From Lessing a fable more murky than profound; The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, by Doris Lessing. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. $10.
The first rule of a good romantic novel is that we be moved by the plight of the star-crossed lovers. This does not happen, at least not for this reader, in Doris Lessing's latest science-fiction fable, "The Marriages Between Zones Three , Four, and Five."
The love scenes seem labored instead of lyrical; the sparse dialogue seems stilted instead of soaring; and the characters, far from being fresh as the author intended, have the familiarity of childhood fairy tales with a little Walt Disney thrown in.
Al-Ith, the beautiful, peace-loving queen of a mythical kingdom, rides on her faithful horse through wind-swept plains into a foreign land, where she is forced into a marriage to Ben Ata, a gruff warrior king.
They learn from each other's divergent concepts of love to care deeply for each other but are arbitrarily parted by their rulers, the Providers, whom they blindly obey. The king goes on to other wives and seems to win all, while the queen loses all -- the king who is her one love, their child, and her kingdom.
Bereft and in exile, Al-Ith searches for a new sense of belonging, frequently riding "into the blue" of the mountains and clouds she and her people have been forbidden even to look upon.
Eventually she disappears altogether, possibly signaling transference into another level of consciousness. This is not certain, however, since much of what is meant to be profound in this book is merely murky.
Perhaps the fault is that we are asked to view passion with detachment -- not an easy task -- and that the story is told by chroniclers who interrupt the plot at critical moments to comment or forecast how it will all come out.
This puts a distance between reader and story and turns what could be a romance of powerful emotions into a calculated intellectual game, which the author obviously delights in playing.
She creates man-woman relationships that parallel many contemporary dilemmas: Are egalitarian marriages possible? Is war man's work and nurturing woman's work? Must a wife become less romantic with motherhood? Must a husband be jealous of his offspring?
Lessing, as always, is a master at showing that life is inconsistent and full of surprises.
We learn that Ben Ata's warmaking is just a bluff; the "invulnerable vests" worn as a protection against death rays are only good for keeping off the rain; the death rays themselves are only rumors. But the construction of gray, round buildings to make the rays employs a lot of people -- and we are left to draw whatever comparison we wish to modern times.
We are even allowed to glimpse, detectivelike, a distant planet where "an evil race" kills and tortures with incredible weapons that even pierce the air. Guess who?
The most tantalizing (though hardly original) Lessing theme is that after we have left home and then return, we see it with different eyes. Al-Ith had viewed her people as content and peaceful, but after her return from a more vigorous land they appear smug and mindless. "How could they live all their lives without ever wanting anything more?" she moans.
The eventual triumph of Al-Ith's marriage is that it served to revitalize a dying civilization. It opened travel between the zones, bringing enlightenment and understanding where there had once been stagnation.
Again, in this second of a cycle of "visionary novels" in the "Canopus in Argos: Archives" series (the first was "Shikasta"), we have Doris Lessing provoking us to think about saving ourselves and the world from destruction. That is noble.
And we should, she seems to say, think less about romance and more about the politics of what makes a good marriage. That is noble, too, but it requires more majesty and wit to pull it off than is demonstrated in this fable. We must think -- but we also must care for the characters and story, and it is in the caring that this book fails for me.