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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

In ldquo;Report on the Threatened City,” one of the stories in this nearly comprehensive anthology of Doris Lessing’s short fiction, visitors from outer space report on the progress of their mission. They have come to warn inhabitants of an unnamed city about an imminent disaster, an earthquake. The technological problems of building a spacecraft to reach Earth were solved more easily than the problem of conveying an adequate warning. For to their horror, the visitors discover that the city’s population already knows what is to occur—knows and does not appear to care. A similar earthquake of sixty-five years ago is referred to as a “fire.” Furthermore, some of the inhabitants are aware of the extraterrestrial visit but do not care about that either. The population of the planet is busy about its own destruction, preparing for war (though convinced it is peace-loving), and incapable of rational action. Frustrated, the visitors fly away, carrying off a few humans for study and training. The armed services, knowing of this visit and others, suspect hostile landings from China or Russia and cover up what they know; the religious cult named “Be Ready for the Day” is attracting thousands of members to the area where the UFO has been, and the Air Force suggests putting out a rumor that the area is radio-active. The story ends here, presumably just shortly before the combination of irrational suspicions of the bureaucracy and irrational faith of the people can ensure everyone’s destruction.

“Report on the Threatened City” reveals a characteristic that pervades Doris Lessing’s stories: the author takes the long view of human nature. She is interested and sympathetic, she often uses very particular detail; but the objectivity conveyed by the stiff language of official reports reflects her objective, analytic mind and eye. The ironic placement of the reader, with his knowledge of Earth and San Francisco, between observer and subject but close to neither emphasizes the distancing the story achieves. Even when Lessing focuses directly on one or two characters, they seem to be perceived through either a telescope or a microscope.

Lessing’s titles tend to show the same detachment and generalizing quality: “The Woman,” “The Other Woman,” “A Woman on a Roof,” “A Room,” “Notes for a Case History,” “Not a Very Nice Story”; they follow one another with a dreary impersonality and sameness. Yet the stories themselves are not at all alike. Though they often deal with the difficult relations between men and women, the characters are often not husbands and wives or lovers. In “Each Other,” for example, the two persons of the story are brother and sister, experimenting with a relationship that is almost, but not quite, sexually consummated. In “A Man and Two Women,” the subject is the effect of maternity on a woman and her marriage.

Sometimes, as in this last story, Lessing explores an old subject, in this case a woman’s relationship with her child, in an unfamiliar way. The new mother, an artist, has lost her creativity. She has also lost interest in her husband and her home. She does not want to cook, and she does not mind if her husband has an affair; in fact, she fosters one between him and a woman friend, Stella, and speaks of the advantages of polygamy. Stella, a mother herself, understands the fiercely physical love of her friend for the baby, understands that the feeling is so strong that it can make a woman feel unfaithful to her husband. The frazzled husband, angry and upset by his indifferent wife, begins to make love to Stella; and she, though happily married, nearly responds. But then, recalling an image of the tiny baby, she pulls back; caught between two rejecting women, he curses her. With great discrimination, Lessing has shown what each of these characters shares with the others and what separates him or her from each of the others. And through a series of drawings made by the...

(The entire section is 1,982 words.)