By Doris Lessing
Publ Flamingo, 304 p
How do you set a novel in the afterlife while avoiding hackneyed formulae derived from spiritism or theology? Jean Paul Sartre gave us a memorable example in his play, No Exit where hell is a hotel with endless rooms. In science fiction, Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld Series presents an engineered afterlife. Many SF writers followed that model, presenting prosaic variations on our world. Closer to Scotland, is Neil Gunn’s Green Isle of the Great, a dystopian Garden of Eden ruled by fascists, with an absent God who only occasionally pops in to see how things are going. Very few writers attempt to include anything like a mystical vision, and for good reason. It’s difficult to do credibly without getting mushy. Mysticism and science fiction have never blended well.
In the Marriages between Zones 3,4, and 5, the second novel in the Canopus in Argos series, Doris Lessing makes such an attempt. Already in Shikasta, she presents the Earth’s spiritual bodies as a series of zones. The dense Zone 6 is the entrance and exit to our world, a place of ghosts and illusions akin to the Tibetan Bardo. Then come Zones 5,4, 3 etc. each a self-contained world with its own rules. Zone 5 is ruled by a warrior woman and is involved in endless wars with Zone 4. Zone 3 is a mountainous pastoral place, but its inhabitants know nothing of what lies outside its borders. They can’t breathe the air in lower Zones. Zone 2 is only a fable. A children’s counting song runs,
“Great to Small
High to Low
Four into Three
When Al-Ith, the queen of Zone 3 is told to go and wed the warlike king of Zone 4, the command is for her a death sentence. But, this is the afterlife, and the orders, issued by its mysterious powers, cannot be disobeyed. She leaves her idyllic home to find a bleak land with an ill-mannered King, just as dismayed at the prospect of the marriage. She longs to return, but her way home is blocked. Also, that in Zone 4 she’s forbidden to look up at the blue mountains of Zone 3. Transgressors are forced to wear a heavy helmet to stop them from looking up. She soon finds allies in a secret circle of women who sneak out at night and practice looking at the Zone 3 mountains. When she suggests to her husband, Ben Ata that his endless wars never resolve anything, he’s shocked by the novel suggestion. A world without war? Impossible. but he listens to her. He also removes the ban on looking-up. They fall in love, have a child. He learns to appreciate Al-Ith’s more mystical ways, while she learns to love him.
Just when things are going well, a new order is issued. Al-Ith must return to Zone 3, leaving behind even her young boy. Ben Ata must go to Zone 5 to wed its warrior queen. Upon returning to Zone 3, Al-Ith finds that she no longer belongs there. Through her marriage to Ben Ata she has grown in awareness, and can no longer live in the idyllic land whose residents are unbearably superficial. The only place where she finds comfort is the wilderness where she can glimpse Zone 2. It’s an ethereal land of light beyond the borders where no one with a heavy body can enter. Those who do never return. That land soon becomes her destination. If Lessing gives us few details of Zone 2, it’s because it can’t be described using our language. Yet we receive enough hints to know what it is.
The Marriages Between Zones 3,4 and 5 is ultimately a fable. Courageous in that it dares to state, without New Age language or traditional religious imagery, that there’s more to our existence than our physical life on this Earth. In so far as her vision is in the form of an accessible story, it goes where no religious or theological text could take you. This is science fiction at its best.