Themes and Meanings

Critical discussions of the meanings of Shikasta tend to circle around the problems of free will and determinism. If a purpose for all being enters into the universe and moves all things, then how is it possible to act freely? If humanity in the twentieth century is deprived of SOWF and beset by the “evil” forces of Shammat, how can people be held responsible for the horrors they commit? Lessing’s creation of apparently good and evil “divinities” would seem to remove the human meaning from history. Indeed, the trial of the white races near the end of the novel demonstrates that even though the white races have been the most recent, most powerful, and most visible destroyers and exploiters, nevertheless all races and cultures are guilty of similar depredations. The degenerative disease is endemic to humanity; how can people do other than exploit and consume?

Lessing takes pains to show that the universe is not a closed system. Canopus is not God; though Canopus understands the Purpose better than humanity, it still errs and fails. The stars themselves make mistakes. Nor is Shammat absolutely evil hy cosmic standards. Shammat is a more powerful and sinister version of the white races, corrupted and self-destructive but still capable of being “saved” when suffering and failure lead to a new vision. At one point, the Canopeans attempt to impress upon humans the truth “that every child has the capacity to be everything.” There is...

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