From Lessing, a fantasy novel long on message, short on excitement; The Sirian Experiments, by Doris Lessing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $10.95.
Doris Lessing has an important message for us in "The Sirian Experiments": To survive these turbulent times on planet Earth, we must open our minds to ways of thinking and feeling which may seem foreign and totally unacceptable to us at the moment.
Lessing does not flinch before this painful conclusion because, to her, the alternative -- extinction of the human race -- is unthinkable.
Far better, she says, in these "dreadful and marvelous times," to question, probe, risk being a dissident and fighter for the truth which saves, than to be part of a "group mind" which keeps us ignorant of what we really are and what is really happening to us.
In this third "visionary novel" in her science fiction series "Canopus in Argos: Archives," the Lessing style continues. Characters rapidly change form and names, rattling against one another like wind chimes buffeted by sudden breezes from nowhere. Events shift in a flash, so we can't always tell the good people and the good ideas from the bad.
To Lessing, these are not inconsistencies. The truth, she points out, is always complex and often contradictory.
To make her point about our current inflexibility, which she views as the inherent downfall of humankind, she creates a story- teller, Ambien II, whose thinking is rigid and self-righteous.
Ambien II is one of The Five who have ruled the Sirian Empire for thousands of years. She is manipulative and self-protective. Safe and smug in her space bubble, she floats high above the sufffering, slavery, degradation, and failed technology of the colonists she governs. She does not see them as people, but as experiments in evolution and sociology.
Ambien II bases her decisions not on compassion for the individual or the community but on whatever will most profit the state in the long run. She is indifferent to sacrifices and pleas for help and does not tolerate dissent.
In all this, she is in harmony with the thinking of the rest of The Five, refusing to accept the criminality of their repressions because they were committed "for the ultimate good of all."
Ambien II is saved, however, by the author's ruthless drive to educate this "dry bone" of a woman. Ambien II must be taught to see herself and her world honestly, challenge the Sirian establishment, and pay the price for speaking out.
Ambien II, the invincible, suddenly is vulnerable. She becomes soft, slack, allows herself to be taken prisoner, begins to suffer, to know shame.
Then she is educated by leaders from Canopus, once the enemy of Sirius. Through many arduous adventures, she eventually comes to love and honor her teachers. She acknowledges their democratic ways, however flawed, as superior to her own autocratic rule.
At last, she summons the courage to unmask herself and the others, pointing out that the rule of The Five is a dictatorship, however much they have disguised that fact. This is not welcome news.
It is perceived as heresy and is punished with ostracism and "corrective exile" to another planet. She becomes one of the "dangerously different" thinkers she once scorned, forseeing a revolution born of her discoveries and expecting company in exile from the other four rulers when they are overthrown fo their blindness and stubborn resistance to change.
If this is somewhat less than the "beguiling tale" Lessing hoped to write, it is not because of the content but the form. Fiction structured as a series of scientific reports is dull. It cannot even be enlivened with such science fiction devices as giant insects, human-eating plants, and cartwheeling people with too many legs.
The labyrinths of the plot are so hard to follow that readers, trying to keep track of all its twists and turns, are like travelers who must keep their eyes so fastened on the road map, they cannot look up to enjoy a sunset.
And the storyteller, with her tunnel vision, is dull, too. Even Lessing, in her preface, admits: "I could like Ambien II better than I do."
Her philosophical observations are not always original or profound. We have heard before that there is good and bad in every situation; good civilizations fall; people are made feeble by soft living; when workers find themselves obsolete, they die.
And it is hard not to become impatient when questions about life's purpose and meaning are on the brink of being answered, only to tumble over an abyss so we are left supposedly as ignorant as before.
Still we persevere, mostly, I think, because Lessing has the kind of open mind she recommends to all of us. It permits her the range and freedom to "explore ideas and sociological possibilities" in a make-believe world, the better to apply the most worthy of them where and when they are most needed.