The earthquake that threatens the city represents the doomed fate of a society that is unwilling to take action or to value human life more than commercial interests. The city in the story (implied to be San Francisco) was destroyed almost completely an earlier earthquake in 1906. Afterward, local leaders quickly rebuilt infrastructure and housing to ensure the city’s position as a trade hub and the wealth and power of those who controlled its industry. Because earthquakes occur along fault lines, their risk—if not their actual occurrence—is easy to predict. Therefore, the imminent earthquake in the story’s present (the 1960s)—which is going to happen along the same fault line as the previous one—represents any sort of catastrophe that a society can foresee but chooses not to address.
In fact, the earthquake’s danger is less important to the city’s residents than economic interests. While alien envoys come to the city and try to convince people to evacuate, local broadcasts emphasize the need to build infrastructure for tourism and increase housing as the population swells. The city’s unique charm, beauty, and climate all make it an attractive place to be—as long as one ignores the fault line lying below. Indeed, the way people know about but don’t act on the earthquake’s danger represents the broader idea that humans avoid taking responsibility and meaningful action. Young people in the city numb themselves with drugs and embrace a nihilistic philosophy that sees death in natural disasters as inevitable and prioritizes current pleasures. Meanwhile, the geological technicians in the city warn people about the earthquake but don’t suggest solutions and are able to live cheerfully in danger, believing that they have done their job and trusting in others to take care of the rest. These failures of responsibility are highlighted by the few outliers who make different choices, like sacrificing money to help a small child access medical treatment. Ultimately, all of those who fail to heed the danger that the earthquake represents will suffer destruction and even death. The earthquake thus represents humans’ self-destructive tendency to stay passive and prioritize short-term comfort over long-term well-being.
The Earthquake Quotes in Report on the Threatened City
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.