Nathaniel's Reviews > Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta

Re by Doris Lessing
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's review
Jun 25, 12

bookshelves: politics, religion, sci-fi, refused-to-finish
Read in June, 2012

This book is so terrible that I added a new shelf: "refused-to-finish". It has managed to supplant Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson as the worst book I've had the misfortune to encounter (and this includes Breaking Dawn!).

The main problem with this book is that the writing is bad. Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize in literature for this series, so I had high hopes that at a minimum the prose would be good. It's not. Not even a little bit. There have been precisely two moments in the 156 pages I read where the writing rose to the level of "not bad". The rest was tortuous monotony.

The second problem with this book is that it thinks it is being clever when it is really not being very clever at all. The central conceit of this book is that all the stuff from the Bible is actually literally true, but misunderstood. So, for example, the Giants mentioned in Genesis were actually a different breed of alien brought from another planet to act as mentors for the indigenous humans. The long life-spans from the geneology sections of the Bible? Also true: but humankind has been devolving horrifically due to a shortage of "substance-of-we-feeling" which I did not make up and which is often referred to in the book as SOWF (I didn't make that up either). The Flood happened literally, although the rain lasted for "nearly 2 months" instead of 40 days, and although Noah escaped by going to a very high mountain instead of building a boat. Soddom and Gomorrah? Burned to cinders by space lasers.

What all this means is that so far the first 156 pages of the book have been an incredibly tedious reimagining of the history of Earth told by someone who doesn't realize that the "shaggy God" cliche is, in fact, a cliche. Wikipedia: "A shaggy God story is a minor science fiction genre characterized by an attempt to explain Biblical concepts with science fiction tropes." Now you might say, "But this book was written in 1971! Surely it wasn't a cliche then!" In fact, the term was coined in 1965 and the cliche was a cliche long before that. Now maybe Doris Lessing had never heard the term and was completely unfamiliar with the trope, but the most charitable thing you can possibly say is that she ignorantly recycled a very well-trod genre cliche and then did a very poor, unimaginative, and boring job of it.

Which brings me to the last part of why I've decided to set this book aside and turn over a new leaf in the book of my own life, a leaf that reads on the reverse side: "Nathaniel will now feel not shame but *pride* for refusing to finish truly awful books and rating them on Goodreads anyway." The entire ideology Lessing apparently admires is ignorant and reprehensible.

I give her some credit for trying to be non-partisan in her writing and for criticizing the left along with the right in her meandering and semi-coherent polemic, but the fact is that it's possible to be non-partisan and *worse* than partisan. I didn't now this until now, so I guess that's one thing that I've learned from this book.

Her entire ideology is some frightful all-or-nothing choice between total individualism, self-interest and greed and absolutely losing oneself in the collective we (remember that "substance-of-we-feeling"?). The majestic Canopeans (who play the role of God with thinly veiled patience, slumming it as mere deities for the sake of their troublesome human charges) put the service of the Greater Good above all else, to the point where they choose where to live based on where they can do the greatest good irrespective of friendship or family. This could be a morally fraught and emotionally charged aspect of their culture, were it not conveyed with such mind-numbing lack of imagination. "Sorry, mom, I have to go to Square City where everything is made of squares because I just really have the essence of that Shape in me, and I'm not in tune with the vibrations of this Circle City where everything is a Circle." That's not an exact quote, but the city names and overall concept is. It's not that you *couldn't* make something like this up it's just that--if you cared about your readership--you *wouldn't*.

Aside from being banal and ignorant of history, science, economics, and common sense her ideology is frankly *evil*. She is outright in favor of eugenics, totalitarian rule, and mass slaughter in the name of ideological purity. Because she envisions SOWF (that's "substance-of-we-feeling", if you tried to forget) as a kind of literal substance (like Midi-chlorians from Star Wars, but so much worse) there's a blatant belief in austere population control and the world gets remarkably better off after a thermonuclear war reduces the world's population by 99%, so that the survivors have enough SOWF to be getting along with. (There's no apparent trace of irony to someone who spends endless pages castigating rampant materialism basing her entire ideology on having enough physical stuff to go around, and culling the excess population if necessary to keep it that way.)

Look, some of her politics I find rather personally reprehensible. I think even pro-choice people would cringe at lauding someone who "had three abortions, because the men did not seem to her to be originallyenough minted from the human stock to make their progeny worthwhile". I mean, "safe and legal" is one thing, culling the genetically inferior is another.

But there's a reason I listed my political problems last. First: they are pretty universally bad. Not many folks are really going to stand up and clap for the eugenics movement. Secondly: you have to wade through terrible writing and awful cliches just to get that far.

So that's why I've written this long, extensive review. So that you won't have to.

Because, and trust me on this, it's not worth it.
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message 1: by Lisa (new)

Lisa The writing in the book may not be good, but yours is very entertaining!

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