Doris Lessing's visions of the future

After exhausting the possibilities of realism, her science fiction went on to chart the implications of a world in flux

It was maybe 20 years ago, with two close friends who knew her well, that I visited Doris Lessing at her home in north London. She sat at the table where she ate and fed her guests, her face strangely luminous under the odd defective lighting middle-class English homes then seemed usually to boast. In this furtive illumination she radiated a poised stillness that reminded one of a portrait painting by some master. She seemed denser than life, a bit like Gertrude Stein in the great portrait by Picasso. Her face had the carved hardness of that portrait, but fuller than that, for it was a face that beautifully lacked self-regard, a face that looked out at the world and understood.

Several years earlier she had finished her vast Canopus in Argos: Archive sequence of SF novels; a few years later she embarked on her final surveys of the searing future. I was visiting her as a critic of SF, as a reader of her work, as a pilgrim. By the mid-1960s, it seems in retrospect, she had said everything about the world it was possible for her to say in the form of the "normal" non-fantastic novel. Even The Golden Notebook (1963), which was understood as a scathingly real-life description of the condition of women, edged formally toward the outer limits of realism, being shaped as four intersecting thought experiments in telling the life of a person. (It was a bit like a cubist portrait by Picasso.) And just a few years later, she closed her five-volume Children of Violence sequence with a final tale, The Four-Gated City (1969), which thrust into the near future in order to gain a clear view of things.

By 1970 or so, in other words, there may have been nowhere to go, for a writer of her dedicated intensity of vision, but into the fantastic, where the fate of the world could be visualised – if only, at times, in cartoon form. Several tales of this category preceded her magnum opus: Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), The Summer Before the Dark (1973), The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). But it is of course the vast five-volume metaphysical space opera known as Canopus that marked her full mastering of SF. At its heart, Canopus is an epic of uplift: throughout the inhabited galaxy, advanced species collaborate (and vie) with each other to guide less civilised worlds, like Earth, through Times of Trouble, in particular the 20th century here. The first volume, Shikasta (1979), consists of reports back home by an emissary to Earth attempting to recover from the terrible years that climaxed in World War Three. Further volumes – the effect is sometimes a bit like Guernica – revisit Earth from different angles to gaze upon the anguish. Other volumes travel elsewhere.

In the mid-1990s, when we visited her, she was not so much an SF writer, for she had never been intimate with that engaging but fractious cohort, as a world author who wrote SF. She was one of the first in the English language (there are more now) to shift from realism into the kind of fantastika that illuminates the real. She grasped very early the inability of realism to describe the changes that were besetting the world at a rate that has not begun to slacken yet, in the year of her death. At her table, in the warmth of her sudden smile, which was not at all basilisk-like, I felt all the same that I was in the presence of a seer.

Her last novels moved from the terrors of our times, though the Mara and Dann books – Mara and Dann (1999) and The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog (2005) – made it clear that, as Lessing saw it, for aeons the future would have to be defined in terms of aftermath. The years of her active life were so terrible that she could not conceive of an unscarred planet. It may be that she won the Nobel prize in 2007 for not flinching.


John Clute

The GuardianTramp

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