Saturday, November 03, 2007

Sufi science fiction goes to Stockholm

It happens rarely that an author of science fiction goes on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. One may perhaps argue that Saramago's "Blindness" comes close to something one might call that way (at least if one thinks of it as being an upscale version of Wyndham's "Day of the Triffids"), but no, nobody would go as far as to think of Saramago - or any other of the long list of Nobel Laureates since 1901 - as a writer of science fiction.

With one exception, this year's laureate. Doris Lessing, for a good part of her long career as fiction writer, wrote what is with no doubt, and by her own description, science fiction. So much for the general lamentation that Western science fiction never attracted any writers of notice.

Even more interestingly, the type of science fiction she wrote in the famous "Canopus in Argos" cycle of five novels is of a very unusual type, which gives us a unique example of what one might want to call Sufi science fiction.

Canopus is a super-civilization, which has much in common with the Progressors and the Wanderers of the Strugatsky science fiction, that I discussed repeatedly before. Canopus builds planets and breeds civilizations, experimenting with their growth and development. Experiments sometime turn awry. In "The making of the representative of planet 8" (fourth novel of the cycle), the Sufi path towards transcendence becomes the predominant theme of the narrative. One of the civilizations constructed by Canopus suffers a climatic catastrophe that plunges their planet into an increasingly severe Ice Age. Canopus promise of lifting the afflicted population to safety on another planet does not materialize. The ice advances and engulfs cities, crops die out, animals go extinct. The population goes wild in despair then gives in to progressive inactivity and depression. Everything sinks in cold silence. The emissary of Canopus observes without acting. Into the frozen landscape a consciousness slowly emerges and a long path towards transcendence begins. The lifting off the frozen world happens in a way much different from the deus ex machina of Canopian starships the inhabitants had initially expected. Now where is the science in this science fiction? Well, as it happens, in the story it is the scientific view of the world passed on by Canopus to the inhabitants of Planet 8, the instruments that allowed them to discover the world of the quantum and the fine structure of matter, as well as their acquired knowledge of their role in the scenario of vast cosmic civilizations, that initiates the inhabitants of the freezing planet on their path towards self discovery and ultimately transcendence. There is an visible attempt at a merging of cultures and systems of thoughts, between the mid set of science and Sufi philosophy. Of course, Lessing is not the only author who, in the 70s or 80s attempted to investigate possible confluences between some forms of Eastern philosophy and Western science, but her specific choice of Sufism and the subtle and implicit way in which the blending is proposed, single this attempt out from the more general trend.

Doris Lessing encountered Sufism by a reading, in 1964, of the then newly published book of Idries Shah, "The Sufis". This lead to an encounter and a long lasting friendship, in the course of which Shah also became Lessing's teacher of Sufi wisdom.

I also had an encounter with Idries Shah's book on Sufism, which I bought during a short visit to Istanbul last year and read shortly afterwards. It was not my first encounter with Sufism, however. I've been familiar for a much longer time with another very interesting book, "The sense of unity: the Sufi tradition in Persian architecture" by Nader Ardalan and Laleh Bakhtiar. I also had some fortunate live encounters with Sufism in Tehran. Much as I am not keen on religion and mysticism in general, I am intrigued by the influence of the Sufi vision of the cosmos on the structure of Persian architecture, as described so vividly in "The Sense of Unity". The Friday mosque of Isfahan exhales Sufi mysticism from each and every stone, the geometry of its decorations, the disposition of the buildings around the courtyard, the intense dialog of light and shadow. Even the most rationally minded among us can enjoy the pleasure of such cleverness and beauty, the intricate display of philosophy through a skillful game of masonry.

Born in Iran (then Persia), grown up in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), with a strong formation as a successful "mainstream" writer, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that Lessing's approach to science fiction is much closer in spirit and in narrative style to some currents of Eastern European science fiction than to anything rooted in the Anglo-American sci-fi tradition. Additionally, she is in my opinion the only author who succeeded without reservation in blending a genre, science fiction, which is deeply rooted in the Western scientific-technological society, with an important current of non-Western philosophy, the Islamic tradition of Sufism. More such experiments should be carried out in a literary genre that is traditionally flexible and perfectly suitable, almost by its very conception, to sweeping experimental innovations.