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Lessing, Doris

(1919-2013) Persian- (Iranian-) born author, in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) 1925-1949, in UK subsequently. Her long career – which eventually earned her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 – can be roughly divided into two broad periods. She began publishing stories in 1948, and from that date until the end of the 1960s she was best known for searching mimetic novels which acutely anatomized a range of topics, from the post-colonial role of Britain and her lessened empire, to the position of women in the world. This first period culminated in what many deem to be her masterpiece, The Golden Notebook (1962), though the five volumes of her Children of Violence sequence deal more expansively with the same problems. The final volume of that sequence, The Four-Gated City (1969), is a transitional work, moving in its final pages rapidly into the Near Future, where a somewhat apocalyptic perspective on the preceding volumes is gained from a viewpoint tinged with Sufi mysticism. This Persian form of Islam, influenced by Indian religions, is centrally concerned with the union of the soul with a Higher Being, in terms which are at times surprisingly literal – indeed calisthenic – invoking a kind of dramatization of the exercises and steps and treks one may undergo in order to achieve transcendence and the permanence of the soul. Much of the work published in her long second period of activity, especially the Canopus in Argos: Archives sequence, can be seen as exegetical of Sufist precepts; and all of it is loosened from her early mimetic perspective on things.

Much of Lessing's later work, which is very far-ranging, directly engages with the fantastic, far too extensively and engagedly for her to be thought of simply as a Mainstream Writer of SF gone feral. Over and above the Canopus books, several novels are clearly sf and/or are Equipoisal with sf or fantasy: Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) puts a schizophreniac through a mythic journey, in which he is perceived as an aspect of the consciousness of a Venusian projected from a flying saucer (see UFO); less fantastically, The Summer Before the Dark (1973) submits to a similar voyage of external/internal discovery a woman at a point of crisis in her life; in The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) a woman watches the harshly Dystopian last days of urban civilization from her window, rarely leaving her room with its view of an unnamed disintegrating City, while a young girl grows up beside her, giving some muted hope for human continuity; it was filmed as Memoirs of a Survivor (1981). The Fifth Child (1988) explores with considerable intensity the consequences of giving birth to Ben, an infant so destructive of the humans around him that he seems to be a genuine changeling; in the sequel, Ben, in the World (2000), Ben's strange life unfolds in terms Equipoisal between realism and the occult. The Mara and Dann sequence, comprising Mara and Dann: An Adventure (1999) and The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog (2005), is set millennia hence in a Ruined Earth ice age; the protagonists trek across a savaged terrain whose extremity and devastating beauty is clearly evocative of Africa, encountering visions and events redolent of a world irradiated by Disaster and myth, simultaneously; in the second volume, the dead Mara's daughter must cope with Dann's charismatic but morally problematical rise to power in this fragmented world. The Cleft (2007) combines Prehistoric SF and creation myth, in its abstract but moving portrait of an all-female proto-human stock, who find that some change they cannot understand is generating the birth of male children, gabbling hunters who begin to transform the world (see Origin of Man). Alfred and Emily (2008) intriguingly combines a genuine memoir recounting the lives of the author's parents, which were disfigured by the experience of World War One, with an Alternate History tale featuring the same real characters who experience – transformingly – a world in which that war has never occurred.

More influential than any of these titles, and Lessing's central sf achievement, the Canopus in Argos: Archives sequence places the crises of human self-striving – and the crises facing the planet of our birth – into a metaphysically conceived interstellar frame. Each individual novel in the sequence – which comprises Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta (1979), The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980), The Sirian Experiments (1981), The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982), made with the same title into an opera (1988) by Philip Glass, and Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983) – depicts an exemplary drama of the soul, as inhabitants of various planets, under the distant aegis of the Canopan Empire, attempt to come to terms with sexuality, politics, mortality and transcendence. Shikasta is Earth; the other novels make use of other venues. Everywhere the drive – sometimes thwarted – is towards literal union with universal principles (or God). The series exudes, at times, a piety not normally associated with sf; but at other points the perspectives it opens are illuminating. In Lessing's hands, the instruments of sf become parables: lessons in finding paths that may lead us out of the sour muddle of unenlightened worlds. [JC]

see also: Adam and Eve; SF Music; Women SF Writers.

Doris May Taylor Lessing

born Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran): 22 October 1919

died London: 17 November 2013

works (selected)


Canopus in Argos: Archives


Mara and Dann

other fiction

about the author


Entry from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011-current) edited by John Clute and David Langford.
Accessed 05:50 am on 13 July 2024.