Shikasta, Doris Lessing

Shikasta’s full title is “Re Planet 5, Shikasta, Personal psychological historical documents relating to the visit by Johor (George Sherban), Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Last Period of the Last Days”.

Shikasta is Earth, which for eons was bathed in goodness by the system known as Canopus, but the forces of Shammat (Satan) became ascendant and Shikasta descended into squalor and misery, which Johor, who is immortal, as we were once also, witnesses and reports back on until the Last Days, World War III.

Let me be clear at the outset, that yes, this is a very Old Testament view of the world, but it is not religious in the way that CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy is for instance.

That said, Lessing has dead people lining up in Zone 6 (Purgatory?) to return to the land of the living. Johor himself passes backwards and forwards through Zone 6 to go home to/return from Canopus; the last time not as himself, but choosing to be reborn as George Sherban, who grows to become something approaching the new Messiah at the End of Days.

Doris Lessing (1919-2013) is one of the greats. I have loved everything of hers that I have read. The big question is how much of it have I understood? Wikipedia says that her fiction “is commonly divided into three distinct phases”: Communist (1944-56), Psychological (1956-69) and Sufism (1970s). I have no way of knowing if this is correct. In any case, Lessing continued writing up till 2007 (when she was 88).

Shikasta (1979) marks a change in her output to encompass Science Fiction, a step which as you can imagine put a lot of literary noses out of joint. It is a dense work and very difficult to read – maybe I should have first read the Short Introduction to Sufism – and yet I also found it difficult to put down.

The text mainly takes the form of reports back to Canopus of the decline in the ‘natives’ (us) over eons. But the ‘agents’, mostly Johor, tell stories with enough detail and personality in them to hold our interest.

One envoy describes Noah’s flood: “Well before the inundation the Davidic tribe was on safe ground … in the area that is the subject of this report, the rain continued for nearly two months… It was necessary to make a ‘pact’ with them that this visitation of the Gods would not occur again.” And then his next report begins –

Since my last visit, twenty-one cities have been established in the old flood areas… Trade flourishes between the cities and as far as the eastern areas of the main landmass, its Northwest fringes, the northern parts of Southern Continent 1, the isolated Northern Continent.

It helps to have a map or a globe – for most of the novel you have to make your own connections between the ‘reports’ and the world as we know it. So, the ‘Northwest fringes’ is Europe, Southern Continent 1 is Africa (I don’t think Australia is ever mentioned) and the ‘isolated Northern Continent’ is North America.

The first third of the novel describes our decline – from the idyllic, at one with nature to grubby, desperate townspeople – and the increasing influence of Shammat, in mostly general terms. The next third is vignettes of people, Individuals One through Eight, in the aftermath of WWII. Some become terrorists or criminals. Eight is a servant girl, abandoned by the family to whom she had given herself.

Such a female, often to the detriment of her own children, whom she may even have to abandon, may be the prop, the stay, the support, the nourishment of an entire family, and perhaps for all her life. For her working life, for such a servant may be turned out in old age without any more than what she came with. Yet she may have been the bond that held the family together.

Which reflects, I think, Lessing’s upbringing in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

The last third is easier reading, the story of George Sherban, Johor reborn, told mostly by his sister, as he grows and is educated through childhood, to become leader of the world’s young people – as the Chinese become the master race – culminating in the trial of the White Race for their crimes against the Dark Races, before hundreds of delegates in an ancient ampitheatre in Greece

All of the second night’s session was taken up by representatives from South America, young men and women from the Indian tribes. Thirty of them. Several were wasted with disease…

The indictment was even more powerful than that of the Indian from the United States, because the events described were more recent. Some of the victims stood before us . . .

The incursion of Europe into South America. The conquest of brilliant civilizations through rapacity, greed, guile, trickery. The savagery of Christianity. The subjection of the Indians. The introduction of Black people from Africa, the slave trade.

This is an astonishing work, a largely successful attempt by a great writer to create an allegory of the whole of human history in one novel. Subsequently expanded to the five books of the Canopus in Argos series.


Doris Lessing, Shikasta, first pub. Jonathan Cape, London, 1979 (My edition, pictured, HarperCollins, 2002). 448pp.


27 thoughts on “Shikasta, Doris Lessing

  1. Hmmm… not sure if this one is for me, but I have read several of her non-science fiction novels and loved them. The one that really stands out is The Fifth Child, which is a horrifying account of a monstrous pregnancy and baby, but I also have strong memories of The Grass is Singing, about a troubled marriage on a remote farm. I have a couple of her other novels on the TBR I should dig out.

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    • I’m not sure if it is either. I’ve read some of the other Canopus novels without retaining enough to link one to another. I think I own the others so I should read them all this year – without necessarily inflicting them on my blog – and see if I can see her overall theme.
      I read The Grass is Singing some time ago, it’s a powerful novel.
      Like you I’m sure, I think she’s a wonderful writer, and I’m willing to persevere with the bits I don’t fully understand. I’m sure they’re the bits that make her a Nobel laureate.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, wow, Kim! I remember The Fifth Child hitting me so hard. He was the LAST of their children, and they just HAD to have another child. The whole book you can feel how the parents wish they had stopped at four, but they’re trying to love this monstrous child. The whole thing summed up the risk that humans take when they choose to have a family. I think having children is so idealized that people forget it can be so very, very, dicey. It’s human gambling, to me. Here is my review, if you are interested:

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  2. This reminds me of when I read Randolph Stow’s Tourmaline, which wanders off into Taoism, and Bird by Sophie Cunningham which wanders off into Buddhism.
    I don’t know anything about these religions and since the payoff for knowing something about Catholicism has never been worthwhile, I’m not inclined to invest the time in learning about these or any other religions. So this one is not for me.
    But I read the Martha Quest books when my sister was reading them at university in the late 60s, and I loved them. I think they may have been the first overtly feminist novels that I read because it was before Greer.


    • I certainly feel I run into too much Catholicism in novels, starting with Evelyn Waugh probably.
      I read the Four Gated City, the last ‘Martha Quest’ some years ago and struggled with it. I should read them in order.
      I can’t imagine what the first overtly feminist novel I read was, and I probably didn’t notice. Sorry! One of Orwell’s was probably the first overtly political, though Catch 22 was the first I read in a political context.


      • I’m always fascinated by those books that are about someone’s personal history of reading. How do they remember the details of a lifetime of reading??
        PS I did enjoy James Joyce’s playfulness with Catholicism in chapter one of Ulysses when the men are in the Tower and there are all those allusions to the Catholic mass.


      • I don’t remember much of my reading, and I certainly don’t remember the first chapter of Ulysses, but if I were to write a personal history of reading then I would probably, as you might too (though you also have years of notes), work my way along my bookshelves.


  3. This sounds like a real feat and I can see it could be a wonderful read, but I just can’t choose an SF book like this over all the other books I want to read. I have only read a small number of Lessing books. I think the Martha Quest books would be more my style. The grass is singing is one of those books that I’ve never forgotten.


    • Lessing is certainly worth reading and re-reading. In the end you have to decide which of the thousands of ‘possibles’ best suits your current interests, though I wish you (meaning you, not one) were not so adverse to fiction labelled SF.


      • Haha, we really should return to using one more to avoid that confusion shouldn’t we? l’m sorry, but then I suppose I wish you were less averse to historical fiction. I think it’s because I’m pretty grounded in reality. I’ve never been given to flights of imagination so works that create new worlds, when I’m grounded in our own, just don’t seem to draw me, though I can enjoy some, as you know. I can understand the most egregious human character but give me, say, a space “baddie”, and I’m ho-hum, there’s a stereotype or a made-up bad person who means little to me. I know how ridiculous and unsophisticated this sounds, but I can’t help it.

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  4. I will admit to The Memoirs of a Survivor being one of the most dense and difficult reads in my life. I put it down at the end and decided that if that was Doris Lessing her writing may not be for me.


    • ‘Marleen S. Barr in her essay in A Companion to Science Fiction… argues that feminist science fiction novels such as Memoirs of a Survivor provide an alternate viewpoint that “dissolve walls that imprison women within a sexist reality.”‘ (Wiki)

      Memoirs is1974, and a ‘dystopian’ first step into SF, making Shikasta Lessing’s second step. I really must obtain a copy and read it


  5. I haven’t read anything by Doris Lessing – in fact, reading your post I now realise I had her mixed up with Iris Murdoch. I don’t think I want to read a book about Satan even in a very science fictional universe, but is there another place that you would recommend starting with Lessing?


    • I think most of us here started with her first novel, set in Southern Rhodesia, The Grass is Singing. My next Lessing if I can find it will be the SF Memoirs of a Survivor.
      Shammat in this novel is I think a planet or system with a malign influence rather than an actual Biblical Satan.


    • Lou, I started with her short stories, and a personal favorite (it’s bleak but great commentary) is “To Room Nineteen.” I read The Cleft, a novel I felt so-so about, and I loved The Fifth Child, which you may find interesting as a pediatric nurse.


  6. The only Lessing on my tbr pile is The Golden Notebook, but it has such tiny print and looks so daunting, that I baulk everytime I think this might be the time to try it. I believe it is one of her psychological books or “inner space fiction” as Margaret Drabble called it!

    Did you know that Lessing was born in Iran and lived the first six years of her life there? I did not until I checked the details for TGN on wiki.


    • I did know, but never thought about it, assuming her father was with one British colonial service or another. By coincidence I listened to a book set in Iran (by a woman born there) last week – Dina Nayeri. A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea.

      I checked The Golden Notebook on Audible, something like 20 hours, so good value for money but it might take a few years to get to it.


  7. The more dense a science fiction novel is, the less likely I am to finish it. Because I have anxiety, I need to be put into a new sci-fi world slowly. Otherwise, I feel lost, confused, and overwhelmed. One of the reasons I enjoyed the Snow Queen Cycle by Joan D. Vinge so much is because the world IS so complicated, but you get there slowly. Then, without having anxiety, I’m enjoying the reading experience and wish to re-read the series in the future.


    • Melanie I haven’t done your comments on this post justice. But thank you! I certainly enjoyed the Snow Queen, but I enjoyed/am enjoying Becky Chambers more (maybe because it feels more contemporary). And all my reading, not just SF, I like complexity, I like to feel challenged.

      Yesterday I was listening to a literary CD which failed, scratched I suppose, and I switched to an Irish crime novel which I would ordinarily enjoy but at that moment felt like I was being fed babyfood.


      • I’ve read one Becky Chambers novel, and from a writing perspective, she is absolutely amazing. There was one sentence I remember analyzing in book club that basically shared about 6 different pieces of information to the reader in just one uncomplicated sentence. That’s some serious skill.


      • I have Spaceborn Few ready to go (in the next few weeks). I’ll have to listen closely to see what you mean. (Am I alone in not liking to see/hear individual words when I’m reading?)


  8. The first book I read of hers was The Golden Notebook and I really struggled (and, so, at one point, if you’d asked me if I liked that book I would have really shot you a look, because I wasn’t at all used to reading that kind of book, so demanding). But it was also one of the first books I read for an online bookclub (back in the 90s) so I was stubborn about it and kept at it until I understood some of it. A lot of rereading, a lot of reading aloud (which is how I force myself to show and really take in the prose when I am stuck!) The next I read was one of her memoirs/diaries and she was so smart that it took me awhile to get up the nerve for a third! I really enjoyed reading about Shikasta and I might even have an old paperback copy…somewhere?


    • Don’t worry about show/slow – I’ve been trained by the master of misspelling, WG.
      I buy Doris Lessing whenever I see her secondhand, which means I have a half dozen or so unread (I hope I have enough braincells left for reading when I retire). You (Marcie) have recommended Nnedi Okorafor a few times, so you might like Lessing’s Mara and Dann which has a similar setting and feel to Who Fears Death.


      • Hah, I’m sure she’ll appreciate your acknowledgement of her unfettered-stylus-usage!

        I’m def out-of-date with the newer Okorafor books; I started reading her after getting into Nalo Hopkinson, but haven’t read anything for about five years or so? I think the earlier ones were more fantasy and the later more sci-fi…but I’m not sure.

        Mara and Dann is one that I used to pick up and pet regularly in my local library branch, but I never actually got around to reading it… only good intentions!


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