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Doris Lessing's Parochial Science Fiction

March 29, 1980

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

With a sigh that she refused to deepen into a groan, she again saw him as her fellow prisoner, and marvelling that this taut, grief-marked man could be the gross and fleshy Ben Ata of their first days, she enclosed him, as he did her, and their lovemaking was all a consoling and a reassurance. When his hand felt for their child, now responding quite vigorously to their lovemaking, as if wishing to share in it—as if it were the promise of a festival—it was with a respect and a promise not to an extension of himself, or of her, but a salute to the possibilities of the, both; a considered and informed salute, at that, for Al-Ith, feeling the delicately contained strength of those enquiring fingers, knew that the potentialities he acknowledged were for the unknown and the unexpected, as well as for the familiar delight. For this union of incompatibles could bot be anything less than a challenge.

A challenge it is, and a reward. The second of the Canopus in Argos series of novels is finer-grained and stronger than Shikasta [see Ms. Le Guin's review, TNR, October 13, 1979], the first. The Marriages may be read for the pure pleasure of reading it, a tale unencumbered by metaphysical machinery. The Canopans and Sirians, the superhuman powers of good and evil of Shikasta, stay offstage this time. The manipulations of the Sirians are only hinted at: the powers of good, here known as the Providers, emit directives by Voice (like Joan of Arc's Voices) and, entertainingly, by beating an invisible drum. The Providers—I kept thinking of Scott's Antarctic crew, who referred to Providence, upon which they depended quite consciously if not always successfully, as "Provvy"—the Providers command Al-Ith, ruler of Zone Three, and Ben Ata, ruler of Zone Four, to marry. Both obey the order not happily but unquestioningly. Theirs not to reason why (why not?). Once they meet, however, the two human beings begin to behave very humanly indeed, and what might have been a fable enacted by wooden puppets twitching on the strings of allegory becomes a lively and lovable novel—a novel in the folktale mode, bordering on the mythic.

The theme is one of the major themes of both myth and novel: marriage. Lessing's treatment of it is complex and flexible, passionate and compassionate, with a rising vein of humor uncommon in her work, both welcome and appropriate. Marriage in all modes. Marriage sensual, moral, mental, political. Marriage of two people, an archetypally sensitive lady and an archetypally tough soldier. Marriage of female and male; of masculine and feminine; of intuitional and sensational; of duty and pleasure. Marriage of their two countries, which reflect all these opposites and more, including the oppositions wealth-poverty, peace-war. And then suddenly a marriae with Zone Five is ordered, a second marriage, a tertium quid, startling and inevitable.

It may be worth noting that this series of oppositions does not overlap very far with the old Chinese system of opposites, the Yin and Yang. At female-male and perhaps at intuitional-sensational they coincide; otherwise Lessing simply omits the dark, wet, cold, passive, etc., the Yin side of the T'ai Chi figure. Her dialectic of marriage takes place almost wholly in terms of Yang. Its process therefore is Hegelian, struggle and resolution, without the option of a maintained balance (the marriage cannot last). This is worth mentioning as illustrative of the extreme Westerness of Lessing's ethic and metaphysic. The Canopus books propose a cosmis view-point: but it turns out to be so purely European an explanation of human destiny that anyone even slightly familiar with other religious or philosophical systems must find it inadequate, if not presumptuous. In her introduction to Shikasta, referring to "the sacred literatures of all races and nations," Lessing said: "It is possible we make a mistake when we dismiss them as quaint fossils from a dead past." Possible, indeed. Who but a bigot or an ignoramus would do so? Lessing is neither, but her parochialism is disturbing. 

The landscapes and societies of Zones Three, Four and Five (and most tantalizingly, Two) are sketched, not detailed. One cannot live in these lands, as one can in Middle Earth. These are the countires of parable, intellectual nations which one can only trvale through in a closed car: but the scenery is vastly interesting, and one may wish one could at least stop and get out. The quick-paced plot is kept distanced by several devices: by use of the folktale ambiance of farawar lands once upon a time, by frequent reference to paintings of the events recounted, and by having the tale mostly told by an elderly male Chronicler of Zone Three.

At first the protagonists also appear at a distance, a bit larger than life, all of a piece, heroic. Perhaps the Ben Hur lurking in the name "Ben Ata" is even deliberate (though I wish the Alice trying to lisp her way out of Al-Ith were not so audible). As the two enter upon their difficult marriage, however, and are driven through all the changes of fear, patience, lust, rage, liking, masochism, ecstasy, jealously, rebellion, dependence, friendship, and the rest, they become smaller, more distant, more complicated. They get older. Their heroism is no longer east; it has become painful; it has become real. By having the courage to use these great stock characters, the queen and the king, and to take them seriously as people, Lessing has presented a personal drama of general significance, skillfully and without falsification. Her portrait of a marriage is perfectly clear-sighted and admirably inconclusive. Moralist that she is, she makes no judgement here. Character is destiny: her characters make themselves a human destiny, far more impressive than any conceivable pseudo-divine five-year plan for the good of Zones Three to Five. They might even have risen to tragedy, had the author not opened heaven's trapdoor to them to prevent that chance.

Though accurate, that last sentence is probably unfair. After all, The Marriages aspires to myth, not to tragedy. Zone Two is certainly an unconventional and attractive heaven, or stage on the way to heaven; one may be content to leave Al-Ith to it at last. Perhaps it is only meanmindedness that makes me distrust Zone One, fearing that it will turn out it be not simply better, but perfectly good, and therefore longing to find something wrong with it: just as we discovered, gradually, guided gently by our author, what was wrong with the utopian Zone Three, that now quite familiar country where nobody is possessive or destructive or has bad taste in furniture.

Indeed the Manichaean-Calvinistic hierarchy, the closed system implied by the structure and the more vatic bits of Shikasta, seems here to give way to an open course of relative values—a way, a human way. Or does Lessing not agree with the Chronicler who tells her tale so well? I think she does.

We chroniclers do so well to be afraid when we approach those parts of our histories (our nature) that deal with evil, the depraved, the benighted. Describing, we become...

I tell you that goodness—what we in our ordinary daylight selves call goodness: the ordinary, the decent—these are nothing without the hidden powers that pour forth continually from their shadow sides...

In those high places there is a dark side, and who knows but that it may be very dark...

However, the tale is not a fearful one, but kindly, careful, cheerful; its teller, knowing the darkness, faces the light.