First read January 2005
This book does three ambitious things.
1. It takes the Old Testament of the Bible as inspiration for its mythical geo-historical content, but instead of an angry bearded guy in charge, it has a super-advanced utopian-collectivist space-travelling civilization colonising Earth and then struggling to maintain a shadow of hope and stability through thousands of literally star-crossed years when the unfortunate planet is fed on and influenced by another, evil space-travelling civilization.
2. It attempts to realistically predict the Old-Testament apocalypse playing out some time in the immediate future with the disintegration of most the structures of international organisation, collapse of Europe, rise of China, epidemics, famine, culmination in World War III, and the aftermath. Lessing actually bothers to imagine the details
3. It does these things while breaking and rebuilding the form of the novel. The principle subtext to the plot, coarsely outlined above in points 1 and 2, is a nuanced but severe indictment of the crimes of European and especially English imperialism. Its condemnation of wanton, wasteful, greedy, arrogant, careless behaviour, and the uncomfortable plea (one that cannot be reasonably made by a White person, and is accordingly made very un-reasonably here) to the systematically oppressed peoples of the Earth not to slaughter White people in revenge, could have been the subject of a sanctimonious essay.
There is nothing of the essay about Shikasta. There is no author voice. The book presents itself as ‘documents relating to visit by Johor…’ and much of it is narrated by this Johor, emissary, envoy, agent of Canopus, the benevolent interstellar coloniser of Earth. That he is an unreliable narrator is reiterated several times. He often speaks of being ‘affected’ by ’emanations’ and circumstances on Shikasta, and ‘The Archivists’ who narrate the various extracts from Canopean official documents comment on Johor’s judgement. The Archivists are not reliable either. For one thing, they are concerned with the broad sweep of events on a global scale, and for another Johor and other agents’ reports criticise them for their imperfect understanding of local conditions.
When Johor is incarnated, Christlike, as George, we know we can’t rely on him as we know he will not ‘remember’ being Johor, his life experience will affect him, and we have already seen one of his colleagues wander from the path planned for him by Canopus. In fact, George might have been the best choice of narrator for the time of the ‘Last Days’, but Lessing abandons direct narration altogether at this point and instead has the last 200 pages worth of events unfold through a variety of documents, principally the diary of George’s (yes, of course unreliable) younger sister.
Perhaps most importantly, we are not made to assume that Canopus represents Lessing. Canopus is concerned that the ‘White races’ escape extermination because they are ‘genetically useful’ animals for the overall health of the species. This ‘eugeneticist’ stance, revealed only towards the end of the book, casts a slightly sinister shadow over Canopus’ return to power over Earth.
Finally, I will comment on the picture painted here of human beings, through multiple sources and events. It is a dim one. We are weak, foolish and highly suggestible animals, neither wise and kind enough to build our own geometrically pleasing anarchist utopia (Johor calls power hierarchies ‘the Degenerative Disease’) without the vital flow of substance-of-we-feeling (fellow-feeling) from Canopus, nor wicked and stupid enough to build our own hell (the present state of humanity on Earth) without the influence of an evil parasitic influence feeding on violence and waste.
It was as if I had been given the task of telling someone in perfect health that he would shortly become a moron, but that he must do his best to remember some useful facts, which were a… b…. c…
so says Johor of the time when the ancient, utopian civilisation began to collapse. The best a Shikastan can do is struggle to thrive and support her brothers and sisters against all the odds, and wait for the return of Canopus.
This premise of human dependency is problematic for me, but I think it contains its own negation – since the book is *actually* written by a Shikastan. Lessing asserts the unreliability of all her narrators, allowing a space for the weak-human thesis to be a colonial misunderstanding of the colonised.