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The sirian experiments, p.1
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       The Sirian Experiments, p.1

           Doris Lessing
The Sirian Experiments





  The Report by Ambien II,

  of the Five



  Title Page



























  By the same author

  Read On

  The Grass is Singing

  The Golden Notebook

  The Good Terrorist

  Love, Again

  The Fifth Child


  About the Publisher

  The Sirian Experiments is the third in a series of novels with the overall title ‘Canopus in Argos: Archives’; the first is Shikasta (1979); the second The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980); the fourth The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982); and the fifth The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983).


  The reception of Shikasta and, to a lesser extent, of The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five suggests that I should say something in the way of clarification … if I have created a cosmology, then it is only for literary purposes! Once upon a time, when I was young, I believed things easily, both religious and political; now I believe less and less. But I wonder about more … I think it is likely that our view of ourselves as a species on this planet now is inaccurate, and will strike those who come after us as inadequate as the world view of, let’s say, the inhabitants of New Guinea seems to us. That our current view of ourselves as a species is wrong. That we know very little about what is going on. That a great deal of what is going on is not told to ordinary citizens, but remains the property of small castes and juntas. I wonder and I speculate about all kinds of ideas that our education deems absurd – as of course do most of the inhabitants of this globe. If I were a physicist there would be no trouble at all! They can talk nonchalantly about black holes swallowing stars, black holes that we might learn to use as mechanisms for achieving time-and-space warps, sliding through them by way of mathematical legerdemain to find ourselves in realms where the laws of our universe do not apply. They nonchalantly suggest parallel universes, universes that lie intermeshed with ours but invisible to us, universes where time runs backwards, or that mirror ours.

  I do not think it is surprising that the most frequently quoted words at this time, seen everywhere, seem to be J. B. S. Haldane’s ‘Now, my suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.’

  The reason, as we all know, why readers yearn to ‘believe’ cosmologies and tidy systems of thought is that we live in dreadful and marvellous times where the certainties of yesterday dissolve as we live. But I don’t want to be judged as adding to a confusion of embattled certainties.

  Why is it that writers, who by definition operate by the use of their imaginations, are given so little credit for it? We ‘make things up’. This is our trade.

  I remember, before I myself attempted this genre of space fiction, reading an agreeable tale about a species of highly intelligent giraffes who travelled by spaceship from their solar system to ours, to ask if our sun was behaving cruelly to us, as theirs had recently taken to doing to them. I remember saying to myself: Well, at least the writer of this tale is not likely to get industrious letters asking what it is like to be a giraffe in a spaceship.

  It has been said that everything man is capable of imagining has its counterpart somewhere else, in a different level of reality. All our literatures, the sacred books, myths, legends – the records of the human race – tell of great struggles between good and evil. This struggle is reflected down to the level of the detective story, the Western, the romantic novel. It would be hard to find a tale or a song or a play that does not reflect this battle.

  But, what battle? Where? When? Between what Forces?

  No, no, I do not ‘believe’ that there is a planet called Shammat full of low-grade space pirates, and that it sucks substance from this poor planet of ours; nor that we are the scene of conflicts between those great empires Canopus and Sirius.

  But could it not be an indication of something or other that Canopus and Sirius have played such a part in ancient cosmologies?

  What do our ideas of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ reflect?

  I would not be at all surprised to find out that this earth had been used for the purposes of experiment by more advanced creatures … that the dimensions of buildings affect us in ways we don’t guess and that there might have been a science in the past which we have forgotten … that we may be enslaved in ways we know nothing about, befriended in ways we know nothing about … that our personal feelings about our situation in time, seldom in accordance with fact, so that we are always taken by surprise by ‘ageing’, may be an indication of a different lifespan, in the past – but that this past, in biological terms, is quite recent, and so we have not come to terms with it psychologically … that artefacts of all kinds might have had (perhaps do have) functions we do not suspect … that the human race has a future planned for it more glorious than we can now imagine … that …

  I do not ‘believe’ that there are aliens on our moon – but why not?

  As for UFOs, we may hardly disbelieve in what is so plentifully vouched for by so many sound, responsible, sensible people, scientific and secular.

  As for …

  In this particular book I have created a female bureaucrat who is dry, just, dutiful, efficient, deluded about her own nature. A skilled administrator, she is; a social scientist. I could like Ambien II better than I do. Some of her preoccupations are of course mine. The chief one is the nature of the group mind, the collective minds we are all part of, though we are seldom prepared to acknowledge this. We see ourselves as autonomous creatures, our minds our own, our beliefs freely chosen, our ideas individual and unique … with billions and billions and billions of us on this planet, we are still prepared to believe that each of us is unique, or that if all the others are mere dots in a swarm, then at least I am this self-determined thing, my mind my own. Very odd this is, and it seems to me odder and odder. How do we get this notion of ourselves?

  It seems to me that ideas must flow through humanity like tides.

  Where do they come from?

  I would so like it if reviewers and readers could see this series, Canopus in Argos: Archives, as a framework that enables me to tell (I hope) a beguiling tale or two; to put questions, both to myself and to others; to explore ideas and sociological possibilities.

  What of course I would like to be writing is the story of the Red and White Dwarves and their Remembering Mirror, their space rocket (powered by anti-gravity), their attendant entities Hadron, Gluon, Pion, Lep
ton, and Muon, and the Charmed Quarks and the Coloured Quarks.

  But we can’t all be physicists.


  This is Ambien II, of the Five.

  I have undertaken to write an account of our experiments on Rohanda, known to Canopus in this epoch as Shikasta.

  I shall employ the time divisions commonly used, and agreed on between ourselves and Canopus. (1) The period up to the first burst of radiation from Andar. (2) That between the first and second bursts of radiation – again from Andar. (3) From the second irradiation to the failure of the Canopus-Rohanda Lock, known as the Catastrophe. This third period is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age. (4) The period of subsequent decline. This account of mine will deal mainly with (4).

  I shall not do more than mention the experiments before the first radiation, which are fully documented under Lower Zoology. During (1) Rohanda was damp, marshy, warm, with shallow seas hardly to be distinguished from swamp, and deep oceans kept turbid by volcanic activity. There was a little dry land. On this were a few land animals, but there were numerous varieties of water lizards, and many fishes. Some of these were unknown on other Colonized Planets, and on our Mother Planet, and we made successful transfers of several species. We also introduced on to Rohanda species from elsewhere, to see what would happen to them. All our experiments during (1) were modest, and did not differ from similar experiments in other parts of our Empire.

  (2) The first burst of radiation from Andar was not expected. Both Canopus and ourselves were taken by surprise. We had kept a watch on the planet ever since the war between us that ended our hostilities. Because of the new situation we boosted our surveillance. The irradiation had the effect of abolishing some genera overnight, and of speeding evolution. The planet remained wet, swampy, steamy, cloudy, with the slow enervating airs that accompany these conditions. Yet new genera and species seemed to explode into life and existing ones rapidly changed. Within no more than a million R-years there were not only many varieties of fish and reptile, but there were species that flew, and insects – both of these formerly unknown. The place teemed with life. It also soon became clear we were to expect a period of the gigantic. The lizards in particular showed this trend: there were many kinds of them, and some were a hundred times, and even more, their former size. The vegetation became huge and rank. Land and water were both infested with enormous animals of all kinds.

  Throughout these times Canopus and ourselves conferred, when it seemed to either or both that this was necessary. Sometimes we, and sometimes Canopus, initiated discussions.

  We always supplied Canopus with reports on our proceedings on the planet, but they did not at that time show much interest. This very important point will be gone into later. Canopus supplied us with reports, but we did not put much effort into studying them. Again, I emphasize that this is an important point, as will later become plain.

  Canopus maintained a monitoring station during (2). We did initiate some experiments in various places over Rohanda, but these were mostly to do with sudden, not to say violent, growth; and since the planet itself was so generously supplying us with observation materials, we did not intrude ourselves very much. It was not a popular place with any of our scientists. Our Planet 13 once had a similar swampy and miasmic climate, and we already had considerable data.

  For something like two hundred million R-years this state of affairs continued. Just as the previous, pre-irradiation characteristics seemed to be stable, if not permanent, so, now, did it seem that this watery pestilential place full of gigantic and savage animals would remain as it was. There then occurred, and again unexpectedly, the second burst of radiation.

  The effects were again dramatic.

  There was every kind of cataclysm and upheaval. Land sank beneath the water and became ocean bed; new land appeared from the seas, and for the first time there was high terrain and even mountains. Volcanic activity had never been absent, since the crust covering the still molten core was so thin, but now land and water were continuously convulsed. The mantle of cloud that had sometimes kept the whole planet in warm gloom for weeks at a time was rent tumultuously with storms and winds.

  All the large species were destroyed. The great lizards were no more to be seen, and the forests of giant ferns were laid flat by the violent winds and rain.

  There was a sudden cooling. When the convulsions lessened, and ceased, the planet was left transformed. In a very short time, much of the water was massed around the poles in the form of ice and snow. Some swampy areas remained but now earth and oceans were separated, and there were areas of dry land. That was of course long before the planet’s axis had been knocked out of the vertical: before the ‘seasons’ that contributed so much to its instability. The poles were cold. The area around the middle was hot. In between were zones of predictable and steadily temperate climate.

  This was period (3), from which both Canopus and ourselves hoped so much, when conditions were as perfect as can be expected on any planet – and which was to last rather less than twenty thousand R-years.

  It was at the very beginning of this new period (3) that Canopus invited us to a joint Conference.

  This Conference was held, not on our Mother Planet, nor on theirs, but on their Colony 10, convenient for us both.

  The mood of the Conference was one of confidence and optimism.

  This is the place, I think, to say more about our relations with our eminent friend and rival.

  I shall begin with this statement: that Canopus pioneered certain sciences, and in the opinion at least of some is still far ahead of us.

  In my view the duty of a historian is to tell the truth as far as possible … no, this remark is not meant as provocation, though in the prevailing climate of opinion everywhere through our Empire, there are many who will see it as such.

  For far too long our historians refused to accept the simple truth, that Canopus was the first to explore and develop the skills associated with what we all now call Forced Evolution. (I do not propose to enter here into discussion with those – I am afraid still quite numerous – people who believe that nature ought to be left to itself.) It was Canopus who began to look at species – or whole planets – from the point of view of how their evolution could be modified, or hastened. We learned this from them. That is the truth. We were pupils in their school. Willing – and not unworthy – pupils; willing and generous teachers.

  That is why, when it came to sharing out Rohanda between us, we got the less attractive share. This was what fitted our position in relation to Canopus.

  The critical reader will already be asking: Why this praise of Canopus when as we all know the story of Rohanda was one – to put it baldly – of disaster?

  If Canopus was at fault, then so were we, Sirius. At that Conference on their Planet 10, we all assumed that if Rohanda had – to our certain knowledge – experienced very long periods of stability, two of them, both lasting many millions of R-years, then we might safely expect that this new period would similarly last millions of years. Why should we not? There are factors, which we all agree to call ‘cosmic’, over which we have no control, and which may not be foreseen. All evolutionary engineering is subject to these chances. If we did not permit ourselves to begin any development on a newly discovered planet, or one that has become suitable for development and use, because of the threat of cosmic alteration or disaster, then nothing at all would ever be achieved.

  Canopus, like ourselves, has experienced disappointment – and worse – in their career as colonizers. Rohanda was not the only failure. I am calling it a failure, though I know they do not – but it is no secret that I have been generally known throughout my career as belonging to that body of opinion that finds Canopus sentimental. Sometimes to the point of folly. What else can we call attitudes that are often uneconomic, counter-productive, wasteful of administrative effort?

  What else? Well, I have learned that there are different ways of looking at things; thou
gh I do not yet share these viewpoints. That is, I hope, for the future … meanwhile, I am saying that judged from the immediate and practical view, Rohanda was not only a failure but perhaps their worst; and yet this was not at all or in any way their fault. And why should some of us be so ready to ascribe blame to Canopus, when we were, equally with her, ready to use Rohanda for as long as was possible – for millions of R-years, as we then thought was likely to be the case?

  The disposition of the land and seas was roughly, very roughly, the same as it is now. There is a central mass of land fringed with promontories, peninsulas, islands. Around it is a vast ocean, with many islands, some of them large. There are two continents, separated from the main landmass, and joined by an isthmus which has sometimes been submerged, and these are now referred to as the Isolated Northern Continent and the Isolated Southern Continent. Between the central landmass and the Isolated Northern Continent, looking west with their north pole at North, have been at various times, according to the rise and fall of the ocean levels, many islands, one of them at least enormous. But sometimes there has been only an almost islandless ocean.

  Projecting southwards from the central landmass, of which its northern areas form a part is another southern continent, now called Southern Continent I. (The Isolated Southern Continent is Southern Continent II.) Southern Continent I has sometimes been considered by geographers as part of the main landmass, since its northern parts have been so influenced by the easy migrations and movements to and from every part of the main landmass. But the southern parts have on the whole had such a different history that they are more usually classed as a different and separate continent. We, Sirius, were allotted in the share-out of Rohanda the two southern continents, including the northern areas of S.C. I, and any islands large and small lying in the oceans that we felt inclined to make use of.

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