The opening of Doris Lessing’s story is immediately disorientating; there is no exposition and no clarity. The reader is uncertain of the narrator, the setting and the circumstances. The subtitles and italics, unfamiliar features of a short story, add to the reader’s insecurity – the reader too lacks ‘coordinates’. This disorientation is crucial to the effects of the narrative, encouraging the reader to observe human characteristics from a detached perspective.
The Formality of a Report
The story is presented as a formal report, guided by its headings, and in that way, Lessing shifts it away from the conventional expectations of narrative. Readers will associate this kind of structure with non-fiction, so while the story itself is one of fantasy – the narrative perspective after all is alien – it presents it using a format we associate with fact. This technique of making the fantastic credible might be compared with H.G. Wells’ The Door in the Wall.
While the reader soon learns that the origin of the narrator is a distant planet, and therefore with technology considerably in advance of human knowledge and skills, the tone of the narrative and even the hierarchical titles, like the ‘Commissioners for External Affairs’, sound very human. Lessing uses this familiarity of tone to make the aliens’ observations of human life have greater impact. These aliens sound very much like us, but are bewildered by our behaviour. While they recognise that human technology is ‘so advanced in some ways’, the ignoring of danger is ‘a condition absolutely without precedent in our observation of the inhabited planets.’
Space travel for human beings had recently become a reality when Lessing wrote this story, three years after the first man stepped onto the moon. The interest in humankind’s quest for space naturally led to popular space fiction, in literature and film, where alien life was usually presented as threatening. Indeed, as early as 1898, H.G. Wells published his novel The War of the Worlds, in which a Martian attack on earth is used as a metaphor for destructive colonialism.
Lessing’s aliens are very different. Not only does the tone and language of the narrative give them some familiarity, it transpires that they are portrayed as a completely altruistic species. After ‘centuries’ of unmanned landings on earth, they have developed a spaceship with the sole ‘intention’ of lending ‘assistance’ to the human population, as they have already ‘done for other planets’. As the narrative states, the aliens’ ‘particular mental structure’ is ‘suited to this kind of forecasting and assistance’. The difference between these beings and human beings is becoming clearer, particularly at the height of the Cold War, with complete distrust between the USA and USSR, the earthly superpowers engaged in the space race of the late 1960s and 70s. This presentation of the aliens gives a keen focus to their perception of humanity.
The Perception of Humanity
Using the detached perspective of the aliens, Lessing is able to present an apparently rational and dispassionate view of human behaviour. This allows her to satirise human characteristics, from individual modes of behaviour to geopolitical tensions. There are moments of humour in this satirical portrayal, like the description of ‘a herd of their young’ with ‘long head fur’, but there is also potent criticism. Lessing’s aliens discuss how stories and drama allow human beings to face uncomfortable issues, a way ‘of acclimatising unfamiliar ideas’; Lessing’s own story could be likened to this description.
The view of humanity is not a flattering one. The narrator admits that the human species is ‘not the most remarkable or interesting’ one, and that human beings possess ‘a mind state that none of us could believe was possible’. What puzzles the interplanetary travellers is that human beings seem to be ‘immune from fear’; indeed they seem ‘indifferent to… natural disasters, famine, constant war.’
The San Francisco Earthquake
It becomes apparent, without explicit confirmation, that the aliens have landed in order to help the human population relocate away from the seismic area of San Francisco. The most direct indication is the comment that ‘This city experienced a disaster, on a fairly large scale, about 65 years ago, their time.’ This event refers to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which caused a fire which lasted for four days, resulting in a total death toll estimated at over 3000. While Lessing’s prediction that another catastrophic event is due within five years has not come to pass, minor earthquakes are relatively common in this area of seismic activity and there was another major quake in 1989.
The aliens’ report is an account of their attempts to alert the population to the dangers before offering help. It also recounts their bewildered realisation that the people are already aware, but seem fatalistically unprepared to do anything in response. Their incomprehension is apparent in the repetition: ‘we were waiting to understand… We did not understand… We have never understood…’ It is, they say, ‘hard to believe.’
It is through the aliens’ seeking to comprehend the incomprehensible that Lessing is able to satirise several aspects of human behaviour. While criticising the ‘slavish populations’ of humanity generally, young people are a comic target of Lessing’s criticism. Her portrayal of young people takes aim at the flower-power hippie generation of the late 60s and early 70s. However, instead of being advocates of affirmative action and peaceful protest, these youngsters are self-absorbed in their drug taking, defeatist acceptance. Lessing mocks them through their speech and songs:
For we must die.
The words of the song amply illustrate the aliens’ view that ‘the young are in a state of disabling despair’.
While the young are mocked, the mental inflexibility of the older generation is more directly criticised for its willing self-delusion, using ‘words like peace when engaged in warlike behaviour’. The aliens comment on how society is conditioned to accuse those who express different views of ‘paranoia’, which is explained as ‘a condition when people show fear of forthcoming danger and try to warn others about it, and then show anger when stopped by authority.’ This becomes acutely apparent in the story by the violent upheaval caused by the television debate. In a further wry satirical comment, Lessing suggests, through the aliens, that in human society ‘an educated individual… has spent years absorbing received ideas and is able readily to repeat them’, while those who express different views ‘are distrusted and may be called opinionated.’ Even the seismic institute visited by the aliens, with its fine scientists and advanced technology, is resistant to change and action. The aliens observe the paradox that ‘A great many of the activities that they themselves see as methods of furthering change… are in fact methods of preventing change.’
Through the alien observations, Lessing suggests that adults have become controlled by the propaganda and disinformation of the authorities who control the population and manage the hostility between the superpowers. The people who see the spacecraft ‘believed we were some kind of weapon’ because of this hostility and suspicion. The aliens recognise that each political entity on earth, ‘is a war-making function’ and the human ‘species is in the process of self-destruction’. The nuclear arms race at the time Lessing was writing bears this out – by 1972 the USA and USSR had over 4000 megatons of nuclear weapons each.
The Space Race
Some of the aliens’ comments would fuel conspiracy theories if they were not clearly fiction. They suggest that there had been a sequence of secret moon landings before the public one in 1969. Lessing also includes a careful dissection of society’ responses to UFOs and the state’s management of sightings. She explores the different attitudes of the old and the young – younger people understand ‘the extent to which they are subjugated to the needs of war’ but keep quiet to avoid scrutiny. Adults, however, who do report sightings, are treated differently; they are ‘repulsed, ridiculed or even threatened’. These ideas are interestingly reminiscent of Spielberg’s film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was released in 1977, just five years after Lessing’s story was published.
Lessing also refers to the superpowers’ weapons testing programmes: new ‘devices and machines… are continuously under test in all part of the earth’. This idea is evidently true, and when the aliens suggest that people might confuse a sighting of a weapons test and a glimpse of an actual extra-terrestrial craft, we recognise that this has since proved a popular theory about UFO sightings. Lessing’s version of official investigations into UFOs is also familiar; the alien report states that ‘a council of highly placed officials was recently ordered to take evidence and report on the by now innumerable sightings of ‘unidentified flying objects’, but this council finished its deliberations with public words that left the situation exactly as it was before.’ This lack of real answers has been evident as recently as the Pentagon Report of 2021, and another as recently as September 2023.
The subtitled stages of Lessing’s story present the level of effort expended in the aliens’ altruistic campaign: ‘First Attempt…; Second Attempt…; Phase I Abandoned; Phase II Attempted’ etc. The idea that there are different attempts and the ultimate abandonment of the plan leading to ‘Departure from the Planet’ also emphasises the growing frustrations with humanity’s imperviousness.
Lessing also inserts interruptions of the aliens’ transmission wavelength which break into their narrative and present further illustrations of their observations. There are examples of fundraising to save a single girl when the danger to an entire population is ignored; planning for housing for 100,000 people in the danger zone; the building of new skyscrapers; conventions and tourism swelling the city’s population. Other announcements from the radio airwaves develop the paradox that the people wilfully ignore the dangers to their very existence ‘side by side with infinite care and devotion to individuals’. Lessing includes sensational tales of heroism in the face of danger; memorials to the dead; medical successes; funeral services; and a bird sanctuary in response to ‘MAN”S CRUELTY AND UNCONCERN’.
The Human Narrative
Finally, as the aliens abandon the earth, the human narratives take over, beginning with a news report on the sighting of the aliens’ craft, the official responses to which neatly confirm the aliens’ earlier observations. The final section is interestingly formatted identically to the aliens’ report, but instead the reader finds the US official reports on the alien craft. Again, Lessing uses these to confirm what the main narrative has already noted about global geopolitical suspicions and warmongering. The Military Sector III believes the craft to be ‘unmanned’, demonstrating the limitation of their observations. They also assume the origin to be China and that they ‘should blast them to hell. ’ Air Force 14 has better understanding, but immediately believes the craft has Russian origin. The suggestion that they should have a ‘policy of minimising these disappearances’ is another link to the aliens’ narrative and the final confirmation is the final act of spreading false word of radioactive contamination to disperse the crowds.
Narrative methods to consider:
- Unusual first person perspective
- Speculative fiction