Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five
The Marriages Between Zones, Three, Four, and Five is the second work in Doris Lessing’s series entitled Canopus in Argos: Archives. The first and third works of the series to appear so far are cast in the form of reports, letters, and journal entries about the history and development of the planet Shikasta (earth). Shikasta has had a violent past and faces a questionable future. In the author’s fiction, Shikasta is settled as an experiment by scientists from three space empires: Canopus, Sirius, and Puttiora. The Canopans espouse goodness and kindness in their dealings with the settlers with whom they people the earth. The Sirians likewise experiment with different sorts of hominids in the continents of the southern half of the planet. The Puttiorans, however, especially those who come from the planet Shammat, send no settlers, only troublemakers who teach the Canopan and Sirian settlers brutal habits such as human sacrifice and cannibalism. Shikasta and The Sirian Experiments (the third work in the series) are reports from Canopan and Sirian experimenters respectively, but this second work, The Marriages, is about the subjects of the experiments, a fable of those who have been selected as the guinea pigs of the alien plans.
The novel begins with a chronicler of Zone Three, a country of an unspecified region of earth, explaining that for unknown reasons the Providers (who must be either Canopans or Sirians) have commanded a marriage between the Queen of Zone Three, Al·Ith, and the King of the neighboring Zone Four, Ben Ata. The chroniclers, poets, and songwriters, although keepers of tradition, are not sure exactly what a marriage is. They know what sex is, and they know that children can result from marriage, but the authorities and the Queen herself are in doubt about the meaning of the command. Al·Ith, however, allows herself to be escorted to the border of Zone Four.
As the procession moves through Zone Three, glimpses of the rich and beautiful countryside are given. Zone Three is set in foothills, with a high range of mountains on one hand and fertile, grain-filled golden meadows on the other. In the grasslands of Zone Three live many small animals, who greet the Queen without fear as she journeys toward the frontier. A small deer steps up to Al·Ith’s horse and rubs its muzzle in greeting. The beauty of the land contrasts with rumors of worry that Al·Ith hears for the first time: some evil is falling on the land, bringing with it feelings of heaviness and discontent. The animals are not mating as they did, and even the people feel no urge to procreate.
Zone Four, which Al·Ith’s party reaches, differs sharply from Zone Three: not only are there no hills, but also its people fear hills. They build little, isolated villages far from one another on the dark plain. Just as the villages are isolated, so too are the people alone and afraid. The first citizen of Zone Four that Al·Ith meets is the young soldier Jarnti, who commands the troop sent to bring her to the King. Jarnti fears the possibility of war, and guards Al·Ith closely through their trip. Al·Ith, however, laughs at him. Zone Three needs no soldiers or armies for they have no enemies, and have never experienced war. Jarnti is astonished, because he has been brought up to believe that preparation for war is the norm of existence, and nothing that Al·Ith can say reassures him.
At last, Al·Ith comes to the marriage pavilion prepared for her and Ben Ata. The setting is a pleasant surprise, composed of a bridal chamber fronting on a garden filled with sparkling pools and jetting fountains. Her husband-to-be is not as charming as the surroundings. Ben Ata is rough, blond, and muscular, and he takes an instant dislike to the dark-haired queen. He is insulted at her dress, a simple one regal neither in material nor cut. To show his scorn, he throws Al·Ith to a couch and rapes her without his feet even leaving the floor. He expects an emotional reaction of outrage, but is astonished to find that Al·Ith is only puzzled and trying to learn, if she can, the meaning of his action. Neither of them knows what the Providers want of them or of their union.
As days pass in the pavilion, Al·Ith and Ben Ata try to discover their mission, their purpose. The evil influence that had been noted in Zone Three has spread to Zone Four: their birthrate too is down. The two come to the realization that the saving of their peoples is in their hands.
Besides the puzzle of the purpose of their marriage, another question is raised. Early in the journey to Zone Four,...
(The entire section is 1891 words.)