Though Lessing can almost always be counted on to set herself a solidly imagined task and pursue it with unself-conscious intellectual determination, this flaccid little fable--fifth installment in the crabbed but fitfully splendid Canopus in Argos series--has a coy, dilettantish air about it. As before, the benevolent Canopean civilization is trying to bring some measure of light to a less fortunate world--in this case the system dominated by the planet Volyen (a good deal like the remains of one of the modern Western empires). But other interstellar powers are also busily at work: the agents of the imperialist Sirians (vaguely Marxist in orientation) are preparing the way for a Sirian invasion, dividing the best Volyen minds and consciences against themselves by relentlessly harping on issues of domestic social injustice; meanwhile, too, a representative of the diabolical Shammat, the ""Father of Lies,"" has joined the slogan-mongers, fomenting the moral concern of the better Volyens into public hysteria. And so persuasive is the Sirian-Shammati rhetoric that Incent, the Canopean agent who is supposed to be bringing the Volyens to their senses, is swept up in the general rabble-rousing--which means that the wise Klorathy must be dispatched to cure him (by a homeopathic dose of imaginative ""Total Immersion"" in the worst of the French Revolution). The story is mostly told through the reports of Klorathy as he gallops between the several planets of the Volyen system attempting to encourage responsible leadership; the largest single block of action is a ""trial"" of Volyen itself on charges brought by a disenchanted functionary; and all this might have been a decent basis for a fairly lengthy and detailed work or an elegantly spare satire. As it is, however, Lessing's skimpy, sloppy narrative is smothered to no great purpose beneath a weight of clumsy made-up names and geographical-historical data. And references to the ideological follies of our own species are hurled about with satirical intent but little focus. A perfunctory sketch full of unrealized potential: the least impressive of the Canopus entries thus far.