I just finished re-reading Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City and am pleased to report that I still think it's a great book. I haven't read all of Lessing, so I will refrain from saying it's her best book, but it remains my favorite.
I was a little unsure at first. I did a panel at Capclave on re-reading, and one of the subjects we discussed, over and over, was that some books do not hold up well on re-reading, especially many years later. And the beginning of The Four-Gated City is slow, and reads like a fairly traditional tale of human relationships.
But it moves on to include the best comprehension of the phenomenon we call the Sixties I have ever read. Written during the Sixties by someone who was open enough to see what was happening and old enough to make sense of it, she gets to the heart of the matter, melding together swinging London, communal living, and exploration of the mind in a way that both validates my own experiments of the time and makes me blush to realize how superficially I understood what I was doing.
More important -- at least to the readers of this blog and to me at this stage of the game -- it's science fiction. The book moves from conventional explanations of insanity into mind exploration, using some ideas that might be Jungian, but going farther into potential telepathy. The appendix is pure near future apocalyptic SF.
And while The Four-Gated City's near future is our recent past, the fact that the predicted catastrophes didn't happen in the extreme way presented in the book doesn't weaken its power, because the truth underlying those catastrophes (climate change, new plagues, dangerous and foolish governments, people who get stuck in negative scripts in their brains) are all quite familiar to us at present. Here's one of a hundred lines that struck me:
It can be taken absolutely as an axiom that the populace will not be told the truth, nine-tenths because the governments concerned won't know what is the truth, will be as much in the dark as anybody else, and one-tenth out of panic, greed, hysteria, fear of their own citizenry.
Here's what really caught me on this re-read: This is the book that paved the way to science fiction for me.
I am not one of those people who read SF as a kid. I didn't disdain it, but I didn't focus on it. In college I came across Dune, the Foundation Trilogy, Stranger in a Strange Land, and (of course) Lord of the Rings, but while those books affected me, I didn't separate them into a separate category from other reading.
It was a few years after reading The Four-Gated City that I began seriously reading SF, because it was in SF that I found the same kind of complex ideas that Lessing raises. At the time, much so-called literary fiction was mired in stories about middle and upper class people and their failed marriages -- a subject that bores me to death -- while SF looked at at any number of ways we might live.
No wonder I'm not in the Analog Mafia -- I didn't come to SF for science and technology themselves (though they bring a lot to the mix). I came for thinking that made me question the most fundamental things -- what does it mean to be human, how does the human race become civilized, what capacities do we have that we are ignoring?
No wonder I'm impatient with formulaic fantasy and space opera, much as I love a good rollicking adventure story. I want ideas, even in my adventures.
Blame it on Doris Lessing. She ruined me for superficial SF. Give me ideas, meaty ideas, ideas that haunt me for years. I first read The Four-Gated City in 1973 and I'm still thinking about it. It's just possible I'll still be thinking about it when I die.