Priority Flash One. Unforeseen conditions mean that all plans and forecasts must be cancelled. Priority. Energy supplies are low, and it is likely that other local transmissions might interrupt the report.
This opening passage establishes the framework for the report, which will analyze the mission and explain why the plans must change. It also foreshadows—and explains— the news reports and advertisements that will later interrupt and give context to the report.
Summary of Background to Mission. Some envoys report that they observed a city on a different planet using “Astroviewers” and unmanned spacecrafts. In doing so, they realized that a major disaster loomed over the city. Given the city’s evident lack of preparation, the envoys and their fellows assumed a knowledge gap was to blame. This surprised them because of the general advancement of the creatures’ technology, but they couldn’t come up with any plausible explanations for the source of the knowledge gap.
The aliens’ observations—that this other species is technologically advanced yet fail to prepare for natural disaster—hints that they’re talking about humans on Earth. The envoys’ extraterrestrial point of view provides distance from the human subjects in the story. This allows the story to analyze humanity from an anthropological perspective, which makes familiar behavior seem strange and therefore noticeable. The aliens’ assumption that the citizens of the threatened city must not know about the impending disaster betrays their own biased beliefs—they are unable to understand the situation because the humans’ behavior is so different from their own. Their bias clouds their ability to fully understand the situation.
Summary of Objective this Mission. The extraterrestrials worked to build a ship capable of landing a team on the planet to warn the people, 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 would help them predict future earthquakes. The extraterrestrials worked hard and postponed other plans to build the necessary spacecraft for this mission. The trip was successful: the envoys landed on “the western shore of the land mass” and have been on the other planet for one week.
The extraterrestrials demonstrate their altruism by committing time and resources to the project of warning the city, even through it requires sacrifice. Their altruism will be contrasted with the behavior of the humans they try to warn. Although the impending disaster’s location hasn’t yet been specified, “the western shore” where the envoys land is the first hint that the story is set on the west coast of the United States.
The Nature of the Problem. The envoys delayed making any transmissions until this point because they have been conserving fuel. In addition, it took quite some time for them to understand the problems that they encountered in warning the people of the threatened city. The creatures are, in fact, able to forecast the earthquake, but they don’t seem concerned about it. The envoys believe that the creatures belong to a species that “lacks the will to live,” and they have been trying to understand why this is the case. They will report the circumstances of their mission to try to explain this indifference.
The envoys’ report switches between detailing their actions step by step and offering commentary on what they have learned. This bit of analysis, which communicates the envoys’ realization that there is no knowledge gap about the earthquake risk—although no steps are being taken to save lives—introduces the idea that humans are indifferent to other people’s (and their own) suffering. According to the aliens’ perspective, human indifference is almost suicidal—this is the story’s way of critiquing humans’ unwillingness to care for and preserve life. Despite this evident flaw in humanity, the envoys carry on their altruistic mission of saving the species from itself.
An Impossible Fact. First, however, the envoys must relate a fact that seems unbelievable. The city experienced a very large earthquake “65 years ago, their time.” The extraterrestrials weren’t aware of this because they couldn’t imagine that the city’s citizens knew this history but didn’t take preventive measures. In a similar situation, the envoys would have tried to avoid a repeat disaster. Therefore, the extraterrestrials did not look back into time when planning the mission, taking it “absolutely for granted” that the disaster was to be unprecedented. Having made this admission, the envoys begin to recount their mission.
This passage reveals that the city the aliens are observing is most likely San Francisco; a major earthquake struck San Francisco in 1906, about 65 years before “Report on the Threatened City” was published in 1972. While turn-of-the-century technology didn’t allow the initial earthquake to be predicted, the city was rebuilt on the same fault line despite the knowledge that future earthquakes would happen. This suggests a general indifference to human suffering and death. Because an earthquake is a relatively predictable natural disaster, it symbolizes any kind of impending threat that humanity choses to ignore. The aliens demonstrate their own gap in perception and understanding when they admit that they didn’t look back into the past while preparing for their mission. However, they frame their report with the aim of correcting this mistake and rationally assessing humanity.
The Landing. The envoys landed their craft by moonlight in an arid, sparsely populated area. Their predecessors had landed here, first at long intervals, but with increasing frequency recently. A group of young creatures were at the site, participating in a “mating ritual that involved fire, food and strong sound.” Several of the youth saw the craft. As they dispersed, the envoys read their minds and discovered that while these viewers believed that the craft was alien in origin, they were indifferent to this knowledge. Next, a group of older specimens appeared, all of whom were farmers who lived nearby. These creatures were also aware of the envoys’ spacecraft, though it became invisible to them once the sun rose. The elders felt pride because they believed the craft to be a weapon that originated from their own planet.
The envoys don’t try to land secretly, but their presence doesn’t surprise anyone nearby. They note this indifference with some surprise, although they don’t yet understand its source. Importantly, the landing happens at night, which both renders the craft more visible—making it even more strange that no one reacts—and introduces the symbol of light, which stands for enlightenment. The aliens and their craft are made of light, which represents the advancement of their technology and their ability assess the truth rationally. Once again, their non-human perspective makes a common activity—a party—sound strange, allowing a fresh perspective on human behavior. Finally, the “mating ritual” of food and song in the countryside is the first of many allusions to the flower child movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, which was a protest of mostly young people against capitalism and war.
War-Making Patterns. The envoys explain the older specimens’ belief that the spacecraft was a weapon. War and violence are so characteristic of this species that it is in the process of destroying itself. Each geographical grouping of this species is under the control of its “war-making functions.” This is true whether the inhabitants are actively preparing for war or believe themselves to be peaceful.
Because war is so prevalent in human society, the elders assume that the alien spacecraft is terrestrial surveillance or weapons technology. The is the first allusion to the Cold War, a decades-long conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Cold War avoided direct confrontation, but the development of weapons technology and proxy wars in the 1960s and 1970s meant that even the fragile “peace” between the two powers was underwritten by violence. Allowing themselves to be governed by war even when they believe they are at peace demonstrates humans’ preference for their opinions and beliefs over facts and explains some of the indifference the aliens note. Surrounded and controlled by war, violence, and death, no one—especially not the young—feels empowered to change their situation.
Rational Action Impossible. The species can hold in their minds two contradictory ideas 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 are aware that the planet’s inhabitants are being deceived by their various groupings’ war departments.
The essential truth that humans can hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time is foundational to conspiracy thinking, which requires a person to believe in a hypothetical scenario even when it is much less plausible than other explanations. The first direct evidence of the conspiracies in human society is the aliens’ awareness that governments are deceiving people.
Subservient Populations. For instance, this species’ recent, publicly broadcasted moon landings were not actually the first. Rather, earlier landings were made secretly to show military and technological prowess among the dominant groups. Likewise, inhabitants’ widespread reports of UFOs are frequently stifled by the authorities, who conceal whether the objects in question are terrestrial or extraterrestrial in origin. This official misinformation is so widely accepted that most of the inhabitants believe that sightings are a sign of delusion or mental illness until they see one themselves.
Conspiracy thinking comes from the top down, as governments lie to their citizens about technological developments like spaceflight. The official story that UFOs don’t exist is reinforced throughout all levels of society by casting sightings as the result of mental illness. Many people have seen UFOs but haven’t reported them for fear of being called delusional, which shows a manipulation of belief—even when there’s visible evidence to support people’s testimonies.
This supports another one of the envoys’ observations: the younger members of the species see more clearly and better understand the nature of the planet. Yet the younger members are also “more passive and hopeless” than the elders, who control society. The envoys hypothesize a correlation between the amount of purposeful energy members of the species have and the narrowness of their ideas. Both the youths and the elders that the envoys encountered upon landing had seen and reported alien spacecraft to the authorities in the past. But the youth had met with resistance and were no longer willing to interact with the authorities. The elders’ response was to be on the alert for further sightings but to keep their observations quiet.
The inverse correlation between perceiving the truth and feeling empowered to act on it has two consequences. First, this generates indifference among young people, and with good reason: when they have tried to confide in the authorities in the past, their elders have dismissed their experiences of phenomena like UFOs. Second, it demonstrates authority figures’ coercive power to silence the truth. These conspiracies ultimately make people unwilling—or unable—to trust their own perceptions.
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 had just made the spacecraft invisible. The envoys decided to intercept the elders’ thoughts and communicate with them telepathically. But there was an obstacle that the envoys couldn’t understand and that made the process time-consuming; they believed they might run out of power while trying to communicate with the elders.
The elders aren’t scared by the warning of the earthquake, because it is old news to them. The message begins in daylight, which symbolizes the fact that the elders already see the danger clearly. However, the envoys are in the dark about the earlier earthquake and human indifference. In their report, they have already mentioned the nature of the block, but in the chronology of their mission, they haven’t yet discovered it. The daylight timing and care with which the envoys convey their message contrast with the truth that the elders know about the earthquake but don’t care.
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 the course of 24 hours. The farmers failed to react, and the envoys assumed that fear prevented their understanding. They repeated the message, but there was still “no change in [the farmers’] mental structure.” Hypothesizing that this group was somehow deficient for their purposes, the envoys decided to find others to warn. Hindsight indicates that the farmers already knew about the threat, but at the time, the envoys attributed their failure to the specimens’ age and corresponding lack of openness to new ideas.
The envoys distrust their own perceptions and repeat the message because are still operating under incorrect beliefs about human behavior. As they narrate the report, they have the benefit of hindsight. But their failure to generate alternative hypotheses, like their earlier inability to explain the “gap” in human knowledge, shows that they haven’t yet been able to move beyond their mistaken beliefs. This mental block wastes precious time and energy. The elders are indifferent, not because they are defective specimens, but because human indifference rises from thought processes that the aliens have yet to uncover.
Second Attempt at a Warning. 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, and the envoys used the same method—but less time—to convey their warning. Again, they had to repeat the message because they didn’t think the four youths could absorb it. But the youths neither rejected it nor were paralyzed with fear. Instead, they repeated variations on the phrases “it’s going to be real bad,” “[half] the city might be killed,” and “[they] say we only have five years.” Eventually, one took up a musical instrument and set these sentiments to music, singing about how they “eat and drink and love,” to deal with their mortality. Following the song, the youth returned to their activities.
If light symbolizes enlightenment in the story, the four youths’ arrival at sunset (when light gives way to darkness) foreshadows their inability to perceive the truth. They understand the danger but don’t seem to understand that they could take steps to protect themselves and others. It also emphasizes the aliens’ ongoing blindness to aspects of human nature. The youths’ refrains about the disaster’s inevitability show their perceived helplessness and their indifference to life-saving knowledge. Their song’s lyrics further allude to the flower child movement in the 1960s and 70s, with its emphasis on free love, momentary pleasures, and drug culture.
Phase I Abandoned. The envoys decided to stop using telepathy to transmit the warning and begin Phase II, which involved directly entering some of the creatures’ minds and causing them to say the warning. At this point, the envoys still didn’t understand that people didn’t react to the warnings because they already expected the impending earthquake.
The envoys are still blinded by their own biases and cannot accept the evident truth that their message hasn’t moved any of the humans they’ve tried to warn. However, they are still committed to their mission, and they step up their efforts to save these creatures from their immobilizing indifference to life.
Phase II Attempted. The envoys travel into the city with the four youths. The trip began at dawn and continued until full light. The envoys were shocked by the foolhardy way the youth handled the vehicle, their laughter at near collisions, their “recklessness, [and] their indifference to death or pain.” Surprised by this lack of survival instinct, the envoys considered that they were unlucky enough to encounter many creatures whose indifference made them “defective.”
Once again, the distance created by the envoys’ odd descriptions of cars and laughter offers an anthropological lens for observing human behavior. And the observation isn’t kind: the youth disregard life and safety, laughing at near-misses and failing to reduce speed or drive carefully. The night-to-day duration of the car ride to the city parallels the envoys’ gradual enlightenment: although they haven’t yet understood how truly universal humanity’s indifference to life is—still considering these youth somehow defective—they are on a collision course with that knowledge.
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 were under the influence of a drug that heightened their sensitivity; for this reason, they perceived the envoys’ presence, unlike the youth in the car. The intoxicated youth associated the envoys with the light of the “sun’s appearance over the roof.” Because the drug had relaxed the youths, the envoys hoped that they would be open to possession, and they entered the trio’s minds (at considerable risk to themselves, due to the nature of the drug).
The long-haired people on the bench are under the influence of a mind-altering drug—perhaps marijuana or LSD—again alluding to the flower children. These human specimens are more receptive to enlightenment—and, by extension, the envoys’ message—in their drugged state. They perceive the envoys’ presence and correctly associate it with light. This pessimistically suggests that human consciousness needs to be altered or bypassed in some way to allow for clear perception of the truth.
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 the effects of their senses.” They report that the drug depresses functions like walking and talking while increasing the sensations of “sound, scent, sight, [and] touch.” The envoys’ mode of perception is very different to this species’. Even without the drug, they would be prone to losing their balance and being overwhelmed by the beauty and color that this species perceives in the world.
The envoys’ destabilizing experience of the world through the youths’ minds hints at how differently they must perceive things. Although the drug renders the possession riskier, they continue with their altruistic mission out of concern for the human community. The envoys imply that they don’t perceive through physical senses, and they suggest that human experience of the world, mediated by sensory stimuli, may reduce their ability to perceive the substance—rather than the appearance—of things.
Necessity to Condense Report, Power Failing. While the envoys would like to elaborate on their experience of the drugged youths’ minds, they are aware that their transmission is in danger of being broken up, so they return to recounting of their mission. They caused the young creatures to shout and sing about the coming disaster while they awaited transportation into the city center. Once there, they continued to make the youths shout out their message. The envoys yet again expected a “response to which we could respond […] with advice or offers of help.” Instead, the few people who noticed them at all refused this connection with a “glance or a short indifferent stare.”
The envoys are shocked that everyone seems to be indifferent to their direct appeal from the youths’ bodies. The few people who take notice of the youths ignore them, suggesting their outside status and lack of authority. Disregard also suggests the shallow way in which humans perceive one another. Given the ongoing allusions to flower child culture, mistrust of the trio may arise because the youths are hippies. The envoys, though, are shocked at human indifference. That they continue to search for a response that makes sense to them suggests that they haven’t yet been able to grasp significant truths about human nature.
Capture by the Authorities. Suddenly, the envoys heard a loud sound. They initially thought this was finally a reaction to their message or a warning to the citizens. But instead, it was an official-looking vehicle that took the youth to jail for being a public nuisance. Rather than questioning the youths about their warning, the jail’s doctor rendered them unconscious with a drug. He mentioned the earthquake that struck the city 65 years ago, which was shocking news to the envoys. The doctor, like other authorities, thought that the youth suffered from “paranoia,” which the envoys understood to mean “a condition when people show fear of forthcoming danger and try to warn others about it.”
The description of the police car and jail, filtered through the envoys’ outsider perspective, again makes everyday objects seem strange. The common knowledge of earthquake danger, combined with active hostility to preventive actions, reveals the depth of human indifference. However, the envoys still can’t perceive the factors driving this indifference and hostility. The doctor diagnoses the youths with paranoia, essentially suggesting that they’re delusional. But based on their own observations, the aliens guess that “paranoia” simply describes perceiving a danger and trying to mitigate it. This highlights the irony of the human situation: those who most clearly see the danger are labeled delusional, while those who are most deluded are considered sane and put in positions of authority.
As the envoys describe their shock at this turn of events, their transmission is interrupted by a “news flash” that describes the heartwarming story of Janice Wanamaker, a two-year-old child with a congenital heart condition in desperate need of lifesaving operation. Janice is saved by five “ordinary people, not rich folks,” who have each “given up a month’s pay” to send her to a special medical center. When the envoys’ report resumes, they note the details of the previous earthquake, which tore up hundreds of miles of earth, killed hundreds of people, and was followed by fires.
This first news flash juxtaposes individual acts of altruism with concern for the community. Lifesaving treatment for dire illness is available at great cost, and Janice Wanamaker receives it only because selfless people make personal sacrifices for her. Later reports will explore this individual approach to problems, which seems to contrast with the aliens’ communal efforts. The care for Janice’s singular life contrasts sharply with the death and devastation that the 1906 earthquake caused.
Humour as a Mechanism. The envoys relate two notable features of the doctor’s reaction: his use of humor, which they identify as “a device for the release of tension or to ward off or relieve fear,” and euphemistically referring to the earthquake as “the fire” rather than its proper name. The envoys note that humor and euphemism indicate fear and helplessness, which they find odd since the creatures could simply leave the city. Their report is interrupted by another snippet of local transmission, this one advertising a new suburb to the west of the city that will contribute to its growth.
Again, the alien perspective casts a fresh light on human behavior. They identify euphemism—using mild, pleasant words instead of rude or unpleasant ones—and laughter as mechanisms humans use to reduce their anxiety. Their reliance on these mechanisms, which have no real effect, contrasts starkly with their refusal to reduce anxiety through actions that actually solve problems. At this point, the envoys have collected plenty of examples of how fear and helplessness lead to indifference toward life. The local broadcast advertising a new suburb hints at another factor driving this indifference: a desire to keep the city prosperous and growing. City planning will come up several times in the rest of the report.
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, which was to be a combination of the two, should be abandoned altogether. At this point, they had learned that they should “assume the shapes of older animals” because “the authorities disliked the young,” although they were still unsure as to whether the creatures as a group were “capable of listening to the older ones.”
The extraterrestrials are beginning to understand an important truth: belief has less to do with what is said and more to do with who says it, because of the gap humanity creates between perception and belief. Elders dislike the young and squelch contradiction—as the envoys have recorded—through conspiracy, propaganda, and obscuring the truth.
Inability to Assess Truth. The envoys interrupt their report to remark that this species is incapable of judging the truth of a statement on its own merits. Rather, they accept new ideas only from sources they already trust. Therefore, the envoys suggest, future missions should prioritize the creation of credible and respected characters to impart the facts. For example, had the youth claimed to see aliens, the authorities would have rejected the report out of mistrust of the reporters. If, however, other authorities “observed […] with instruments […] three rapidly vibrating light structures”—the same aliens—they would be more readily believed. In addition to the messenger, great care must be used to select familiar, believable words for the message.
The envoys analyze their findings to explain their dawning realization that humans can’t differentiate between truth and reality. Instead, they accept their beliefs from authority figures, a situation that helps explain why people avoid the truth and are readily deceived. Their example uses the symbol of light in the context of belief: the young person and the scientist in the story both observe extraterrestrials who are made of light. The youth sees this directly, while the scientist uses an instrument. The young person’s unmediated account would be distrusted, while the scientist would gain authority by describing the phenomenon as it was sensed with instruments. The example points to the power of the older cultural authorities compared to the youth. It also shows how readily humans believe information gathered by authorities over what they themselves can see. This idea links back to the envoys’ earlier accounts of how reports of UFO sightings are met with disbelief and misinformation.
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 trust, including conservative clothing and hairstyles. While mature women and the youth were allowed more flexibility in terms of color and style of dress, adult males had to conform. The envoys focused on carrying their bodies in a sober way and making facial expressions that conveyed their peaceful intent.
Unlike the humans, the envoys accept the situation they encounter, and as they begin to understand it more fully, they adapt their methods accordingly. Because people are more willing to believe an accepted authority’s statements than their own experience, the envoys adopt the shape of the people who have the most authority in American culture (adult men).
In disguise, the envoys walked around the city, where they were surprised by the lack of attention paid to them. They were “fair copies” of the creatures, but close observation would have betrayed their alien nature. Nevertheless, no one seemed to notice. Everyone they talked to knew about the impending earthquake, but “they did not really believe it.” During these conversations, the envoys learned about an institute that existed to “study the past upheaval and make plans for the forthcoming one.” The envoys’ broadcast is interrupted by a news bulletin about the tragic collapse of the stands at a baseball stadium. Sixty people were killed. The accident evidently occurred because safety procedures were minimized to maximize the stadium owners’ profits.
Again, the envoys are surprised at how little human beings notice. Their imperfect disguises are readily accepted, suggesting the depths of people’s willingness to defer to authority instead of their own perceptions. Knowing is somehow separate from believing, a paradox that lies at the root of human indifference and paranoia. The interrupting broadcast illuminates another aspect of this indifference: 60 people died in a stadium collapse simply because the owners prioritized their profits over safety measures. This begins to suggest that self-interest is at the heart of capitalism, an idea that the story will continue to explore through news broadcasts like this one.
The Institute. The envoys entered the Institute for Prognosis and Prevention of Earth Disturbance as observers. It is a place where 50 “highly skilled technicians’ work equipment that is just as advanced as the technology on the envoys’ planet. The institute exists because it’s common knowledge that another earthquake will happen soon, yet the technicians responsible to forecast it live in the dangerous city willingly and cheerfully. The envoys consider that these people might be extremely brave but ultimately conclude that they, like the youth in the car earlier, “are in some way set not to believe what they say” about the impending danger.
The geological technicians’ willingness to live and work in the city, although they are perhaps the best-positioned to understand the risks, illustrates human indifference toward life while emphasizing the necessity of aligning one’s beliefs with reality in order to survive. The vexed relationship between these experts and the less-aware citizens and city planners, who hear the warnings but don’t heed them, again speaks to the power of conspiracy thinking. It makes less sense to heed a call to leave the threatened city when the earthquake experts continue to live there willingly.
The next interruption of the report concerns a tragic fire in a housing complex. A brave and selfless hero passing by on the street entered the building three times, saving two small children, an elderly woman, and a baby before evidently perishing in the blaze.
The tragedy in this news report is relatively small-scale, as the fire only burns one apartment building down. Still, the individual hero can only save a few people’s lives. The report thus emphasizes the value of individual lives and sidelines the larger group of people who suffered in this tragedy.
A Basic Mechanism. The envoys use their experience at the Institute to explain how the creatures avoid action by way of discussion and debate—“one of their mechanisms for maintaining themselves in impotence and indecision.” Thus, the technicians at the Institute issue warnings one after the other, all of which come true. Yet when the envoys tried to talk about preventive actions to take, the technicians treated them like suspicious troublemakers. These technicians weren’t afraid to discuss “the timing, the nature, the power” of earthquakes, but they were hostile to discussions about “transfer of population or rebuilding the city elsewhere.” The envoys suspect that many methods that the creatures believe bring change or save lives instead delay meaningful action.
The envoys’ analysis of how humans seem to prefer talking about problems to fixing them suggests that indifference lies in the gap between knowing and acting. Even worse, talk can replace action. Yet again, the envoys’ surprise at the gap between humans’ knowledge of the danger and willingness to act shows that perceiving does not necessarily mean believing. Although there are simple solutions available, human unwillingness to align belief with reality makes the solution seem more horrible than the problem.
Another news bulletin cuts in. Someone is protesting a plan to raze three skyscrapers in order to erect higher buildings in the city, when the money for this project 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 bulletin boasts of the city’s conventions and tourism, which prove how attractive “the city, its situation, its climate, its amenities” are, before noting that “it is essential to step up the building of new hotels, motels and restaurants” to draw in and accommodate more visitors.
The local debate about increasing the value of buildings in high-rent areas rather than building affordable housing demonstrates indifference to human suffering yet again. By contrasting high-rises to affordable housing, the report indicates how capitalism encourages self-interest over the common good. This indifference to poor people’s suffering is underpinned by a general indifference to life, because no matter what buildings go up, the impending earthquake will endanger the residents. Continual assertions of the city’s attractions and appeals to bring in more residents and tourists serve to undermine belief in the coming disaster.
Indifference to Loss of Life. The envoys report that the citizens of the city have never considered relocating for their own safety. They feel that this indicates an attitude that life is not valued, at least on a societal or global level. However, this indifferent attitude coexists with “infinite care and devotion to individuals or small groups.” The report is interrupted with another a story about Joan Underscribe, a wife who spent five years working around the clock to afford a large public memorial to “the best husband a woman ever had,” William Underscribe. The envoys’ analysis of the creatures’ preference for talk over action is further interrupted by a bulletin for an entertainment extravaganza featuring performers from around the world and rich and famous guests.
The envoys eventually realize that humans are indifferent to suffering in general, but not to more personal, individualized instances of suffering—a revelation that the interrupting broadcasts support. William Underscribe gets more care and concern in death than the city’s insufficiently housed poor people, or the countless people who will suffer and die in the coming earthquake. This social apathy extends to allowing national stars and international entertainers to risk their lives travelling to the city for a week of shows.
The envoys determine that the creatures’ main “anxiety-calming mechanism” is something called a “conference,” which involves meeting together to discuss a theme or themes. When this is done socially, it is called a “party.” Those who aren’t at the conference are later told of the opinions shared there. At this point, the envoys are interrupted by a bulletin describing the success of the city’s “conservation year” and calling for a “conference” to extend the awareness and interest it created in the citizens.
By casting human interactions, including parties, as “conferences”—places where people calm their anxieties by sharing opinions on a topic—the story again uses the aliens to invoke a distanced, anthropological perspective. Because the report has already established that talk frequently prevents action rather than enabling it, it’s unlikely that “conferences” actually solve problems. Nevertheless, the next bulletin celebrates the city’s successful conservation year—another absurdity, considering that the city is not taking steps to protect itself from the next earthquake. The bulletin also calls for a conference that is more likely to unify people in false belief than to engage with reality.
Their Education. The envoys conclude that opinions are the primary subject of the creatures’ education—particularly knowing how to differentiate one’s own opinion from those of others. When two of the creatures first meet, they try to discern each other’s opinions and “will tolerate each other” according to how well their opinions agree or disagree. Ideas that many people accept become familiar and are also called “received ideas.” These are rarely met with much opposition, and the mark of an educated person is to have absorbed many of them. Those who have absorbed ideas that are not “to the current standard” are distrusted—particularly if they are women or youth.
The aliens have already established that humans are incapable of assessing the truth for themselves—they are ruled by their beliefs and opinions. New information must come from a trusted source, and a trusted source is defined as one with similar opinions, suggesting that almost all human communication happens in an echo chamber. This is one possible reason why it is so hard for the envoys to break through people’s indifference and hopelessness. That opinions are the focus of human education suggests the time and attention necessary to instill the desired beliefs in the next generation. An education that favors received truth over observed truth leads to a society that’s vulnerable to conspiracy thinking, because it uncritically accepts shared beliefs. There are also social mechanisms in place that reinforce standard ideas: namely, those who have different ideas are shunned. The report has already provided examples of this, such as when the drugged youths were labeled paranoid.
The envoys became well-known at the institute as Herbert Bond (age 35) and John Hunter (age 40). They did not directly ask the technicians why they weren’t trying to avoid calamity. They had learned to engage in a roundabout exchange of ideas, saying, for instance, “Let us discuss the factors militating against the taking [a certain] step.” This approach was initially successful, but it faltered when words such as “profit motive […] capitalism, socialism, democracy” entered the conversation. These words provoked such an emotional response that the envoys feared violence, which results when the “range of opinions” on what should be done is “too wide to be accommodated.” Notably, the disagreement is on the steps to be taken, not on the fact of impending earthquake.
With their newfound knowledge about how humans communicate and whom they trust, the envoys enter the institute that studies and predicts earthquakes—the place where they should be most likely to succeed with their warning. Here, they find no disagreement about the impending disaster, just about the steps that could be taken to soften it. This suggests that conspiracy and indifference are closely related, as powerful people can exploit both. Here, too, for the first time, the envoys encounter the economic interests that capitalize on human indifference. The technicians are more fired up about the economic costs of evacuating the city than the human costs of the disaster they predict. If the technicians accept economic arguments for staying, the story implies, then the builders and planners are likely to be even more resistant.
Barbaric Method of Town Planning Unique in Our 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 many conflicting, self-interested desires. For example, many buildings are built directly on the city’s fault line because people will pay more to live there. Lest those with commercial interests in these buildings be accused of disregarding others’ lives, the envoys note that the planners and builders are themselves among the people who willingly live in the danger zone.
This passage recalls the earlier news bulletin on the stadium collapse, which resulted from the owners’ concern for profits over safety. Likewise, the city’s plan is based on economic self-interest. The story might be alluding here to events following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, where local business leaders rushed to downplay the disaster and rebuild the city on the same site as quickly as possible. Commercial interests can override safety due to humanity’s apathy and willingness to disregard danger; the owners and builders who live in the danger zone both model and encourage this indifference toward life. Although the story suggests that avoiding unpleasant truths might be a natural human reaction, history and the aliens’ warnings both contradict the citizens’ incorrect beliefs.
The next interruption is a bulletin celebrating the emergency unit at a local hospital, where doctors and nurses work heroically to save the lives of car accident and street fight victims. The treatments available in the emergency unit mean that people who would have died as recently as five years ago can now be saved. Unfortunately, those living near hospitals not so equipped are usually less lucky, as it takes more time to reach lifesaving treatments.
Thus far, the envoys’ report has established how people tend to prioritize individual lives and interests are over the common good. The new emergency department demonstrates this imbalance: its lifesaving benefits are very real, but they are only accessible to people close enough to arrive quickly. Previous bulletins mentioning new suburbs (featuring many amenities but not necessarily a hospital) and the city’s severe housing crisis raise questions about how many people will actually benefit from this new emergency unit.
The Institute Found 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 youth and the elders, the envoys had to reincarnate as a young man and woman. They found that the young people liked to “discuss and talk and sing endlessly.” The purpose of their conversations is to create “sensations of satisfaction and agreement with each other.” The envoys wasted a fourth of their remaining fuel on a futile attempt to convince the young to exit the city and find a new place to live.
The report has frequently mentioned older people’s narrow ideas and conservative attitudes. The entrenched attitudes and shared beliefs at the Institute insulate its technicians from true perception of the earthquake’s danger. Although the envoys hope that the young, who are more open-minded, will be receptive, the youth also prefer to hear their peers reflect their preexisting opinions, which suggests that the young are just as vulnerable to being manipulated by conspiracy theories as the old. This suggests that indifference and inability to perceive the truth are perhaps universal human flaws.
Failure with the Young. Unfortunately, the envoys waited until after the daylight had faded, the worst possible moment, for this attempt. Several youths turned the occasion into a “conference” in which they addressed the crowd through sad songs. The envoys tried to discuss how to prevent congregation in the most vulnerable areas (ironically, the gathering of the youth was happening in just such a place), how to prevent mass deaths and injuries, and how to treat injuries.
The envoys meet the youth after sunset, when the literal darkness of night parallels the metaphorical darkness of the youths’ minds. Instead of understanding the envoys’ instructions on mitigating the disaster, the youth remain in the metaphorical darkness as they deny their ability to create change. The generalized indifference to danger in humans is on display even in the choice of a venue for the gathering, as the beach is a particularly risky place to be in an earthquake.
Despair of the Young. However, the state of “disabling 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 heard from the first group of youths and more sad songs.
The sources of indifference, this episode suggests, aren’t limited to commercial interests—they can also arise from the youths’ deep belief in their own inability to make a difference in their society. The aliens’ continued warnings are met with hopelessness about trying anything, even when they offer clear and specific instructions.
Mass Suicides. There was also a mass suicide event 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 a large bird sanctuary in the city that has been made possible by a large donation of money. The sanctuary will provide a place where “species threatened with extinction due to man’s cruelty and unconcern” can live and be bred to avoid extinction.
The young are so indifferent to life that, rather than take steps to preserve their own lives, many commit suicide. This act is a dramatized version of the citizens’ general behavior, since remaining in the city in the face of certain destruction indicates a similar disregard for their own lives. Humanity’s disregard for life isn’t limited to their own species, either. The sanctuary for birds who are nearly extinct due to human activities alludes to events that were driving the environmentalist movement in the 1960s and 70s. Like the housing crisis, this broadcast is an example of the calamities that humanity could avoid but chooses to ignore.
The envoys decided to make their final warning by combining a piece of common knowledge with one of the creatures’ anxiety-soothing mechanisms. They rejected the idea of a conference and staged presentation of songs. They considered a third mechanism, where new or upsetting ideas are acted out as a drama that the creatures view personally in small groups or broadcast widely on a device called a television. Things that aren’t currently acceptable, when acted in this way, can become familiar through consistent exposure. These dramas can also be used to depict boring life experiences in a more stimulating way in order to make life seem more tolerable. In both ways, dramas soothe the creatures and prevent them from rebelling.
Here, the envoys acknowledge how much effort it takes to make a belief common among the people. And although it sometimes seems like the envoys themselves take a long time to accept truths about humanity, they have only been on Earth for a few days. Their story models an alternate choice that humanity could make to embrace the truth. The process they describe, of using television define and reinforce acceptable beliefs, is a long-term project, which is why it’s not an option for them. The power of television to define what is and isn’t tolerable or acceptable is another way in which the authorities and social elites control people through conspiracy and propaganda.
The envoys reassumed the identities of Herbert Bond and John Hunter. Noting that Great Britain enjoyed a prestigious reputation because of its military power, the envoys provided British credentials for their characters. They convinced a television station to broadcast a debate between themselves and two local professors.
The envoys resort to changing people’s attitudes by making themselves seem authoritative—not only as adult males, but as British citizens. They think this might be successful because Britain has a history of military power, remembering that human society is largely controlled by war. These credentials do seem to offer the envoys some power, as they succeed in getting their debate televised, despite the flaws they’ve already noted in their ability to project their human incarnations.
Laughter, Functions 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 (“laughing at”) and laughter of agreement (“laughing with”). While the latter seems less threatening, it is more dangerous because it “arouses feelings of anxiety in those watching,” especially when the ideas challenge accepted norms. The audience laughed in a loud and prolonged manner as the envoys developed their argument: that the species is indifferent to suffering and death, that they fear the wrong things, and that they cannot see the contradiction between the facts they know and the actions they make.
The debate’s theme strikes right to the heart of human indifference as the envoys understand it: it’s generated and maintained by talking instead of taking action. The analysis of laughter highlights how ideas that differ from received beliefs make people anxious, especially in a society that values authority over reality and belief over truth. The report distinguishes between laughing at and laughing with; the audience laughing in agreement with the aliens’ themes suggests that perhaps humans are more aware of the truth than they’ve let on, although they’re still unwilling to act. Because the envoys visit a world where opinion is formed by authorities rather than reality, changes in opinion are profoundly destabilizing.
A verbal game of this 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 the opposing view. The envoys switched from their general theme to the specific scenario of the impending earthquake. When they did, the audience stopped laughing and became very hostile. The reaction among the audience watching via television was so pronounced that the messages they sent to the “relay point” of the broadcast broke the “equipment for listening to these messages.”
The low-level disregard for the envoys’ message finally erupts into outright hostility, because they have taken on the form of authorities and have dared to question received ideas. The audience will not tolerate this attempt to break through its self-imposed conspiracy of ignorance. They demonstrate their preference for received ideas and established beliefs with much more anger, complaint, and reaction than they had for the envoys’ earlier warnings.
The local professors maintained a 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 they attacked the envoys as foreigners. With a threatening crowd outside, the envoys were escorted by the television producers to a safe place within the building to protect them from the murderous mob that had been watching the debate. The envoys agreed to avoid further disruption.
The professors and the audience object to the envoys’ ideas. But in the context of Cold War paranoia and international hostility, they attach their dislike to the envoys’ foreignness—even though no one actually understands how alien the envoys truly are. It’s easier for these people to accept lies from their government—for example, that UFOs don’t exist—than truths from foreigners.
As the envoys describe this turn of events, their report is again interrupted. A voice commands listeners to bring their deceased loved ones to “us, who are friends of your family.” In this apparent advertisement, the voice promises that just as someone cares for their parent, sibling, or spouse in life, so too will the dead be cared for by the people the voice represents. The resting place is promised as a secure place in which to honor the memory of the dead.
The advertisement for a cemetery recalls the monument to William Underscribe earlier in the story. Both incidents illustrate humanity’s obsessive care for individual loved ones even after death. The commercial asserts that the cemetery’s owners—who presumably operate it out of self-interested motives like the rest of the humans—are “friends” when they are, in fact, a business. They cast their mission as altruistic, but the promised resting place lies in a city doomed to destruction. The imaginary deceased loved ones become little more than a reminder of the many who will die in the impending earthquake.
Running short of power, the envoys realize that they can do nothing else. They haven’t achieved their mission’s goals, and they haven’t even been able to understand the root cause of their failure. When their guards’ vigilance dropped, they dematerialized and returned to their craft. Their description of their escape is interrupted with a local broadcast detailing the creatures’ reaction to the debate, which viewers found highly offensive. It protests that the locals, not the envoys, must live with the knowledge the earthquake. The envoys’ “bad taste, crudity of tone, ugliness of manner and insensitivity” hurt local viewers’ feelings.
The envoys have reported as much as they have been able to learn about humanity during their mission. But while they have a lot more insight now, they still haven’t figured out a way to get the citizens of the city to heed their warning. The citizens’ belief that it’s their responsibility to rise to the occasion of the danger in which they live, even though they aren’t taking meaningful action, relates to the envoys’ earlier revelation about humans’ willingness to believe they are peaceful when they are, in fact, at war. The locals believe they are prepared, when in fact they reject the very reality of the danger. Belief trumps rational action in the face of this clear danger. Moreover, the reaction to the debate provides further evidence of humans’ focus on words over actions. The main objections are to the envoys’ tone rather than the content of their warning—suggesting that humans will remain willfully indifferent until the disaster happens. And, finally, the envoys’ foreignness is stressed, alluding to the general atmosphere of isolationism and xenophobia (fear of foreigners) in the Cold War-era United States.
Departure from the Planet. The six envoys are reassembled at their ship and prepare to depart. They report their findings to base. A society that is doomed to disaster and unwilling to prepare for it will not survive; only those who are sensitive to misfortune will have an advantage. The people who behave according to social norms, as well as society’s leaders, are doomed by their inability to flexibly adapt to the coming catastrophe. On the other hand, the marginalized, insane, and criminal will have a competitive survival advantage. As their transmission breaks off abruptly, the envoys pin their final hopes on individuals and groups who could be secretly taking steps that might protect them from the earthquake.
The envoys may perceive the truth more accurately than the humans do, so they abandon their mission and leave the planet once the evidence convinces them that their mission is futile. The envoys understand that social elites’ efforts to maintain order and control in society have dampened people’s survival instincts , and in this way, the elites have engineered a system that guarantees its own destruction. Those who reject received ideas in favor of the truth will be better positioned to survive. Common beliefs can control behavior, but they can’t change reality—those who are judged paranoid for not buying into society’s conspiracies are, in the end, the least delusional of all.
The West Coast Examiner. A local newspaper runs an article reporting that Sam Baker of Long Ridge saw a UFO take off near his home around sunset the day before. It rose suddenly and disappeared quickly from sight. Baker is not the only citizen to report strange sightings, but the “official explanation” finds that the light of “unusually vivid sunsets” has recently caused “strong reflections and mirages” in the area.
The envoys’ departure is noticed, just like their arrival was. But this time, someone has tried to alert the authorities, who quickly assert that what Sam Baker saw was a trick of the light. Baker was enlightened enough to see the truth, but the elites cover it up with conspiracy. The final sunset hints at the dark fate of a people who will accept propaganda instead of believing the truth that they can perceive with their own senses.
Military Sector III to HQ (Top Confidential). The military command of Sector III reports that a UFO landed on the 14th and stayed at its landing point for seven days. As with the previous landings on this site, no one was seen leaving the craft during that period. This was the 13th UFO to land in the area, as well as being the largest and the most visible, according to the military’s informant. While an entity called M8 hypothesizes that the craft is of Chinese origin, the report writers contend that it is from the country’s own Naval Department 15 and expresses frustration with the assumed intrusion into their zone of control.
The final sections of the story highlight the paranoia inherent in the Cold War mentality. No one knows where the UFOs originate, but there is no shortage of theories that assign blame to military adversaries. However, Military Sector III is even paranoid about other branches of the military invading their area of responsibility. If the “war-making machinery” that controls the world initially seemed to represent national governments, this memo suggests that even the military is controlled by its own “war-making patterns” via infighting.
Air Force 14 to Centre. Air Force 14’s report concurs that the craft was the 13th UFO in the area, and that it was unmanned. The Air Force thinks the craft is Russian. They note two additional landings south of the city recently, which have coincided with people disappearing. The writers think that they can’t declare this a “coincidence” any longer. They hypothesize that the craft are manned by creatures invisible to the naked eye, an idea supported by the fact that scientific equipment can barely bring the craft “within vision.” The writers ask their superiors if they should continue to minimize the disappearances, for which they can find no common denominator other than proximity to the UFOs’ landing sites.
While the Air Force shares Sector III’s Cold War paranoia about foreign weapons, this memo’s writers demonstrate more openness to perceiving the truth, even if they still need it to be mediated through technology. They express discomfort with perpetuating a conspiracy to cover up the truth in order to maintain socially accepted opinions.
The West Coast Examiner runs another story noting that large groups of people—as many as 50,000 at a time—are leaving the city and traveling to known UFO landing sites.
The Air Force’s assessment that each UFO sighting coincides with disappearances is supported by a newspaper report that claims that large groups of people are leaving the city and intentionally travelling to UFO landing sites. This suggests that some of the citizens may have heard and heeded the envoys’ messages. However, these acts of preservation are still individual; there is no suggestion that broader efforts to protect life are taking place.
Air Force 14 to Centre. Concerning the same circumstances, Air Force 14 reports that despite their Total Policy 19, rumors have escaped. They advise an action that risks setting off a public panic but that they consider necessary: cordoning off the area where Be Ready for the Day cult members are gathering. They suggest announcing that it’s been contaminated by a radioactive leak to provide a plausible cover story.
Despite official attempts to control the UFO narrative, enough people have disappeared to have broken the official explanation’s hold over at least some people. Rather than reconsidering their beliefs in light of this mass exodus, however, the military powers propose doubling down on conspiracy to prevent further disappearances. The escaping citizens suggest that it’s possible for humans to assess the truth independently of received ideas. But the military’s willingness to prevent these actions suggests that human indifference cannot be solved on an individual basis—rather, it requires a societal paradigm shift.