Shikasta by Doris Lessing

Shikasta by Doris Lessing
Shikasta by Doris Lessing

The novel “Re: colonized Planet 5, Shikasta”, also known simply as “Shikasta”, by Doris Lessing was published for the first time in 1979. It is the first novel of the Canopus in Argos series.

The planet Rohanda was among the most promising when its colonization was started by the interstellar empire of Canopus. However, the development of the humanoids on the planet became problematic due to outside interference. Between Canopus and the empire of Sirius there’s some collaboration but the planet Shammat of the Empire of Puttiora is an opponent with its own agenda.

Millennia later the planet Rohanda is known as Shikasta and Canopus agents can’t avoid the chaos that leads to constant wars between the native humanoids anymore. Some of them get corrupted worsening the situation. Johor, one of the agents of Canopus, does his best but his task seems impossible.

Doris Lessing grew up with multiple cultural stimuli since she was born in the then Persia, now Iran, when she was a child her family moved in the then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and as a grown up she lived in a number of other countries. In the ’60s she discovered Sufism and her life was greatly influenced by it.

A curious mix of spiritual and religious elements heavily inspired by the Christian Old Testament and Olaf Stapledon’s classic science fiction are the basis of “Shikasta”, created as as a self-contained story and only later became a series. Doris Lessing preferred to speak of “space fiction” feeling that the use of common labels was too limiting. It’s certainly a very soft science fiction as the humanistic and spiritual elements are developed, not the scientific and technological ones.

“Shikasta” is structured as a series of reports written in the course of millennia by agents of Canopus, mainly by Johor, so much that the original subtitle is “Personal, psychological, historical documents relating to visit by Johor (George Sherban) Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Period of the Last Days”. In the second part it also includes recordings by Rachel Sherban, a native of Shikasta.

These different points of view also lead to another fundamental change within “Shikasta”. The first part summarizes the events of a very long period of time in which the planet is colonized with the history of the native species that gets created. The second part focuses on a critical period in the history of the natives.

In their reports, Johor and his colleagues use the terms and names they created but proceeding with the reading you understand that it’s a history of the Earth. This is confirmed by reading the parts narrated by Rachel Sherban, who obviously uses terms commonly used by humans.

The human history told by Doris Lessing in “Shikasta” seemed sad to me. The human species is the result of an alien colonization and in the end humanity’s problems were caused by the heavy interference of various alien species, sometimes competing among them.

You see a condemnation of colonialism and Doris Lessing points the finger in particular against the British one, which she knew personally. However, in “Shikasta” the history of mankind is the result of an alien colonialism. The agents of Canopus consider themselves the good guys and consider Shammat’s agents the villains. However, throughout the story the agents of Canopus seem often messy and sometimes are even corrupt.

By its nature, “Shikasta” is an uneven novel. Very different points of view, very different storytelling paces, parts full of descriptions told aseptically and others that are very intense, the considerable fragmentation make it a complex reading. Also for these reasons it’s controversial.

Some bits of “Shikasta” are really heavy to read, while others are very beautiful, especially towards the end. It’s an ambitious work but ends up being very chaotic. The final is supposed to offer some hope but I still have the doubt that the cure is worse than the disease.

I find it impossible to give an overall judgment on “Shikasta” and despite its merits I can’t recommend reading it. It seemed to me the kind of book to read in little bits at a time then think about them. If you like stories that are really complex, especially that ones with a mythical scope, that contain many ideas you could try to read it.

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