Shikasta

Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta 

By Doris Lessing

I know that a book is exceptional if I’ve read it more than once. More than twice, and it has to be extraordinary. Doris Lessing’s Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta (the first in a series known as Canopus in Argos) is one of those. Known for her extensive corpus of mainstream, left-leaning fiction, Shikasta represents her first foray into science fiction., and into mysticism. Her die-hard fans hated her new direction and hoped it wouldn’t last. She’d already tried their patience with Briefing for a Descent into Hell a non-linear novel that explores the the mind of a man whom everyone agrees is insane. At the end of the book, the reader is left asking, is there such a thing as sanity?

And now Shikasta, a view of the Earth’s history  that suggests the presence of cosmic influences on our race  for good and ill. To enjoy the book, you have to excise everything the book may remind you of: Von Danniken, L. Ron Hubbard, 2001-A Space Odyssey.
Lessing is more mystical. You can tell that she has read Sufi writings extensively. Shikasta, the name that Canopus gave to our planet, means the stricken one. The sick planet. Long ago when giants lived on our planet, things were different. Human evolution was being accelerated by a link established with the advanced civilization of Canopus. Then something went wrong. It’s a story as old as Adam and Eve but unlike in the biblical story where the blame is laid on the woman who ate an apple, Lessing removes the element of guilt from humanity. What happened was a disaster — the word meaning a stellar misalignment. Nothing that our ancestors are responsible for.Canopus sends its agent Johor to help our stricken race. He can do nothing except to evacuate those ready to leave everything behind, and leave the others to thousands of years in spiritual darkness.

We skip to our post-modern age, a time of deep economic depression when our civilization is disintegrating. Johor returns to salvage what can be saved before a nuclear holocaust decimates the Earth’s population. This time he’s born of human parents.Canopus agents are born like us, except that they retain the memory of their origin. When they’re finished with their job, they shed their bodies by committing suicide. Then there are agents who, just as the rest of us, have forgotten who they are. The book climaxes in a mock trial on capitalism where Johor is the prosecutor and an amnesiac agent plays the defense. The trial awakens memory in the amnesiac agent. As expected from Lessing, the novel contains some obligatory socialist philosophy, but it doesn’t dominate the action.

Lessing delivers her vision of the loss of an ancient relationship with cosmic powers, dark ages and the future recovery of what was lost. She develops the vision further in subsequent books in the series.

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