Part 9 – Doris Lessing (Southern Rhodesia/Zimbabwe) (August 2009) by Adam Roberts

Not everybody was glad to hear that Doris Lessing had won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature:

American literary critic Harold Bloom called the academy's decision "pure political correctness ... Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable ... fourth-rate science fiction," Bloom told the Associated Press. 1

It would be nice to believe that the emphasis in Bloom's final three word dismissal is on the fourth-rate rather than on the science fiction. That, in other words, it is not by virtue of the fact that these books are science fiction that they are, in Bloom's mind, fourth-rate. Such would be the triumph of hope over experience. But if the Literary Establishment (a nebulous entity, I appreciate) sometimes looks down upon Lessing as a SF writer, what does the SF Establishment think of her work?

At first blush the answer to that question would seem to be that, despite writing many notable science fiction novels, Lessing is today pretty much ignored by the world of SF. It seems a long time ago that she was guest of honour at the 1987 Worldcon in Brighton. Her recent work has been barely reviewed in sf circles - almost nothing on the alt-historical Alfred and Emily (2008) or on the weird, half-fantasy creation myth of The Cleft (2007), nothing at all on The Grandmothers (2004) (four novellas, one of which was solid SF), and I don't remember seeing any SF responses to her post-apocalyptic The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot, and the Snow Dog (2005). Mind you, this last novel has the single worst title of any novel published in the twenty-first century. If Lessing were alluding, comically (or, crikey, even seriously) to Rush's 'By-Tor and The Snow Dog' it would be perfectly fine. But she isn't. The title reflects that novel: which is to say the way the title is framed - a faux-naif foursquare untutored what-it-says-on-the-tin-ism - is the style in which the novel as a whole is written.

Nevertheless Lessing is a major world writer, a fact the award of the Nobel Prize recognises, and she has been what we might call a friend to SF for much of her career. Indeed, her late career has been dominated by SF. More specifically, she has used the genre primarily as a modular idiom, one in which the complexities of the actual world (which, in her classic novels, she captures so well) can be pruned away to leave a simplified, often deliberately 'primitive' or pre-Industrial-revolution, imagined world as her setting. The post-apocalyptic world of The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot, and the Snow Dog is one of these; the imaginary kingdom of 'The Reason for It' (in The Grandmothers) and the very broad-brush, pre-historical fantasy location of The Cleft are two others. This is not so much world-building, as world-gesturing-vaguely-towardsing. There's a sense in which she has simply ploughed her own furrow, irrespective of what has been happening in the genre as a whole. A discussion of Lessing's SF at the literary group-blog The Valve prompted one commenter ('Walt') to observe, of encountering Canopus in Argos books: 'it was like reading science fiction from an alternate universe where H. G. Wells and Jules Verne never lived, and it took until the seventies for the genre to be invented' 2.

One consequence of this is that Lessing is regarded as marginal by most of genre fandom. SF fans rarely feel the urge to refer to her in their endless internet discussions of the genre; she doesn't grace award shortlists; Interzone haven't profiled her. I had thought that academic critics of SF, and particularly those critics specifically interested in women writers of the genre, might be different; but no. Historians of the genre are unembarrassed at omitting mention of her (this is true of two of the best - Edward James's Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century (1994) and Roger Luckhurst's Science Fiction (2005), and I'm sorry to say just as true of my own 2006 Palgrave Critical History of SF). There's a good essay by Moria Monteith 'Doris Lessing and the Politics of Violence', in Lucie Armitt's collection of essays Where No Man Has Gone Before: Women and Science Fiction (London: Routledge 1991); but other classics of feminist SF criticism mention Lessing only in passing - Marleen Barr's Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond (Chapel Hill/London: University of North Carolina Press 1993) for instance - or else don't discuss her at all: something true of Jenny Wolmark, Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism and Postmodernism (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester 1994), Gwyneth Jones's Deconstructing the Starships; Science, Fiction and Reality (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 1999) and Debra Benita Shaw's Women, Science and Fiction: the Frankenstein Inheritance (London: Palgrave 2000). This strikes me as odd, given her eminence.

It is, at least in part, a reflection of the style or quality of SF that Lessing writes, and in casting around for a word to describe it I wondered whether it might not be called an African quality. Lessing grew up in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe, as it is now). When she moved to London in 1949 she was properly grown-up: thirty years old. If we choose, as we may since she acknowledges the continent's importance to her work 3, to regard her as primarily an African novelist, although one with strong connections to Britain, then she becomes one of only a very few major writers of SF to come from Africa (B. Kojo Laing would be another). Now, we can argue that SF is primarily a European and North American mode, but we'd have to concede that some very major writers have come from non-Western cultures - Japan, most obviously, but also India and South America. Why not Africa? It's not a question that admits of a glib answer, but I once suggested a reason:

African SF was non-existent for most of the period covered by this book; but this fact may be changing. One reason for the absence may be the broad cultural bias in favour of 'spirits' or 'magic' as an explanatory discourse, something in conflict with the materialist emphases of contemporary science. In the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah: "Most Africans cannot fully accept those scientific theories in the West that are inconsistent with [beliefs in invisible agents]. If modernisation is conceived of in part as the acceptance of science, we have to decide whether we think the evidence obliges us to give up the invisible world of the spirits. 4.

The point being argued here is that whilst 'the rich traditions of African "magic realist" and "fantastic" writing grow from this culture', it is less fertile ground for science fiction. Lessing's science fiction, more often than not, is 'African' in this sense. Her most famous series, the by no means trivial Canopus in Argos novels, though possessing undeniable heft, is nonetheless grounded in a mode of spiritualist mumbo-jumbo that is basically immiscible with SF. Take Shikasta (1979), for instance. Shikasta is the Canopean name for Earth (Canopus being a sort of benign unified cosmic empire), a world on which something has gone very wrong. The planet's inhabitants live miserable and blighted lives. Unlike the rest of the cosmos they (that is to say, we) age ('the Shikastan disease'), torture, kill, oppress and enslave others (the first law of Canopus is 'we may not make slaves or servants of others'), and at the time the novel is set - the second half of the twentieth-century stretching into the first half of the twenty-first - the planet is approaching the end-times. It's in many ways well done, or as well done as any SFnal retelling of the Old Testament, that hoary old genre ruse, can be. But the reader's heart is bound to sink on discovering that the root of the problem for Shikasta is an insufficiency of SOWF, 'substance of we feeling', a mystic and essentially magical connection that binds the rest of the universe together. Critics sometimes explain this by respectfully invoking Lessing's interest in the traditions of Sufi mysticism, and her repeated fascination with the yearning of the soul for mystic communion with a higher unifying essence. But the problem, in SFnal-novelistic terms, is that when Lessing tries to explain the Shikastan fall she inhabits an idiom not so much Sufi as L Ron Hubbard: it's all to do, we're told, with the evil Puttioran Empire, and invading 'forces of disorder' from the dark planet Shammat, made worse by astrological stellar arrangements ('we are all characters of the stars,' says po-faced Canopean Ambien II, 'and their forces', p.40) and a rogue comet breaking what Lessing calls the 'intergalactic lock'. Creaky old gobbledegook like this is everywhere in the novel, like woodworm in a Shaker table. The novel can only conceive of both suffering and redemption in terms of spiritual oneness; a magical and immaterial irruption into a genre largely allergic to woo.

Lessing is sometimes called a 'feminist' writer; but that's not a very good description of her, unless we're take the phrase in the general sense of broadly 'on the side of' or 'interested in the doings of', women. That's too diffuse a definition, though. If we take feminism to be a set of specific political agendas, then we can say that one thing characterising Lessing's career has been a tendency to take up and then drop again a variety of political causes (communism, say; or Laingian anti-psychiatry; or African political engagement). Calling Lessing a 'feminist writer' is actually a kind of shorthand for recognising the very considerable importance of her novel The Golden Notebook (1962) to a particular generation of Western women; and it is the fact that that generation (coming into adulthood in the late 1950s and 1960s) also happened to form the vanguard of the world's first effective women's rights movement that lends the book its cachet. My mother had a well-thumbed copy of the old penguin paperback, and I read it as a teenager. I look back on that now, and think 'oh dear'; I was at the wrong time of life, of the wrong generation, and (I say this as a reflection upon my teenage mind, not an assertion of gender-essentialist masculinism) the wrong gender to appreciate it. It seemed to me much too long, fixated on post-war concerns that seemed quite alien to the concerns of 1980, and the central narrative - which is, in effect, about the main character's mental breakdown and recovery - rather baffled me. But even through the veil of my inadequacy as a reader I felt the solidity of the book, the thickness of its affect, the way it generated its qualia of lived experience, real problems, actual struggles. At the same time, and as the woman's movement moved on and the nature of women's social and cultural experience changed, the novel, if it has not exactly fallen from favour has in effect received the Order of the Granite Albatross. It has become seen as worthy, important, significant - three of the deadliest words in the literary-critical lexicon. What is more liable to put readers off that so dutiful a reputation? What is more likely (more to the point) to put off science fiction readers, who have consistently preferred the energetic, the disrespectful, the entertaining and the Pulpish to establishment notions of literary worth?

This has something, I think, to do with the relative disconnection from Lessing in most SF circles. As a writer - I mean, as a styler of prose - she is often drab. Her sentences are often unmemorably put-together, and occasionally clumsy and inexpressive. Her dialogue is usually drily explanatory or expository, and rarely catches the rhythms or flavour of actual speech. She is more or less incapable of creating beauty through her prose alone, although she does have a knack for picking out eloquent intellectual or emotional detail, and she can be profound, moving, and often wise. She's also a prolific writer, which may not be a problem in itself, although some of her novels are certainly too long and slack. Martin Green sees her as a sort of D H Lawrence without the fluency. 'The roughness of her writing's texture sometimes suggests that a will to write is over-riding a resistance', he suggests; an 'inner conflict about the act of writing' 5. That's an interesting idea, and, moreover, inner conflict as theme as well as actuality needn't be a bad thing. It could, on the contrary, be a source of strength to a writer. Overcoming the inner obstacle is one of Lessing's great topics, after all; and some of the novels that chart just how strenuous and prolonged such overcoming usually is in life, and how such struggle is by no means sure to end in success ( The Golden Notebook, or the Martha Quest novels) accumulate undeniable power. Nor does this have to do, really, with Bloom's curmudgeonly 'political correctness' jibe. Given her generation, and her gender, it is unsurprising that this Lessingian narrative frequently parses the experience of women, for whom inner obstacles reflected and were magnified by palpable external social obstacles.

But writing about obstacles can too easily produce writing that is itself an obstacle. The strenuous efforts her characters undertake can transfer themselves to the reader. Looking again at some of the Lessing I've read, I've been trying to work out, despite her manifest greatness, what's missing in her writing for me. Although everything Lessing writes comes across as evidently heartfelt, and thoughtful, it is not always heart-stirring or thought-provoking. Above all there is, I think, a debilitating lack of weirdness at the core of Lessing's writing. I say this despite her enduring interest in magic, because for her magic tends to have this spiritual and unifying quality that removes it from the realm of weird.

Take for example her last novel but one. The Cleft is, notionally, the narrative of a Roman senator, who parcels out episodes from a bizarre, unwieldy sort-of-creation-myth. Once long ago, we're told, pre-gender-divide humans lived in seaside caves, swam in the sea, ate fish, and spontaneously gave birth to young. They worshipped a 'cleft' in the land (it seems to be some sort of volcanic formation), a symbolic landscape-vagina. But then some of them start having babies with male genitalia; called variously 'monsters' or 'squirts'. A number of these were killed at birth as deformed creatures; others are carried away by gigantic eagles to start a community of males. These rescued babies somehow grow into adult and form a community of men who thereafter receive the unwanted boys from the Clefts (ported to them by the eagles … I know, I know), suckle them on wild animals. Two communities grow up as 'female' and 'male'. All this ought to be very weird, estranging and stimulating; and it certainly strives to be that. But somehow it is not. Partly this is because it is all too clumsily done: its symbolism thuddingly straightforward, its gender-politics leadenly essentialist. But mostly it's because the central situation reads as thought-experiment literalisation of gender into the world, rather than as anything that brushes tendrils of dread across the tender membrane of the unconscious. The book tries to be weird, and in falling short it conjures the thought into the reader's mind that Lessing really doesn't understand what weirdness is. Its weirdness is all on the surface, in the gesture as it were; a weirdness predicated upon a familiarity rather than the other way around.

The danger here is that this account will lean too heavily on Lessing's flaws; and it is worth reiterating that she is a writer of major significance, one whose writing very often carries the weight and penetration of actual lived experience. The desire for weirdness can be, in a perverse way, a mode of disengagement with the world - the escapism to which our genre, and the fans of our genre, are prone. Lessing is always about engaging with the way the world actually is, rather than essaying escape from it.

One of Lessing's most successful science fictions, or fictions-full-stop, is The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) turns this aversion for weirdness into a strength. The novel is strange, understated post-apocalypse novel, all seen from the perspective of the unnamed female narrator, who observes the world disintegrating about her mostly from the window of her house. She is given a small child called Emily to look after, and the simple narrative of Emily's growing up refracts a portrait of a world at once recognisably modern and profoundly broken. Lessing writes the collapse as entropic rather than catastrophic, although it has reached, in the novel, a sort of critical mass: 'all over the city were these pockets of life reverting to the primitive, the hand-to-mouth. Part of a house … then the whole house … a group of houses … a street … an area of streets. People looking down from a high building saw how these nuclei of barbarism took hold and spread' [p.94; those are Lessing's own ellipses, there]. We're never told what has precipitated the collapse (the narrator refers to this as 'it'), but the familiarity of the post-collapse world, its un-weirdness, acts as an affective foil to the second strand of the novel, in which the narrator recounts a variety of visions, or transcendental insights, into myriad 'rooms', some dirty and cold, some splendid and inviting. This visionary other-world is not weird either; it is, as a Sufi might say, actually home; and the novel ends with the narrator breaking free of the constraints of her domestic perspective on collapsing world, and simply walking away into the land of visions.

I am not arguing that Lessing is a stolid writer, because in fact the very groundedness of her writing can be its strength. If the Cleft largely fails, Lessing's most recent novel - the alt-historical Alfred and Emily (2008) retells the story of her parents life, first as it actually was, and then as it might have been had the first world war not devoured her father's leg, leaving him the embittered amputee he was in life. It is a very powerful novel that is precisely about the relationship between fiction and reality, and just as its fiction (its science-fiction) takes force from its grounding in the actuality of its characters' lives, so their reality is enhanced by the fiction. It is a commentary about the potency of the interrelation between the real and the fictional - between, in a sense, the two terms that are abbreviated in the acronym SF.


Endnotes as marked in the text

1 Back

2 Back (sic)

3 Back  STEPHEN GRAY: 'The Canopus series derives very strongly from your African past.' LESSING: 'I certainly couldn't have written Shikasta without it because there are whole sections in Shikasta that are straight from Africa' ['An Interview with Doris Lessing', Research in African Literatures 17:3 (1986) 335] ;

4 Back  [4] Roberts, The Palgrave History of Science Fiction (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2006), 344;

5 Back  [5] The English Novel in the Twentieth Century: the Doom of Empire (Routledge 1984), p.188

Adam Roberts – (Reproduced with permission.)