Report on the Threatened City


Doris Lessing

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Themes and Colors
Perception and Belief Theme Icon
Indifference Theme Icon
Paranoia and Conspiracy Theme Icon
Altruism vs. Capitalism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Report on the Threatened City, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Indifference Theme Icon

In “Report on the Threatened City,” a group of alien envoys attempt to warn the citizens of San Francisco of an impending earthquake. Because the city’s residents aren’t evacuating, the extraterrestrials believe that they must not know about the looming danger. But as they spend a week in futile efforts to warn the population, they come to understand that almost everyone is aware of the danger, yet they refuse to act accordingly. As such, the story satirizes modern society’s apathy and suggests that it’s dangerous for people to avoid uncomfortable or unpleasant truths. Indeed, the envoys observe that humans think their species generally “must continuously lose numbers and strength and health” through catastrophe, yet they care very deeply about “individuals or small groups.” In essence, humans are good at caring for individuals but can’t extend this concern to bigger groups of people. In addition, the envoys observe that almost all human communication is an echo chamber, meaning that people only care about information from sources they already trust and agree with. The young and old humans in the story have different strategies for maintaining their indifference, but both age groups equally avoid confronting difficult truths or taking decisive action. The young numb themselves through humor, “mating rituals,” drugs, and music. The elders, meanwhile, spread propaganda, diffuse responsibility through an “infinitely subdivided society,” and expend their energy on debating rather than solving problems. The envoys’ observations of humans—and their failure to convince people to care about or prepare for the earthquake—suggest that such indifference and passivity can have deadly consequences.

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Indifference Quotes in Report on the Threatened City

Below you will find the important quotes in Report on the Threatened City related to the theme of Indifference.
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:

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:

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: