The Sirian Experiments

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

The Sirian Experiments is the third novel in the series bearing the general title Canopus in Argos: Archives, in which Doris Lessing uses the forms of fantasy and science fiction to explain the nature of good and evil, the presence of good and evil on the planet earth and in the characters of men, and to try to understand the collective human intelligence that prompts people to react in certain ways to certain stimuli.

There will be at least four novels in this series, perhaps more. The first was Shikasta (1979), the story of an emissary from Canopus named Johar, who viewed human history from prehistoric times to about fifty years into our future. Shikasta, as the earth is called, is seen through his journals and reports, as well as through the official history of the Canopean rulers who have sent settlers to earth. The second in the series, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, is not about these extraterrestrial rulers, but about the settlers themselves, who demonstrate in the form of a fable not only how they react to their unseen rulers but also how they receive goodness from one another, especially through the relationship of marriage. In The Sirian Experiments, third in the series, Lessing returns to the overview of the aliens, this time through the eyes of the Sirian scientist, Ambien II, who resembles in many ways the Canopean Johar.

Ambien is a capable woman. Why the Sirians are male and female is a good question, for they are effectively immortal, dying only rarely from disease or accident—for example, one of Ambien’s friends is struck by a meteor. Usually, however, Sirians live forever, although aging over the long span does necessitate occasional repair. As an immortal, the Sirian can undertake long-range projects, such as the nurturing of the evolution of a planetary culture. Ambien is engaged in this sort of project, and the reports that she sends back to her planet (which is unnamed) reflect her personality: she is businesslike, and competent even in details like the piloting of the spacecraft she uses.

In the novel, the earth (which the Sirians call Rohanda and the Canopeans, Shikasta) has been used as a sort of experimental farm by the two galactic empires. The planet is still in the process of formation at the beginning of the story, and there is a long period of cooling and radiation in which different species of animals are placed on the planet to check their suitability as inhabitants. After a catastrophe which causes the death of the dinosaurs, the Canopeans and the Sirians try experiments with various races of pygmys, giants, apes, and some hominids. Canopus places its settlers in various regions on the continents of the northern hemisphere, and leaves them there with only a passing scientist every eon or so to mark their progress. Sirius has taken the southern hemisphere, and like its Canopean partners, allows the natives to set a civilization of sorts in motion.

Since the stock for these experiments originated on many different planets, mutations and adaptations occur after they have been transported to earth, none of them, it seems, for the good. Many of the races that had enjoyed lifespans of eight or nine hundred years find that they are living much shorter lives, and as a result become sullen and difficult to handle. Ambien correctly interprets this change as the disappointment of the settlers in discovering that they will live short, brutish lives, dying at the end of their struggles.

The novel incorporates legend in dealing with its philosophical themes: Ambien visits Adalantaland (Atlantus), and meets the beautiful and gentle queen of the island kingdom. Ambien is pleased with the people, whom she finds to be attractive, intelligent, and law-abiding. As she is flying over the island in her space bubble, however, she feels a sudden chill in the air, and experiences a moment of darkness to the sound of a hissing roar. The whole planet has shifted on its axis, and, in the sudden motion, the island is swallowed up in a vortex. The continents, which had lain close to one another, are whirled apart, into the positions that they now occupy.

Ambien notes the changes that the shift of the axis will cause (as John Milton does under similar circumstances in Paradise Lost): from now on, Shikasta will have seasons, replacing the constant year-round temperatures that its different regions had enjoyed; the planet will have a slightly longer year; and the polar caps will expand to form great...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)