A companion review of J. D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder also appears in this issue.
Edgar Pangborn is a writer I have reviewed before. In issue 14 I did a review of Davy. A few things in his life before writing SF seem significant to his work. First, his Mom wrote ghost stories, so he had a background in writing. Second, he studied at the New England Conservatory of Music for a time. Music is of some importance in Davy but vital to several of the characters in A Mirror for Observers, several characters either being musicians or aspiring musicians. Next, he served in the military in the 1940s. Finally, his first works were in various genres. He did not write SF until 1951 when he had a story in Galaxy. The book reviewed here was his second SF novel, but at the time of its publishing his SF output had overall been quite small.
A Mirror for Observers is a very different book from Beresford’s as might be expected. The child in this is in no way super-human. At 12 he can read Latin, goes to high school, and is a remarkable painter. However the book makes it clear that there are other twelve-year olds who can do these things even better. It even indicates intelligence is just a tool. The Martian Observers of the title care about other things more.
Before I go into that I will give a brief explanation of the Martians in this. In this story Mars is not inhabitable and has not been inhabitable for thousands of years. Nevertheless it was inhabitable once and the few thousand survivors have created small, secret colonies on Earth. Most of them have devoted their lives to the observation of humans. They try to make their observations unobtrusive, but nudge humans in certain directions when warranted. They also call themselves Salvayans which is the name I will use for here on.
Indeed the novel is told as a kind of journal of the Observing mission of one such Salvayan named Elmis. In some respects he is the main character. The novel is even written largely as reports of his mission with Angelo. However, his reports also include reflections on the world in general and the New England town he found himself in. These reflect a kind of benign ’50s attitude. He praises Eisenhower, tells Angelo to keep attending Mass, and has some fears regarding internationalism. On the religious front he is in fact an agnostic, but wants Angelo to value his mother’s feelings in order to become a great ethicist. On the international front he fears the loss of individual choices that a united Earth might bring. An interesting period choice might be that the writer considers tobacco a positive good for Salvayans well as a sign of maturity among humans. Hence he has one of his best conversations with Angelo in a cemetery over a cigarette.
As for Angelo his abilities are unusual for this kind of character. They are moral, tactical, and political. The story places great weight on ethics, whether Angelo becomes a good person or not being the issue. He appears to have the ability to be either a saint or a horrific dictator. Each side, unknown to him, tries to nudge him in one direction or another.
The other side being the leader of bad Salvayans who have given up on humanity. This man, named Namir, is more simply vile. His goal is the destruction of humanity, as he feels peaceful union with it to be unrealistic. He seduces Angelo into gang involvement in hopes of destroying him or having him destroy others. Later he gets Angelo involved with a Nazi-like Party called the Organic Party. Namir does not care about their ideology but seeks to use them for his destructive ends.
Despite all this, Angelo remains rather peripheral to all the book’s actions. In the gang he bears some responsibility for a murder. This leads to his life on the streets and intense guilt. Indeed his time in the gang proves so hateful to him he loses interest in such things pretty fast. His activities in the party are also limited and short-lived. He becomes engaged to a member of the Organic Party but never joins it. He does not even aid it in any real way. Yet at the same time he does little to prevent any of the evils they commit.
An important evil aspect of the party leads to something rather unusual for the time. The book deals with racial issues more directly than most SF of the period. In part, Angelo dumps his fiancee for calling the leader of the nation’s leading party, called the Federalists, “a nigger.” The story discussed other racial issues as well. One of the most unpleasant elements of the Organic party being its paranoid view of Asians.
Toward the end the story takes an almost surprising turn into a disaster tale. Surprising, as until that moment it had a quieter feel with the tragedies being largely personal in nature. However, the disaster that occurs in the last chapters involves the deaths of millions worldwide. Interestingly the focus still remains somewhat on personal tragedies. It sympathetically focused on the deaths or impairments that affected the cast, including the villains.
Not all effects of the disaster are negative. It leads Angelo to marry a girl he knew as a kid named Sharon. His efforts during the disaster also lead to his maturation and a more active role in the story. Once he’s shown this maturity the Observers’ mission ends. Afterwards, Sharon and Angelo settle into a kind of post-catastrophe Vermont. There they live a quiet life, but the book hints that something more will come from it. That at some point he/they will be an important moral force for the world.
As a whole this book has both similarities, and contrasts, to the first book by Pangborn I reviewed here, Davy. In both books the character that is perhaps the main character is rather outclassed by the supporting cast, especially his girlfriend, who later becomes his wife. In both, something bad happens to that girlfriend. Further, in both books there is a tendency to moralize that is softened by deflection strategies. Davy tends to use humor, but in Mirror the moralizing is just made calmer. It came across more as speculation or musing than ranting or preaching. Further both books seemed to revolve around an essentially New England culture. Finally both placed strong emphasis on the individual and disapproval of things that squashed him/her.
However, the contrasts are somewhat more interesting. Davy is a ribald trek through a fractured America. In it, religion is pretty much the ultimate destroyer of individuality. Thus it is preached against with verve. Pangborn wrote A Mirror for Observers about a decade before that. It views religion as an acceptable place to get ethics. In Davy the catastrophe happened centuries before the story. In Mirror it happens toward the end. Davy has all kinds of adventures but then kind of peters out at the end. Mirror tends to be fairly relaxed and meditative, but then at the end becomes a mildly exciting/traumatic disaster story. Davy tends to be funny on the surface, but by implication something of a tragedy. This tended to be tragic on the surface, but by implication full of hope. These and other differences made for some interesting surprises.
Taken together, these books take the theme of the prodigy in very different directions. In Beresford, the prodigy is disconnected from humanity. He also dies young. In Pangborn, the prodigious ability is how the child treats people. He also ends up as one of the few survivors in a ravaged world.
They also both take the theme in a different direction than the cliche image of SF prodigies, which is just their to fulfill the power fantasies of their readers. That to do that they invoke “the nerd triumphant” whose intelligence win him/her power or respect from the entire world. Victor Stott “The Wonder” dies at seven. In that short life no one understands anything he told them. He neither seeks nor values being important or powerful in his short life. He ends up buried in a unremarkable grave having only limited importance in Hampdenshire itself. Angelo lives mostly as a pawn, and ends up as a clerk in small-town Vermont. By the time the book closes, the most important thing he has done is medical work during the crises. There’s a sense he will become something important, but the details of that are left to the reader’s imagination.
In conclusion, these two books show that even a cliche theme can go in unexpected directions. Even when, in the case of the Hampdenshire Wonder, they are in part the origin of that cliche.
Click here to go to The Hampdenshire Wonder.
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas R.