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Book Title: Canopus in Argos: Archives|
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 569 KB
ISBN 13: 9780679741848
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Reader ratings: 6.7
The author of the book: Doris Lessing
Date of issue: December 29th 1992
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If you've never heard of this series before, if you ever see it on a shelf in a bookstore it's going to look like something left behind from another planet. At least that's how it seemed to me. More years ago than I'd like to imagine I was browsing the shelves of a giant local chain bookstore and as is my nature my eye tended to focus on the large bricks of books since there's some weird part of me that conflates "doorstop" with "mark of ineffable quality". The title itself was both simple and odd, "Canopus in Argos: Archives", like it was some kind of scientific treatise. And it turned out the brick was just an omnibus for five novels, each of which had a title that seemed to have been translated from another language improperly. "Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta"? Even when the titles did correspond to what I imagined as actual English, it gave no clue as to what the stories might be about. But . . . it sounded remotely like science-fiction (even though it was probably placed in the literature section, only increasing its bizarre allure) and as a younger man I thought SF was the only thing worth reading ever. And this read like it should be SF but . . . not.
I didn't buy it right away and when I did get around to it the volume had gone out of print. And then I didn't read it for ten years after I bought it (hey, books have to take a number). Now that I have, I can pretty much say it's what I expected. Back then I had no idea who Doris Lessing was, although over time I figured out that was one of them literary types, eventual Nobel Prize winner, now sadly deceased. Reading her introduction to this collection and other background notes, it's clear that she became fascinated by what she charmingly calls "space fiction" (which reminds me of something might a grandmother might say looking through her grandkids' "Buck Rogers" comics or whatnot) not only as a genre but as one that would allow her to tell certain kinds of stories that wouldn't be possible in the framework of straightforward realistic literary fiction. It's an odd rule, you can go all stream of consciousness, you can tell stories forwards, backwards, sideways, have hallucinations and dream sequences and unreliable narrators, but as soon as you unironically start sticking spaceships into things, you've just demoted your novel to the kiddie table.
What's heartening here is how unabashedly and completely Lessing embraced SF but in her own way. The main characters are definitely aliens, even if they talk like people. Everyone visits other planets even if the spaceships are sometimes kept offscreen. Eons are often covered in the expanse of a story. There are competing galactic empires and enemy agents and spies. There's enough SF so that you can't really mistake it for anything else, but readers walking in thinking they are going to get standard SF will be utterly confused. There's hardly any fighting or space battles and most of what passes for genre cliches are blissfully absent, replaced by something wholly strange, recognized only when viewed through skewed glass. There's never a sense that she's slumming or talking down to the mouth-breathing SF readers (and in a world where other writers sometimes work hard to backpedal any elements in their books that might be remotely construed as SF and reassure people that, "No, no, I'm writing about serious things" even when they really have aliens and spaceships, Lessing's attitude toward this is remarkably refreshing), she simply feels this is the genre that best fits these particular stories she wants to tell.
Still, reading them all in a row does require some adjusting, SF fan or not. None of them are geared toward telling a continuous story but rather a patchwork depicting the various relationships between Canopus (the nice empire, more or less), the Sirian Empire and the dark and dastardly Shammat, all of which have various traits that are often contrasted with each other, especially in their effects on alien societies. At least three of them are written as field reports, meaning that they can come across as rather dry in parts, a relating of events that happened as opposed to a depiction of events that are happening and as they are reports, imagine what your local real estate agent might write back as observations to his or her supervisors, but from an alien planet instead. Except most of the time, we're the aliens. As I said, some adjusting is required.
Most of it, frankly, screams "didactic" and your tolerance for the series for a whole may have more to do with your appetite for stories that are blatantly a commentary on society and in that sense isn't much different from taking a Native American character from the 1700s and dumping him in London to see what hilarity ensues.
With that in mind, the first book ("Shikasta") is probably going to come across as the strangest, as least until you get used to the style. Told as a series of field reports spanning centuries, it lays the basic template of Canopus and Sirius doing their best to influence other worlds before Shammat comes in to screw things up. This was Lessing's first foray into SF and as such reads as extraordinarily bizarre, one woman's take on a genre that she's familiar with and not really caring if she's following any of the "rules" or not. The early section depicting what you eventually figure out is Earth's prehistory, with the giants and castles and lead agent Johor walking around the ruins of previous civilizations has an eeriness to it, as if she's tapping into some kind of lost memory. It becomes less exciting when you do realize that you're on Earth and she's merely relating Earth's history but through the eyes of aliens, the early sections feel so odd and unfamiliar that to realize she's observing WWII Germany feels like a bit of a letdown. She does eventually move past that into the future and for me the novel finally comes alive when she starts to relate the story through the journals of a girl named Rachel. These sections feel like they play more to her strengths and include some honest human emotion, giving the story that all the vaguely dippy "Substance of We-Feeling" talk is lacking. But I give her points for a "try-anything" approach.
About every other story in here uses that journal format and so the in-between tales, like "The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five" almost act like palette cleansers. People have commented that this one feels like a fairy tale and in a sense that's true. The Zones are mentioned in the first book and seem to exist as metaphorical and spiritual areas and are places that Canopus feels the need to interfere regularly, insisting that the queen of Zone Three marry the more militant prince of Zone Four (and in turn he marries the more tribal queen of Zone Five). Having actual people doing things like riding horses and having sex makes all the talk about Zones much more palatable and since the focus of the story is more gender relations and their interactions (each Zone seems to have its own characteristics that affect each us as they intermingle more), it becomes a bit easier to relate to, feeling more like a fantasy tale that is bent on conveying its point of view. If you can stomach all the talk about Zones, it's actually rather charming and she does make you feel for the characters almost from the get-go, something that "Shikasta" struggled with for a bit.
Things flip back to Earth for "The Sirian Experiments", basically showing what the Sirians were doing on Earth during the first book (they had taken over, or were given, the southern continents in the name of rampant scientific experimentation). The oddly named Ambien II is one of the Five, who run the empire. Much of the book deals with depicting how Sirian singlemindedness (they are vague fascist but not necessarily evil) leaves it unable to view Canopus as anyone other than a competitor, despite Canopus more or less doing only nice things. The central crux of the book is a series of interactions between Ambien II and her Canopus counterparts, although the book doesn't heat up until the metaphors hit the fan and Shammat swoops in to take over and corrupt everything. Those scenes have a tension that suggest Lessing is finally finding her footing in the format and telling a story instead of just telling us things that resemble a story. Unfortunately they are few and far between, but really liven up events when they do transpire.
"The Making of the Representative for Planet 8" is Lessing's tribute to the the ill-fated (to say the least) Scott Antarctic expedition and reads like a feverish tone poem. Told in a slow moving rush of words that occasionally breaks into a paragraph, it takes us to a world that is dying. Canopus instructs the world to build a giant wall and the narrator discusses the events as they circle the world near the wall, watching their world slowly succumb to ice and cold and wondering when Canopus is going to swoop in and save them. Much like Kate Bush, Lessing apparently knows every word for snow and her descriptions of everyone trying not to think about freezing to death while everyone around them freezes to death is harrowing in its way. It ends mystically, which is about the only way something like this can end without everyone dying. It also acts as a nice cleanser and I give Lessing credit for taking an idea and following it through to the bitter and weird end.
"Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents of the Volyen Empire" is what I want to name my band if I ever have one, but also seems the most specific of the journal led novels. Klorathy relates events back to Johor from another world, where Canopus and Shammat and Sirius are once again vying for domination, this time through a war of words. There's more of a sense of satire here but discussions of the effects of Rhetoric and ideas, while not subtle, seem to depict an avenue of metaphorical SF that was never quite taken. It keeps the strangeness that marked the earlier novels but in the context of this novel, makes it strange indeed as people come down with rhetorical diseases and have to be reeducated, immersed in treatments at hospitals that may not take. Klorathy acts like a calm man knowing that he's running out of time and while she can't keep the tone consistent (I'm never sure what's happening to Incent is supposed to be amusing or terrifying) the interactions between the various factions are chilling, watching them yank an otherwise clueless world this way and that in the name of dominance, all the while claiming its for their own good. The sense of narrative drive is strongest here and what it lacks in off the wall weirdness it makes up for in being a kind of coherent strange I can relate to, with actual villains and conflicts as opposed to people telling me things that I'm supposed to assume are standing in for something else (here it's probably Communist Russia).
I can't say that any of these completely worked as both novels and commentaries, sometimes it seemed like Lessing was in a constant war to write SF and also craft meaningful critiques of society as she understood it, and it's not always clear which side won. But they are never less than interesting reading, especially for SF fans, who might wonder what is possible to do in a genre when you stop wondering about appealing to a certain fanbase or dealing with what the rules are. The mass impact of these novels on the genre was probably about zero, which is a shame in itself. In a world where one man's spaceship empire war could easily be swapped out for another's, trying something different should be less rare than it is. And if the author never quite understood how different from the norm the stories are, so much the better.
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Read information about the authorBoth of her parents were British: her father, who had been crippled in World War I, was a clerk in the Imperial Bank of Persia; her mother had been a nurse. In 1925, lured by the promise of getting rich through maize farming, the family moved to the British colony in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Like other women writers from southern African who did not graduate from high school (such as Olive Schreiner and Nadine Gordimer), Lessing made herself into a self-educated intellectual.
In 1937 she moved to Salisbury, where she worked as a telephone operator for a year. At nineteen, she married Frank Wisdom, and had two children. A few years later, feeling trapped in a persona that she feared would destroy her, she left her family, remaining in Salisbury. Soon she was drawn to the like-minded members of the Left Book Club, a group of Communists "who read everything, and who did not think it remarkable to read." Gottfried Lessing was a central member of the group; shortly after she joined, they married and had a son.
During the postwar years, Lessing became increasingly disillusioned with the Communist movement, which she left altogether in 1954. By 1949, Lessing had moved to London with her young son. That year, she also published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, and began her career as a professional writer.
In June 1995 she received an Honorary Degree from Harvard University. Also in 1995, she visited South Africa to see her daughter and grandchildren, and to promote her autobiography. It was her first visit since being forcibly removed in 1956 for her political views. Ironically, she is welcomed now as a writer acclaimed for the very topics for which she was banished 40 years ago.
In 2001 she was awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize in Literature, one of Spain's most important distinctions, for her brilliant literary works in defense of freedom and Third World causes. She also received the David Cohen British Literature Prize.
She was on the shortlist for the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005. In 2007 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
(Extracted from the pamphlet: A Reader's Guide to The Golden Notebook & Under My Skin, HarperPerennial, 1995. Full text available on www.dorislessing.org).
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