Bewildering Stories

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Reflections on A Mirror for Observers

by Gerardo Brandariz

The following is excerpted from the Asimov’s magazine forum with permission of the author. It is part of a dialogue about Edgar Pangborn and complements Thomas R.’s review of Mirror for Observers, which appeared in issue 62.

Your review, [Thomas R.], was quite intelligent and balanced — this coming from someone who has an inordinate fondness for[A Mirror for Observers] and would normally arise in wrath at any attempt to bring it down (not that you did).

My personal favorite Pangborn is A Mirror For Observers. A new, unexpected turn on the aliens-among-us standard, an extremely considerate and loving attitude on human idiocy and mistakes, and a clear notion of what those mistakes mean for individuals. Very much in tune with my own feelings, then and now, even if at times it becomes a little biased and tearful. That’s how people are, not all of us Great & Magnificent Universe-Saving Heroes but everyday do-the-right-thing whatever-others-say-or-fashion-decrees types.

There’s nothing wrong with your review. It’s a different kind of take from anything I said. You try to convey what goes on, what kind of story it is. I talk about its motives and intentions. I don’t think any of mine could make much sense for anyone who hasn’t read the book, unless s/he reads a synopsis first, i.e. your kind of review.

True, I’m not the descriptive kind. Or, I can do it, but it would be ten pages long. I’m struck, not by who did what to whom, but by the hows, the whys and the what ifs. “Is maturity the acceptance of conflict?” Elmis asks. Himself, the world, the waves as he sails across the Pacific. For me, such questions are the story.

Of course, the whos and the whens are important, very important indeed. It is not the same question when a Salvayan observer asks it, barely recovering after the greatest tragedy his adoptive world has seen (Adoptive? Salvayans have been here for 30,000 years, thrice longer than we’ve had anything worth calling a civilization), than when you or I ask it, two years after 9/11. Or is it?

Anyway, you were not that off the mark. You say, “Whether [Angelo] becomes a good person or not being the issue.” And that’s exactly it. The main difference between Salvayans and us is the emphasis they place on practicing goodness. That’s why they didn’t ‘invade’ Earth when they first came. That’s why they didn’t mold our cultures to fit their aims. And that’s why Elmis finally executes Namir, not as a dangerous fool, not even as a criminal or a genocide, but as intolerable vermin. And still it pains him to do it.

A note. You say that “One perplexing thing might be that the good Martian has little problem with offering a twelve year old a cigarette. This might be just a quirk of the era, but there are hints this is slightly improper behavior even in 1954. The main explanation seemed to be that he wanted to test the theory that the kid already smoked and that he clearly believed smoking was a positive good.”

Not exactly. In the ’50s, twelve-year olds smoking wasn’t exactly the norm in Western urban society, neither in the USA nor elsewhere. But it wasn’t the almost-crime it appears to be today (especially in the USA; most of the rest view it as wrong and should-not-do, but no worse than drinking beer or all-night partying). Boys were more or less allowed, even expected, to start smoking sometime between 15 and 18. Parents would make a great fuss, kids would hide the smokes and rinse their mouth, and fathers would be secretly proud, as if they’d nailed Pamela Anderson or something. A rite of passage, after the long pants and before going to college or learning a trade.

Who knows what a Salvayan might think, but in human terms circa 1953, offering the kid a cigarette said you considered him an adult, call it a casual Bar Mitzvah. And that you were placing him in a position of responsibility: you are old enough to smoke, then you are old enough to choose sensibly and learn to manage your life.

And for the kid, it was a considerable ego boost. Elmis plays the worldly-wise uncle here, the Heinleinian wise old man who is beyond faddish niceties and knows by experience that this is a world of death and suffering, that only the intelligent and decisive survive, and that in terms of character development, a cigarette’s harm is far less than its potential benefit. Debatable, but that’s the way it was.

A Mirror For Observers would be about the best choice ever for a sensible, cheap SF movie. Or play, even. Radio script. It’s all about dialogue and character. Few things happen, everybody talks about it. The best thing in the novel is how Pangborn managed to avoid every usual pitfall: he’s not preachy, he’s not aggressive, and he’s not even too dramatic, just a little sentimental when it fits.

And his aliens are about the most believable and likable I ever met.

I think the word any reviewer of Mirror should immediately come up with, but seldom does, is love. Love for people, love for goodness, love for sensible choices and potentials.

This is so rare in SF (not to mention mainstream) that one is tempted to find alternative explanations all over the place, when Pangborn is stating it so clearly that it hurts.

I am tempted (and you know how I feel about religion) to call this a religious work, in the sense that Canticle for Leibowitz is (and not because there are monks in it). A browsing of souls and minds, of wants and fulfillments. I dare anyone to read A Mirror for Observers and not shed a tear too, for the wounded Earth our Martians have come to love so much.

Even if it’s not remembered a hundred years for now, it will have taught many thousands of readers how to abstract themselves from their everyday viewpoints, and see us from outside, as only an alien could. I wish I could always be as loving and forgiving.

And Pangborn did have an eye for personal detail. His much criticized Judgement of Eve, for instance, is all about what the three guys in the story felt about unmanageable catastrophe. Reminded me mutatis mutandis of Stewart’s Earth Abides. If you cannot Save the World, then you must save those you care for, and leave something for your children.

People who say that only the New Wave and Ursula LeGuin brought poetry and humanity into SF have never read those books. Their loss.

Copyright © 2003 by Gerardo Brandariz

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