Shikasta as Earth – Book Review?

The question mark is not a type; it’s added to the above line because this isn’t a real review, rather an excerpt from a chapter in Volume one of Doris Lessing’s three-volume science fiction classic Canopus in Argos: Archives. Furthermore, I’ve only read about one-third of this first volume…so how can I write a review? On the other hand, an excerpt from a book may be the best way to whet a potential reader’s interest. Anyway…Shikasta is obviously Earth, and Canopus is the planet in the galaxy whose inhabitants control the rest of the inferior planets. They regularly send emissaries to the other planets to help the beings with their evolution. The following is one of the reports filed by an emissary.

Frank Thomas Smith   

History of Shikasta, VOL. 3012, The Century of Destruction. EXCERPT FROM SUMMARY CHAPTER.

During the previous two centuries, the narrow fringes on the north­west of the main landmass of Shikasta achieved technical superiority over the rest of the globe, and, because of this, conquered physically or dominated by other means large numbers of cultures and civilisa­tions. The Northwest fringe people were characterized by a peculiar insensitivity to the merits of other cultures, an insensitivity quite unparalleled in previous history. An unfortunate combination of circumstances was responsible. (1) These fringe peoples had only recently themselves emerged from barbarism. (2) The upper classes enjoyed wealth, but had never developed any degree of responsibility for the lower classes, so the whole area, while immeasurably more wealthy than most of the rest of the globe, was distinguished by con­trasts between extremes of wealth and poverty. This was not true for a brief period between Phases II and III of the Twentieth Century War. [SEE VOL.3000, Economies of Affluence.] (3) The local religion was materialistic. This was again due to an unfortunate combination of circumstances: one was geographical, another the fact that it had been a tool of the wealthy classes for most of its history, another that it retained even less than most religions of what its founder had been teaching. [SEE VOLS. 998 and 2041, Religions as Tools of Ruling Castes.] For these and other causes, its practitioners did little to miti­gate the cruelties, the ignorance, the stupidity, of the Northwest fringers. On the contrary, they were often the worst offenders. For a couple of centuries at least, then, a dominant feature of the Shikastan scene was that a particularly arrogant and self-satisfied breed, a minor­ity of the minority white race, dominated most of Shikasta, a multi­tude of different races, cultures, and religions which, on the whole, were superior to that of the oppressors. These white Northwest £ringers were like most conquerors of history in denuding what they had over­run, but they were better able than any other in their ability to per­suade themselves that what they did was "for the good" of the

conquered: and it is here that the above-mentioned religion is mostly answerable.

World War I – to use Shikastan nomenclature (otherwise the First Intensive Phase of the Twentieth Century War) – began as a quarrel between the Northwest fringers over colonial spoils. It was distin­guished by a savagery that could not be matched by the most back­ward of barbarians. Also by stupidity: the waste of human life and of the earth's products was, to us onlookers, simply unbelievable, even judged by Shikastan standards. Also by the total inability of the population masses to understand what was going on: propaganda on this scale was tried for the first time, using methods of indoctrination based on the new technologies, and was successful. What the unfortu­nates were told who had to give up life and property – or at the best, health – for this war bore no relation at any time to the real facts of the matter; and while of course any local group or culture engaged in war persuades itself according to the exigencies of self-interest, never in Shikastan history, or for that matter on any planet-except for the planets of the Puttioran group – has deception been used on this scale.

This war lasted for nearly five of their years. It ended in a disease that carried off six times as many people as those killed in the actual fighting. This war slaughtered, particularly in the Northwest fringes, a generation of their best young males. But – potentially the worst result – it strengthened the position of the armament industries (me­chanical, chemical, and psychological) to a point where from now on it had to be said that these industries dominated the economies and therefore the governments of all the participating nations. Above all, this war barbarised and lowered the already very low level of accepted conduct in what they referred to as "the civilised world" – by which they meant, mostly, the Northwest fringes.

This war, or phase of the Twentieth Century War, laid the bases for the next.

Several areas, because of the suffering caused by the war, exploded into revolution, including a very large area, stretching from the North­west fringes thousands of miles to the eastern ocean. This period saw the beginning of a way of looking at governments, judged "good" and "bad" not by performance, but by label, by name. The main reason was the deterioration caused by war: one cannot spend years sunk inside false and lying propaganda without one's mental faculties be­coming impaired. (This is a fact that is attested to by every one of our emissaries to Shikasta.) Their mental processes, for reasons not their fault never very im­pressive, were being rapidly perverted by their own usages of them. The period between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Second Intensive Phase contained many small wars, some of them for the purpose of testing out the weapons shortly to be employed on a massive scale. As a result of the punitive suffering inflicted on one of the defeated contestants of World War I by the victors, a Dictator­ship arose there – a result that might easily have been foreseen. The Isolated Northern Continent, conquered only recently by emigrants from the Northwest fringes, and conquered with the usual disgusting brutality, was on its way to becoming a major power, while the various national areas of the Northwest fringes, weakened by war, fell behind. Frenzied exploitation of the colonised areas, chiefly of Southern Con­tinent I, was intensified to make up for the damages sustained because of the war. As a result, native populations, exploited and oppressed beyond endurance, formed resistance movements of all kinds.

The two great Dictatorships established themselves with total ruthlessness. Both spread ideologies based on the suppression and oppression of whole populations of differing sects, opinions, religions, local cultures. Both used torture on a mass scale. Both had followings all over the world, and these Dictatorships, and their followers, saw each other as enemies, as totally different, as wicked and contempt­ible – while they behaved in exactly the same way.


The time gap between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II was twenty years.


Here we must emphasise that most of the inhabitants of Shikasta were not aware that they were living through what would be seen as a hundred-years' war, the century that would bring their planet to al­most total destruction. We make a point of this, because it is nearly impossible for people with whole minds – those who have had the good fortune to live (and we must never forget that it is a question of our good fortune) within the full benefits of the substance-of-we­-feeling – it is nearly impossible, we stress, to understand the mentation of Shikastans. With the world's cultures being ravaged and destroyed, from end to end, by viciously inappropriate technologies, with wars raging everywhere, with whole populations being wiped out, and de­liberately, for the benefit of ruling castes, with the wealth of every nation being used almost entirely for war, for preparations for war, propaganda for war, research for war; with the general levels of decency and honesty visibly vanishing, with corruption everywhere – with all this, living in a nightmare of dissolution, was it really possible, it may be asked, for these poor creatures to believe that "on the whole" all was well?

The reply is - yes. Particularly, of course, for those already possessed of wealth or comfort - a minority; but even those millions, those billions, the ever-increasing hungry and cold and unbefriended, for these, too, it was possible to live from meal to scant meal, from one moment of warmth to the next.

Those who were stirred to "do something about it" were nearly all in the toils of one of the ideologies which were the same in performance, but so different in self-description. These, the active, scurried about like my unfortunate friend Taufiq, making speeches, talking, engaged in interminable processes that involved groups sitting around exchanging information and making statements of good intent, and always in the name of the masses, those desperate, frightened, bemused populations who knew that everything was wrong but believed that somehow, somewhere, things would come right.

It is not too much to say that in a country devastated by war, lying in ruins, poisoned, in a landscape blackened and charred under skies low with smoke, a Shikastan was capable of making a shelter out of broken bricks and fragments of metal, cooking himself a rat and drinking water from a puddle that of course tasted of oil and thinking "Well, this isn't too bad after all .... "

World War II lasted five years, and was incomparably worse in every way than the first. All the features of the first were present in the second, developed. The waste of human life now extended to mass extermination of civilian populations. Cities were totally destroyed. Agriculture was ruined over enormous areas. Again the armament industries flourished, and this finally established them as the real rulers of every geographical area. Above all, the worst wounds were inflicted in the very substance, the deepest minds, of the people themselves. Propaganda in every area, by every group, was totally unscrupulous, vicious, lying – and self-defeating – because in the long run, people could not believe the truth when it came their way. Under the Dictatorships, lies and propaganda were government. The maintenance of the dominance of the colonised parts was by lies and propaganda­ – these more effective and important than physical force; and the re­taliation of the subjugated took the form, first of all and most im­portantly in influence, of lies and propaganda: this is what they had been taught by their conquerors. This war covered and involved the whole globe – the first war, or phase of the war, involved only part of it: there was no part of Shikasta by the end of World War II left unsubjected to untruth, lies, propaganda.

This war saw, too, the use of weapons that could cause total global destruction: it should go without saying, to the accompaniment of words like democracy, freedom, economic progress.

The degeneration of the already degenerate was accelerated.

By the end of World War II, one of the great Dictatorships was defeated – the same land area as saw the worst defeat in the first war. The Dictatorship which covered so much of the central landmass had been weakened, almost to the point of defeat, but survived, and made a slow, staggering recovery. Another vast area of the central landmass, to the east of this Dictatorship, ended half a century of local wars, civil wars, suffering, and over a century of exploitation and invasion by the Northwest fringes by turning to Dictatorship. The Isolated Northern Continent had been strengthened by the war and was now the major world power. The Northwest fringes on the whole had been severely weakened. They had to let go their grip of their colonies. Impoverished, brutalized – while being, formally, victors – they were no longer world powers. Retreating from these colonies they left behind technology, an idea of society based entirely on physical well­being, physical satisfaction, material accumulation – to cultures who, before encounter with these all-ravaging Northwest fringers, had been infinitely more closely attuned with Canopus than the £ringers had ever been.

This period can be-is by some of our scholars-designated The Age of Ideology. [For this viewpoint SEE VOL. 3011, SUMMARY CHAPTER.]

The political groupings were all entrenched in bitterly defended ideologies.

The local religions continued, infinitely divided and subdivided, each entrenched in their ideologies.

Science was the most recent ideology. War had immeasurably strengthened it. Its ways of thought, in its beginnings flexible and open, had hardened, as everything must on Shikasta, and scientists, as a whole – we exclude individuals in this area as in all others – were as impervious to real experience as the religionists had ever been. Science, its basic sets of mind, its prejudices, gripped the whole globe and there was no appeal. Just as individuals of our tendencies of mind, our inclinations towards the truth, our "citizens" had had to live under the power and the threat of religions who would use any brutalities to defend their dogmas, so now individuals with differing inclinations and needs from those tolerated by science had to lead silent or prudent lives, careful of offending the bigotries of the scientific global gov­erning class: in the service of national governments and therefore of war – an invisible global ruling caste, obedient to the warmakers. The industries that made weapons, the armies, the scientists who served them – these could not be easily attacked, since the formal picture of how the globe was run did not include this, the real picture. Never has there been such a totalitarian, all-pervasive, all-powerful governing caste anywhere: and yet the citizens of Shikasta were hardly aware of it, as they mouthed slogans and waited for their deaths by holocaust. They remained unaware of what "their" governments were doing, right up to the end. Each national grouping developed in­dustries, weapons, horrors of all kinds that the people knew nothing about. If glimpses were caught of these weapons, then government would deny they existed. [SEE History of Shikasta, VOLS. 3013, 3014, and CHAPTER 9 this volume, Use of Moon as Military Base.] There were space probes, space weapons, explorations of planets, use of planets, rivalries over their moon, about which the populations were not told.

And here is the place to say that the mass of the populations, the average individual, were, was, infinitely better, more sane, than those who ruled them: most would have been appalled at what was being done by "their" representatives. It is safe to say that if even a part of what was being kept from them had came to their notice, there would have been mass risings across the globe, massacres of the rulers, riots ... unfortunately, when peoples are helpless, betrayed, lied to, they possess no weapons but the (useless) ones of rioting, looting, mass murder, invective.

During the years following the end of World War II, there were many "small" wars, some as vicious and extensive as wars in the recent past described as major. The needs of the armament industries, as much as ideology, dictated the form and intensities of these wars. During this period savage exterminations of previously autonomous "primitive" peoples took place, mostly in the Isolated Southern Con­tinent (otherwise known as Southern Continent II). During this period colonial risings were used by all the major powers for their own purposes. During this period psychological methods of warfare and control of civilian populations developed to an extent previously un­dreamed of.

Here we must attempt to underline another point which it is almost impossible for those with our set of mind to appreciate.

When a war was over, or a phase of war, with its submersion in the barbarous, the savage, the degrading, Shikastans were nearly all able to perform some sort of mental realignment that caused them to "for­get." This did not mean that wars were not idols, subjects for pious mental exercises of all sorts. Heroisms and escapes and braveries of local and limited kinds were raised into national preoccupations, which were in fact forms of religion. But this not only did not assist, but prevented, an understanding of how the fabric of cultures had been attacked and destroyed. After each war, a renewed descent into barbarism was sharply visible – but apparently cause and effect were not connected, in the minds of Shikastans.

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. [VOL. 3009, Economies of Afflu­ence.] And yet these repulsive symptoms of decay were not seen as direct consequences of the wars that ruled their lives.

During the whole of the Century of Destruction, there were sud­den reversals: treaties between nations which had been at war, so that these turned their hostilities on nations only recently allies; secret treaties between nations actually at war; enemies and allies constantly changing positions, proving that the governing factor was in the need for war, as such. During this period every major city in the northern hemisphere lived inside a ring of terror: each had anything up to thirty weapons aimed at it, everyone of which could reduce it and its inhabitants to ash in seconds-pointed from artificial satellites in the skies, directed from underwater ships that ceaselessly patrolled the seas, directed from land bases perhaps halfway across the globe. These were controlled by machines which everyone knew were not infallible – and everybody knew that more than once the destruction of cities and areas had been avoided by a "miracle." But the populations were never told how often these "miracles" had taken place – near-lethal accidents between machines in the skies, collisions between machines under the oceans, weapons only just not unleashed from the power bases. Looking from outside at this planet it was as if at a totally crazed species.

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.

This dominant culture set the tone and standard for most of Shikasta. For regardless of the ideological label attaching to each Rational area, they all had in common that technology was the key to all good, and that good was always material gain, comfort, pleasure. 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. And all this time the earth was being despoiled. The minerals were being ripped out, the fuels wasted, the soils depleted by an improvident and short-sighted agriculture, the animals and plants slaughtered and destroyed, the seas being filled with filth and poison, the atmosphere was corrupted­ and always, all the time, the propaganda machines thumped out: more, more, more, drink more, eat more, consume more, discard more-in a frenzy, a mania. These were maddened creatures, and the small voices that rose in protest were not enough to halt the processes that had been set in motion and were sustained by greed. By the lack of substance-of-we-feeling.

But the extreme riches of the northern hemisphere were not dis­tributed evenly among their own populations, and the less favoured classes were increasingly in rebellion. The Isolated Northern Con­tinent and the Northwest fringe areas also included large numbers of dark-skinned people brought in originally as cheap labour to do jobs disdained by the whites – and while these did gain, to an extent, some of the general affluence, it could be said that looking at Shikasta as a whole, it was the white-skinned that did well, the dark-skinned poorly.

And this was said, of course, more and more loudly by the dark­-skinned, who hated the white-skinned exploiters as perhaps con­querors have never before been hated.

Inside each national area everywhere, north and south, east and west, discontent grew. This was not only because of the gap between the well off and the poor, but because their way of life, where augmenting consumption was the only criterion, increasingly saddened and de­pressed their real selves, their hidden selves, which were unfed, were ignored, were starved, were lied to, by almost every agency around them, by every authority they had been taught to, but could not, respect.

Increasingly the two main southern continents were tom by wars and disorders of every kind--sometimes civil wars between blacks, sometimes between blacks and remnants of the old white oppression, and between rival sects and juntas and power groups. Local dictators abounded. Vast territories were denuded of forests, species of animals destroyed, tribes murdered or dispersed ....

War. Civil War. Murder. Torture. Exploitation. Oppression and suppression. And always lies, lies, lies. Always in the name of progress, and equality and development and democracy.

The main ideology all over Shikasta was now variations on this theme of economic development, justice, equality, democracy.

Not for the first time in the miserable story of this terrible century, this particular ideology – economic justice, equality, democracy, and the rest – took power at a time when the economy of an area was at its most disrupted: the Northwest fringes became dominated by gov­ernments "of the left," which presided over a descent into chaos and misery.

The formerly exploited areas of the world delighted in this fall of their former persecutors, their tormentors – the race that had en­slaved them, enserfed them, stolen from them, above all, despised them because of their skin colour and destroyed their indigenous cultures now at last beginning to be understood and valued . . . but too late, for they had been destroyed by the white race and its technologies.

There was no one to rescue the Northwest fringes, in the grip of grindingly repetitive, dogmatic Dictatorships, all unable to solve the problems they had inherited – the worst and chief one being that the empires that had brought wealth had not only collapsed, leaving them in a vacuum, but had left behind false and unreal ideas of what they were, their importance in the global scale. Revenge played its part, not an inconsiderable part, in what was happening.

Chaos ruled. Chaos economic, mental, spiritual – I use this word in its exact, Canopean sense – ruled while the propaganda roared and blared from loudspeaker, radio, television.

The time of the epidemics and diseases, the time of famine and mass deaths had come.

On the main landmass two great Powers were in mortal combat.

The Dictatorship that had come into being at the end of World War I, in the centre, and the Dictatorship that had taken hold of the eastern areas now drew into their conflict most of Shikasta, directly or indirectly. The younger Dictatorship was stronger. The older one was already in decline, its empire fraying away, its populations more and more in revolt or sullen, its ruling class increasingly remote from its people – processes of growth and decay that had in the past taken a couple of centuries now were accomplished in a few decades. This Dictatorship was not able to withstand the advance of the eastern Dictatorship whose populations were bursting its boundaries. These masses overran a good part of the older Dictatorship, and then over­ran, too, the Northwest fringes, in the name of a superior ideology­ though in fact this was but a version of the predominating ideology of the Northwest fringes. The new masters were clever, adroit, intelli­gent; they foresaw for themselves the dominance of all the main landmass of Shikasta, and the continuance of that dominance.

But meanwhile the armaments piled up, up, up ....

The war began in error. A mechanism went wrong, and major cities were blasted into death-giving dusts. That something of this kind was bound to happen had been plentifully forecast by technicians of all countries ... but the Shammat influences were too strong.

In a short time, nearly the whole of the northern hemisphere was in ruins. Very different, these, from the ruins of the second war, cities which were rapidly rebuilt. No, these ruins were uninhabitable, the earth around them poisoned.

Weapons that had been kept secret now filled the skies, and the dying survivors, staggering and weeping and vomitting in their ruins, lifted their eyes to watch titanic battles being fought, and with their last breaths muttered of "Gods" and "Devils" and "Angels" and "Hell."

Underground were shelters, sealed against radiation, poisons, chem­ical influences, deadly sound impulses, death rays. They had been built for the ruling classes. In these a few did survive.

In remote areas, islands, places sheltered by chance, a few people survived.

The populations of all the southern continents and islands were also affected by pestilence, by radiations, by soil and water and contam­ination, and were much reduced.

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.

Doris Lessing was born of British parents in Iran in 1919 and moved with her family to Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) when she was five years old. She went to England in 1949 and has lived there ever since. She has written many books - novels, stories, reportage, poems and plays. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007.