Shikasta is what happens when an experimental writer with a bend towards the "literary" tries their hand at science fiction. The result is interesting if opaque at times. The book is made up of a series of journal entries, reports, excerpts from texts, and letters describing the evolution of the planet Shikasta (Earth, really) from the beginnings of life up until the destruction of most of the planet in WWIII. In the universe that Lessing creates, there are many higher beings in the universe, including the Canopians, who have taken charge of developing the life emerging on Shikasta up to their own advanced level, so that they can be connected to the SOWF (substance-of-we-feeling) that connects all higher beings and sustains them. Unfortunately, the Shammatians, who are Evil and revel in Chaos and Destruction, are able to infiltrate Shikasta because of an unfortunate alignment of the planets and begin draining the SOWF away from the planet. The Canopians and Shammatians spend centuries in a struggle where the Canopians can only hope to keep enough Shikastans advanced enough to be open to SOWF and pass on that openness to their children, so that when the planets resume a favorable alignment and the Shammatians are defeated the progress, Shikasta will be able to grow again.
The first part of the book shows the start of the deterioration of Shikasta and the initial efforts to preserve the Shikastans. Canopian agents are sent to Earth in the guise of Shikastans to pass on rules for the Shikastans to live by that will strengthen them against the influence of Shammat. These rules end up being the religions of the world, though the religions end up having perversions of the original rules introduced into them over time as Shammat becomes stronger.
The final crisis comes in the second part of the book, when Shammat has become so strong that it has put Shikasta on the brink of WWIII (this book was written in 1979, so the situation described is one that would have been considered a likely way for such a thing to occur) and a nuclear destruction of at least part of the planet is inevitable. The main Canopian agent to Shikasta is sent to the planet in Shikastan form again to try to save as many promising people as he can. We see the final years of Shikasta leading up to the crisis through the eyes of this agent and a few others, as well as people close to him.
The second part of the book is, to a large extent, a polemic against the current state of the world and that path that we are headed down. Lessing makes many accurate, if not distressing, observations about the hole that we have dug ourselves and how we need to work diligently to prevent the type of crisis that she sets up in the book. What is odd is that the first half of the book has set up the crisis as inevitable and the fault not of Shikastans but rather of this outside evil influence. Perhaps it is Lessing's intention to create a parable that tells us to be on guard against the evil tendencies that creep into us for whatever reason, but I felt instead that the book seemed to let Shikastans/humans off the hook by allowing the troubles of the world to be another race's fault, and giving the responsibility of cleaning up the mess to the Canopians.
Additionally, the journal/letter style that Lessing chooses, which I can enjoy a lot when well done, was too complicated in this instance. Reports were written by and for races that the reader could not understand, and the nature of the relationship between the "higher" and "lower" races had to be inferred from reports that were written as if between parties that were entirely familiar with the situation. We were never able to step back and see the situation questioned by or explained to someone who had only as much knowledge as the reader.
There were some great things that Lessing did in this book, but it felt like an experiment with what she could do with this type of book and scenario, rather than a coherent work. I give it a '0' since I didn't hate it and thought parts of it were clever.
Review written October 1999.
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