of bringing on an already promising planet by introducing some alien chums as caretakers of the burgeoning biosphere, while a lesser and stranger allied empire (the Sirians, centered on Sirius) were permitted to play evolutionary games in certain parts of the southern hemisphere. All was going well until the worm-in-the-apple arrival of the agents of Shammat, the Manichean-caricature “evil” player on the galactic-imperial scene, who took advantage of an unexplained cosmic misalignment that disrupted the connection of earth to the Canopean good-vibes-and-plenitude network, resulting in a general slide into decay and degeneration. Canopus gets most (though not all) of the caretaker “giants” off-planet in preparation for the apparently inevitable aeons of misery, but its own agents keep a perpetual if diminished presence in order to (try to) keep things from backsliding too much into Shammat-sponsored misery and conflict.

Thus it turns out that legends of giants and other magical forebears, and of gods that come and go in flying chariots, are less myth than corrupted cultural memory, and that many of the great religious figures of human history were in fact Canopean agents trying to keep a lid on human affairs—but the cosmic bad vibes (or rather the surfeit of good ones, due to the “misalignment”), and the concomitant degradation of human minds and bodies (as well as of the web of life more broadly) resulted in said doctrines of good behaviour being twisted into dogma and hierarchical hegemony: ethics ossified into instrumentalised morality, if you like.

So far, so Seventies, I guess? That cultural-temporal distance shows up in more subtle ways, too; for instance, Lessing is clearly (and justly) concerned with the horrific legacy of racial and colonial exploitation in late human history, and at pains to depict this (in relentless and often horrifying detail) as indicative of our slide into misalignment with the cosmic good… but at the same time, the Canopeans are themselves ostensibly benevolent colonisers and meddlers in the fate of lesser beings, and there is much talk among them of “eugenism” and the preservation of “good genetic stock”, not on the basis of race, but rather on the basis of beneficial traits like psychic “capacities” and empathetic behaviours, implied to be the (very much intended) , legacy of the early colonial blending of native hominids and the caretaker aliens. From the vantage of 2021, this feels a little queasy, if clearly well-intentioned: it’s like watching someone try to argue their way out of the structures of racism, but using only the master’s tools in their attempt to dismantle the master’s house. The unintentional irony of a savage indictment of colonialism which is framed by a megahistory of earth as a benevolent colonial project intended to ensure the right mixtures of genetics and behaviour is… well, I don’t think it would float in the current publishing landscape, outside of the presses for whom toying with outdated ideas has become something of a badge of “anti-woke” pride and defiance. To be totally clear, with this book Lessing was on the right side of history in her own time; if anything, Shikasta should probably seen as stridently progressive in its own temporal context. But it also serves as something of a yardstick for how much change there has been in how we think about these issues.

That manifests in another way, namely her portrayal of the practice of politics. For reasons well-known to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Lessing’s personal history, Shikasta is informed by her fervent rejection and ridicule of post-war organised leftism, here portrayed as a caricature of empty factional posturing and the ritual exchange of shibboleths that, in some respects, wouldn’t feel out of place in contemporary neoreactionary and conservative polemic. To be fair, fascism and capitalism and colonialism do not get any favourable coverage in Shikasta—far from it!—but nor do they get as much time on the stage. Rather, they are positioned as the backdrop, the perpetuation of Shammatean corruption and degeneration: an ever-more-chaotic context against which left activism throws shapes and spouts empty phrases that merely recapitulate and perpetuate the individualist mores of capital. But given Lessing’s experience, and further given the terror and turbulence of the Seventies, the caricature surely has some root of truth in it; indeed, there are still some leftists like this today, as a quick visit to the birdsite will ably confirm, and probably always will be.

But at the same time, the differences in contemporary left thinking—shaped, no doubt, by the increasing normalisation of post-colonial and intersectional thinking, and the internalisation of the postmodern rejection of grand projects of top-down liberation through force, framed in an increased awareness (and critique) of history and historiography—are thrown into relief by these caricatures. Things are far from perfect, to be clear, but in a period of prevailing left melancholia, it is oddly reassuring to see that lessons have been learned over the course of my own lifetime. Not yet enough, and not yet so thoroughly as is needful, perhaps… but nonetheless, it’s plain that four decades ago, the general grasp of sociohistorical dynamics in general, regardless of political alignment, was considerably cruder than it is at present. (Contemporary denial of these dynamics, while frustrating and damaging, is in effect a testament to the way that they’ve invaded the discourse.)

So, yes: an interesting (if very of-its-period) big picture story, told mostly through the experiences and observed actions of one Canopean agent incarnated as human, like some latter-day Christ. And therein lies my biggest gripe, from a purely literary perspective—or rather from a paraliterary perspective.I’m long past the stage of special pleading for genre-qua-genre, but Shikasta is a very clear demonstration of the extent to which a literary writer who decides to play in the speculative sandbox will often find themselves either reinventing the wheel in terms of technique, or—if you’ll excuse the overextension of the metaphor—relying on sledge-runners because they’ve never seen a wheel deployed effectively.

The first quarter of the book is basically one huge cascade of as-you-know-Bob, in which Johor (the Canopean who will later incarnate as George Sherban) rambles on about his first missions to Shikasta/Earth, back in the days of the impending misalignment of cosmic whatever-it-is, explicitly for an audience of other Canopeans who have at least a passing familiarity with the topic… but in which he steadfastly declines to use Shikastan names for places. This deliberate omission continues in other Canopean-drafted interjections all through the book, with the result that not long after you’ve had the minor piecing-it-together pleasure of working out that “the Isolated Northern Continent” is North America, and “the Northwest Fringes” are Western Europe, you’re rolling your eyes at what has become willful obscurantism that isn’t even justified by the narrative frame. Or, more plainly: if you were writing a history of the C20th for other members of your benevolent colonial empire, in which said empire had spent literal millennia being intimately involved as it attempted to prevent things going too tits-up, and you were doing so at the ridiculous lengths implied by the framings of these archival excerpts and “suggested further reading” links, you would surely have started using the native placenames for your own convenience as much as for the reader’s. (As I’ve already used a few terms from the Turkey City Lexicon, I might as well identify this as an unusual variant on “calling a rabbit a smeerp”.)

Things are much improved once Johor/George gets incarnated, because from then on events are mostly recounted through the epistolary or journalistic point-of-view of characters around him. (Johor-as-George doesn’t get to narrate himself, perhaps to avoid showing off his awareness of his being-in-mufti and his precognitive abilities.) Lessing’s superpower was always character through voice, and so the actual human narrators are variously vivid, tragic and infuriating (or some mixture of all three). The continued insertion of Canopean reports on particular subjects or people, meanwhile, seem to use a sort of polite incomprehension as a proxy for the alien positionality, which (as noted above) becomes frustrating and a little absurd after you’ve considered how long they’ve been involved with their accidentally and tragically botched colony… and it’s perhaps this issue of technique that really drew my attention to the unintentional irony of a critique of colonialism written from the perspective of benevolent alien colonisers. (Of course, we can’t help reproducing the ideologies in which we are embedded—that’s what makes them ideologies—so I don’t mean to rag on Lessing here; I just think it’s a really striking illustration of that phenomenon, made all the more particular by the lack of the standard sf-nal narrative toolkit.)

If you’re willing to take the annihilation of the majority of humanity in mutual all-out war on a ravaged planet, followed by the survival and return-to-harmonious-living of small enclaves of the formerly institutionalised and/or downtrodden, as a just desert—and given the catalogue of human failings and sufferings that Lessing stuffs into this book, I have to presume she was—then there’s a happy ending here, of sorts. On that basis, one might level an accusation of Malthusian dystopia at her, and there’s definitely some of that in the mix—again, this is a book of the mid-to-late-Seventies! But my feeling is that Lessing’s less concerned about the raw numbers of population than the inherently fallen or “degenerate” nature of the humans that make up those numbers. Interesting, though, that the cause of that fallenness is posited as a combination of cosmic misfortune (quite literally the wrong planet in the wrong place at the wrong time), and the meddling of a black-hat empire whose portrayal is so glancing a caricature of evil that it makes Frank Herbert’s House Harkonnen look like a a longitudinal sociological study into the unintentional reproduction of emotional damage and cruelty. In other words, it’s a very religious, and indeed quite a Christian way of looking at humanity’s original sin… which again brings us back to that Seventies surge of alternate belief systems, as people searched for a new prime mover on which to hang a re-badged but nonetheless comfortingly familiar moral-teleological system.

(It occurs to me that the Shammat caricature is so thin, so much like a pantomime villain forever off-stage, that one might very easily do for Shikasta what Kirill Eskov’s The Last Ringbearer did for Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings… though it’s not such an interesting proposition that I actually fancy writing it, and I dare say it would be a pretty hard sell even if you did. But if you like the idea, go for it—just credit me with the idea when you collect your Hugo, OK?)

All that aside, an interesting and unusual read–and the sort of thing that I’d probably have fallen for very hard as a younger reader, particularly during my own Graham Hancock/von Däniken phase. I had some hope that this first volume of a five-book series might just be setting the stage for further adventures in the utopian future of Shikasta/Earth, but a friend who’s familiar with it tells me that Lessing uses the other books to trundle off into more distant corners of her imagined universe, and into escalating levels of New Age weirdness and woo… which might be fun some day, but it’s not what I’m looking for right now.

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