A Mirror for Observers

Edgar Pangborn
A Mirror for Observers Cover



Thirty thousand years ago, remnants of the Martian race left their dying planet and settled on earth. They live in vast underground and submarine complexes, monitoring the development of mankind and waiting for the moment that Union between the civilizations might be possible. (Those first twenty thousand years or so must have been pretty tedious.)

Fortunately this is not the subject matter for a pseudo investigation on either the Discovery or the History Channel. It is the basis for Edgar Pangborn's 1954 novel A Mirror for Observers. I said I was going to read some old sf, and this has been my first foray into the world of mid-20th century science fiction. Did I love this book? No. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did it have mind-bending concepts that hold up after sixty years. Not by a long shot.

For a novel culminating with a pandemic that destroys an enormous amount of the earth's population, it was a surprisingly cozy tale. There is Elmis, the good Martian observer, pitted against humanity-hating Namir, the renegade bad Martian. They walk among us, passing easily as human so long as they do not run short of a deodorant spray that disguises their Martian scent, although they still have to be careful around horses. Elmis has been dispatched to Lattimer, Massachusetts, where he is to monitor the progress of a young boy with the ridiculous name of Angelo Pontevecchio. He is "special," and Martians are always on the lookout for humans that might help lead the species forward to a condition warranting Union. Unfortunately, Angelo has also attracted the attention of Namir, and so the fight for -- well, not really his soul. Just the direction he will take in what could be an extraordinary life.

The coziness comes from the small-town New England atmosphere, the setting in a boarding house filled with eccentrics, and the guilelessness of young Angelo. Then there is Sharon Brand, a little girl also filled with potential greatness and whom I found somewhat cloying.

After trouble in Lattimer, the plot jumps a decade or so. Angelo resurfaces in New York City, living with friends from his hometown who in fact are none other than the evil Martians. They have started a kind of ultra-nationalist political group and host cocktail parties in a swanky penthouse apartment. Sexy women work for them and vie for Angelo's -- well, again, it's not his soul exactly. But they want to keep him distracted. Events rush to a conclusion, with Angelo and Sharon, now a concert pianist, reunited just as most of the world dies from a virus released by the bad Martians. The couple end up running a hardware store in New England, and they still have greatness in them.

Peter S. Beagle, who authored several bestselling fantasy novels in the 1960's and knew Pangborn, writes in the Afterward, with breathtaking understatement, that Pangborn has often been accused of a "besetting sentimentality." Pangborn has Elmis the good Martian truly love humanity, which allows Pangborn to love his own characters. I had a real fondness for the Martians. They live for centuries, but their human bodies grow morbidly obese as they age, and that Martian smell gets harder and harder to disguise.

Pangborn himself was an interesting character. He was born into a literary family in 1909. His father was an attorney who also worked as an editor for Webster's dictionaries. His mother, Georgia Wood Pangborn, was a successful author of supernatural fiction. (You can read anthologies of her stories on Google Books. I have looked at them, and they are very much "of their day.") Pangborn briefly attended both Harvard and the New England Conservatory of Music, did military service, and for years sold what he termed hackwork to pulp magazines. When he was forty-two, Galaxy Magazinepublished his short story "Angel's Egg", and his mature career began. His biggest seller was the sf adventure novel Davy. I remember frequently looking at it in its mass market paperback edition and thinking it looked too long, and that the nearly naked man on the cover and the blurb about post-apocalyptic sex would never make it past my parents. (I was 12 at the time.) Pangborn never married and lived with his sister on a small farm outside Woodstock, New York. Beagle describes him as a kind, thoughtful man, resigned to his relative lack of fame, and who wore his hair in braids. He died in 1976.

A Mirror for Observers was not a bad re-introduction to sf. I wanted to read these books in crummy old paperback editions, but this was a Bluejay Special Edition from the 1980's. Hence the afterward by Peter S. Beagle. But I do have some very beat-up pb's of Arthur C. Clarke novels to look at next.