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Amber Paulen

The Sirian Experiments by Doris Lessing.

Doris Lessing

The Sirian Experiments

Canopus in Argos: Archives, Book Three

In the Preface to The Sirian Experiments, Doris Lessing has written:

It has been said that everything man is capable of imagining has its counterpart somewhere else, in a different level of reality.

Doris Lessing’s science-fiction novels are less science and more fiction, more imaginative and supremely visionary. It may be possible to whittle down the two Empires of this novel to Canopus: good, Sirius: bad, to use the old dichotomy; but between these ancient galactic empires and their metaphysical representations, there is “something more” that escapes categorization, like most things in life. While reading The Sirian Experiments one is allowed to see where definitions blur and where the clear-cut fades; allowed to follow one writer’s questions along spectrums of possibility into an equally viable “level of reality.”

Doris Lessing questions the ingrown belief that we are independents, functioning on an independent planet, alone and independent. It is not so much the question of life “out there” but the probability that we and our thoughts are the result of a tumult of universal Forces. Ultimately, we are always repeating the same story: odd behavior for such independents!

Ambien II of the Five, the Sirian who is the whole voice of the novel, is professional and efficient. Through all of her immortal life she never let the personal or the emotional cloud what she had to do. She reminded me of certain women beaurocrats shown on TV, with their suits of skirt, jacket and matching high heels: very warily do their faces guard the personal.

Ambien II is not so different—at least in the beginning—from the average Sirian, but for her high ruling position. The experiments, run under her care and the others of the Five, were focused on genetic modifications and were told of with distant professionalism, with the general disregard reserved for all “lower” species. Poor Lombis! moved back and forth, displaced and re-placed, to be displaced again. The other objective of the experiments was to give the Sirians something to do, without which they would have suffered eternal boredom in a purposeless universe.

Canopus, on the other hand, never suffered for lack of things to do nor reasons to do them. All done according to Need. What Need was exactly is never explained. It doesn’t have to be. By their adherence to Need I can’t help but to correlate Canopus to an eastern mysticism. The Canopeans do not ask questions of purpose or function— “existential questions,” as Sirius called them—they never had to.

But Ambien II wants to know: “What is the function of Canopus? What are you?” Her contacts with the Canopean emissaries, Klorathy and his various incarnations, her experiences on Rohanda (or Shikasta), her observations of herself and the slow, slow changes, eventually showed her the unanswerable questions within herself. Slowly, slowly she realized that her purpose was mixed up Canopus’, she too functioned by the undefinable Need.

This long path of realization was studded with miscommunication. These gaps in understanding, between what Canopus said and what Sirius (Ambien II) heard, were comical at times; most times Canopus didn’t even respond but remained silent and waited until Sirius figured it out, sometimes many R-years later. Like two people trying to speak to each other in different languages and without the use of gestures. Like a teenager trying desperately to comprehend certain parts of life, like sex, far before her time. Ambien II could not understand what Canopus meant by Need or Necessity until her experiences were wider, until she was ready.

Facts, the more experienced one became, were always to be understood, garnered, taken in, with that part of oneself most deeply involved with processes, with life as it worked its way out. Facts were not best as understood formulas or summings up, but through this inward groping and recognition.

This kind of miscommunication, when something is said but not heard, must happen more likely than we would like to admit. Though we, inhabitants of this planet, are not from separate galaxies, we may as well be. To speak of one’s experience, to call it Sirian or Canopean or feminist or European or African or republican or liberal is to willfully block out the most complicated parts, pieces unseen and universal, the parts that blur and cross-over and apply to us all. Once we drop the categories of thought we are able to see as if with new eyes, heaps of similarities, we have so much in common.

The questions: Who am I? What is my purpose? are concerns to each one of us. The answers, the facts, can not be understood by looking straight at these blinding questions. To ask the wrong question is to miss the answer, usually right under one’s nose. With the broadest question in the back of one’s mind, like a taste left over from dinner, one will notice, through a rather round-about way, the answer will become increasingly apparent.

What bothered Ambien II the most in her conversations or dealings with Canopus was that she felt she was right on the edge of discovering the wiser empire’s secrets. Through her impatience, the cropping up of the age-old questions, she lost the progress she had made. Ambien II felt as if Canopus was purposefully holding back from her Need and Necessity’s explanation, as if Klorathy went right up to the point of when everything would become crystal clear and then left it. Until eventually, she saw it was all there in herself. She saw that she had grown away from her fellow Sirians, she had changed. Canopus had been a presence within her always.

It is Doris Lessing’s imaginative understanding of the world that keeps me coming back to the Canopus in Argos: Archives series. As the quote at the top of the page says every poignant observation, when written imaginatively, creates a truth. Only through such books as The Sirian Experiments can we really step back and look at ourselves objectively, like outsiders, under an array of influences, unsure and fumbling.


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