The Sirian Experiments Doris Lessing (Cape pp. 288, £6.95) the preface to her latest 'archive' Davis Lessing seems amused, not irritated, at the Confusion caused by her departure from realism. Shikasta and The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five were hard reads for a generation that regarded her as the authentic voice of their own seriousness. The dry introduction to The Sirian ExPeritnents shrugs off those industrious admirers who want (oh dear yes) a story that is mt. In a series of little paragraphs as disassociated as a game of consequences Mrs Lessing makes it exasperatingly clear that we can expect no passion and no solutions in her narrative. The third volume in the 'Canopus in Argos' sequence tells the whole history of our planet, from millions of years ago to the present day, seen through the eyes of Ambien II, one of the five administrators of the inter-planetary empire, Sirius. Sirius calls Earth `Rohandra'; the rival empire of Canopus calls it `Shikasta' – and their different names for the same shared colony symbolise their differing purposes. Sirius, efficient, scientific, politic, conducts experiments as useless and heartless and shortsighted as those tried by vivisectionists and sociologists anywhere on this planet.
Canopus, tolerant, optimistic, selfsacrificing, watches and waits – overseeing all that Sirius does and understanding all that Ambien thinks. The novel illustrates the process by which Ambien becomes so influenced by the perplexing (but good) Canopean ideas, that she is unacceptable to the group mind of her Sirian peers. Like all prophets she is treated as deranged and exiled – whilst evil (represented by yet another extra-terrestrial power, called Shammat) triumphs on earth. Temporarily. Perhaps.
In this, the logical development from The Four-Gated City, Doris Lessing attempts once more, but obliquely, to make us examine our world and its preconceptions. The 'Martian' technique is sometimes heavily obvious: Nis garb was that now worn everywhere over the planet, as if it had been ordered by a dictator – but these animals have never been able to relinquish uniforms. He wore blue, very tight trousers of a thick material. .'); and sometimes bitterly pointed: ('In it was a machine for the transmission of "news". Visual transmission and consisting only of brutalities and savageries of various kinds. Of the real situation of the planet nothing was being coherently said. . .'). When Ambien sounds most human, the voice of her creator rasps through: 'I could not help feeling myself undermined by the familiar dry sorrow at the waste of it, the dreadful squandering waste of it all'.
It may well be that wandering colonists from other planets would wring their hands when they observe this polluted globe – but in this ambivalent Ambien it does not ring true. Her character, that of the bureaucrat whose 'document' we read, is the novel's serious flaw. In the preface Doris Lessing describes her protagonist as 'dry, just, efficient, deluded about her own nature', and adds that she 'could like her more'. It does not matter that Ambien is not likable; it does matter that she is not convincing as a representative of an alternative world.
That said, 'the conflict of ideas' is there – and The Sirian Experiments takes its place in a tradition of didactic literature, succeeding brilliantly as an allegory a most unfashionable fiction. Ideas matter, not events; almost as a game the reader is led to look for meanings beneath the narrative surface. With controlled indirectness and ambiguity Doris Lessing questions all appearances, and returns to the themes that made her early 'realistic' work so popular.
In her teasing preface Mrs Lessing says that she wishes readers to see the 'Canopus in Argos: Archives' as a framework that enables' me (I hope) to tell a beguiling tale or two; to put questions both to myself and to others; to explore ideas and sociological possibilities'. Leaving aside that disappointing word 'sociological', it is relevant to remember that the mediaeval allegorists believed that their texts should be interpreted in four ways: (1) the literal sense –the story (2) the generalised allegorical interpretation (3) the moral duty arising from the latter (4) a meditation on cosmic destiny. It is exactly what Mrs Lessing requires.
The nice prospect of all the dusty Sirian bureaucrats being exiled one by one to boring planets saves this allegory from portentousness, but does not save us from Doris Lessing's apocalyptic vision. Canopus always harps upon 'necessity', baffling Ambien with the paradox that evil is 'allowed' by good. If the fable tells us that human beings have no choice, that we are manipulated along our path to selfdestruction – then whose fault are we? If no God determines our actions, then could it be that oddball sociologists in UFOs are playing experimental consequences with our lives? Or might it be the devil; or group madness? Doris Lessing's enigmatic symbolism poses these questions, only (it seems) to tease us into rejecting them.
After all, Ambien is unbelievable. With all excuses gone and chaos around the corner, all that is left is to ask why we, as individuals and a race, are not capable of seeing the consequences of our oN-i actions. It is a good question.