"This is the story, told by herself, of the education of a woman named Ambien II, an official, one of the Five - the highest level of the Sirian Colonial Service and the hidden rulers of the Sirian Empire for thousands of years. She is a competent, skilled administrator with an elegant, mater-of-fact mind - a brilliant performer of the great tasks of moving populations and controlling events - and she has lived for centuries with the serene conviction that her Empire, Sirius, is the crown of the galaxy.
Through the long stages of her Empire's history, we follow the profound changes in this woman as she is brought to discover that the rival Canopean Empire, which she once despised, is actually in advance of Sirius in every way, is the real - the truer - ruler of the galaxy. She begins to perceive, understand, and accept the subtlety, the irrefutable superiority of this other realm and gradually realizes that her odyssey and her fate consist in the use of her by her Canopean opposites - whom she at first distrusts, then slowly comes to honor and love - to herald their wisdom to her own people, whose resistance to so total a change of vision and approach is as fierce and determined as her own had previously been.
The battle for Ambien's mind - and perhaps for the fate of a universe - is fought our primarily on the planet Shikasta, which both Canopus and Sirius have colonised for purposes of experimentation. Once again, Doris Lessing uses this planet - our planet - as the focus of her audacious and searching view of mankind and history, of her conviction that to survive, we must learn to open our minds to ways of feeling and thinking not our own."