The full title is Canopus in Argos: Archives Re: Colonized Planet 5: Shikasta: Personal, Psychological, Historical Documents Relating to Visit by JOHOR (George Sherban): Emissary Grade 9: 87th of the Period of the Last Days.
To begin, we receive a Preface from the Nobel-winning author. It contains a brief defense of S-F as a literary form. Lessing’s contribution to S-F is rarely, if ever, mentioned. Totaling over 1100 pages, her 5 novel series constitutes an exhaustive study of a fictionalized galactic civilization.
The alien perspective is intriguing. We hear about negotiated agreements between Sirius and Canopus, after a ruinous war. Some large-scale backstory, non-traditional storytelling, a detached voice, disembodied, disorienting and disarming. I sank into the scientific narrative like I became immersed in Olaf Stapledon’s works. He was an acknowledged influence of Lessing’s and signs of his work are everywhere, down to the skeleton of the novel’s framework.
In what will become dense social commentary, the author introduces by degrees, an astoundingly complex level of world building, a dense architecture of philosophies, and then proceeds in the method established by Stapledon in Last and First Men and Star Maker. At first glance, this book could appear to be a similar masterpiece. The further you read, the more you will realize that is not so.
The subject veers dramatically as Lessing probes the furthest reaches of the human mind, but the message gets clogged with political agendas. The use of an inhuman narrator presents difficulties, easily surmounted by fascinating juxtapositions. Get ready for dry imagery, a large number of fictional facts and abstractions, and a sense of the dangerous scale of the universe. The mode of communication is uneven throughout. Dozens of reports are interpolated from extraterrestrials and humans. At once, a distinctly skewed and innately logical setting makes way for execrations to come. The language employed borrows more from its established backstory than from societal constructs, except for the implementation of pervasive allegory, until the story shifts to modern times.
The most interesting part was the exploration of the catastrophe, which left behind work for the custodians of Shikastan Truth. Through Johor’s contribution to his planet’s experiment, Lessing makes use of allegorical devices, infusing the narrative with the sense of higher powers orchestrating vast reaches of space-time. How much of it is alien technology, and how much faith-based relics is hard to quantify.
The novel takes the form of a note in a bottle, a time capsule, or a testament. This form is broken, irreparably, as the novel progresses.
It speaks of the end of civilizations and of the galactic development of empiricism, it covers the varieties and forms of extraterrestrial life all too briefly. Subtle allegories ensue: consumerism, the food chain, until we begin to see that Shikasta is Earth. With worthy lyricism, Lessing describes this world as an outsider, and her work is surreally fascinating. Her fiercely intelligent prose slides into abstract forms and sensations. The microscopic details are uncanny, but the sweeping, bitter statements undercut what might have been a thought-provoking, instead of a thought-suppressing, conclusion.
The narrator utilizes the sort of foreigners’ bizarre verbal patterns you might expect from a multi-national author. There is an incredible verisimilitude inherent in the sustained stylistic choices. The hallucinogenic descriptions of nature lend to the charm of reading Shikasta, before it betrays your every hope for consistency. I loved the lumbering, slow, aching prose, the giant, gaping palaces and eldritch ruins. I found the accumulation of atmosphere and detail profoundly unsettling. The stark narration, ripe with ordure, was strikingly vivid. Canopus institutes their regime on the vibrant planet of Shikasta, manufacturing giants and conducting sociological studies. Their enemy is Shammat. We know the Canopeans inherit genetic memory. Degeneration does not afflict them. They suffer no death. Their colonization is posited on designed evolution, and we can only assume their space-faring civilization is immense. The main concern of this “study” is the biological experiments on Shikasta and the aftermath, wherein selective breeding leads to unexpected consequences.
The development of sentience and intelligence in the controlled environment is interesting. It is speculative writing of the highest caliber, until it plummets into an abyss of antihumanism. The tension between galactic empires would have been a more stimulating subject, but I gather there will be further developments in that arena later in the series. She regales us with essays on the controlled distribution of wealth. Instead of plausible advanced technologies we get enigmatic magic. In fact, almost no explanation for the Canopeans’ powers intrudes. We must sit through 300 pages recounting the dry history of mankind, a saddening cultural survey, lacking any sign of sophistication. She exits the uncanny valley and only enters into the land of the canny, the trite and the wickedly accusatory.
She takes a scientific view of sex. But the traces of feminism are surprisingly light. Johor can change physical form. He understands acclimatization, but the more sacred knowledge he imparts, the more perverted the Shikastan experiment becomes. The clandestine alien subjugation of a civilization by a higher one is not original, but she started off in a convincing way. The planetary Petri dish, the control group, makes for a fine set-up. Recall that Johor refrains from corrupting society’s innocence with the introduction of advanced tech, but Taufiq becomes almost entirely human. Johor has an affinity with beasts, and uses this to his advantage as he seeks to modernize the brutes. His comrades practice micromanagement of a race already spiraling out of their control. Johor’s tasks and duties are at first vague, and his communication from Canopus is not enlightening, but it becomes clear he is meant to moderate the chaos.
Human symbiosis with the planet has always been tenuous, but Lessing drives home the fact that we have made a fine mess of things.
Luckily, we are given the emissary’s explanation along the way. He is a measurer of vibrations. These vibrations are the invisible forces at work, crafting the environment.
The Shikastan’s are told their function as lesser beings in service to Canopus, he bears the news of their loss of freedom, in one of the most stirring passages, and a fall results.
“A whole race will cease,” he says. This is the destruction of the self through hyper awareness. A competition for survival begins after the reliance of higher powers ceases. However, Johor’s prophetic powers and the development of the telepathic survival trait do little to prevent widespread degradation.
The fates of races are determined by the caprices of stars. Lessing distorts her religious allegory with many misappropriated Biblical references, only to castigate and belittle all organized religions later on.
Determinism and the possibility of anticipating the future follow attempts to placate the disintegration of their evolutionary project. The enemy emerges from their mishaps. Beginning with the Edenic people among which evil does not exist, she depicts society before sin, and Shammat, as sin, is labeled, and makes short work of any sign of Canopean progress. Johor’s immersion in another culture describes this scenario beautifully. He contemplates whether awareness of sin is a weakness. The garden falls through lack of adequate resources in the face of limitless wants. Shammat is syphoning off the life of planets. This is the enigmatic enemy, or the name he has given the force antagonistic to the aims of Canopus. Parasitism as an inevitable variation of progress from symbiots.
Loss of judgement en masse in the face of changing environmental constraints, sin as death, “disobedience to the master plan” causing the fall of Shikasta, and other parabolic constraints sheer away little by little, the fabulous invention Lessing spent 100 pages crafting.
The slow and assured death in the environment without divine intervention goes unchecked for 31 millenia. The plight of mutants and outsiders, those cast off and forsaken cry out from her pages. Possessed of no faith in a higher power, blessed were they in their ignorance, they fail to live up to the standards of the Canopean empire, which are divine in nature. Without religious beliefs they begin preternaturally innocent, but innocence soon falls by the wayside. Discovery that your planet is an artificial construct, would be enough to alter most peoples’ perception. Your society and development from beast hood was unnatural and programmed. The Natives and Giants are the 2 sentient species created by Canopus. The resultant diaspora dissolves the clever societal dichotomies she threatened to enumerate.
The signature is Johor’s distinguishing power. The loss of innocence is described as a descent into fear and dissolution. The rise of prophets as a result of chaos and the birth of religion, the rebellion of the spirit all come to the fore as Johor’s influence wanes. A multitude of afflictions intrude upon disorganized society, the tribes scatter, the disbalance physically manifests as a disease of the flesh. Their faith and awareness brings them torment and destruction. Disorder is measured by permeating vibrations in the environment which the natives misuse for their own pleasure. The destruction of the idealized past occurs repeatedly. They lose immortality and fall into perpetual cycles of death and sin, degenerate back into animals, devolution and reversion.
The intrusion of belief systems and humanity’s reliance on its environmental conditions, segregation and the survivalist mindset, and resistance to higher laws, all erupt from the misuse of Canopean stones. The patterns of stones create vibrations, in the sense that imposed order endows inhabitants with prosperity. The stones possess divine, or Canopean, power. Johor warns inhabitants with prohibitions and pointing out their in-progress destruction. He chooses disciples to spread the Truth from Canopus.
Shammat emanates, sows destruction. Johor tries to establish Laws. He communes with nature as a prophet seeking guidance. We learn of boosters, conductors and planet programming, Sirius, Effluon 3, Puttiora, pollution, abstract corruption, filtering and enhancing brain power, physical manifestations of conceptualizations, and a destructive force as supernatural as the stones. This allegory allows us to contemplate the destructive nature of our technology and our reliance on higher systems to function. Shammat uses Shikastans as transmitters. Out of darkness it came, sapping strength, beauty and intellect, which to Canopus, are measurable resources.
In his marvelous journey of discovery, Johor seeks to limit the spread of Shammat. The first murder occurs in an attempt to communicate divine Truth. Intimations of intoxication, idolatry and addiction are obvious consequences.
Love had been provided and engendered in the genetic make-up of their forebears. They must relearn progress, invention, adaption, intuition. They have to reinvent every basic device, the building blocks of civilization, SOWF (substance-of-we-feeling) = manna – the source of progress and human sentience. It is what separates Shikastans from animals.
Another disciple, Taufiq, is an agent, an instrument of the way toward life and immortal divinity. He espouses idealism. We recognize him amid our wars, government and culture.
An abrupt shift around page 100 brings us to modern Earth, still called Shikasta. The second section of the book is a direct castigation of privileged white society. Pettiness, avarice, socialist spoofs, small and frivolous revolutions, every expression of vanity. Supplemental reports give extraneous detached viewpoints, lassoing in cults and the minutiae of wasted lives, every category of sin is dissected in a discomfiting, clinical way. The writing degrades steadily from logical argument to execrable melodrama. It becomes a searing history text which cultivates a disgusted, ashamed tone of oppressive derogating, recounting all the missteps in human affairs, an endless series of disturbing protests against flawed individuals.
Perhaps Lessing was so ensconced in the omniscient extraterrestrial perspective, she let pessimism run rampant. She is excessive and obsessive in her portrayal of human folly. It seems to come from a place of anger, is spiteful and mean-spirited.
The repetitions, reinterpretations, and restating her theses statements becomes the modus operandi of the second half of the novel. There is a continual reinforcement of the depressing worthlessness of human beings. The shorter the lifespan, the worse the human maladjustments become, and a vestigial belief in former immunity to death remains as a carry-over to haunt them.
Rachel’s journal presents a stilted human viewpoint, but after all the macrocosmic speculation, her foibles, whining and minuscule troubles appear petty, void and contrived, inserted for a dramatic shift in the scientific tone.
Lessing indulges in bald satire, on the changeable minds of men, makes light of the power struggles during and after the World Wars, progress, justice, vain ambitions, etc. Humans have an innate fear of Canopus, which is dimensionless, reinterpreted through religious agendas, Taufiq assumed human form and diverges from his mission, finds religion to be a tool for ruling castes, espouses pacifism and points out human flaws again.
The book is a survey of human corruption, the death of the spirit, a forecast of the bleak fate awaiting us. Post-human speculation comes singly, much like the new men in Stapledon. We see increased involvement by extraterrestrial agents, decreased population split into giants, little people, hybrids and natives, a mixed species majority, the persistence of evil in human nature (seems unjustly attributed to Shammat) mass extinction due to Shikasta’s axis shift. Canopeans choose strategic, selective incarnations and visibility, and introduce experimental methods to combat the “revolt against the gods.”
The law of inevitable division and subdivision remains, operating through currents carried through stone patterns, Canopean vibrancies are simply eugenics, and even with their civilization-building experiments, they cannot prevent acts of God.
The Shikastans are victims of themselves, Canopeans deliberate and destroy some tribes, their insistence on their own morality becomes questionable. It reminds us in the most unpleasant way of the soulless behavior, cruelty, and small acts of terrorism that pervade our history.