Canopus in Argos Analysis
by Doris Lessing

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Canopus in Argos Analysis

(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.

Although Canopus in Argos is nonlinear and achronological (the books can be read in any order), the novels should be considered in the order in which they were published. For example, the tenuous connection between Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta and The Marriage Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, which are labeled as volumes 1 and 2, requires readers to look for philosophical and other connections. What is important about the series is the way in which Lessing uses nontraditional narration, such as documents and reports, to criticize traditional science and ways of looking at the world. Throughout the series, Lessing stresses that an openness to mul-tiple perspectives is the only way to salvage society.

Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta can be read as an origin myth about Earth. The story of the planet’s fall from grace explains why and how humanity created the mess that is twentieth century Earth. Scientists scoff at the messengers who explain Earth’s true history; through science’s arrogance, Earth becomes even more sick. Science provides the mechanism that touches off the holocaust, supporting the Canopean (and Lessing’s) contention that science has gotten out of control.

The queen of The Marriage Between Zones Three, Four, and Five suggests that witches and magic can be an alternative to science. By associating a female leader with powers that are seen on Earth as unreal, Lessing recovers magic as a powerful alternative to science. The queen Al*Ith becomes a prophet of...

(The entire section is 897 words.)