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by Doris Lessing

Pub Date: Feb. 17th, 1981
ISBN: 0006547184
Publisher: Knopf

The fourth novel in Lessing's Canopus in Argus series is the shortest, the simplest, and (though frequently given over to long, lyric/philosophical monologues) the most fable-like. The narrator is Doeg, a "Representative" on Planet 8 who recalls "the times of The Ice"--when the beautiful, temperate little planet (a colony of Canopus) slowly began to freeze to death. Half the planet soon becomes an icy wasteland; the other half, protected by a great black wall, which has been built according to orders from Canopean agent Johor (cf. Shikasta), suffers more gradually. And Joher promises that the people of Planet 8 will eventually be "spacelifted" to paradisical planet Rohanda. So Doeg and the other Representatives labor to keep their weakening, greying people going until salvation comes: there's a harrowing journey to the cold side in search of food sources (the people have had to switch to an all-meat diet); a sacred lake is reluctantly violated--also in search of food; the Representatives go house to house, urging the people to resist torpor, to refrain from crime (which is escalating). But then Johor arrives with the worst of news: there will be no mass spacelift to Rohanda; though the Representatives may be rescued, millions will simply be left to die with the planet. And so--while the lake freezes, the black wall crumbles, and the icy apocalypse approaches--Johor, Doeg, and the other Representatives engage in a colloquy on the nature of existence: the relationship of the individual to all humanity; the elusive, perhaps illusory essence of "meness"; the place of a single life or memory in the endless universe, of a single thought in "this system of fine and finer" particles. None of these ruminations is particularly fresh, of course--and the longwinded exchanges sometimes become droningly static. But often here, with near-Biblical rhythms and imagery (and a spiritual-transfiguration finale), Lessing achieves the sort of primal resonances which weren't possible in the more intricately sociological Canopus books. And this time the ambivalent symbolism--again paternal, hapless Canopus seems to represent both empire-building Britain and God--is more provocative than confusing. (To get really confused, however, read Lessing's afterword--which explains the connections between the last two Canopus novels and Scott's Antarctic expeditions.) So: perhaps the least ambitious or demanding of Lessing's visionary parables--but one with moments of great, dirge-like, roughly poetic power.