Thebook entitled Briefing for a Descent into Hell is a book thatdiscusses the seeming void in the quest for human understanding whichis deep consciousness. This was done through an exploration on howthe world, and consciousness is viewed in the mind of people wedefinitely less understand than others: those we regard as insane orlunatic.
Inthe essay written by Katherine Fishburn entitled “Doris Lessing’sBriefing for a Descent into Hell: Science Fiction or Psycho-Drama?”the author discusses about the dilemma of classifying the novel(48-57). The author began the discussion by mentioning that even onthe point of view of the novel’s author, it seems that classifyingthe work appears problematic as the author gives conflictingstatements in response to questions that ask whether the book is ascience fiction or a psycho-drama (48). At one point, it can beargued that the novel is a psycho-drama based on references withLessing’s early works such as the Grass is Singing and TheFour-Gated City which focus on the conditions and consequences ofmental breakdown (49). However, even with the presence of clues andevidence that the novel is a psycho-drama, Fishburn remains to beconvinced that it should be properly classified as a science fictionthan a psycho-drama. Fishburn attributes this classification onLessing’s admission of fondness with physics. As such, the work canbe treated as an attempt to inculcate the principles of quantummechanics, including mutability, wholeness and uncertainty into thestory (50). Another confusing element found in the novel that makesclassification difficult is that the story contains genericconventions for both psycho-drama and science fiction. For example,Charles Watkins was introduced as mentally ill, which qualifies thestory into a psycho-drama. Simultaneously, due to the lack of textualevidence that would support the view that Watkins’ experiences arerather imaginary than real, hence, he appeared to be telling thingsthat are true and not only imagined. This, on the other hand,qualifies the story as one of science fiction. This contradictiongives two different implications to the story as well. If the storyis to be regarded as a psycho-drama, the reader can validly disregardall of Charles’ statements and treat them as mere fantasies whichare of no serious importance (51-52). On the other hand, should thenovel be regarded as science fiction, the experiences and statementsof Charles become only a different dimension of reality that containsmeaning which transcends our literal interpretation of them (54). Theauthor then concluded her arguments for the novel’s classificationas a science fiction by maintaining that with the author’s refusalto give a categorical classification of the work, she then intends toinvite the readers to look into the “nature of reality” based onthe contrast of different worlds that have surfaced from the Charles’dilemma, which is necessarily an attribute of a science fiction novel(57).
Uponreading Fishburn’s essay, it was argued that a reader was bound toclassify the novel as either one of science fiction or a psycho-dramain order to have a complete appreciation on the character of CharlesWatkins, a hospital patient suffering from a mental condition.However, if one is to consider the essential themes of the novel suchas depression, mental condition and the concept of reality, a typicalreader who values an artistic take on literature rather than ascientific one need not be bothered by this dilemma because they cantake the story as it is and leave the author with her interpretationof the work for, after all, readers are left to learn, interpret andreflect literature on their own as art implies creative freedom. Theclassification dilemma suggested by Fishburn is a rather scientificapproach on the novel. Because literature remains to be a majorbranch of art, I am not convinced of the necessity of classifying thenovel into either psycho-drama or science fiction.
Fishburn,Katherine. “Doris Lessing’s Briefingfor a Descent into Hell: ScienceFiction or Psycho-Drama?”, in Science Fiction Studies. March 15,1988. (1): 48-60.