When Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature last week, my first thought was: What a victory for science fiction!
In 1979, three decades after her first novel, “The Grass Is Singing,” and 17 years after the release of her landmark “The Golden Notebook,” Lessing published “Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta.” It was the first book in a five-volume outer-space fantasy, “Canopus in Argos: Archives,” that aggressively broke with naturalism.
Today, such a novel would be no big deal; literature is full of time travel, gender ambiguity and that nifty catch-all “magical realism.” But in the 1970s, mainstream fiction took pains to set itself apart -- and above -- genres like science fiction. “Shikasta” was met with jeers.
“At best, Lessing’s prose is stolid and slow and a bit flat-footed,” Gore Vidal wrote in the New York Review of Books. Writing three years later about the fourth novel in the sequence, “The Making of the Representative for Planet 8,” the New York Times’ John Leonard was blunter. “Why does Doris Lessing -- one of the half-dozen most interesting minds to have chosen to write fiction in English in this century -- insist on propagating books that confound and dismay her loyal readers? The answer: She intends to confound and dismay.”
Yet not everyone agreed.
In the 1970s and 1980s, readers with tastes like mine devoured science fiction. In Arthur C. Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” and Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” we pondered the nature of consciousness. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” and Octavia Butler’s “Dawn,” we saw the folly of gender conventions.
Science fiction was messy. It tackled big themes: What makes us human? Are we alone in the universe? Does God exist, and if so, might she be vicious? It aspired to be epic, and an epic, as midcentury novelist Marguerite Young has aptly observed, must have “a vast undertow of music and momentum and theology.”
“Shikasta” had all these things, and they contributed, I suspect, to the Nobel committee’s recognition of Lessing as an “epicist of the female experience.” The book was a reworking of the Bible -- casting the forces of good and evil as warring aliens.
The planet Shikasta, where the action took place, bore similarities to Earth. In “The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five,” the second volume in the series, Lessing used this mythic structure to revisit ground she had broken in her earlier, realistic novels: the tumultuous relationship between men and women.
When the third “Canopus” novel, “The Sirian Experiments,” came out in 1981, many critics did ease up. Lessing told its story in the dry, fussbudget voice of a female civil servant -- a voice decidedly not her own. She pulled off the difficult trick of creating an uncomprehending narrator, a chronicler who makes what’s going on apparent to the reader even when she herself does not entirely see.
“The Sirian Experiments” was nominated for the Booker Prize -- a breakthrough for science fiction. In 1986, composer Philip Glass bestowed a further high culture imprimatur when he transformed “The Making of the Representative for Planet 8" into an opera, with a libretto by Lessing; in 1997, the pair teamed up for an opera based on “The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five.”
In part, the literati have tended to dismiss science fiction because it prompts some fans to behave insanely. At Heinlein’s centennial celebration in Kansas City this summer, more than one panel of people discussed the decades they had spent in the sort of group marriages the author described in his books.
As for Lessing, “Shikasta” inspired a religious cult in America. She was incredulous, she told an interviewer, when its adherents wrote her to ask, “When are we going to be visited by the gods?” The book, she responded, is “not a cosmology. It’s an invention.” To which they replied: “Ah, you’re just testing us.”
“What I would like to be writing,” Lessing wrote in 1983, “is the story of the Red and White Dwarves and their Remembering Mirror, their space rocket (powered by anti-gravity), their attendant entities Hadron, Gluon, Pion, Lepton, and Muon, and the Charmed Quarks and the Coloured Quarks. But we can’t all be physicists.”
And yet, if we’re not all physicists, we do now live in a world where science fiction and literary culture have come together to an extent that would have once been unimaginable. Philip K. Dick -- formerly read almost exclusively by sci-fi geeks and potheads -- has become, if not a household name, at least a college-dorm one. His 1962 magnum opus, “The Man in the High Castle,” which responds imaginatively to the question, “What if Germany won World War II?” is in a very real way a precursor to Philip Roth’s 2004 alternative history novel “The Plot Against America.”
The stories of Le Guin and Butler anticipate the gender theories popular among academics in the 1980s and early 1990s -- particularly those of Judith Butler (no relation), who argued that gender is a performed identity, a set of coded behaviors that are neither innate nor linked to biological function. One is tempted to suggest that Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Middlesex” owes a debt to Le Guin and Butler. He explores terrain they pioneered: the consciousness of a character between biological genders.
Ironically, just as the male custodians of highbrow culture once sneered at the idea of Lessing writing science fiction, so too did male sci-fi authors and readers curl their upper lips at women working in their genre.
This led to one of the saddest stories in contemporary literary history, that of Alice Sheldon, a brilliant, twice-married, unhappy bisexual, who, as James Tiptree Jr., channeled much of her frustration into fictions about dangerous, impossible, unconsummated love. Twenty years after her death, Sheldon -- or Tiptree -- has finally received the mainstream recognition she deserved. Last year, Julie Phillips’ excellent biography “James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” won a National Book Critics Circle Award.
I teach writing at a university, and sometimes I envy my students. They have firsthand knowledge of Lessing’s triumph and Sheldon’s literary resurrection. They get to kvetch about postmodernist excesses, not modernist aridity. And they have no memory of 1979 -- the year “Shikasta” staggered, bloodied, into print and began, ever so slowly, to change the literary world.
M.G. Lord’s latest book is “Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science.”