Saturday, October 20, 2007

More on Lessing

Star Trek fans know that science fiction on television and often in movies gets little respect from guardians of the establishment, especially the ones who give the awards. How else can the failure to give even an Emmy nomination to Patrick Stewart in seven years on Star Trek: The Next Generation be explained?

Like a lot about sci-fi on screens, the same is generally true in the literary world. It has perhaps changed somewhat in both worlds, as partly evidenced by Doris Lessing winning the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. But in 1978, when she was a noted realist writer with literary standing, and she began her "Canopus in Argos" series of what she called "space fiction," it was scandalous.

So she prefaced that novel, Shikasta, with "Some Remarks." She wrote:

"The old 'realistic' novel is being changed, too, because of influences from that genre loosely described as space fiction. Some people regret this. I was in the States, giving a talk, and the professor who was acting as chairwoman, and whose only fault was that perhaps she had fed too long on the pieties of academia, interrupted me with: 'If I had you in my class you'd never get away with that!' (Of course it is not everyone who finds this funny.) I had been saying that space fiction, with science fiction, makes up the most original branch of literature now; it is inventive and witty; it has already enlivened all kinds of writing, and that literary academics and pundits are much to blame for patronizing or ignoring it...

"Patronizing it or ignoring it" are also common responses to Star Trek and other space fiction on screens as well as on pages. I expect we all know that there are certain people we can talk to about Star Trek, or even about Star Trek actors, writers, etc. and our Star Trek experiences--and a lot of people we can't talk to about any of this without risking ridicule and/or incomprehension. Most often the establishment media can't cover Star Trek or other space fiction without being patronizing--it always has to make fun of it. The main exceptions are stories about how much money it makes.

Here's more of what Lessing wrote: "What a phenomenon it's been--- science fiction, space fiction--exploding out of nowhere, unexpectedly of course, as always happens when the human mind is forced to expand: this time starwards, galaxy-wise and who know where next. These dazzlers have mapped our world, our worlds, for us, has told us what is going on and in ways no one else has done, have described our nasty present long ago, when it was still the future and the official scientific spokesmen were saying that all manner of things now happening were impossible--who have played the indispensable and (at least at the start) thankless role of the despised illegitimate son who can afford to tell the truths the respectable siblings do not dare, or, more likely, do not notice because of their respectability."

With the metaphor of the illegitimate son, Lessing is saying that not only is space fiction an outsider genre, and those who love it are outsiders, but it is most often created by outsiders, by those who are different. And that maybe it is because they are outsiders and different that they can see things in this insightful way.

Lessing now makes another point that pertains to her own space fiction, as well as an often disregarded or misunderstood aspect of the space/science fiction of others. She writes: "They have also explored the sacred literatures of the world in the same bold way they take scientific and social possibilities to their logical conclusions so that we may examine them. How very much we do all owe them!" To this I would add that they have expanded beyond the recognized "sacred literatures" to the traditional knowledge and beliefs of Indigenous peoples, for their insights into our world, or worlds.

Earlier in this note, Lessing observes, "I do think there is something wrong with an attitude that puts a 'serious' novel on one shelf and, let's say, First and Last Men on another."

The book she means is actually titled Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, written by Olaf Stapledon, and published in 1930. A British writer, and a long-distance disciple of H.G. Wells, Stapledon is not well known except among serious science fiction aficionados. One person who did know his work was Gene Roddenberry, who read and re-read it before starting both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Last and First Men is also known as the first 'galactic empire' novel, one of the few science fiction forms H.G. Wells didn't invent. Before Asimov or Star Trek and Star Wars, there was Stapledon. Not coincidentally, Lessing's Shikasta and the other Canopus books involve galactic empires.

But this isn't even his greatest achievement--that would be Star Maker, which sci-fi novelist and chronicler Brian Aldiss called "really the one great grey holy book of science fiction." He also wrote that "This is a new--and so far unsurpassed--version of the spiritual voyage." A theme that's found in (for example) Arthur C. Clarke, George Zebrowski, and Lessing's Canopus books, and, arguably also in Star Trek.

Stapledon's novel and H.G. Wells are the only science fiction Lessing actually names in this introductory essay, and it's easy to see that there's a pretty straight line from Wells through Stapledon to Lessing's "Canopus in Argos" cycle. Again, this is a line with many branches, and one significant one is to GR and Star Trek.

Especially early in her career, Lessing was an outsider because she was a woman writer (famous for The Golden Notebook, which struck the literary world like a feminist thunderbolt, but which Lessing said just reflected what women talk about amongst themselves), and that rarity in 1978, a woman writer of "space fiction." (Though there were others, like Ursula Le Guin--surely one of the recent space fiction writers Lessing was talking about--as well as a few women in the Golden Age of sci-fi, and of course, D.C. Fontana of Trek.)

But Lessing was an outsider in other ways, which gave her other valuable perspectives: She was born of British parents in Persia (Shikasta is said to be influenced by Sufism), and after the age of five grew up in the African nation then known as Rhodesia. But her outsider fiction has become classic, and her point of view as an outsider has been vindicated. So has her championing of "space fiction."

And Patrick Stewart, who got no respect as Captain Picard but risked his acting career in anything other than science fiction by starring in TNG for seven years on TV and several more in movies, is back on the Shakespearian stage, and enjoying more success there than ever. His title role in Macbeth is receiving the kind of establishment praise previously given to Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson, or O'Toole, Burton and McKellen. At last.

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