Times change. Science fiction is no longer ghettoized. Three volumes of Philip K. Dick, edited by Jonathan Lethem, have been published by The Library of America, and Store of the Worlds: The Stories of Robert Shockley, with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem and Alex Abramovich, has been published by NYRB. If they’re classics, everybody can read them. Right?
And of course brilliant writers like Doris Lessing, Gary Shtenygart, and Michael Chabon have written science fiction, so that has helped its cause.
This is my Personal SF Week–it’s been a while since I’ve read any SF or fantasy, though I have a long TBR list and certainly good intentions. I’ve chosen two titles this week, and if anyone has suggestions for a third, please leave a comment.
I am now reading Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing’s 1974 novel ,The Memoirs of a Survivor.
Perhaps best known for The Golden Notebook and The Children of Violence series, Lessing has also written science fiction classics, among them the Shikasta books (two of them adapted as an opera by Philip Glass, with a libretto by Lessing) and Mara and Dann. Reviewers sometimes prefer labels like “fable” and “speculative fiction” when they talk about Lessing, but it comes to the same thing.
In 1975, novelist Maureen Howard in The New York Times enthusiastically praised The Memoirs of a Survivor as a “fable.” In the New York Review of Books, reviewer Rosemary Dinnage rather snottily acknowledged it as science fiction, and patronizingly said that SF suited ‘the very flatfootedness of her style… ” Jane Rogers in The Guardian has called The Memoirs of a Survivor a “cozy catastrophe” in the tradition of John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids.
I very much admire Lessing’s post-apocalyptic novel of societal breakdown, narrated by an intelligent, independent middle-aged woman who confronts the problems of the demise of her city calmly. She knows that eventually she will have to leave her flat, because the city is becoming dangerous, people must scrounge and barter, and only the rich are still on the grid. Her apartment house, once solidly middle-class, is now inhabited by new lower-class families and squatters.
When I read it as a teenager, it seemed a probable future. We were threatened by nuclear holocaust (forgotten but still a very real threat), wars, urban violence, urban sprawl, environmental disasters, genetically altered food, a decline in the quality of the use of language (dumbing down), and climate change, to name a few. The best solution seemed to be to move to the country. Lessing’s narrator also thinks it would be best to go to the country: she has friends there who don’t believe in property. Although Lessing doesn’t specify the causes of the collapse, her vivid account will prepare you for the worst: shortages of food and electricity, mass annihilation in other countries, the rise of gangs of children on the streets, the unidentified illnesses, the importance of the exchange of gossip once the news by the media is no longer reliable, sewage problems and dumping, and even cannibalism. Not only is this a “memoir” of a future of regression and barbarism, but a reminder of techniques of off-the-grid survival. The future may be most difficult for those of us who remember civilization, Lessing hints.
Despite the narrator’s good judgment, anxiety invades the flat when Emily, a teenager, is dropped off by an unknown man who says that Emily is now her responsibility. The narrator is not as shocked as you might think, because families occasionally take in children from the street. But Emily, only 13, is difficult, very brittle, trying too hard too entertain, putting on the attitudes one minute of a sophisticated woman, the next of a mch younger child, desperate to get approval.
Emily has an animal, Hugo, part dog, part cat, the narrator cannot tell which, who keeps Emily from running off with a gang of kids, because gangs eat animals. (Hugo, by the way, reminds me of the kind, ugly animal Lina in George MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie.)
But soon Emily is out on the streets every night, and she has an affair with the leader of a gang, Gerald, a kind, caring man in his twenties, who envisions his group of children as living in a commune. Alas, he has an unhealthy fixation on young girls, and Emily, though a kind of mother figure and household manager, second in command to Gerald, is hysterical when he begins sleeping with her friend June. This concerns the narrator, who is especially shocked about 11-year-old June, but she cannot interfere with these liaisons because to survive, she must at least appear to accept the different mores of this new medieveal nomad society. But she does worry very much, because Emily is a kind of mother figure to the children at Gerald’s house, and it is too much responsibility for one so young; Gerald’s sleeping with Emily’s friend upsets her first love.
There are also elements of magic realism. Behind a wall in her flat the narrator is sometimes transported to another flat or house in another dimension. She knows all these rooms and houses, but does not quite know where she is. In this parallel world behind the wall, the narrator sometimes must clean or paint a room or series of rooms. She visualizes the overly responsible Emily as doomed to sweep leaves out of house as the leaves continue ceaselessly to fall. But then she also experiences a beautiful garden, with another beautiful garden of plenty beneath it. And this world seems more real than the one she lives in.
In several rooms she learns about Emily’s past. Emily in another time period is neglected, screamed at, punished for smearing shit all over herself, then told her parents’ new baby is hers, so she loves it helplessly. In turn it would seem the girl’s mother suffered the same past, and the narrator is able to comfort her, not Emily. The narrator observes how vividly in childhood one learns to be a “good girl” or a “bad girl.” Taking the initiative is hard for good girls, because they don’t want to be bad and offend someone.
Do some of these scenes refer to the narrator’s past? To what extent if at all is she Emily?
Lessing’s description of the political breakdown is very real:
Attitudes towards Authority, towards Them and They were increasingly contradictory, and we all believed that we were living in a peculiarly anarchistic community. Of course not. Everywhere was the same. But perhaps it would be better to develop this later, stopping only to remark that the use of the word ‘it’ is always a sign of crisis, of public anxiety. There is a gulf between ‘Why the hell do they have to be so incompetent!’ and ‘God, things are awful!’ just as ‘Things are awful’ is a different matter again from ‘It is starting here, too,” or ‘Have you heard any more about it?’
Is “it” here? We’re still on the grid, thank God. So far Lessing’s book is just a warning of a “cozy catastrophe”: we read the story with fascination and empathy and are glad we’ve got our computers and electric lights and air conditioners…the very thing we may pay for someday if the Age really goes dark.