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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Doris Lesfing

Posted by Adam Roberts on 10/12/07 at 02:05 PM

Niall Harrison quotes a grumpy Harold Bloom on Doris Lessing winning the Nobel Prize for Literature:

American literary critic Harold Bloom called the academy’s decision “pure political correctness.”

“Although Ms. Lessing at the beginning of her writing career had a few admirable qualities, I find her work for the past 15 years quite unreadable … fourth-rate science fiction,” Bloom told the AP.

I’d like to believe that the emphasis in Bloom’s final three word dismissal, there, is on the fourth-rate rather than on the science fiction.  That it’s not, in other words, by virtue of the fact that these books are science fiction that they are, in Bloom’s mind, fourth-rate.  I may be fooling myself.  But the question of Lessing’s relationship to sf is an interesting one.

It is, I’d say, the case that, despite writing many notable science fiction novels, Lessing is today pretty much ignored by the world of sf.  It seems a long time ago that she was guest of honour at the 1987 Worldcon in Brighton.  Her recent work has been barely reviewed in sf circles—almost nothing on The Cleft (2007), nothing at all on The Grandmothers (2004) (four novellas one of which was solid sf), and I don’t remember seeing anything on her post-apocalyptic The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot, and the Snow Dog (2005).  Mind you, it has to be said that this last novel has the single worst title of any novel published in the twenty-first century.  If Lessing were alluding, comically (hell, even seriously) to Rush it would be perfectly fine.  But she isn’t.  The title reflects that novel; which is to say the style in which the title is written—a faux-naif foursquare untutored what-it-says-on-the-tin-ism—is the style in which the novel as a whole is written.  She seems, in her late career, to be taking sf primarily as a modular idiom, one in which the complexities of the actual world (which, in her classic novels, she captures so well) can be pruned away to leave a simplified, often deliberately ‘primitive’ or pre-Industrial-revolution, imagined world as her setting.  The post-apocalyptic world of The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot, and the Snow Dog is one of these; the imaginary kingdom of ‘The Reason for It’ (in The Grandmothers) and the very broad-brush, pre-historical fantasy location of The Cleft are two others.  Not so much world-building, as world-gesturing-vaguely-towardsing.

Anyway, it’s hard to deny that Lessing is regarded as marginal by most of genre fandom.  Sf fans rarely feel the urge to refer to her in their endless internet discussions of the genre; she doesn’t grace award shortlists; Interzone haven’t profiled her.

I had thought that academic critics of sf, and particularly those critics specifically interested in women writers of the genre, might be different; but no.  There’s a good essay by Moria Monteith ‘Doris Lessing and the Politics of Violence’, in Lucie Armitt’s collection of essays Where No Man Has Gone Before: Women and Science Fiction (London: Routledge 1991); but other classics of sf criticism mention Lessing only in passing—Marleen Barr’s Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond (Chapel Hill/London: University of North Carolina Press 1993) for instance—or else don’t discuss her at all: something true of Jenny Wolmark, Aliens and Others: Science Fiction, Feminism and Postmodernism (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester 1994), Gwyneth Jones’s Deconstructing the Starships; Science, Fiction and Reality (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 1999) and Debra Benita Shaw’s Women, Science and Fiction: the Frankenstein Inheritance (London: Palgrave 2000).  This struck me as odd.

I wonder, then, what there is to say about Lessing-qua-sf-writer; and one thing that interests me very much is the African dimension.  Lessing grew up in Rhodesia (as was, Zimbabwe as is now).  When she moved to London in 1949 she was properly grown-up: thirty years old.  If we choose, as we may, to regard her as primarily an African novelist, although one with strong connections to Britain, then she becomes one of only a very few major writers of sf to come from Africa (B. Kojo Laing would be another).  Now, we can argue that Sf is primarily a European and North American mode, but we’d have to concede that some very major writers have come from non-Western cultures—Japan, most obviously, but also India, South America.  Why not Africa?  It’s not a question that admits of a glib answer, but I once [p.344] suggested a reason:

African SF was non-existent for most of the period covered by this book; but this fact may be changing.  One reason for the absence may be the broad cultural bias in favour of ‘spirits’ or ‘magic’ as an explanatory discourse, something in conflict with the materialist emphases of contemporary science.  In the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah: “Most Africans cannot fully accept those scientific theories in the West that are inconsistent with [beliefs in invisible agents].  If modernisation is conceived of in part as the acceptance of science, we have to decide whether we think the evidence obliges us to give up the invisible world of the spirits.

My point was that whilst ‘the rich traditions of African “magic realist” and “fantastic” writing grow from this culture’, it is less fertile ground for science fiction.  Lessing’s science fiction, more often than not, is ‘African’ in this sense.  Her most famous series, the by no means trivial Canopus in Argos Archives novels, though possessing undeniable heft, are nonetheless grounded in a mode of spiritualist mumbo-jumbo that’s immiscible with sf.  Take Shikasta (1979), for instance.  Shikasta is the Canopean name for Earth (Canopus being a sort of benign unified cosmic empire).  Something has gone very wrong on Shikasta.  The planet’s inhabitants live miserable and blighted lives.  Unlike the rest of the cosmos we age (‘the Shikastan disease’), we torture, kill, oppress and enslave others (the first law of Canopus is ‘we may not make slaves or servants of others’), and at the time the novel is set—the second half of the twentieth-century stretching into the first half of the twenty-first—we’re approaching the end-times.  It’s in many ways well done, as well done as any sfnal retelling of the Old Testament, that hoary old genre ruse, can be.  But the reader’s heart is bound to sink to read that the root of the problem for Shikasta is an insufficiency of SOWF, ‘substance of we feeling’, a mystic and essentially magical connection that binds the rest of the universe together.  Once Shikista had been ‘a garden’; but there was a ‘fall’ and the planet became disconnected from this SOWF.  Critics sometimes explain this by respectfully invoking Lessing’s interest in the traditions of Sufi mysticism, and her repeated fascination with the yearning of the soul for mystic communion with a higher unifying essence.  But the problem, in sfnal-novelistic terms, is that when Lessing tries to explain the Shikastan fall she inhabits an idiom not so much Sufi as L Ron Hubbard: it’s all to do, we’re told, with the evil Puttioran Empire, and invading ‘forces of disorder’ from the dark planet Shammat, made worse by astrological stellar arrangements (‘we are all characters of the stars,’ says po-faced Canopean Ambien II, ‘and their forces’, p.40) and a rogue comet breaking what Lessing calls the ‘intergalactic lock’.  Creaky old gobbledegook like this permeates the novel.  Both suffering and redemption can only be conceived of in terms of spiritual oneness; a magical and immaterial irruption into a genre largely allergic to woo.  Magic has a fatal effect on Lessing’s writing.

Lessing is sometimes called a ‘feminist’ writer; but that’s not a very good description of her, unless we’re take the phrase in the general sense of broadly ‘on the side of’ or ‘interested in the doings of’, women.  That’s too diffuse a definition, though.  If we take feminism to be a set of specific political agenda, then we can say that one thing characterising Lessing’s career is a tendency to take up and then drop again a variety of political causes (communism, say; or African political engagement).  Calling Lessing a ‘feminist writer’ is actually a kind of shorthand for recognising the very considerable importance of her novel The Golden Notebook (1962) to a particular generation of Western women; and it is the fact that that generation (coming into adulthood in the late 1950s and 1960s) also happend to form the vanguard of the world’s first effective women’s rights movement that lends the book its cachet.  My mother had a well-thumbed copy of the old penguin paperback, and I read it as a teenager.  I look back on that now, and think ‘oh dear’; I was at the wrong time of life, of the wrong generation, and (I say this as a reflection upon my teenage mind, not an assertion of gender-essentialist masculinism) the wrong gender to appreciate it.  It seemed to me much too long, fixated on post-war concerns that seemed quite alien to the concerns of 1980, and the central narrative—which is, in effect, about the main character’s mental breakdown and recovery—rather baffled me.  But even through the veil of my inadequacy as a reader I felt the solidity of the book, the thickness of its affect, the way it generated its qualia of lived experience, real problems, actual struggles.  At the same time, and as the woman’s movement moved on and the nature of women’s social and cultural experience changed, the novel has in effect received the order of the granite albatross: it has become seen as worthy, important, significant—three of the deadliest words in the literary-critical lexicon.  What is more liable to put readers off that so dutiful a reputation?  What is more likely (more to the point) to put off science fiction readers, who have consistently preferred the energetic, the disrespectful, the entertaining and the Pulpish to establishment notions of literary worth?

This has something, I think, to do with the relative disconnection from Lessing in most sf circles.  As a writer—I mean, as a styler of prose—she is often drab.  Her sentences are often unmemorably put-together, and occasionally clumsy and inexpressive.  Her dialogue is usually drily explanatory or expository, and rarely catches the rhythms or flavour of actual speech.  She is more or less incapable of creating beauty through her prose alone, although she does have a knack for picking out eloquent intellectual or emotional detail, and she can be profound, moving, and often wise.  She’s also a prolific writer, which may not be a problem in itself, although some of her novels are certainly too long and slack.  Martin Green [The English Novel in the Twentieth Century: the Doom of Empire (Routledge 1984), p.188] sees her as a sort of D H Lawrence without the fluency.  ‘The roughness of her writing’s texture sometimes suggests that a will to write is over-riding a resistance’, he suggests; an ‘inner conflict about the act of writing’.  That’s an interesting idea, and it needn’t be a bad thing.  It could, on the contrary, be a source of strength to a writer.  Overcoming the inner obstacle is one of Lessing’s great themes, after all; and some of the novels that chart just how strenuous and prolonged such overcoming usually is in life, and how such struggle is by no means sure to end in success (The Golden Notebook, or the Martha Quest novels) accumulate undeniable power.  Nor does this have to do, really, with Bloom’s curmudgeonly ‘political correctness’ jibe.  Given her generation, and her gender, it is unsurprising that this Lessingian narrative frequently parses the experience of women, for whom inner obstacles reflected and were magnified by palpable external social obstacles.  But that’s not to say that there is anything essential feminist about her approach.  Actually I don’t think there is.

Since hearing about her Nobel I’ve been looking again at some of the Lessing I’ve read, and trying to work out, despite her manifest greatness, what’s missing in her writing for me.  I’m not sure.  Everything Lessing writes is evidently heartfelt, and thoughtful, but not always heart-stirring or thought-provoking.  Above all there is, I think, a debilitating lack of weirdness at the core of Lessing’s writing.

Take for example her most recent fiction.  The Cleft is, notionally, the narrative of a Roman senator, who parcels out episodes from a bizarre, unwieldy sort-of-creation-myth.  Pre-gender-divide humans, we’re told, lived in seaside caves, swam in the sea, ate fish, and spontaneously gave birth to young.  They worshipped a ‘cleft’ in the land (perhaps a volcanic formation), a sort of landscape-vagina.  But then some of them start having babies with male genitalia; called variously ‘monsters’ or ‘squirts’.  A number of these are killed at birth as deformed creatures; others are carried away by gigantic eagles to start a community of males.  These rescued babies somehow grow into adult and form a community of men who thereafter receive the unwanted boys from the Clefts (ported to them by the eagles ... I know, I know), suckle them on wild animals.  Two communities grow up as ‘female’ and ‘male’.  All this ought to be very weird, estranging and stimulating; and it certainly strives to be that.  But somehow it is not.  Partly this is because it is rather clumsily done; its symbolism thuddingly straightforward, it’s gender-politics leadenly essentialist; but mostly it’s because the central situation reads as thought-experiment literalisation of gender into the world, rather than as anything that brushes tendrils of dread across the tender membrane of the unconscious.  The book tries to be weird, and in falling short it conjures the thought into the reader’s mind that Lessing really doesn’t understand what weirdness is.  Its weirdness is all on the surface, in the gesture as it were; a weirdness predicated upon a familiarity rather than the other way around.

I’m not suggesting that Lessing is a stolid writer, although there’s something in that accusation.  But the very groundedness of her writing can be its strength.  One of Lessing’s most successful science fictions, or fictions-full-stop, is The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) turns this aversion for weirdness into a strength.  The novel is strange, understated post-apocalypse novel, all seen from the perspective of the unnamed female narrator, who observes the world disintegrating about her mostly from the window of her house.  She is given a small child called Emily to look after, and the thin narrative of Emily’s growing up refreacts a portrait of a world at once recognisably modern and profoundly broken.  Lessing writes the collapse as entropic rather than catastrophic, although it has reached, in the novel, a sort of critical mass: ‘all over the city were these pockets of life reverting to the primitive, the hand-to-mouth.  Part of a house … then the whole house … a group of houses … a street … an area of streets.  People looking down from a high building saw how these nuclei of barbarism took hold and spread’ [p.94; those are Lessing’s own ellipses, there].  We’re never told what has precipitated the collapse (the narrator refers to this as ‘it’), but the familiarity of the post-collapse world, its un-weirdness, acts as an affective foil to the second strand of the novel, in which the narrator recounts a variety of visions, or transcendental insights, into myriad ‘rooms’, some dirty and cold, some splendid and inviting.  This visionary other-world is not weird either; it is, as a Sufi might say, actually home; and the novel ends with the narrator breaking free of the constraints of her domestic perspective on collapsing world, and simply walking away into the land of visions.


Aside: Previously on the Valve: forthright on fourth-rate.

By nnyhav on 10/12/07 at 05:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I’d like to believe that the emphasis in Bloom’s final three word dismissal, there, is on the fourth-rate rather than on the science fiction.  That it’s not, in other words, by virtue of the fact that these books are science fiction that they are, in Bloom’s mind, fourth-rate.  I may be fooling myself.”

Whatever Bloom’s problems with “political correctness” used as a term of denigration, I don’t think that anyone could say that he dislikes science fiction.  One of his favorite books, which he’s read hundreds of times, is Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, and in fact Bloom wrote what seems to essentially be a owrk of SF fanfic about it, The Flight To Lucifier.  He also thinks that John Crowley’s Little, Big is one of the best works of the latter 20th century, and he’s writing an introduction for a special edition of it.  So I don’t think it’s an aversion to SF in general.

I tried a little bit of Canopus in Argus and found it to be pretty much unreadable; one of a sort of subgenre of New Agey, mystical SF, all about aliens or people from utopian communities coming here and spiritually educating us—say, like Dorothy Bryant’s The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You, or Jane Roberts’ The Education of Oversoul Seven.  Compare, say, Iain Banks The State of the Art, in which aliens from a superior culture come to Earth and then decide to not intervene, to observe us as a test case to increase the accuracy of their societal predictions, or even the Star Trek universe’s Prime Directive, or even the abovementioned A Voyage To Arcturus, in which the spiritual education is noteable rather grim.

But of course I wouldn’t argue with the Nobel committee.  I assume that they’re basing their decision on works that I haven’t read.

By on 10/12/07 at 07:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Reading the plot summary, I was somewhat surprised to discover that I’ve read The Golden Notebook.

I tried reading some of the Canopus in Argos books.  I found them pretty much unreadable, but the one thing that was intriguing about them was how un-science-fiction-like they were.  It was like reading science fiction from an alternate universe where H. G. Wells and Jules Verne never lived, and it took until the seventies for the genre to be invented.

By on 10/12/07 at 09:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Lessfing” = a nine-fingered doppelganger in an alternative universe?

By Bill Benzon on 10/13/07 at 01:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, I very much believe Lessing modulates her prose style according to her purpose. Shikasta, for example, purports to be official, emotionally detached documents from Canopean agents back to HQ, as it were. They are intended to provide a broad overview of eons of earth history. Only the latter part of the novel is set in the 20th Century.

The second work in the Canopean series, purporting to be written by the Chroniclers and song-makers of Zone Three, is quite lyrical. The other works in the series have their own styles; Lessing’s stylistic range is phenomenal.

In The Good Terrorist the style is a detached rendering of the highly subjective thoughts of the protagonist. It is claustrophic, dense, unrelenting, sometimes painful to read. Lessing generally does not aim to give pleasure; she almost always has a deeply serious purpose.

The Fifth Child, which I suppose could be called SFnal, is horrific—the subdued, clinical style serves the deeply disturbing effect she sought.

The Memoirs of a Survivor is a beautifully written fable, but there too do we find the objective distance I think Lessing considers crucial.

Lessing always seems to focus on serious ideas. She rarely panders to the reader and won’t write conventionally beautiful passages unless they somehow serve her purpose. You can find such passages in her work, of course, but reading them out of context would be to miss the point.

She is not always an easy read. It took me several attempts to complete The Golden Notebook, but when I did, I was staggered by its power. Even today it has the power to shock and disturb; I can only imagine the effect it had in 1962.

Some readers are put off that Lessing’s default mode seems to be to tell a story, and not to show it. That flies against current thinking, of course, but ties her to an older tradition. That is her default mode, I think, because one of her constant interests is the intricacies of psyches in contact with other psyches and with themselves. Her novels are sometimes painful because she records, without judgement, thought processes that often strike home.

I understand why people sometimes criticize her prose style. When I began reading her 20 years ago, I often said I appreciated her works in spite of her style. Over time I came to realize how deliberately she crafts her style for various purposes. Providing pleasure seems to be the least of her concerns.

Having said that, she chose to write her two-volume autobiography in a very fluent and compelling style.

Lessing is a novelist of high seriousness who treats fiction with enormous respect. I was very pleased that she finally won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bloom has disliked Lessing for many years; still I found his comments puzzling. In the last 15 years she has written in a variety of modes: more or less conventional realism (The Sweetest Dream), her own particular brand of the romance novel (Love, Again), her autobiography, etc.

By on 10/13/07 at 02:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I was going to call the post ‘Doris Lesssfing’, but that sounded too snake-hissy.  If the Valve box of fonts permitted me to insert an eighteenth-century long ‘s’ in place of the second ‘s’ in her name, I’d have done that.

Rich and Walt; I think you put your fingers on what’s wrong with the Canopus in Argos books.

By Adam Roberts on 10/13/07 at 04:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, maybe I’ll change the name of the post to ‘Lesfing’ anyway.  Let the record show that it was originally ‘Lessfing’.  Let it also show that I farted around with trivia as regards this post, after it had been posted, when I really had better things to be doing with my time.

By Adam Roberts on 10/13/07 at 04:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’d like to agree on Canopus in Argos, but I found Shikasta to be so boringly aweful that I don’t remember anything about it except the highly mannered strangeness.

By Bill Benzon on 10/13/07 at 06:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Walt: “It was like reading science fiction from an alternate universe where H. G. Wells and Jules Verne never lived”

Or, to trace the chain one link further, one where Olaf Stapledon had never lived.  I think that he has done SF mysticism at least as well as or better than anyone else to date, and he was a contemporary of Wells (they exchanged letters, at least).  His most famous books (Star Maker, Last and First Men) were absolutely suffused with “the yearning of the soul for mystic communion with a higher unifying essence”.  But in Stapledon, it’s always tragic, because as he tracks his linked lifeforms over geologic or cosmological time, they always eventually run into some flaw that through no fault of their own means that they can’t go any further.

Perhaps Lessing’s mystical idiom achieves the dignity of being called Sufi-influenced, although from my brief look at it I thought that New Age was a more likely descriptor, New Age being typically what happens to an “exotic” or “Eastern” religion when it is adopted as an influence but not a system for people from a Christian background.  The problem with a New Age mystical idiom is that it typically isn’t tragic over the long term at all.  There is simply some kind of fuzzy one-ness—“substance of we feeling” will do—and the cause of difficulty is that most people don’t know about it.  But when they find out, all problems will be solved.  That’s why education is typically such a dominant theme for what I think of as this subgenre.

By on 10/13/07 at 09:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Lessing is interviewed in today’s Guardian.  She says she’s just delivered her latest novel to the publishers, and that it will probably be her last.  It’s an alternate history: two characters, based on her parents, live through a twentieth-century in which the First World War doesn’t happen.  Sounds skiffy to me.

By Adam Roberts on 10/13/07 at 10:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam (and others),

I can understand but obviously do not share your thoughts on Shikasta. I’ve given copies of the book to many friends and acquaintances over the years, and I have found reactions generally split into two camps. Either the style turns them off and they don’t finish it, or they somehow get into the spirit of the thing and they claim it changed their lives. I exaggerate, of course; some appreciate it without making such enormous claims.

Why is it often not considered part of the SF genre by many? I can only speculate. I came to the work as a very young man decades ago. As a teenager I devoured SF, but nothing in the genre had prepared me for Shikasta. I think SF readers understand on some level that Lessing is using SF tropes for her own purposes, to say things she couldn’t say in her more conventional novels. That’s quite a bit different from most SF of the time in which the main point seemed to be that it was SF. There are exceptions—even at the time I realized that Clarke’s Childhood’s End was different from his earlier works, that here he was approaching a high seriousness, if you will, that I find lacking in most of his other novels. I also believe that some do not see the wry humor that permeates the book. “Substance-of-we-feeling” (and its acryonym “SOWF") is just quite funny—though at the same time very serious.

It’s a common charge, but one I think rings true. The SF community is very insular, though not to the extent now that it once was. Shikasta doesn’t feel like other works in the genre. The writer was from the mainstream. Thus she famously got lambasted for writing SF at the same time writers and fans of SF hesitated to claim her for as one of her own. At the time I read Shikasta, I was already reading good so-called mainstream literature, so for some reason those issues did not bother me. Whatever Shikasta is, its worth was self-evident.

As far as claiming that Shikasta is merely an example of fuzzy new age thinking, I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, Lessing was and is influenced by her study of Sufism, but there is nothing unreflective about Shikasta. The detached tone is not one of an uncritical follower of a mystic cult. The basic premise is that living organisms operate on different perceptual levels. That may not be fashionable in critical theory circles to claim, but it is something most of us believe. A child does not have the mental appartus to preceive in precisely the same way as an adult, and not adults perceive in the same way. The very goal of cognitive behaviorist therapy is to guide the patient toward more reflective and productive modes of thinking. Indeed, though it is not fashionable to claim this anymore, most of us believe good literature is beneficial because it broadens perspective. Wisdom, however we construct it, involves some detachment. (I do not see this as radically different than notions we see in Marxist/critical theory discussions of ideology and subject construction.)

At any rate, I think it is inaccurate to say that Lessing “adopted as an influence” Sufism instead of as a system. That reduces the whole business to mere fashion. To say she doesn’t see the tragic because of this is puzzling to me. Shikasta is very tragic; most of the characters we follow live very incomplete lives. Mankind itself is only “saved” after most are wiped out. The Fifth Child, which, though they are more deeply buried, contains some of the same ideas of Shikasta, is nothing but tragic, and very disturbingly.

Generally, critics of Lessing’s “SF” express the desire that she stick to writing the kind of “realistic” novels that made her name. This is merely an expression of a desire for Lessing to write they novels they want, and not what she wants to write. (Lessing got her revenge when she published a couple of “realistic” novels under a pseudonym.) Curious, I think, that we’d want writers to reduce their range. The general thought is that Lessing’s “SF” prevented her from receiving the Nobel decades ago. This was alluded to in the statements announcing the award—sometimes it takes many years for an idea to mature.

By on 10/13/07 at 11:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Gerrold, since I was one of the people who was turned off and who didn’t finish it, I clearly don’t know the work as well as you do.  But I’d like to correct a few misperceptions of what I meant.

1.  I think that everyone considers the work to be part of the SF genre; at least, I haven’t seen anyone claim that it wasn’t.  I claimed that it was part of a sort of SF subgenre, and gave a couple of examples of other (clearly not as good) SF authors who I thought had written similar works.

2.  I think that there is a conflict between “The detached tone is not one of an uncritical follower of a mystic cult” and “I think it is inaccurate to say that Lessing “adopted as an influence” Sufism instead of as a system.” Sufism is noteable for many things, but at least in most versions of it, not detachment.  There is a danger here of typing Sufism as a mystic cult that Lessing has improved on in some way, possibly by combining it with poorly defined science ("cognitive therapy"), a common sort of New Age trope.

3. I wrote that New Age wasn’t tragic over the long term.  Sure, there may be many deaths, but there is always a sort of overall one-ness out there that people are heading towards; in effect, as with the Canopan empire, there is an outside source of good that is not necessarily God but is nevertheless essentially always there for people to find; there is always a sequence of development from lower to higher that is pretty much inevitable over a long time scale.  I’m not familiar enough with Lessing’s work to know whether this is a feature of it, but there is often the belief, as with many religious systems, that individual tragedies are in the end illusory, as everyone’s spirit or soul joins in some sort of later apotheosis.

By on 10/13/07 at 12:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment


Fair enough. (1) I should have just said it wasn’t read by many who read SF. (2) All I really meant was that Lessing in Shikasta maintains a detached tone that we wouldn’t expect from an uncritical devotee. At any rate, cognitive behaviorism is par for the course among most working psychologists, but if you want to claim that psychology itself is a poorly defined science, I wouldn’t disagree. (3) Lessing’s fiction really has ranged over much ground; I wouldn’t say that the movement from lower to higher is a feature we see in all of it. She also writes very realistic fiction, and has before, during, and after her forays in space fiction, which is how she labels the Canopean series and a few other works. To be fair, your last sentence does very accurately describe The Making of the Representative of Planet 8, the fourth of the Canopean series. But I’m not being glib when I ask, so what? Is that sort of visionary mode off limits for a serious writer?

Lessing is very iconoclastic; she seems to merely follow her interests without regard to reception. You might like her more realistic fiction, such as all but the last of her Martha Quest series or something like The Grass is Singing or The Summer Before Dark.

At any rate, I’ve enjoyed this discussion, and have now bookmarked this very nice site.

By on 10/13/07 at 02:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Gerrold: “At any rate, cognitive behaviorism is par for the course among most working psychologists, but if you want to claim that psychology itself is a poorly defined science, I wouldn’t disagree.”

No, I poorly expressed myself.  What I meant was that no matter how well cognitive behaviorism is defined as part of psychology per se, as part of religion it becomes a poorly defined concept.  One of the common New Age ideas is to explain what are really mystical concepts through a sort of grab bag of science terms—the kind of thing that Deepak Chopra does.  In short, if you want to explain Lessing’s ideas through reference to cognitive behaviorism, then it seems less likely that she has adopted Sufism as a system, as actual Sufism, more likely that it is a sort of influence.  Then it becomes a question of whether the influence is a specifically New Age type or not.

“But I’m not being glib when I ask, so what? Is that sort of visionary mode off limits for a serious writer?”

No, not off limits by any means.  I personally don’t like it, though.  Again, compare Stapledon—the books of his that I mention above are highly mystical, but they don’t have what I consider to be New Age’s somewhat offputting confidence.  In Stapledon, the entire human species, and others, come together in mystical union—everything is wonderful, and they’re even going back in time to bring in all minds that existed before theirs—and then there is a sort of cosmic failure.  There’s nothing they can do, and they all die out.  This vulnerability is fundamentally what makes it compatible with, well, cosmological and evolutionary accident.  Something like Lessing’s series seems more caught up in older ideas of evolution as directed towards a goal, more Teihard de Chardin.

As I’ve said above, I have no idea what her other books are like, and I assume that the Nobel committee knows what it’s doing.

By on 10/13/07 at 03:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Upon seeing that title - the “Griot the Snow Dog” one - I immediately thought of Daniel Pinkwater, “Mush, A Dog From Space”. But obviously Rush is the proper comparison.

By John Holbo on 10/13/07 at 07:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Bloomberg news story described The Golden Notebook as a “seminal feminist novel”.

Elsewhere, Peanut Gallery weighs in (via)

By nnyhav on 10/13/07 at 10:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: “I assume that the Nobel committee knows what it’s doing...”

Well, yes; it’d be churlish to accuse the Nobel Academy of, say, ignorance or bad faith.  But it’s worth remembering, as John Sutherland points out, that although the prize is taken by many to be a sort of simple ‘best world writer’ blue ribbon, in fact it is a prize that attempts to reward particular qualities:

Another uniqueness in the Nobel literature award hinges on the sole criterion imposed by the academy. Namely that their prize go to “the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency” (my stress). The original Swedish is “den som inom litteraturen har producerat det utmärktaste i idealisk riktning”. Translation throws up two areas of ambiguity. Does “work” mean something equivalent to the German Gesamtwerk, or the French oeuvre - life’s work? Or the Latin magnum opus - master-work? And need the “work” in question be un-equivocally literary? It manifestly was not in the case of Winston Churchill in 1953 (writer of one potboiling Ruritanian romance), or Bertrand Russell in 1950 (author of one inferior volume of detective stories). It was their respective efforts against fascism, and in the post-war peace movement, that earned them the world’s premier literary award.  There has been also been keen debate in the English-speaking world as to how the key adjective should be glossed; in the original Swedish the word “idealisk” translates as either “idealistic” or “ideal”.

Lessing fits these criteria fairly well (though not so well as, say, Ursula Le Guin), but there are plenty of excellent writers who don’t.

It’s also the case, I think, that the finer points of stylistic accomplishment (the more technical business of writing) will tend to get ironed out in a self-consciously international literary award, not through judicial incompetence but by virtue of the fact that many non-native speakers of a given language will be involved in the decision to award the prize to a writer who works in that language; either readers who can read said language in addition to their own (and who are more likely then to miss the more subtle of indigenous linguistic effects) or readers who rely on translation (and who therefore are at the mercy of the translator’s stylistic ability).  One result of this is that the prize sometimes goes to writers who, however commendable they may be in other ways, are not great stylists: Lessing, Elfriede Jelinek, Wislawa Szymborska, Joseph Brodsky.  If we judge Pinter by his later works, he falls into this category too, I think.

By Adam Roberts on 10/14/07 at 05:47 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the Academy has more or less ignored the will, since the 20s.

“and who are more likely then to miss the more subtle of indigenous linguistic effects”

Well, in the case of a Polish writer, sure, but with English or French writers, I don’t think it’s an issue.

By David Weman on 10/14/07 at 06:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Harold Bloom is crotchety. I think he’s still around mostly because journalists can count on him to provocatively weigh in on this sort of thing.

I’m surprised that we’re discussing Lessing as primarily a sf writer. I don’t go near her sf stuff, but I consider a lot of her work (e.g. the first two novellas in The Grandmothers) to be nothing short of brilliant. Realism may be a better test of prose artistry, and I think her short stories are quite stunning in that regard.

By on 10/15/07 at 12:00 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No one has mentioned the Children of Violence series, which is her key mature work and most clearly shows her main subject: the crazy, violent world she grew up in, and her and her aquaintences response. The thing about her is she writes from her experience over and over. At first it was almost purely autobiographical. Then with Memoirs of a Survior she started taking a different approach. SHikasta, which I loved as a confused teen, is just another take on the subject. My favorites are Four Gated City (which remindes me of China Miellville, for some reason) and the Diaries of Jane Sommers. You have to understand, she doesn’t care about “artistic” prose style, she cares about her subject matter, her obssession, her hsitory.

By on 10/15/07 at 01:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bloom certainly respects sf in principle, having tried to write it, having praised (quite rightly) John Crowley (though Little, Big isn’t sf, Engine Summer, which I teach, certainly is), and so on.

I would read the Canopus series if a couple of people who have read a lot of sf told me they liked it. I’m not sure the above counts (because it’s so ambivalent).

Your description of Lessing’s later (sfnal, or arguably sfnal) works makes her sound very much like the later LeGuin, with worse prose, and with a similar hostility to science and engineering as practiced. If I loved LeGuin’s Gifts but found The Telling unreadable, is Lessing’s sf worth my time? (That’s a serious question, not a sniff of disdain.)

By Steve on 10/19/07 at 12:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Finding The Telling unreadable is so widely shared an experience that it isn’t very useful diagnostically.

By on 10/19/07 at 01:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment


Hard to answer your question. I love SF but haven’t read much in the last decade beyond some Brin, Bear, Stross, and a few others. Lessing doesn’t have hostility toward science and engineering; she’s just not a scientist or engineer. Possibly relevant: in the introduction to the third of the Canopus’ series, she says she would rather be writing SF as a physicist might, but she doesn’t have the training.

I haven’t read The Telling, so I can’t address that benchmark. I will say that I am not a great fan of Le Guin’s. To me she too consciously tries to be literary and that, to me, is not the right way to be literary. There is no doubt in my mind that Lessing is a far superior author (as opposed to writer, if that distinction makes sense).

Lessing’s perspective is sociological; the SFnal apparatus she employs she tends to sketch in order to create the conditions by which she can explore her sociological/psychological themes. Her strength lies in her sociological/psychological insights.

Some say that Lessing is a bad prose writer, but I disagree—however, I used to say that myself. She is not concerned with beauty in writing as an end unto itself; her prose always serves her purpose. You might start with the second of the Canopean series—The Marriages of Zones Three, Four, and Five—if you want to read her in her a lyrical mode (the novels in the series do not need to be read in order—they are all quite different, and all self sufficient).

Anyway, all this is just my opinion; many here obviously disagree.

By on 10/19/07 at 12:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

This thread is long dead, of course, but I just finished The Grandmothers, the collection of four short novels (long stories?/ novellas?) to which Adam referred. I found “The Reason for It” a poignant reflection of the fragility of ... societal well being? Yes, it is sketched, and it is, I suppose, SFnal because it’s an inventive alternative history, but I’m not certain the SF label is very useful. It’s the kind of story that certainly could have happened, and in some ways clearly did (and does) happen. Another writer could have chosen to more fully develop the scenery (both physically and cultural), but Lessing seems to have been aiming for a fabulistic feel, or the feel of a story told many times that has consequently had the culturally specific edges worn off.

I like Lessing in that mode, but the best story in the collection was the last one, “A Love Child.” Her depiction of the travails of WWII soldiers crammed onto a cruise liner pressed into service as a troop transport was masterful, and shows how she can, when she chooses, richly detail experiences she did not share.

I read a interview of her recently in which she said the three non-SFnal stories were based on real experiences of friends and acquaintances, which surprised me especially in the case of the title story.

Anyway, back to Adam’s original post. I think there is something, perhaps, to his notion that the SF novels are African in there relative spareness of detail, but I wonder if its more the case that in her realistic fiction she can draw more on cultural context to create characters and setting. There is a passage in the second volume of her autobiography in which recounts meeting a group of SF writers in the ‘50s (I believe). She commented before the meeting to a friend that she liked the ideas of SF writers but wondered why characterizations were relatively flat. Her friend responded that subtlety of character depended upon a cultural matrix. She then writes,

“Very well, but I have always felt that a sci-fi novel is yet to be written using density of characterization, like Henry James. It would be a great comedy, for a start. But if what we do get is so wonderfully inventive and astonishing and mindbogging, then why repine? In science fiction are some of the best stories of our time. To open a sci-fi novel, or to be with science fiction writers, if you’ve just come from a sojourn in the conventional literary world, is like opening windows into a stuffy and old-fashioned room.”

As an aside, Adam, I’ve been reading some of your novels. I noticed the blurb on the back of Salt which mentioned Doris Lessing. As I read the novel I saw what the reviewer meant—it was not so much a reference to her SF novels as to her realistic fiction. I enjoyed the novel very much, but I found the short first person narrative of Rhoda Titus at the end of the novel a masterstroke. Why? I think because with her you could draw on existing cultural matrixes in a way that didn’t smack of the satirical. Very well done, and, very reminiscent of Lessing in her non-SF novels.

-- Trent (aka Gerrold, which I mention because I noticed I used that pseudonym in earlier posts on this thread)

By on 02/18/08 at 11:02 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Trent/Gerrold

Thanks!  There’s certainly something in what you say re: Lessing.

By Adam Roberts on 02/19/08 at 02:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The unfortunate thing is that science fiction as a whole is ghettoizing itself, cutting itself off from wider literary currents and catering to a loyal fanbase.

By Randy McDonald on 06/07/08 at 01:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, possibly you might be interested in this: I finally got around to reading “The Four-Gated City” and discovered that the city in “The Reason for It” is very closely based on a city in a short story written by one of her characters (Mark). The city in “The Reason...” _is_ her Four-Gated City, which is referred to throughout the Martha Quest series. I can’t imagine why I didn’t realize that sooner.

By on 07/12/08 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Finding The Telling unreadable is so widely shared an experience that it isn’t very useful diagnostically.

By Hitch on 08/22/08 at 01:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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