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Doris Lessing in Space


The following isn’t a review; it’s more of a critique addressing Doris Lessing‘s two distinct styles of writing. It may contain spoilers.

Recently I re-read The Reason For It, one of four novellas in The Grandmothers, a collection by Doris Lessing.

Reason is the only one of the four written in the style Lessing began experimenting with later in life, dubbed “space fiction” by her, though most people, of course, call it science fiction. Her first foray into this genre was the five-volume Canopus in Argos series, by which time she’d published dozens of realistic novels and short stories, and was highly respected, admired, and reviewed by critics and fans alike. They went ballistic.

Although Shikastathe full title takes up half a page—drew the wrath of critics, it attracted a new following: sci-fi aficionadoes, many of them younger than her loyal readers, a majority of whom are feminist, literate liberals like myself. These remain divided about Lessing’s space fiction.

I loved Shikasta from the very first page. Part of why I adapted to Lessing’s space fiction is that by the time she started writing it I was so tuned in to her work, I hooked right into her wavelength.  (This was not always so: Doris Lessing can be tough going.) That first page of Shikasta contains an incredible sentence that exemplifies the complexity of her writing; it’s one of the most elegant and concise sentences to ever be constructed:

This is a catastrophic universe, always; and subject to sudden reversals, upheavals, changes, cataclysms, with joy never anything but the song of substance under pressure forced into new forms and shapes.”

One member of The Doris Lessing Society wrote a book of criticism cleverly titled Substance Under Pressure. I wrote a college paper for English Lit comparing Lessing’s realistic writing to her space fiction, showing that in her adopted genre she was still saying the same things she’d always said about the human condiiton, but in another language. A few years later I sent an excerpt of it to The Doris Lessing Newsletter: it was probably the first and only time this academic journal published something by someone who wasn’t a college professor. (Yes, I am bragging!) I was tickled.

In The Reason For It Lessing does it again: she presents insights about the human condition on a deeper level than most other writers ever visit, no matter what the genre.  In it, a government representative who’s the equivalent of our senators, realizes, as he nears death, that he and his colleagues made a grave error in appointing DeRod, their president, many years ago. They had taken his amiability for kindness, but he’s come to see that DeRod is what he calls “feeble minded.” As he describes the President he finally sees clearly, the reader recognizes he could easily be one of our representatives who supported Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, and regrets it. He and his colleagues were drawn to DeRod because of his boyish charm, his good looks, his affability. In fact, the man they chose as ruler is an incompetent idiot who has never understood the senators’ complaints, and was surrounded by a coterie of people who covered up for his stupidity–and ran the show. During DeRod’s reign the infrastructure has fallen into utter disrepair, schools stopped teaching anything meaningful, resulting in a shortage of labor, the army has become bloated…and so on and so forth. It’s our world, people!

I adore this story, though the style is more emotionally detached than Lessing’s realistic fiction.  Now that I’m getting on, I can see why a brilliant author might turn, in her later years, to a more detached form of story-telling, a “just the facts, ma’am” delivery: Much of Lessing’s work centers on planetary apocalypse, and she may have adopted space fiction out of desparation to get through to readers. Perhaps she thought, ironically, that by removing all literary flourish from her prose, the message would stand out in stark reality, more than it does in realistic fiction.

The Reason For It is brilliant. As for the other three novellas in the book, they’re all beautiful reading, and the title story, The Grandmothers, stands alone as a unique piece of modern day literature. In it, this ninety-something author explores the relationships between two best friends who each form a sexual relationship with the other’s teenage son. It’s realistic indeed—and some of the most radical erotica you’re ever likely to read.

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