Thursday 15 July 2021

Book review: Shikasta

theymightbeShikasta by Doris Lessing is famous. Wiki hints at some problems but is mostly positive. Goodreads, as well as gush, has some more perceptive comments; the one you want is probably The entire ideology Lessing apparently admires is ignorant and reprehensible.

On the trivia level, we get some initial stuff about giants, for no especially obvious reason. Perhaps it really is biblical re-telling. But it is about as useful as the interpretation of this pic.

I should say something good about it: I am bothering to read it after all. Some of it has some imagination to it. But some of it is very dull indeed. Umm. That's almost the best I can do.

If you read the book casually - as I did last time - and get sucked into the Canopus-are-good, the narrator is one of them, and so his "wisdom" must be wise, it is easy to gloss over the many terrible things in it. Perhaps it helps to have read Hayek and Popper. Consider: The biggest change [degeneration] was that more children were being born than before. The safeguards had been forgotten: gone was the knowledge of who should give birth, who should mate, what type of person was a proper parent. The knowledges and uses of sex had been forgotten. And whereas previously an individual who died before the natural term of a thousand years was unlucky, it was clear that life-span was about to fluctuate. So... you want to live in a society where someone wise and noble gets to decide who is a proper parent? In fact, if you say it in the right way, and she does, you can fool the unaware into agreeing. So is this all a test: you're supposed to reject everything she says? I don't think she is that subtle. Aside: the last sentence about lifespan illustrates her impatience, despite the nominal vast-sweep-of-time stuff: she knows that she's about to cut their lifespans short, for no clear reason, but she can't let it happen and have us see it: oh no, her all-wise and apparently prescient observer tells us about it. Despite his apparent inability to predict many other important things.

Consider: We are all creatures of the stars and their forces, they make us, we make them, we are part of a dance from which we by no means and not ever may consider ourselves separate. Um, astrology, predestination?

Consider: To identify with ourselves as individuals - this is the very essence of the Degenerative Disease, and every one of us in the Canopean Empire is taught to value ourselves only insofar as we are in harmony with the plan, the phases of our evolution. This is all desperately tribal, throwing away classical liberalism.

Consider: After World War II, in the Northwest fringes and in the Isolated Northern Continent, corruption, the low level of public life, was obvious. The two 'minor' wars conducted by the Isolated Northern Continent reduced its governmental agencies, even those visible and presented to the public inspection, to public scandal. Leaders of the nation were murdered. Bribery, looting, theft, from the top of the pyramids of power to the bottom, were the norm. People were taught to live for their own advancement and the acquisition of goods. Consumption of food, drink, every possible commodity was built into the economic structure of every society... And yet these repulsive symptoms of decay were not seen as direct consequences of the wars that ruled their lives. How depressive, despairing, ignorant her life must have been. And yet that wrong-headed assessment is combined with contradictory wrong-headedness: In large parts of the northern hemisphere was a standard of living that had recently belonged only to emperors and their courts. Particularly in the Isolated Northern Continent, the wealth was a scandal, even to many of their own citizens. Poor people lived there as the rich have done in previous epochs. The continent was heaped with waste, with wreckage, with the spoils of the rest of the world. Around every city, town, even a minor settlement in a desert, rose middens full of discarded goods and food that in other less favoured parts of the globe would mean the difference between life and death to millions. Visitors to this continent marvelled - but at what people could be taught to believe was their due, and their right. These failed states are somehow also unimaginably rich - but of course, raising people's standard of living is no good, if done in a way that La Lessing disapproves of. She is clearly appalled by consumerist society, and would like to find something to replace it with. But this is doomed to fail: life has no external purpose, there is nothing to replace "what people want" with. All she has to offer is a rather vague "being nice" which of course people should be, but that's far from a full theory and she has no more.

Consider: The real purposes of life - so long ago perverted, kept alive with such difficulty by us, maintained at such a cost had been forgotten, were ridiculed by those who had ever heard of them, for distorted inklings of the truth remained in the religions. But what are the "real purposes"? She doesn't say. There is implied that Obedience to the Plan is the True Purpose... all good Socialist / Communist type stuff, but do you want to live in her Plan? After all, they seem incompetent to carry out their plans.

Consider: Within a couple of decades, of the billions upon billions of Shikasta perhaps 1 percent remained. The substance-of-we-feeling, previously shared among these multitudes, was now enough to sustain, and keep them all sweet, and whole, and healthy. The inhabitants of Shikasta, restored to themselves, looked about, could not believe what they saw - and wondered why they had been mad. This also is rather typical: the world would be better off with fewer people, it seems. And the idea that people can only be sane when fed her weird SOWF is not sane either.

Consider: What is to be done with them? What can be done? Only what has had to be done so often before, with the children of Shammat, Shammat the disgraced and the disgraceful. And then the space lasers come in and Canopus kills millions. And yet blaming their problems on Shammat seems dubious: this is a colonised planet of Canopus, with Sirius. Shammat, sneaking in, must be a very minor presence. Can the glorious Canopus be so weak that their world is destroyed by a few Shammat? If so, perhaps they aren't being honest about how strong they are.

Consider: For Duty, in that last time, was all but forgotten. What Duty was, was not known. That something was Due, by them, was strange, inconceivable news they could not take in, absorb. They were set only for taking. Or for being given. They were all open mouths and hands held out for gifts - Shammat! All grab and grasp - Shammat! Shammat!... they had dues to pay to Canopus who had bred them, would sustain them through their long dark time, was protecting them against Shammat... so these are not free people; they are indentured to Canopus. As for the "protecting" - see previous comment.

This gets me as as far as p 150. I'll slog on a bit further and if I find anything to change my mind I'll update this.

Her prophecy is as poor as Marx and the others: Already in the eighth decade every government on Shikasta was preoccupied, often fearfully and secretively, with the consequences of mass unemployment, and particularly among the young. By then it was evident that the new (and often unforeseen) technologies would make mass unemployment inevitable everywhere, even without the world economic crisis which was due mostly to the spending of the wealth and resources of the planet primarily on wars and the preparations for wars; inevitable even if the population was not increasing at such a rate. These are familiar errors: mistaking the temporary for the long-term; fearing tech even though there are plenty of past examples (farming; spinning; ...); over-emphasis on war. I existed in the 80s. Things were not that bad.

There's a sequence of sketches of people-from-those-times; did she have those lying around and decided to stuff them in? As a part of a novel, they're odd. I'm now around p 300, George Sherban growing up.

Within that, I find something that I've seen before (and is explicitly there at the beginning of The Sirian Experiments): the idea that you should be able to understand, but that it can't be explained. Thus things happen, and (in this instance) RS asks her parents to explain, and they say "well you remember that time..." and she says "yes" and they say "and that's how it is" and nothing is explained. I think this is because La Lessing has not really worked things out; she cannot explain them; and is thus forced into these smokescreens of implicit-understanding: if you're the right sort of person you'll understand, if you aren't... well, sorry. Contrast this with say science: if you want to understand GR or QM, it is all carefully written down in detail. You might not understand it - if you're not the right sort of person you won't be good enough to - but the info is really there. Whereas for her stuff, it isn't.

Finished. Whew. It doesn't get better. We get a block of "George Sherban" growing up, as seen by other people (the book as a whole doesn't fit well together. It gives the impression of various bits written at various times rammed together with little revision), and the a "Trial" of the White Race by other people, but bizarrely and implausibly lead by GS. Typical stuff: 'The people who did this were the barbarians. They were...' and here came the familiar indictment: 'They were arrogant. Their exploitation of India was done in the name of progress and of their own superiority. Superior! Those ugly clumsy people with their thick minds and bodies! Yet these superior people were incapable of learning even the languages of the people they subjugated. They were ignorant of our customs, our history, our ways of thought. They were never anything but stupid people, stupid, ignorant, and self-satisfied.' And more of the same. It's not very imaginative. The defence is "but you do this too", with the examples of Africans enslaving Africans and from India, the Untouchables. The answer of course is that the White Folk had tech first so were able to act on a larger scale; that's all. Not that they were at base very different. Indeed, saying they were is the racism people making these accusations pretend to deplore. Does DL realise this? It is hard to tell.

Does the book have some kind of moral, or idea? It must have: because as a story it is meh, and as literature ditto. But the ideas I can find in it, per the above, are all bad.

Bonus mini-review: the Sirian Experiments

Kinda "the other side's perspective", i.e. the Sirian side (I don't think we ever get to see the Shammat viewpoint). Initially (this is a re-read) I found it better, with a bit more story, but it fades. Her irritating total ignorance of physics continues (at one point Earth, for no readily apparent reason, suddenly reverses axial rotation, then returns back, but with a tilt so we now have seasons. WTF? Why? This pointless and impossible catastrophe appears to happen only because she associates seasons with moral decline somehow... possibly some residual of coming from Africa to Europe?).

Some of the text confirms what I previously thought: that Canopus really is good, in her tales. At least Sirius believes it.

And once again there is the bizarre obscurantist mysticism: Klorathy tells her that things happen due to the need; or perhaps the Need. Why does he do this? He isn't stupid; he knows Ambien II doesn't understand. Is he really incapable of saying what he means, or is he just dressing up his own ignorance in mumbo-jumbo? You know what I think.

Lending-money-at-interest is, of course, condemned. Ironically - because she has to say it, but fails to think about it - she says "of course this practice kept coming back no matter how hard we tried to stamp it out". For her, this is evidence of the malign state of civilisation. It doesn't occur to ask whether the practice keeps recurring because it is useful; because people want it.

Lots of this is, effectively, "about" "colonialism", because we have the Sirians gaily shuffling populations around and then trying to learn better from the "wise" Canopean. At least, it seems to be about that because it is unsubtly rammed in your face. And yet the analogy, if it is one, seems poor.

Lastly, I agree that there are things that cannot be said, and have to be understood. But... they can be approximated, can be aimed at. Her constant use of the trope for all things is careless, lazy, fat.

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