Members of my family are now reading Shikasta, both in paper and e-book formats. Shikasta is the first novel in a work by Doris Lessing titled Canopus in Argos, first discovered and introduced into Ghulfdom by Michelle, years ago already, but such works march through the clan at a royal pace, as it were. It was when I’d first read it, also years ago, that I became aware of an interesting fact. There really is a constellation Lessing called Argos, and the giant star Canopus is indeed its anchor. The official name of it is Argo Navis. Jason and his Argonauts are responsible for this projection onto the southern skies. And yes. The constellation is a ship. That constellation itself makes a spellbinding story in its own way.
Argo Navis has two unique features. It used to be the largest of the constellations, featuring the second brightest star visible in our skies: Canopus, of course. The brightest is Sirius. The second distinction Argo merits is that it is the only constellation, of the 48 that Ptolemy (90-168) listed in his Almagest, that has since been, well, chopped apart, dismissed, subdivided, what have you. It is no longer officially recognized as a constellation. As Doris Lessing no doubt believes, we are still living in the dark ages dominated by Shammat (read Devil), who wants to distract our eyes from Canopus.
Not surprisingly for me (temperamentally, obdurately, perversely traditionalist that I’ve become), the dismemberment of Argo took place at the hand of Nicolas Louis de Lacaille (1713-1762), the French astronomer. It took place in 1752, thus close to the period called the Enlightenment, the death of which I date to the French Revolution. What did de Lacaille do? He divided Argo Navis into Carina, Puppis, and Vela, the keel, stern, and sails of the old ship. Am I hearing cheers for Progress?
Now for some pictures.
This outline shows Argo Navis as the ancients probably depicted it, meaning the stars they connected to form it. Note the central, anchoring position of Canopus. You can also see Sirius high above at the right edge of the image. The sails are triangular in shape. The long line extending from the deck upward through the sails was once known as the Malus, the Mast but is now the constellation Pyxis, the Compass. The ancients once also drew lines downward from stars here marked b and n to represent oars. Next I show the constellations as de Lacaille drew them, first how the sky looks to human eyes, next the lines that form today’s Carina, Vela, and Puppis.
In the diagram above, the sails have been enlarged. Maybe the winds of modernity had really picked up by de Lacaille’s time. The French astronomer’s Carina does not have the diamond-shaped figure shown here atop its left extremity in blue (the red outlining is mine), but my source on Wikipedia commons (link), one Michelet B, includes it. To see these details, its best to click through, of course. The old ship, in other words, is still there, and not all that modified. But the name has been lost. But thanks to science fiction, as this work by Doris Lessing’s is classified, the lost memory of Canopus in Argos has been recovered.
I hesitate to say much about that opus beyond noting that the most stunning science fiction always transcends the genre. These books, beginning with Shikasta, are not really entertainment reading, do not fit the rubric of aesthetics, but are certainly something difficult and special.
Let me conclude with a stylized and popularized diagram I’ve found on a crossword puzzle page (link) (and nowhere else), without indication of its source. It’s the most pleasing image, but I for one can’t make any kind of sense of it. If true, however, Canopus is not in but out of Argos. And that’s a bit of a disqualifier.
link). She is a Florida-based writer and artist. Thank you!