Doris Lessing’s “Marriages Between Zones” and the world today

Doris Lessing

How many books you read recently have been recommended by someone close to you? I have discovered most of my recent sci-fi reads through my partner Adrian. The same applies to big on-screen titles. He led me back to my love for the genre from a childhood filled with Russian sci-fi for children. Now, he recommended Doris Lessing’s The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five for a number of very good reasons.

The second book in the Canopus series, this novel proves a great example of a non-conventional sci-fi. As my first Doris Lessing read, it completely won me over.

Crossing bridges between different cultures

The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five tells the compelling story of people from different worlds forced together by circumstances out of their control. They start by fearing, on the verge of loathing each other. Next, they begin to see what they have in common. Eventually, they understand their shared difficulties need shared solutions.

This already speaks tons to anybody who ever worked and lived abroad, or in a multicultural environment. The only way to coexist with people from different backgrounds is to erect bridges. You need to think out of your own head and learn how they see the world too. Only then you can start to build together rather than fight each other.

In Doris Lessing’s book, all main characters believe in strong values. They define themselves by them and do their best to live their lives accordingly. In this respect, change comes with great difficulty. It is never easy to reassess one’s beliefs and principles in life and to admit that, maybe, they should be improved.

I found this level of her writing very relatable. In a world constantly under threat of radicalisation towards one extreme or the other (right wing, left wing, religious, and so on), it seems people fail to actually listen to each other. When we seek for reasons to strengthen our beliefs, we risk getting stuck, even cemented in these. No evolution is possible in such a state of the mind. The world it creates crumbles under its own weight or just turns into a monument.


How the whole weakens when divided

Through her novel, Doris Lessing’s teaches a lesson in humanism which many lack or desperately need today. To tell this story she builds a fascinating world, divided into Zones. People in each Zone live very different lives, by very different principles.

It is worth noting that her Zones need to be understood as a concept rather than a scientifically explained world. The reader needs to approach the book with the mythology type of understanding in order to make the most of it.

Governed by a matriarchal thought system, Zone Two adheres to a hedonistic view in all matters. They seek shared joy in everything they do. There is no jealousy in their land, where men and women build meaningful polyamorous relations. All of them, together, contribute to the education and well-being of their children.

But the weaving of this Zone soon reveals its downfalls too. Its people reject sadness and suffering, to the point where they see these emotions as diseases. Longing falls in the same category. Anybody who experiences dissatisfaction is considered ill, in need of curing. If they cannot be cured, they become outcasts. Here we have that dystopian seed in a utopian land.

People in Zone Three live under military dictatorship. All men are active in the King’s army, despite the fact there are no real wars or threats to fight off. Their highest values are duty and discipline, to which the King adheres more than anybody else.

Luxury is considered decadent, women weak and mostly a commodity, and everybody is banned from looking at the mountains of Zone Two. However, women secretly defy their men. They have developed solidarity unequalled in their land, and they keep looking at the mountains. These inserts make the author’s most beautiful and touching feminist inserts. Such is my favourite quote from the book:

“After all, this story of Al.Ith has taught us all that what goes on in one Zone affects the others, even when we believe we are hostile, or forget everything that goes on outside our own borders. We share and exchange even in our times of sluggishness, insularity, self-applause. When those women strove and struggled to lift their poor heads up so they could see our mountains towering over them, it was as if they were secretly pouring energy and effort into springs that fed us all”

Character development reveals deeper meaning

Doris Lessing builds this world through the story of Queen Al∙Ith of Zone Three and King Ben Ata of Zone Four, who receive a very unusual demand from their mysterious Providers. They need to marry and live in the palace provided to them by these superior invisible beings.

The two meet and clash at first, with frustration, anger and upset growing in them both. But soon they discover what they have in common: dedication and concern for the lands they rule. Both Zones have been afflicted by some strange disfunction. This determines them to at least try to accept their differences, sit down and talk. The more they do this, the more attracted they feel to each other. They start to accept this attraction, understand each other and, in time, experience not only fascination, but true love for each other.

The author’s brilliance shines most in drawing the Queen and the King and their stories, both shared and individual. I found myself enraptured by each exchanges these two very strong characters had. The brutality and discomfort of their first encounter, the way their feelings later evolve by building more understanding – these elements create what feels like an archetypal, evergreen love story.

Doris Lessing 2

Doris Lessing reveals deeper meaning through a captivating story. I was mostly struck by how the people in the more inferior land were more inclined to accept change. King Ben Ata, seemingly inferior, relents first. He accepts his feelings for the Queen and the fact that he needs to learn from her. In their communication, she ends up humiliating him more. It feels like that tends to be the prerogative of people who know themselves as being superior to others. Arrogance sometimes hits in the most unexpected, innocent ways.

Why he recommended the book

I could keep talking about how the Zones only evolve if they intermingle. That is the true meaning of these marriages. But you might want to discover that for yourself.

Next, I will share why Adrian recommended me the book in early January this year. We spent the most amazing New Year’s Eve, with buffet food and wine for two. And we discussed my first sci-fi novel that night – this was our celebration. After clarifying my plot arc, characters’ flaws and development, he gave me this book as a good example of what I wanted to achieve with mine. And he was right to do so.

Doris Lessing builds an amazing, very relatable world, despite it being, on the outside, nothing like ours. She also transitions from one Zone to the other with great skill.

I’m not entirely sure if this is the best thing to do, but there is another similarity. “The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five” has a bitter-sweet end. Those story threads which the reader might expect to lead to a happy conclusion fail to fulfil such expectations. They still don’t end tragically either.

Doris Lessing’s message, at the end of her novel, seems to be that evolution is constant and requires effort. Quick results are only stepping-stones towards more durable change. Resilience, patience and dedication are required.

It feels like we need this realistic forward-looking approach today more than ever.




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