Tue
Dec 13 2011 4:00pm
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 A slightly out of date future can be annoying, but this one is so old that it’s new again, a whole extra layer of SFnal experience.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.

16 comments
Clark Myers
1. ClarkEMyers
I liked it very much reading A Mirror for Observers in the '50s when I was still trying to read all the genre I could get my hands on. At the time I touted it to non-fen as a fine example of good genre. Later I began to think that the very real strengths of the book had more in common with mainstream novels
what it’s really about is children growing up in a small town......
than with much of the genre of the time. That may be a feature not a bug in fantasy. Certainly much of the science in Simak is sufficiently advanced to be magic - and there is no pretense of getting from then to there. I'd suppose it was the mainstream elements of humanist and emotional that made Pangborn an acknowledged influence on Le Guin
rea
2. rea
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.

Perhaps not such a retro future after all . . .
Pamela Adams
3. Pam Adams
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.

And as I smile my reminiscent smile, I am typing 'Pangborn, Edgar' into the inter-library loan search box.
rea
4. Raskos
I remember reading it during the actual real-life calendar days in which the novel depicted the beginning and progress of the plague. A very strange sort of jamais vu.
Jo Walton
5. bluejo
Rea: The very odd thing about the global warming is that everybody seems to see it as an unmitigated Good Thing, they're going to be able to live in the Arctic and that will be lovely. This seems like a very strange perspective. Of course, Pangborn must have been thinking of it as a natural phenomenon because people hadn't discovered the whole anthrogenic climate change thing yet in 1954. But yes, weirdly prescient.
Pamela Adams
6. Pam Adams
Okay, this is amusing. I just did a search for 'Pangborn' on the site.

1955- International Fantasy Award, A Mirror for Observers
1965- Hugo Nominee, Davy
1975- Hugo Nominee. The Company of Glory
rea
7. Tehanu
Tiny nitpick: it's City of Oceans, not Ocean City ... a much more poetic name to my mind. I also love the foreshadowing of Lincoln Center, which Pangborn thought would be built along the riverfront, and Angelo's teenage angst, and Sharon's sophisticated innocence when she grows up. Can you tell I re-read the book every couple of years or so? It's the most humane sf before LeGuin and Bujold.
rea
8. HelenS
Salvayan or Salyavan? I suspect the former, but the latter has a nice Russian sort of lilt that I rather like.
Michael Walsh
9. MichaelWalsh
Gosh! Wow! & thanks. Obviously I like Pangborn ... and I hope others give him a try.

- Michael Walsh who is Old Earth Books ....
rea
10. James Davis Nicoll
The very odd thing about the global warming is that everybody seems to see it as an unmitigated Good Thing, they're going to be able to live in the Arctic and that will be lovely.

There's a Clement where they mention in passing deliberately warming the Earth to replace useless cold climates with decent warm ones.
rea
11. Mike G.
- Michael Walsh who is Old Earth Books ....
Cool!

Any chance of an ebook edition?


This book sounds interesting, but I'm out of physical space for hardcovers these days...
Clark Myers
12. ClarkEMyers
#5 - Unmitigated surely not but almost certainly better than years without a summer. Beg to differ on the dates frex this from Wikipedia this date:
Arrhenius developed a theory to explain the ice ages, and in 1896 he was the first scientist to speculate that changes in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could substantially alter the surface temperature through the greenhouse effect. He was influenced by the work of others, including Joseph Fourier. Arrhenius used the infrared observations of the moon by Frank Washington Very and Samuel Pierpont Langley at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh to calculate the absorption of infrared radiation by atmospheric CO2 and water vapour. Using 'Stefan's law' (better known as the Stefan Boltzmann law), he formulated his greenhouse law. In its original form, Arrhenius' greenhouse law reads as follows:
if the quantity of carbonic acid increases in geometric progression, the augmentation of the temperature will increase nearly in arithmetic progression.This simplified expression is still used today:
?F = ? ln(C/C0)
[/u]
Bruce Cohen
13. SpeakerToManagers
if I mention Pangborn to people who have read him they will always smile a little reminiscent smile.
That's the expression on my face right now. Like you, I read A Mirror for Observers at about the age of 12 or 13, and have reread it on average every 10 or 15 years since then. Not only was it a welcome change in mood and theme from the plot-based action stories of the late 1950's that I had been reading, the historical view of time of the book served as a basis for my understanding and acceptance of the notion of Deep Time I found a couple of years later when I read Loren Eiseley and Olaf Stapledon.

At the time of reading the book, it also gave me a couple of characters to identify with, children near my own age who were smart and eager to learn. That was relief from the world of the late '50s I lived in then, where for most people education was an onerous duty and intelligence something to mock. I think Pangborn, in this and other stories that I looked for later, was a necessary civilizing influence on me, one that I can easily recognize even many years later.

In fact, I think that "civilized" is the best word I can think of to describe Pangborn's writing and the view of the world he presented.
rea
14. Gshall
I, too, read Mirror as a young person, and often again for a while. I recently re-read it again after quite a long time, and still loved it. It is, or should be, also a musician's book. I had never heard th Waldstein Sonata when I read it, and did not hear it for a long time thereafter. When I did, I immediately fell in love with it; some passages of the sonata will take you to the sublime. Will's influencing Sharon to play it was repeated in life when I suggested it to my college roommate for her senior recital. What happens to Sharon in the plague represents one of the few genuine tragedies in SF.
Pamela Adams
15. Pam Adams
Never beautiful Earth, never even at the height of the human storms have I forgotten you, my planet Earth, your forests and your fields, your oceans, the serenity of your mountains; the meadows, the continuing rivers, the incorruptible promise of returning Spring.

The reminiscent smile always seems to turn to reminiscent tears at the end.....
rea
16. William H. Stoddard
One of the minor notes that pleases me about this novel is that the prologue is a tribute to the prologue of Goethe's Faust, which itself is a tribute to the opening of the Book of Job.

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