Contents Index

The Paradigm of Frankenstein: Reading Canopus in Argos in the Context of Science Fiction by Women

Robin Roberts

Extrapolation, 26:1 (1985), 16-23

{16} Although Lessing critics tend to discuss her conversion from realism to science fiction in vacuo, Doris Lessing is not the only notable female writer to turn to science fiction. Female writers are transforming the genre; in their hands, the male-dominated and sexist club of science fiction becomes a powerful feminist tool. Readers who think Lessing has abandoned feminism because she has turned to science fiction need to take a closer look at Canopus in Argos and at the new climate in science fiction. Female science fiction writers are receiving a disproportionate number of the genre's awards, the Hugo and the Nebula.1 More importantly, female writers including Lessing are raising the genre's literary standards and opening science fiction to new readers, both male and female.2

Instead of betraying feminism, Doris Lessing and other female writers are providing the new literature feminist critics ask for. Feminist science fiction is that "step forward, an adventure, an exploration of woman's powers" for which French feminist critic Hélène Cixous has called.3 Canopus in Argos does, as Cixous says the feminine text must, start "on all sides at once" (p. 53). Rachel DuPlessis stresses in her article on feminist science fiction as apologue that the panoramic scope of the series, particularly Lessing's simultaneous revision of history and future are "acts of authority, ways of trying to reconceive the world."4 Olaf Stapledon may have provided Lessing with a model, but revising the past as well as the future enables Lessing to transcend Stapledon's androcentric model. As Betsy Draine notes, Canopus is "an extension [emphasis mine] of Stapledon's novel."5 Lessing and other female science fiction writers are revolutionizing the genre: rewriting the mythology of the modern world and at the same time approaching Cixous' theoretical "feminine text." Only feminist science fiction offers the radical possibilities Cixous envisions.6

{17} Mary Shelley's Frankenstein provides the model for the feminist revisions of the genre. In their science fiction, female science fiction writers are realizing the feminist potential of Shelley's codedly female novel. In calling the novel "codedly female," I refer to the process by which an author forced by cultural, literary, or personal constraints, uses a male character as a cover for a singularly female dilemma.7 Refocusing their lenses on male characters enables feminist critics to reread texts with a sharper eye for their feminist import. This revision shows that Frankenstein is not only about the dangers of science, but also about the dangers of excluding women from science.

The paradigm of Frankenstein contains four elements: first, the setting of ice and snow, connected with the Demeter myth; second, the conjunction of magic and science; third, the transformation of explorer/scientist to writer/storyteller; and finally, the depiction of woman as alien. This paradigm shapes feminist science fiction; the four elements compose the patterns of feminist subversion of the genre. Lessing and other female writers make Frankenstein's feminist concerns explicit and create powerful alternatives to the androcentric myths that have shaped literature.

Like Demeter's, Frankenstein's anguish at being separated from his creation and the creation's sorrow are reflected in the winter landscape which pervades the book. The Arctic frames the narrative; the turning point, wherein the monster asks for a mate and Frankenstein begins to create her, occurs in the snow and ice of the Alps. The Arctic perfectly reflects the sundering of their relationship, as Winter represents Demeter's anguish at being separated from Persephone. Lessing and other feminist writers also use snow and ice imagery to evoke the Demeter myth, and their references to Demeter are direct and revisionary. In fact, these contemporary female writers depict more successful Frankensteins -- metaphorical mothers who do not abandon their offspring. They also use settings of ice and snow to show the isolation of women from traditional forms of science and science fiction. The winter landscapes reflect the writers' anger and their characters' anger at being excluded from science and science fiction. Within these settings, however, female writers depict powerful female characters overcoming their isolation. They make the connection of magic and motherhood with alternative science explicit and depict female power that transcends the hardware of traditional science fiction.

Feminist science fiction writers valorize female power by developing the legacy of that alternative science, a magic associated with female powers such as reproduction, which is implicit in Frankenstein. The sources of Frankenstein's inspiration are the alchemists, practitioners of magic.8 His study of and enthusiasm for alchemists, despite his father's and other scientists' disparaging remarks, result in his act of creation, which usurps female powers of reproduction. Witchlike, Frankenstein works in secret; he fears the ridicule of scientists at the university, and hopes to transcend the limitations of the scien- {18} tific method. Like the female prophets in Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and Lessing's The Four-Gated City, Frankenstein constantly worries that he will be jailed and ostracized as insane if he announces his discovery. He therefore sacrifices Justine rather than expose himself to imprisonment and ridicule. In contemporary science fiction, alternate science becomes a tool female writers embrace. For example, Lessing, Piercy, Vonda McIntyre, Octavia Butler, and Joan D. Vinge use telepathy, precognition, levitation, and parthenogenesis to depict powerful female characters. Their characters also face ridicule, dismissal, and jailing, but persist anyway. Alternate science becomes a real alternative in these writers' universe. They realize the potential of Frankenstein's sources and tell the murdered female monster's story.9

Frankenstein also serves as a warning about the dangers of male dominance in science. Frankenstein dies as a result of his usurpation and abuse of female powers, and Walton's expedition fails disastrously. His men abandon him, and Walton is left with Frankenstein's moral "Learn from me . . . how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge."10 Except for Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, most critics have ignored the narrator of Frankenstein. This neglect is a mistake, for Walton's conversion is central to the plot. As the novel opens, Walton is only a machismo explorer, hoping to "tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man" (p. 15). But, by the end of his narrative, he converts from explorer/scientist to writer/storyteller, significantly, a writer for a female audience, his sister. The explicit address to a female audience supports the coded feminist reading of Frankenstein. Lessing and other female writers retain and revitalize the conversion dramatized through journals and letters, forms traditionally used by female writers.

Through art in feminist science fiction, alternate science is more successful. For example, Lessing's people of Planet 8 survive through the representative of their race who becomes a writer/storyteller. This writer's memory contains the "many and one"11 who live with Canopus. Canopus, the people's Demeter, does save them.

Lessing and others use science fiction to vindicate female prophecy and powers. Feminist writers embrace the figure of the female alien; their works contain an updating and enhancing of the power of witches, a revision Lessing makes explicit in The Sentimental Agents. The burning and torturing of witches epitomizes the false logic of Shammat, who condemned the women "according to the criteria (verbal formulae) arbitrarily established by a male religious ruling class."12 In feminist science fiction, female characters assert powers differently than characters do in science fiction by men. While Robert Heinlein makes heroes of engineers and Arthur C. Clarke depicts scientific quest heroes, through the figure of the female alien, feminist writers glorify powers long associated with women. They draw on and develop the legacy of Frankenstein: the source of his inspiration, magic. Although Shelley's {19} Frankenstein feared proclaiming his advances and tried to avoid being labeled insane, female writers depict Cassandras, who glory in magical power, precognition, and second sight. Feminist science fiction contains the vindication of Cassandras. Lessing's own The Four-Gated City vindicates Lynda Coldridge, who is named a "nothing-but Cassandra" by her nephew.13 Coldridge converts Martha Quest, passing on her witchlike power of telepathy. Telepathy becomes the new standard of humanity after the apocalypse that concludes the novel. In Shikasta, Lessing even mentions that Lynda Coldridge is an agent of Canopus, emphasizing the importance of women to the Canopean Empire. Coldridge persists and is ultimately justified by the future.14 Unlike Frankenstein, female science fiction writers do not hesitate to prophesy and use their powers.

Feminist science fiction takes the implicit moral of Shelley's Frankenstein and makes coded allegiance to female power explicit. Like Cixous, female science fiction writers are rewriting the Medusa, telling the story of Frankenstein's murdered female monster. Female characters now occupy the center rather than the margins of the text. 15 Significantly in Canopus in Argos, a prominent symptom of Rohanda's degeneration is female loss of status. The position of outsider enables women to see the advantages of alternative science more easily. On Lessing's Voleyenadna, for example, the male rebels treat women as sex objects, but it is a woman (with children) who saves the planet by listening to and accepting Klorathy's offer of a regenerating plant food. Feminist writers develop the trope of motherhood positively; they show the force and power of reproduction, through new forms, especially parthenogenesis. The monster's bride is no longer fearsome or loathsome, but an empowering image.

Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos may justly be called the most ambitious work of feminist science fiction. In style and scope Canopus is sophisticated; Lessing stretches and manipulates the standard tropes of science fiction. The five volume series contains an origin myth and three galactic empires: Canopus, Sirius, and Puttoria. Sirian science is that of conventional male science fiction; Sirians use spaceships for travel and focus their energy on colonization and developing technology. In contrast, Canopus chooses to develop mental sciences: its people can see the future, use telepathy, and travel through space via the powers of their minds. Sirius advocates the technology developed by men, the university professors of Frankenstein, while Canopus, with its emphasis on magical powers and its many female representatives, asserts an alternative science, the legacy of the alchemists in Frankenstein. Puttoria represents pure evil and bestiality; its representatives scurry furtively around the universe.

Sirius and Canopus both play Demeter to Rohanda, our Earth. Sirius tries conventional science, while Canopus plies magic. Puttoria is the underworld that tricks and corrupts Rohanda into Shikasta. As this happens, seasons ap- {20} pear on the Earth: Lessing rewrites the Demeter myth in a universe-wide science fiction context. Sirius attempts to play Demeter to Rohanda, but Canopus is her true Mother and Demeter to many other worlds as well. When the Lock maintained by Canopus breaks down, seasons appear on Rohanda and an Ice Age attacks Planet 8. Seasonal changes are for the worse; they threaten the natives and serve as the external symbol of Rohanda's degeneration. "Instability of feeling was a concomitant of seasons,"16Canopus warns Ambien II. Snow and ice appear at important points during Ambien II's sojourn on Rohanda. As in Frankenstein, snow and ice represent isolation and alienation. In The Sirian Experiments, seasons wipe out Adalantaland, the paradise ruled by women, and Ambien II experiences "the general worsening and corruption"; she is "deprived of equality and dignity" (p. 106). Ambien must shroud herself in cloth, the new attire for women. She can pass as a whore, wife, or servant, but not as an official or queen, as she had done previously. Though she realizes that "the females of this culture were truly enslaved" (p. 115), she does appreciate that she too is bound by shackles of Sirian science -- thus, she stares out into the snow that symbolizes and explains female slavery. Magic and witchcraft are the degenerate remains of Adalantaland powers, powers that are still available to Ambien II.

Ambien II has the opportunity to join and help Canopus, an empire of Demeters who use alternative science, true magic. Canopus permits Ambien's safe journey on Rohanda; the tools which protect her are not the weapons of conventional science, not the tools Sirius would provide. Instead, they symbolize the special position of Canopean women. Headband, earrings, and armlets protect Ambien from the ill effects of Shikasta and Shammat. With these accoutrements, Ambien taps her own powers and communicates with animals. Canopus enables Ambien to enter the mind of a Rohandan queen, and many other natives. In the fallen world of Shikasta, Canopus remains associated with women. In Lelanos, which Ambien II briefly rules as queen, the memory of Canopus exists only as ancient memory of female dominance. Canopeans retain the witchlike powers now only vaguely remembered; they travel through space using the powers of their minds, and can see into the future. To enlist her support, Klorathy shows Ambien a possible future of Rohanda.

Through Ambien II's experiences on Rohanda, Lessing not only condemns male-dominated science, but also male-dominated science fiction. What Rohandans do in the name of science shocks and disgusts Ambien; her new Canopean perspective shows her that Sirius is just as wrong in its experiments on the Lombis. In a section guaranteed to make any reader support anti-vivisectionism, Lessing shows what cruelties are practiced in the name of science. In case the reader fails to make the association of abusive and cruel practice with Earth science, Lessing explicitly connects the two through the character {21} of Tafta. A well-established scientist and apologist for technology, Tafta justifies its excesses and cruelties in his science fiction. He epitomizes Shammat, in his corruption of a "type of fiction challenging and useful" (p. 278). Instead of opening his reader's minds, Tafta succeeds in closing them, ensuring the ridicule of nonconformists. Lessing here explicitly condemns male-dominated science fiction: Tafta is a representative of Shammat, the epitome of evil. Canopus offers an alternative to this corrupt science and literature, a powerful alternative, for Canopus easily defeated Sirius in "that long-ago war" (p. 8).

Although the paradigm pervades the whole of Canopus in Argos, the third volume, The Sirian Experiments, contains the clearest revision of Shelley's Frankenstein. The plot of the book follows Frankenstein: it contains the conversion of Ambien II, a high-ranking Sirian, to the way of Canopus. The narrative appears as the journal and letters of Ambien II, a series of stories within stories. Like Walton, Ambien II begins as a dedicated explorer/scientist but concludes as a writer/storyteller. Lessing makes the tale explicitly feminist; Ambien II's gender emphasizes Canopus' identity as a female empire. She becomes an initiate and enters the mind of a Rohandan queen with Canopean help. It is a remarkable conversion, since Ambien, like all Sirians, distrusts and fears Canopus. Like real scientists, she does not believe in Canopean powers. Sirius believes only in what is tangible and quantifiable; Canopean references to Necessity are dismissed as lies. Gradually, through her experiences on Rohanda, Ambien II realizes the benefits of Canopus.

Ambien II converts to Canopus and joins the female power. She does not attempt and is not intended to defect from Sirius. Instead, she tries to spread her message. Unlike Frankenstein's, Ambien II's message is positive. She tries to convince her colleagues of the benefits of alternative science and the values of Canopus. As one of the Five, the ruling oligarchy of Sirius, Ambien II possesses immense power. Nevertheless, her position does not prevent her from being threatened with "adjustive hospitalization" and "mental reprocessing" (pp. 237, 240). Sirius has its equivalent of institutionalization, a threat Ambien II mentions several times in her narrative. Unlike Frankenstein, however, Ambien II is not silenced by fear. Although she is ridiculed, dismissed as insane, and exiled, as in The Four-Gated City, female power ultimately surfaces. Ambien II does not die, but as Klorathy informs the reader in The Sentimental Agents, she starts a powerful Questioners' movement within Sirius. The feminist implication is clear: this is the Outsider's Society Virginia Woolf advocates in Three Guineas.

Lessing reverses the traditional male depiction of woman as alien, from misogynist to gynocentric. Ambien II transforms her liabilities as an outsider into a powerful force, as her Questioners' society shows. The female alien is not a disgusting monster to be destroyed as in Frankenstein, but a character who provides a point of view from which to survey and evaluate the universe.

{22} Lessing's message appears to be, then, that female power should not be used to create a wasteland, as Demeter does when she freezes the Earth; passivity is not the proper response to exclusion. Instead, art provides salvation. Art enables Ambien II to tell her story and create the Questioners' movement. The dynamics of Lessing's space fiction reflect the changes in science fiction: like Ambien II, women science fiction writers use art to rewrite women's history.

Rather than attempt to destroy the institution of science or reject its stepson, science fiction, Lessing and other female science fiction writers are reclaiming the genre and revising female myths of power. In their universes, reproduction is not a trap in an individual woman's life, as it appears to Lessing's characters Martha Quest and Kate Brown;17 rather, it is the goal of huge empires creating races. Women's intuition and history of alternative healing can become the most powerful force in a fictional universe. Absorption in this alternative science represents an ideal, a unified field signified by the Lock placed on Rohanda. "We can't all be physicists," Doris Lessing laments, but she has given us a literary equivalent of their work.18 She has gone even further and used science fiction as future sociology. She rejects "the logic of domination of technology" advocated by such radical feminists as Shulamith Firestone and male science fiction writers. Throughout Canopus in Argos she stresses "revisionist" scientific theories that emphasize "principles of organization for bodies and societies that do not depend on dominance hierarchies."19 Recognizing the important part that evolutionary reconstructions play in society, Lessing uses science fiction to view the human past and future through a feminist lens. Her revision is the most comprehensive of a feminist tradition that began with Mary Shelley.


1. Tom Staicar, ed., The Feminine Eye (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1982), pp. vii-viii. The Hugo awards are voted and awarded by the members of the annual World Science Fiction convention; the Nebula Award is bestowed annually by the membership of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

2. In "American SF and the Other," first published in 1975, Ursula K. Le Guin, perhaps the most important and well-respected American science fiction writer, called on science fiction writers to change their sexist depictions. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night (New York: Berkley, 1979), pp. 87-90. Joanna Russ and Suzy McKee Charnas, both Nebula winners, make the following statement about science fiction on the frontispiece of their novels: "For too long science fiction has been dominated by masculine/sexist writing, but in recent years a group of women writers has been bringing new life and maturity into the field. These women are explicit and committed feminists. We're proud to be among them."

3. Hélène Cixous, "Castration or Decapitation?" Signs, 7, No. 1 (Autumn 1981), 52.

4. Rachel DuPlessis, "The Feminist Apologues of Lessing, Piercy, and Russ," Frontiers, 4, No. 1 (1979), 2.

5. Betsy Draine, Substance Under Pressure (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1983), p. 147.

6. See Natalie M. Rosinsky, "A Female Man? The 'Medusan' Humor of Joanna Russ," Extrapolation, 23, No. 1 (Spring 1982), 31-36.

7. See Charles Platt's "Profile" of James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) in Dream Makers (New York: Berkley Books, 1983), II, 257-72, for a discussion of her use of coded male narrators. Robin Morgan explains that as readers "women develop the skill of such translation (for Algerian read female -- because the author assuredly will not extend his insights in your direction)." See Going Too Far (New York: Vintage, 1977), p. 231.

8. See Roberta Rubenstein, "The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five: Doris Lessing's Alchemical Allegory," Extrapolation, 24, No. 3 (Fall 1983), 201-15, for a discussion of the importance of alchemy in the second volume of Canopus in Argos.

9. See Draine, pp. 143-44, for a discussion of the ways Canopus differs from male science fiction.

10. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818; rpt. New York: Signet, 1965), p. 52.

11. Doris Lessing, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (New York: Vintage, 1983), p. 121.

12. Lessing, The Sentimental Agents (New York: Knopf, 1983), p. 165.

13. Lessing, The Four-Gated City (New York: Bantam, 1980), p. 225.

14. In a recent appearance in Los Angeles, Doris Lessing stressed that Lynda Coldridge, "clearly one of her favorite characters, 'gets her own voice in Shikasta.'" Mona Knapp, "Reports: Lessing in North America, Univ. of California, Los Angeles," Doris Lessing Newsletter, 8, No. 2 (Fall 1984), p. 8.

15. See Beverly Friend, "Virgin Territory: The Bonds and Boundaries of Women in Science Fiction," in Many Futures, Many Worlds, ed. Thomas D. Clareson (Kent, Oh.: Kent State Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 140-63; Mary Kenny Badami, "A Feminist Critique of Science Fiction" Extrapolation, 18, No. 1 (December 1976), pp. 6-19; and Patricia Monk, "Frankenstein's Daughters: The Problem of Feminine Image in Science Fiction," Mosaic, 13, Nos. 3-4 (Spring-Summer 1980), pp. 15-27, for feminist critiques of science fiction.

16. Lessing, The Sirian Experiments (New York: Vintage 1982), p. 110.

17. Draine, pp. 43, 52, 120.

18. Lessing, The Sirian Experiments, p. ix.

19. Donna Haraway, "Animal Sociology and a Natural Economy of the Body Politic, Part I," Signs, 4, No. 1 (Autumn 1978), 24, 35.