Report on the Threatened City

by

Doris Lessing

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The Envoys Character Analysis

The envoys are a group of six beings from another planet who have traveled to Earth in their spacecraft. They try to warn humans in the titular “threatened city” (implied to be San Francisco) that a disastrous earthquake that will strike the city within the next five years. Physically, the envoys seem to be roughly the same size as humans, but they are made of light rather than matter, so they are not normally visible to the naked human eye. The envoys refer to themselves as “we” throughout their report, which suggests that they might have a collective consciousness. There are no distinctions made between them based on age or gender, in contrast to how human society is divided. The envoys demonstrate their altruism by traveling so far to warn the city’s residents about the disaster, planning to help mitigate the earthquake’s damage, relocate people, and educate some human “specimens” so that they themselves can predict future calamities. These envoys are not just messengers to humanity; they observe the species with an anthropological interest, reporting back to their base what they discover about human characteristics, interactions, technologies, and rituals. Their ongoing struggle to understand human behavior draws attention to how human beings often act contrary to their true needs. The envoys, like the humans, are not free of bias and assumption, but their initial inability to understand human resistance to their message, rather than frustrating them, sparks their curiosity and concern. In contrast to the humans, who seek to avoid information that challenges their opinions, the envoys seek to fill in their own knowledge gaps to better fulfill their mission. Their attempted warning ultimately fails because they can’t overcome this human desire to avoid uncomfortable information. No matter how clearly they are able to understand human motivation, their own attitudes and opinions are ultimately so alien that they cannot find a way to meaningfully communicate.

The Envoys Quotes in Report on the Threatened City

The Report on the Threatened City quotes below are all either spoken by The Envoys or refer to The Envoys. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Cambridge University Press edition of Report on the Threatened City published in 2018.
Report on the Threatened City Quotes

Observing their behavior […] our Commissioners for External Affairs decided that these people could have no idea at all of what threatened, that their technology, while so advanced in some areas, had a vast gap in it, a gap that could be defined, in fact, precisely by that area of ignorance—not knowing what was to befall them. This gap seemed impossible.

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Earthquake
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

We took it absolutely for granted, an assumption so strong that it prevented our effective functioning as much as these creatures’ assumptions prevent them from acting—we believed (since we are so built ourselves) that it would be impossible for a disaster to have occurred already, because if we had experienced such a thing, we would have learned from the event and taken steps to accordingly. Because of a series of assumptions, then, and an inability to move outside our own mental set, we missed a fact that might have been a clue to their most extraordinary characteristic—the fact that such a very short time ago they experienced a disaster of the sort that threatens again, and soon.

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Earthquake
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we approach the nature of the block, or patterning of their minds—we state it now, through we did not begin to understand it until later. It is that they are able to hold in their minds at the same time several contradictory beliefs without noticing it.

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Earthquake
Page Number: 245
Explanation and Analysis:

Large numbers, everywhere on the planet, see craft like ours, or like other planets’ craft or war machines from their own or other geographical areas. But such is the atmosphere created by the war departments that dominate everything that these individuals are regarded as mentally inadequate or deluded. Until one of them has actually seen a machine or spacecraft, he tends to believe that anyone who claims he has is deranged.

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker)
Page Number: 245
Explanation and Analysis:

For one thing, at that time we did not know how to differentiate between the effects of the drugs and the effects of their senses. We now do know and will attempt a short description. The drug causes the mechanisms dealing with functions such as walking, talking, eating, and so on, to become slowed or dislocated. Meanwhile, the receptors for sound, scent, sight, touch, are open and sensitized. But, for us, to enter their minds is in any case an assault because of the phenomenon they call beauty, which is a description of their sense intake in an ordinary condition.

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker)
Page Number: 249
Explanation and Analysis:

The doctor was also saying that he had to treat large numbers of people, particularly the young ones, for ‘paranoia’. This was what our three hosts were judged to be suffering from. Apparently, it is a condition when people show fear of forthcoming danger and try to warn others about it, and then show anger when stopped by authority.

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Earthquake
Page Number: 250
Explanation and Analysis:

While at that stage we were still very confused about what we were finding, we had at least grasped this: that this species, on being told something, has no means of judging whether or not it is true. We on our planet assume […] that if a new fact is made evident by material progress, or by a new and hitherto unexpected juxtaposition of ideas, then it is accepted as a fact, a truth—at least until evolutionary development bypasses it.

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker)
Page Number: 251
Explanation and Analysis:

For it is as if the mechanism fear has been misplaced from where it would be useful—preventing or softening calamity—to an area of their minds that makes them suspicious of anything but the familiar.

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker), The Technicians
Related Symbols: The Earthquake
Page Number: 251
Explanation and Analysis:

Thus disguised, we walked about the city engaged in observation, on the whole astounded that so little notice was taken of us. For while we were fair copies, we were not perfect, and a close scrutiny would have shown us up. But one of their characteristics is that they, in fact, notice very little about one another; it is a remarkably unnoticing species.

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker)
Page Number: 252
Explanation and Analysis:

We believe we have established one of their mechanisms for maintaining themselves in impotence and indecision. It is precisely this: that they do continuously discuss and analyse.

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker), The Four Youths
Page Number: 253
Explanation and Analysis:

Their attitude towards life is that it is unimportant. They are indifferent to their own suffering, assume that their species must continuously lose numbers and strength and health by natural disasters, famine, constant war. That this attitude goes side by side with infinite care and devotion to individuals seems to us to indicate…

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker)
Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

Essentially, a received idea is one that has become familiar, whether effective or not, and no longer arouses hostility or fear. The mark of an educated individual is this: that he has spent years absorbing received ideas and is able readily to repeat them. People who have absorbed opinions counter to the current standard of ideas are distrusted and may be called opinionated.

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker)
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

But, very shortly, a strong emotion was raised by phrases and words of which we list a few here: profit motive, conflicting commercial interests, vested interests, capitalism, socialism, democracy—there are many such emotive words. We were not able to determine, or not in a way that our economic experts would recongise as satisfactory, the significance of these phrases, since the emotions became too violent to allow the conference to continue.

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker), The Technicians
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

We have concluded that the young are in a state of disabling despair. While more clear-minded, in some ways, than their elders—that is, more able to voice and maintain criticisms of wrongs and faults—they are not able to believe in their own effectiveness. Again and again, on the beach, as the air darkened, versions of this exchange took place:

“But you say you believe it must happen, and within five years.”

“So they say.”

“But you don’t think it will?”

“If it happens, it happens.”

“But it isn’t if—it will happen.”

“They are all corrupt, what can we do? They want to kill us all.”

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Earthquake
Page Number: 256-257
Explanation and Analysis:

We have a tentative conclusion. It is this: that a society that is doomed to catastrophe, and that is unable to prepare for it, can expect that few people will survive except those already keyed to chaos and disaster. The civil, the ordered, the conforming, the well-tempered, can expect to fall victim at first exposure. But the vagabonds, criminals, mad, extremely poor, will have the means to survive. We conclude, therefore, that when, within the next five years, the eruption occurs, no one will be left but those types the present managers of society consider undesirable, for the present society is too inflexible to adapt—as we have already said, we have no idea why this should be so, what is wrong with them.

Related Characters: The Envoys (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Earthquake
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

The two southern landings coincided with the disappearance of 11 people, five the first time, six the second. This makes 450 people gone without trace during the past two years. We suggest it is no longer possible to dismiss the fact that the landings of these craft always mean the disappearance of two to ten people with the word ‘coincidence’. We must face the possibility that all or some are manned, but by individuals so dissimilar in structure to ourselves that we cannot see them. We would point out that Sonoscope 4 is only just able to bring these types of craft within vision and that, therefore, the levels of density that might indicate the presence of ‘people’ might escape the machine. We further suggest the facetiousness of the phrase ‘little green men’ might mask an attitude of mind that is inimical to sober evaluation or assessment of this possibility.

Related Characters: The Envoys
Page Number: 260
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Envoys Character Timeline in Report on the Threatened City

The timeline below shows where the character The Envoys appears in Report on the Threatened City. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Report on the Threatened City
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Summary of Background to Mission. Some envoys report that they observed a city on a different planet using “Astroviewers” and unmanned spacecrafts.... (full context)
Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
...assist in evacuating and resettling them, and “cushion the shock” of the impending earthquake. The envoys were also tasked with taking some “specimens” back to their planet for scientific training that... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Indifference Theme Icon
Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
The Nature of the Problem. The envoys delayed making any transmissions until this point because they have been conserving fuel. In addition,... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
An Impossible Fact. First, however, the envoys must relate a fact that seems unbelievable. The city experienced a very large earthquake “65... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
The Landing. The envoys landed their craft by moonlight in an arid, sparsely populated area. Their predecessors had landed... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
War-Making Patterns. The envoys explain the older specimens’ belief that the spacecraft was a weapon. War and violence are... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Paranoia and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...at once. This fact is key to the “nature of the block” that prevented the envoys from completing their mission, and it makes rational action hard for the species. The envoys... (full context)
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Paranoia and Conspiracy Theme Icon
This supports another one of the envoys’ observations: the younger members of the species see more clearly and better understand the nature... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Indifference Theme Icon
First Attempt at a Warning. After landing on the planet, the envoys attempted their first warning. The elders seemed unafraid and didn’t understand that the bright sunlight... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
Incapacity for Fear. To avoid unnecessarily alarming the creatures, the envoys fed the news of the impending earthquake directly into their creatures’ minds very slowly, over... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Indifference Theme Icon
...It took three days after the landing for any youth come close enough for the envoys to make their second attempt. Just as the light of day faded, four youths arrived,... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
Phase I Abandoned. The envoys decided to stop using telepathy to transmit the warning and begin Phase II, which involved... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
Phase II Attempted. The envoys travel into the city with the four youths. The trip began at dawn and continued... (full context)
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When the four youths stopped at a fueling station, the envoys noticed three dazed, shaggy-haired youth sitting on a bench. The envoys realized that these youth... (full context)
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Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
This phase of the mission was particularly dangerous for the envoys because they were not initially able to “differentiate between the effects of the drugs and... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
Necessity to Condense Report, Power Failing. While the envoys would like to elaborate on their experience of the drugged youths’ minds, they are aware... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
Paranoia and Conspiracy Theme Icon
Capture by the Authorities. Suddenly, the envoys heard a loud sound. They initially thought this was finally a reaction to their message... (full context)
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Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
As the envoys describe their shock at this turn of events, their transmission is interrupted by a “news... (full context)
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Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
Humour as a Mechanism. The envoys relate two notable features of the doctor’s reaction: his use of humor, which they identify... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
The Jettisoning of Phases I, II and III. The envoys now viewed both Phases I and II as failures and also decided that Phase III,... (full context)
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Paranoia and Conspiracy Theme Icon
Inability to Assess Truth. The envoys interrupt their report to remark that this species is incapable of judging the truth of... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Adaptation to their Norm for their Dominant Animals. The envoys “incarnated” as two adult males, taking care to arrange in a way that would inspire... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
Paranoia and Conspiracy Theme Icon
Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
In disguise, the envoys walked around the city, where they were surprised by the lack of attention paid to... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
Paranoia and Conspiracy Theme Icon
The Institute. The envoys entered the Institute for Prognosis and Prevention of Earth Disturbance as observers. It is a... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
A Basic Mechanism. The envoys use their experience at the Institute to explain how the creatures avoid action by way... (full context)
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Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
...could be used to build affordable housing for the many people that need it. The envoys then continue to report on the importance of discussion in this society, but a second... (full context)
Indifference Theme Icon
Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
Indifference to Loss of Life. The envoys report that the citizens of the city have never considered relocating for their own safety.... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
The envoys determine that the creatures’ main “anxiety-calming mechanism” is something called a “conference,” which involves meeting... (full context)
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Paranoia and Conspiracy Theme Icon
Their Education. The envoys conclude that opinions are the primary subject of the creatures’ education—particularly knowing how to differentiate... (full context)
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Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
The envoys became well-known at the institute as Herbert Bond (age 35) and John Hunter (age 40).... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
...System, but See Histories of Planets 2 and 4. From discussions at the Institute, the envoys concluded that the creatures plan their cities not based on citizens’ needs, but by balancing... (full context)
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Indifference Theme Icon
Paranoia and Conspiracy Theme Icon
...Not Useful. Having concluded that they could make no more progress at the institute, the envoys returned to the city center to contact the young. Because of the mistrust between the... (full context)
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Failure with the Young. Unfortunately, the envoys waited until after the daylight had faded, the worst possible moment, for this attempt. Several... (full context)
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...despair” in which the young exist totally prevents a belief “in their own effectiveness.” The envoys’ attempts to spur the youth to action resulted in the same redundant, hopeless conversation they... (full context)
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Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
...where hundreds of youths swam out to sea or jumped from the nearby cliffs. The envoys’ narration of this event is interrupted by another local broadcast detailing  a plan to build... (full context)
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 The envoys decided to make their final warning by combining a piece of common knowledge with one... (full context)
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The envoys reassumed the identities of Herbert Bond and John Hunter. Noting that Great Britain enjoyed a... (full context)
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Indifference Theme Icon
...of, See Above. The theme’s debate was “[don’t] judge by words but by actions.” The envoys’ statements provoked laugher. Their report details two types of laughter among these creatures: antagonistic laughter... (full context)
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...sort is guided by rules and judged by an audience. Two local professors debated the envoys. While the envoys were serious, their opponents took a “light and humorous” tone to state... (full context)
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...calm demeanor during the debate, but afterwards, they were nervous and became hostile toward the envoys. They worried that their jobs were in jeopardy for their part in this performance, and... (full context)
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As the envoys describe this turn of events, their report is again interrupted. A voice commands listeners to... (full context)
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Running short of power, the envoys realize that they can do nothing else. They haven’t achieved their mission’s goals, and they... (full context)
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Departure from the Planet. The six envoys are reassembled at their ship and prepare to depart. They report their findings to base.... (full context)