Canopus in Argos Critical Essays

Doris Lessing


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Doris Lessing had established an illustrious career as a realistic novelist before she wrote Canopus in Argos. This series comes rather late in her career and represents a substantial shift in her writing. Reviewers responded negatively to this shift. Lessing has written many novels since Canopus in Argos, but none of them are science fiction. Canopus in Argos has been seen as an aberration in her work. Like Margaret Atwood and P. D. James, other well-known female writers who have written science fiction, Lessing appears to have thought that only science fiction could convey her radical criticism of contemporary society.

Lessing’s science fiction can be seen as part of a trend by female writers who use science fiction to propose alternatives to current gender roles. Canopus in Argos also has been identified as part of the British tradition of science fiction, especially the work of Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon is most famous for Last and First Men (1930), a work that deals with the evolution of a number of human races over the course of two billion years. Like Stapledon, Lessing looks at an immense time frame, a common “race mind,” and the evolution of humanity. Like Stapledon’s work, Lessing’s series is science fiction that focuses on ideas rather than characters or an action-adventure plot.

Lessing prefers the term “space fiction” to that of science fiction. “Space” is used to describe the genre in England, but the phrase also implies a particular type of science fiction. Space fiction, as Lessing creates it, is more concerned with the powers of the human mind than with technology or new kinds of machines.

The series consistently asserts an androgynous vision. Canopeans transcend sex because they can be either male or female when they visit Earth. The series looks back nostalgically to a time when Earth was ruled by women using magic, when language did not exist, and when planets and other beings communed mentally. The series also emphasizes dissatisfaction with and distrust of language. Lessing’s emphasis on philosophical concepts makes her work an ambitious and complex work of science fiction....

(The entire section is 897 words.)