Shikasta – Doris Lessing

IMG_20141112_022413  I feel as if I have been set free both to be

as experimental as I like, and as traditional.” 

 (Doris Lessing)




Doris Lessing was already an established author, when she in 1979 published Shikasta, the first of her five-book Canopus in Argus series. But she had gone from realism to science fiction! Many of her readers were disappointed. She received mixed reviews from the critics. I remember me and my fiends half jokingly saying:”There goes her chance of ever getting the Nobel prize!”

The novelist commented: “What they (the critics) didn’t realise was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time! ”

And: “I would so like it if reviewers and readers could see this series, Canopus in Argos, Archive, as a framework that enables me to tell (I hope) a beguiling tale or two; to put questions, both to myself and to others; to explore ideas and sociological possibilities.”

The novel is about the planet Shikasta (Earth) under the influence of three galactic empires: Canopus, Sirius and Puttiora. It describes the fall of mankind, from a state of utopian paradise through the hellish conflicts of the 20th century (the century of destruction) to the Apocalypse (World War III).

It begins with a journey to the pre-history of the planet Rohanda. Johor is an emissary of the empire of Canopus, sent to help in the development of Rohanda. Johor’s journey is made through six “zones”, levels of spiritual existence each becoming more solidly material, until he arrives at Rohanda itself.

Rohanda is the proudest achievement of the Canopean empire, a paradise world where humankind’s early ancestors have been nurtured into a utopian civilisation, with some gentle interference from the far more advanced Canopeans. But soon after Johar’s first journey to our world, Rohanda will become Shikasta, “the broken”, a fallen world, sheared from the “galactic Lock” that has brought it peace and development, and exploited by the evil empire of Shammat.

Later, Johor himself reincarnates as an infant human and grows to full adulthood as one George Sherban, a Messiah figure who will help humanity through the coming apocalypse. Because they are worth it! As Johor describes the people of Shikasta:  “The lowest, the most downtrodden, the most miserable of Shikastans will watch the wind moving a plant, and smile, will plant a seed and watch it grow, will stand to watch the life of the clouds. Or lie pleasurably awake in the dark, hearing wind howl that cannot – not this time – harm him where he lies safe. This is where strength has always welled, irrepressibly, into every creature of Shikasta.”

When writing this novel Doris Lessing was clearly influenced by sufism but also by the Old Testament. She said: “It was a way of telling a story—incorporating ideas that are in our great religions. I said in the preface to Shikasta that if you read the Old Testament and the New Testament and the Apocrypha and the Koran you find a continuing story. These religions have certain ideas in common, and one idea is, of course, this final war or apocalypse, or whatever. So I was trying to develop this idea. I called it “space fiction” because there was nothing else to call it.”

 “It is our habit to dismiss the Old Testament altogether because Jehovah, or Jahve, does not think or behave like a social worker.” 


Doris Lessing did eventually get the Nobel prize in literature in 2007. Her comment: “I’m 88 years old and they can’t give the Nobel to someone who’s dead, so I think they were probably thinking they’d probably better give it to me now before I’ve popped off.”

This lovely video shows her reactions to the news!


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