Report on the Threatened City


Doris Lessing

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Report on the Threatened City can help.

Report on the Threatened City Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Doris Lessing's Report on the Threatened City. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing was born in 1919 in what is now Iran. She was an only child, and her parents were British subjects. In 1925, the family moved the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), to farm maize on 1,000 acres of bush. Lessing’s formal education ended at the age of 13. She married Frank Wisdom at the age of 19; the couple had a son and a daughter. When they divorced, Lessing left the children with her husband. She subsequently married and had a son with German expatriate Gottfried Lessing, whom she met in the communist-leaning Left Book Club. After her second divorce, Lessing never remarried. Lessing’s literary output was influenced by her leftist political leanings, her study of Sufism (a form of Islamic mystical practice), and her experience of the social expectations for marriage and motherhood. She campaigned against racism and colonialism and wrote science fiction speculating about the calamities humanity might invent for itself. She also authored books that questioned the capitalistic and patriarchal organization of society, although she left the Communist Party of Britain and rejected the term “feminist” as too narrow. She won numerous literary awards during her long career, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. She died in 2013 at the age of 94.
Get the entire Report on the Threatened City LitChart as a printable PDF.
Report on the Threatened City PDF

Historical Context of Report on the Threatened City

There are two historical contexts at the heart of “Report on the Threatened City”: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the Cold War. The 1906 earthquake, or the “previous disaster” that the alien envoys are stunned to learn about, occurred on the morning of April 18. Its epicenter was near San Francisco, and 80 percent of the city was destroyed either by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake or the subsequent fires. It is likely that more than 3,000 people died, and countless others were injured and displaced. Local leaders, worried about the bustling city’s economy, downplayed the earthquake and its destruction as they almost immediately began rebuilding the city. Two serious earthquakes struck just north of the San Francisco Bay area in 1969, likely providing inspiration for Lessing’s story. The 1906 earthquake remains the deadliest earthquake in the United States and the deadliest natural disaster of any type to occur in California. The story also refers to the Cold War in considering humanity’s warlike tendencies and paranoia. This period of geopolitical tension between the United States and the Soviet Union began in the aftermath of World War II and lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. In political and social terms, the Cold War was framed as a contest between democracy—represented by the United States and its allies—and communism, represented by the Soviets. It was characterized by increased tensions, a nuclear weapons race, and damaging proxy wars.

Other Books Related to Report on the Threatened City

Lessing was, for many years, a member of the Communist Party of Britain. Much of her writing, including “Report on the Threatened City” is influenced by Marxist ideas deriving from Das Kapital, which explores the political underpinnings of capitalism and critiques powerful and wealthy people’s exploitation of the working class. “Report on the Threatened City” approaches this topic through the eyes of the alien envoys, placing it in the science fiction genre, which was being used in the late 1960s and early 1970s to explore contemporary political and social issues. Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, for example, examined gender roles by imagining a world in which gender distinctions don’t exist. Similarly, Lessing uses science fiction to critique capitalism in “Report on the Threatened City.” Lessing’s science fiction series of novels, collectively titled the Canopus in Argos, explores the relationship of the individual to the collective, similar to the focus on how humans value individuals versus large groups in “Report on the Threatened City.”
Key Facts about Report on the Threatened City
  • Full Title: Report on the Threatened City
  • When Written: 1970s
  • Where Written: England
  • When Published: 1972
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism
  • Genre: Short Story, Science Fiction
  • Setting: San Francisco, California
  • Climax: The alien envoys lose their televised debate with humans, and an angry mob runs them out of town.
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Report on the Threatened City

Better Late than Never. When Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 at 88 years old, she was, at the time, the oldest person to have been awarded this prize.

Cassandra Complex. A literary critic once described Lessing as “Cassandra in a world under siege.” In the Aeneid, the god Apollo gives Cassandra the gift of prophecy, but she’s subsequently cursed to never be believed. Indeed, in her speculative and science fiction, Lessing characterizes humanity as unable to see or appropriately react to warnings of impending climate catastrophe, global epidemics, or political upheaval.