Doris Lessing, who died today aged 94, wasn't just a Nobel Prize-winning literary author — she was also a major hero of science fiction. She was one of the first authors with mainstream acclaim to embrace, and her fiction is worth more than a hundred writing workshops, for aspiring SF authors.
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Seriously, if you want to write science fiction or fantasy, and you're interested in learning how to capture the difficult niggly bits of people's inner lives and their interactions with other people — then you absolutely must read Lessing, both her science fiction and her other stuff. We talk a lot about the importance of worldbuilding in making readers believe in the setting of your story — and Lessing was a master of drawing you into a world and making it feel urgent and real.
Lessing's writing meant a ton to me, personally — I read her 1962 classic The Golden Notebook for a class when I was 18, and its trippy, intense take on subjects ranging from body-image anxiety to weird social interactions made a huge impression. The Golden Notebook is an astonishingly beautiful book, but it's also intensely strange and jarring — Lessing takes the "novel of self-discovery" subgenre and twists it into strange, fascinating shapes.
Over the years that followed, though, I discovered that Lessing's work went in much stranger and more challenging directions. Her masterpiece is the Martha Quest cycle, a series of five novels that start out autobiographical, following Lessing's upbringing in colonial Africa and her involvement in Marxist politics as well as her emigration to the United Kingdom. At some point in the fourth book, though, Lessing's story becomes more surreal and off-kilter, and soon enough her characters are developing psychic powers, and the story moves past the present into the near-future. I can't even imagine how that might have looked to someone who was reading these apparently "realistic" novels as they were being published — suddenly, there's telepathy and other futuristic weirdness, after a few thousand pages of relative normality.
In general, though, Lessing was a master of combining characters with rich inner lives with a general hint of strangeness in the world around them. My favorite novel of hers is not science fiction, but should be required reading for science fiction authors — The Good Terrorist is a book that does just what it says on the tin, tell the story of someone who wants to join the Irish Republican Army in the 1980s, and (like many of Lessing's characters) starts out naïve and slowly becomes disillusioned. Since 9/11, there have been loads and loads of clumsy, pin-headed attempts to understand or explain the psychology of terrorism, but Lessing's novel remains the best thing I've read on the topic.
She also wrote some other works of straight-up genre fiction, including the insane Briefing for a Descent into Hell, about a mental patient who's had some strange journeys. And the massive series Canopus in Argos: Archives, about which Graham Sleight wrote in Locus a few years ago:
If nothing else, they display a full knowledge with the possibilities of the genre, including very visible influences from people like Clarke, Stapledon, and Le Guin. ... [These books are] all told smoothly and skilfully, with a keen sense of pacing; despite the formalities of the found documents, the authors' intensity of feeling often burns through. When we say, as we often do inside our community, that SF is a literature of ideas, these are the kind of books we should be pointing to.
One theme that comes through in Lessing's work again and again is the notion of madness and society — in the later Martha Quest novels, she explores the idea that only the insane can actually see what's really happening in the unraveling world. And of course, the people who develop psychic powers are institutionalized and pathologized by a world that doesn't understand them.
In The Golden Notebook, she displays a preoccupation with the work of psychologist R.D. Laing, and in particular Laing's notion that people who are playing vastly different roles in different areas of life risk having a "divided self" that could lead to a fragmented psyche. (For example, if you're a wife, mother, coworker, boss, athlete and a few other things, you might find yourself splitting into vastly divergent personae.)
Talking to the Paris Review in 1988, Lessing said:
I like to think that if someone's read a book of mine, they've had — I don't know what — the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps. That's what I think writers are for. This is what our function is. We spend all our time thinking about how things work, why things happen, which means that we are more sensitive to what's going on.
Lessing was very comfortable being identified with science fiction, and was a guest of the 1987 Worldcon. She told the Paris Review (via Biology in Science Fiction):
I've just read a book by the Solaris bloke, Stanislav Lem. Now that's real classic science fiction . . . full of scientific ideas. Half of it, of course, is wasted on me because I don't understand it. But what I do understand is fascinating. I've met quite a lot of young people—some not so young either, if it comes to that—who say "I'm very sorry, but I've got no time for realism" and I say "My God! But look at what you're missing! This is prejudice." But they don't want to know about it. And I'm always meeting usually middle-aged people who say, "I'm very sorry. I can't read your non-realistic writing." I think it's a great pity. This is why I'm pleased about being guest of honor at [the World Science Fiction Convention, in Brighton] , because it does show a breaking down [of compartmentalization of SF and non-SF].
Lessing always seemed to have an ambivalent relationship with her own fame. She notoriously submitted one of her novels to her own publisher under a pseudonym, to see if she would get rejected if she were a new author. When she won the Nobel Prize, she basically cussed out the reporters outside her house and told them: "I'm 88 years old and they can't give the Nobel to someone who's dead, so I think they were probably thinking they'd probably better give it to me now before I've popped off." Just watch the video below, in which she tells a journalist, "You tell me what to say, and I'll say it":
Doris Lessing's novels are a life-changing experience, and she was one of the all-time great writers to tackle human failings, our propensity for brilliant madness, and the politics of the personal. Anybody who cares about great storytelling, and who harbors any aspirations of writing science fiction or fantasy about real people in strange settings, absolutely must read her work.