Monday, February 21, 2011

Doris Lessing: Sufism and Space Fiction

A continuation of my series of posts on science fiction author interviews in the Paris Review. Previously: Aldous Huxley, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Hortense Calisher.

Between 1979 and 1983 Nobel prize winning author Doris Lessing published five "space fiction" novels. The  Canopus in Argos series is influenced by Lessing's interest in the mystical and spiritual aspects of Sufism, and focuses on an advanced interstellar species accelerating the evolution of less advanced species.

The Canopus in Argos series was not Lessing's first dip in to science fiction.  Her 1969 novel The Four-Gated City  - sometimes called her most important work - begins in post-WWII Britain and follows the characters through a bloody future World War III at the close of the 20th century.

In her  interview published in the Spring 1988 edition of the Paris Review, Lessing talks about the role of the novelist in possible futures in fiction:

Lessing:  I know people say things like, “I regard you as rather a prophet.” But there’s nothing I’ve said that hasn’t been, for example, in the New Scientist for the last twenty years. Nothing! So why am I called a prophet, and they are not? 

Interviewer:  You write better. 

Lessing:  Well, I was going to say, I present it in a more interesting way. I do think that sometimes I hit a kind of wavelength—though I think a lot of writers do this—where I anticipate events. But I don’t think it’s very much, really. I think a writer’s job is to provoke questions. I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had—I don’t know what—the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps. That’s what I think writers are for. This is what our function is. We spend all our time thinking about how things work, why things happen, which means that we are more sensitive to what’s going on.

 I think that's an interesting take on the "predictions" that so many science fiction writers lay claim to - it's not so much a special knowledge of science or current events that allows authors to do that, but the habit of thinking about the way the world works that allows for plausible extrapolations to be imagined.

Even though Lessing doesn't think of her novels as science fiction, it's not because she disdains the genre. She raves about Stanislaw Lem's Solaris - and about being the guest of the 1987 Worldcon:

I’ve just read a book by the Solaris bloke, Stanislav Lem. Now that’s real classic science fiction . . . full of scientific ideas. Half of it, of course, is wasted on me because I don’t understand it. But what I do understand is fascinating. I’ve met quite a lot of young people—some not so young either, if it comes to that—who say “I’m very sorry, but I’ve got no time for realism” and I say “My God! But look at what you’re missing! This is prejudice.” But they don’t want to know about it. And I’m always meeting usually middle-aged people who say, “I’m very sorry. I can’t read your non-realistic writing.” I think it’s a great pity. This is why I’m pleased about being guest of honor at [the World Science Fiction Convention, in Brighton] , because it does show a breaking down [of compartmentalization of SF and non-SF].
In the interview, Lessing says she's going to publish a sixth Canopus in Argos novel, a sequel to  The Sentimental Agents. That novel apparently never materialized, and she moved away from writing "space fiction". The "goblin child" story she talks about writing is likely The Fifth Child, published in 1988, and since then she has published other speculative fiction works (although  fantasy or horror, rather than science fiction).

Read the entire interview with Doris Lessing, for more about living in Persia and Africa, involvement with Sufism,  her writing habits, the "Jane Somers" hoax and having one of her  SFnovels turned into an opera by Philip Glass.

Tomorrow: The series wraps up with an interview with PD James.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Typos in my previous comment!

    I loved The Four-Gated City. It showcased all of Lessing's strengths. Canopus in Argos, on the other hand can be charitably called clunky (Shikasta in particular). The series are "novels of ideas" at their didactic cardboard worst.

    When I started Shikasta, I couldn't believe it had been penned by the author of The Golden Notebook. I really wanted to like the series, but it's too much of a tract, especially compared with Lessing's other outstanding work.

  3. I'm a great fan of Doris Lessing and agree with Athena's comments about 'Canopus and Shikasta. That was a long time ago though. More recently I've enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinsons works, particularly The Mars Trilogy, Years of Rice and Salt and Galileo's Dreams.

    Nice blog btw, Thanks for a good read. I've bookmarked it.


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