Quiet Martians: Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror for Observers

Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror For Observers was published in 1954, but it wouldn’t have seemed any more normal in any other year. It’s unique. It’s a quiet laid back book about Martians living among us and trying to gently guide our civilization in a good way, so that we’ll be able to achieve sufficient enlightenment to unite with them in another five hundred years or so. But what it’s really about is children growing up in a small town in a future U.S. as observed by a Martian. Children, one of whom might be exceptionally promising, a renegade Martian, gangs, an old widower, summer evenings, a genetically engineered plague, drifting piano music, love, loss, a Mycenaean bronze mirror… It’s a tiny bit like Waiting for the Galactic Bus (post) in the mood, the sense of immense time and detachment combined with the urgent significance of every moment and detail. It’s a tiny bit like Simak in that pastoral quiet. (It’s really remarkably annoying trying to describe something so indescribably. I’m waving my hands above the keyboard here.)

Let me give you a sample:

The office of the Director of North American Missions is a blue-lit room in Northern City, 246 feet below the tundra of the Canadian Northwest Territory. There is still a land entrance, as there has been for several thousand years, but it may have to be abandoned this century if the climate continues to warm up. Behind a confusion of random boulders, the entrance looks and smells like a decent bear den. Unless you are Salvayan — or Martian to use the accepted human word — you will not find, inside that den, the pivoted rock that conceals an elevator. Nowadays the lock is electronic, responding only to the correct Salyavan words, and we change the formula from time to time.

That’s how it starts, and if you like that you’ll like all of it. It has that slightly confiding tone of taking you into the confidence of the text that you can see there. It’s philosophical and ironic and stands in an odd place between tragedy and comedy.

The future it is set in has become a retro-future of course. The beginning is set a few years ahead of 1954 and the second part about ten years after that. Reading retro-futures now has a kind of charm, looking at what’s right and what’s very wrong. This couldn’t be our future, but it’s a reasonable imagination of the 1970s from 1954. A slightly out of date future can be annoying, but this one is so old that it’s new again, a whole extra layer of SFnal experience.

The Martians are reasonably humanoid — their hearts beat more slowly and they only have four fingers. Their faces are different. Observers have surgery to provide extra fingers and make their faces plausible. They live five hundred years or so, and they are inclined to take the long view, even of things like the loss of Ocean City, their base under the Pacific, near Bikini atoll. They are hoping for humanity to develop enough for them to be able to reveal themselves — except the the renegades, who are hoping for humanity to wipe themselves out so the Martians can have the planet. Horses are spooked by the Martian smell, but in the twentieth century that’s much less of a problem, even for the renegades who don’t have access to scent remover.

There’s plenty of plot here, and page turning plot too, but it’s not the plot that sticks with me. I first read A Mirror for Observers when I was twelve and I’ve probably re-read it once a decade since, and I could never tell you the plot except when I’ve just finished it. It’s the mood that I remember and that brings me back to it, the Martians and the humans, the tensions, the sense of time.

Pangborn gets points, in 1954, for having two significant children and making one of them female. Angelo can draw, and Sharon has a talent for piano. Sharon is imaginative and fun, and she gets a lot of time on the page. Until this reading, I have always overlooked the fact that her function in the story is to love Angelo and suffer. All the same, for a female character in SF in 1954, she’s brilliant. Pangborn is also very good at making the children seem like children, with the dilemmas and imbalances of childhood understanding.

A Mirror for Observers won the International Fantasy Award at the time when there were only two awards in SF, that and the Hugo, and it is deservedly a classic. Better than that, I’ve noticed that if I mention Pangborn to people who have read him they will always smile a little reminiscent smile. It is in print in a charming hardcover edition from Old Earth Books. This is great because it used to be one of those books I always kept an eye out for second hand to give to people. Now you can just buy it, and you’ll be glad you did.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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