This brief fable, the second work in the science-fiction series begun with Shikasta (1979), is bound to be read as a return to the portrayals of sexual politics responsible for Lessing's initial vogue. And indeed she has again taken up a favorite theme: the story of a chosen one's painful and humiliating struggle to obey an imperfectly understood summons, the redemption of a world meanwhile hanging in the balance. In the past, Lessing's thorny presentations of this motif--something like a modern Paradise Regained--have generated confusion, even annoyance. But this version, though superficially only an arid schema in which the queen of a serene matriarchy marries the king of a neighboring warrior state, is in fact Lessing's most humane and loving variation on the theme. The states in question are two of the levels of being mentioned in the first novel as lying around Shikasta (Earth) in six concentric shells progressively more open to the illumination of the lofty colonizing world, Canopus. AlIth, queen of the sane, civilized, and radiant Zone Three, is commanded by the unseen "Providers" (presumably the Canopeans) to descend to the stultifying air of Zone Four, there to marry the arrogant Ben Ata. As her own people see it, her marriage gradually corrupts her to the sexual serfdom and emotional crudities of a lower existence. But in the devious ways of the oppressed Zone Four women, AlIth eventually discovers a treasury of spiritual aspirations ironically forgotten in the bright and well-conducted "higher" world. At last she is ready to pass beyond both realms of being to a condition that surpasses either, while Zone Four has glimpsed enough of the truth shining through all conditions to disband its army and set about civilizing the desert marauders on the border of Zone Five. True, Lessing is not the writer to carry off improving parables with flawless elegance. The gracelessness of her prose style has never been more conspicuous, and her impatience with uncongenial detail makes the war economy of Zone Four a silly cartoon sketch. But there is a sweetness and generosity about this work not quite like anything she has done; like the difficult but moving Shikasta, it seems to encompass and summarize dozens of her previous concerns with a sort of piercing magnanimity.