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Grieving for a whole planet From Princess Leia to Doris Lessing

Frozen PlanetWhen I saw the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, I couldn’t get past that moment when Princess Leia sees her home planet, Alderaan, blown up by the Empire. We didn’t even get to see her reaction shot—the first response to this planetary destruction is voiced by Obi Wan Kenobi, saying he feels a “great disturbance in the force.” How does Leia cope with this devastating loss? We never learn,  since after that she moves right into warrior mode.

Star Wars is great popular entertainment, of course. And it’s part of a long line of sci-fi stories featuring a planet that explodes or is otherwise destroyed by nuclear or environmental disaster, from the dying planet Krypton to an Earth frozen by ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. 

At another end of the spectrum, there’s a novel by Doris Lessing that has stuck with me since I read it, for its unrelenting deep dive into the feelings of a community as it experiences the death of its world. The Making of the Representative from Planet Eight (1982) is the fourth in Lessing’s five-novel series of science fiction novels, Canopus in Argos. It’s a quick but intense read, told in a voice that evokes folk tales or Scripture. (Lessing later adapted the novel as an opera with music by Philip Glass.)

We’re led through the story by Doeg, who lives on the peaceful, prosperous and temperate Planet Eight, part of the Canopus system. A mysterious cosmic realignment causes the global climate to shift, with blizzards causing a buildup of snow and ice—a swiftly cataclysmic, planet-wide Ice Age. Doeg, whose vocation is Memory Maker and Keeper of Records, reports on his own and others’ avalanche of emotional responses as everything about their previous life slips away.

In one poignant moment, the leaders stage a ceremony to help people accept part of their new reality: they now have to fish in their sacred lake for sustenance, a practice that has always been taboo. Standing on the shore, the community watches as a few people row out to demonstrate how it’s done. The sight of this is too much: “A groan or cry came out from the crowds, and this sound, which had been pressed out of us, frightened us all.”

In the end, there’s no escape—all life on the planet is extinguished. Doeg and a few others only survive in disembodied form, as a collective “representative” to the Canopic system. Their transformation reflects Lessing’s study of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Through that lens, the story can be seen as an allegory of the soul leaving behind the physical body (the “world” in which the individual lives). Lessing also pointed to another source for the story, in her lifelong fascination with the doomed British Antarctic expedition led by Robert Scott from 1910-1913.

Now, several decades after it first appeared, and as we move further into our global climate crisis, it’s hard not to read the novel as a stark and cogent allegory of climate change—an early entrant in the growing genre of climate fiction, or Cli-Fi, as it’s been called by journalist Dan Bloom and others. Lessing didn’t talk about this aspect of the work, although she later revisited themes of ecological and cultural collapse in her two “Mara and Dann” novels, set in a far-future Africa.

Wrapping your mind around such a massive phenomenon is hard, especially when it looms over your own life, let alone the lives of your descendants. It is much easier to deny something like climate change while evidence of it builds around you, than to attempt to engage with the scope of what’s happening. But in the moment we find ourselves in now, we also need to learn to stretch our capacity to feel, and express, the worst that could happen, like the people beside the lake on Planet Eight.

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