I read Shikasta by Doris Lessing this summer. Or re-read it, as it happened. I went through a phase as a teenager where I read as many classics as possible in order to appear ‘cultured’ – like you do when you’re sixteen; Dostoyevsky and other Russian authors, sci-fi and large historical novels among them. I’m sure that the books served a purpose in my upbringing and I would most likely view the world differently if I hadn’t read them when I did, their influence on me profound. However, I’m not entirely sure I understood what most of them were about. I definitely don't remember many of them.
It felt like I was reading Shikasta (Re: Colonised planet 5) for the first time, the familiarity of the Canopus Empire the only indication that I had, in fact, read it. Therefore, I didn’t have the same sense of return and recollection I often have when I read a book again, or the sense of discovery when I realise I’ve remembered some things wrong or misunderstood them in the first place.
It’s not entirely surprising that I don’t remember reading it. Nothing much happens in the book for the most of it, the narrative consists of bureaucratic reports, diary entries and rambling letters, and the protagonist disappears for the last third of the book, existing only on other people’s accounts of him. Nevertheless, it’s a classic for a reason, a book that earned Lessing a Nobel price. It’s not a small or forgettable book, as I discovered on my second reading.
There are two great themes in the book that I’m sure I’ve read differently the first time. There is the spiritual aspect, the idea of reincarnation of souls until they have fulfilled their purpose that must have intrigued the younger me more than it did now. I read a lot about different religions then and the idea of rebirth appealed to me greatly at some point. On the re-read, the idea fell somewhat flat, the romantic in me upset for the souls of Rachel and Benjamin who had to be born over and over again. What must one do to be free of it?
The other great theme, social injustice – gender and economic inequality and racism – probably didn’t interest me as much back then; I had a tendency to find such accounts preaching. Reading the book again, I found Lessing’s ideas noteworthy. I also had the advantage of over thirty years to when the book was written in 1979 to see how the world has changed since. The damage done by colonialism hasn’t gone away, racist and religious intolerance is still ripe, and women aren’t that much better off than they were in the 1970s. The only thing that has improved, at least a little, is the environmental issues and the world isn’t quite as close to ecological disaster as the book predicts.
I have most likely completely missed the idea of the Chinese taking over the world. I read the book around the time the communism fell, so a book predicting a takeover of another communist system has either felt old-fashioned or I haven’t understood it at all. In hindsight, it could be said that Lessing was right. China has taken over the world, little by little, only not through communism but capitalism. The idea in Lessing’s book of Chinese exploiting cheap and starving European labour isn’t all that far from the reality of the modern China either.
The imminent destruction of the world, on the other hand, must have been a familiar notion for a child of the Cold War. It wouldn’t have mattered that the world had changed by the time I read the book, or that in Shikasta it takes place already in the 1970s; the fear of it was a constant companion when I was growing up.
Most importantly, however, I would have considered the premise of the book differently. The idea of an alien race influencing the evolution of human race – and everything else on earth – must have felt intriguing for the teenage me who was binge-reading sci-fi. For the grown-up me, the idea felt fatalistic. Humans are seen only as puppets, unable to make the most of themselves. Worse yet, the idea of the planet Shammat influencing evil in humans takes away our responsibility for everything that is wrong with us, all the things Lessing takes such pains to bring up. Why bother changing when all we need to do is wait for the stars to realign themselves and everything will be well again?
All in all, I’m sure I enjoyed the book far more than the teenager me did. However, I remember reading the second book in the Canopus in Argos: Archives series, of which Shikasta is the first book, so I must have liked it. I find it slightly sad that I can’t remember how I found the book the first time. And I can’t help wondering how many of the books I read then would be different if I read them now. All of them, I’m sure. But would they be better, or worse?