The position of fantasy marks one of the great differences between the literary practices of the United States and Great Britain in the twentieth century. It is clear when the difference began: in the 1880’s a writer like Mark Twain could write A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and not think of himself as doing anything out of the ordinary; or Henry James could write The Turn of the Screw as a literary undertaking of an adult, serious kind. That this attitude persists to the present in Great Britain is obvious: the fantasies Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm are not seen as subliterary aberrations for George Orwell; C. S. Lewis does not damage his reputation as a scholar and critic by writing the Perelandra trilogy; Olaf Stapledon does not find the writing of fantasies incompatible with his career as a philosopher; and writers such as Aldous Huxley or Nevil Shute mix their genres, alternating fantasies with more realistic modes without strain on either writer or audience.
This is not the situation in the United States, however. With the rise of literary naturalism came a feeling that the writer of realistic works somehow sets himself apart by performing a more useful, more socially responsible function than the writer of fantasy. Nowhere is this feeling more clear than in the stigma that became attached to genre writing: the romance, the western, and the detective story all became huddled together on the newsstands of the 1920’s and later, wrapped in garish covers and printed on self-destructing paper, while the realistic novel remained the product of the “serious” writer and issued from respectable publishers in respectable hardcovers to find a home on respectable library shelves.
The “ghettoizing” of the genre novel in America is perhaps most understandable in the case of late arrivals to literature such as the western or detective story, and just a little less so in the case of the romance, with its descent from the marginally reputable gothics of the early nineteenth century. But the most curious effect of this apotheosis of realism was the descent of fantasy. Along with romance, western, and detective story, fantasy, especially in its characteristic twentieth century form as science fiction, plumetted to the status of subliterature. Can one imagine Dos Passos, Hemingway, Dreiser, or Fitzgerald writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or, more to the point, about Flash Gordon? One cannot conceive of William Faulkner leaving Yoknapatawpha County for the sands of Mars, but if the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs could stir the imagination of Carl Sagan as a child, what might the Martian novels of William Faulkner have done? Yet so infected are we with the privileged status of realism and naturalism that it is hard to take these questions seriously. As realism ground on, the writing of fantasy came to seem almost a betrayal of the writer’s talents and the audience’s need; and these attitudes caused a narrowing-in, a reinforcement of parochial tendencies and shortsighted views, conditioning several generations of American readers to one chilling constraint: a novel with serious intent must have a realistic setting.
While British writers with a bent toward fantasy retained respectability and received serious consideration, their American counterparts were relegated, by and large, to an audience of adolescents (who could easily be dismissed as tasteless) and adults who were written off as cranks and crackpots. However, being in the ghetto was not an unrelieved misery for science fiction. It fostered the closest contact between writer and readers that the print medium had ever seen, it provided a training-ground for apprentices learning the craft, and it put bread on the tables of many writers. But more than this, the field supplied the writer with an audience receptive to, even eager for, experimentation in ideas, for the planning of alternate presents and futures; it gave them horizons as broad as the universe and taught them to feel at home there. Writers in the field read science fiction themselves, became aware of the developing conventions of the genre, and gradually accumulated a store of ideas that served as a common background and a starting place for future endeavors.
All this is by way of introduction to a consideration of Doris Lessing’s novel Shikasta, or, to give it its full title, Canopus in Argos: Archives. Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta: Personal, Psychological, Historical Documents Relating to Visit by JOHOR (George Sherban), Emissary (Grade 9), 87th of the Period of the Last Days.
Shikasta is not Lessing’s first attempt at science fiction: her novel The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974), for example, falls comfortably into a familiar science fiction category, the post-catastrophe story. Although Lessing is no stranger to fantasy, Shikasta does represent a new direction of a kind in her writing: it is her first try at what...
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