A Mirror For Observers – Edgar Pangborn (1954)
‘In a small Massachusetts town two Martians, disguised as human beings, are locked in a bitter struggle for the mind of a child genius.
There are other prizes too. The battle is long and bloody, and before its end all life on earth is threatened.
This is engrossing science fiction which displays a passionate respect for the human race.’
Blurb from the 1966 Penguin Paperback edition.
This very individual novel (in that it tends not to embrace the usual SF conventions) takes the premise that thirty thousand years ago Martians (or Salvayans as they call themselves) fled their dying planet and took refuge on Earth. They disguise themselves as human and indeed spend most of their time as Observers, having recorded anthropological data on human history from the time of their first arrival. The eventual objective towards which they are working is Union, a distant time when Salvayans and humans can live openly in harmony with each other, sharing the Earth.
Subsequently, Martian culture has schismed into Observers and Abdicators.
One of the renegades, Namir, has taken an interest in Angelo, a highly intelligent but crippled young boy. The Observers send one of their number, Elmis, to infiltrate the boy’s household, to study and if necessary, protect him.
Here, it is reminiscent of CS Lewis’ Eldila trilogy, although it has to be said that Lewis went far further toward a religious/Christian connection than Pangborn, who makes it clear that his enlightened and socially advanced Martians have outgrown the idea of religious concepts.
‘With the prop of Jehovah removed, they still don’t want to learn how to stand on their own two feet; but I believe they will. I see twentieth century man as a rather nice fellow with weak legs, and a head in bad condition from banging against a stone wall. Perhaps fairly soon he will cut that out, get sense, and go on about his human business, relying on the godlike in himself and in his brother.’ (p 83)’
It is Elmis himself who narrates the novel in a report to his superior and ‘second father’ Drozma, attempting, as he tells us, the style of the human narrative.
It’s a very beautiful and literary work, poetic and descriptive, in part described by particular sections of classical music, which Pangborn uses neatly as a background to the novel. It is, however, let down in some cases by dialogue such as that of Sharon, Angelo’s nine year old girlfriend whose speech patterns seem to belong to someone far older.
The War of Ideologies is a staple subject in literature in general, and in SF is often engendered by aliens from advanced civilisations in which Humanity is usually a pawn in a greater game. EE Smith’s ‘Lensman’ series employed this device, with earth embroiled in a struggle, billions of years old, between the benign democratic Arisians and the evil dictatorial Eddorians. As discussed earlier, CS Lewis’ ‘Eldila’ trilogy (am unashamedly Christian allegory) features elemental pillars of light, engaged in a war with a ‘fallen’ Eldil who has corrupted the earth. Moorcock’s Multiverse similarly is in eternal conflict between the powers of Law and Chaos
More recently, the concept has been used to great effect in the TV series ‘Babylon 5’ where the Vorlons represent the power of Law, and the Shadows that of Chaos, although here the merits of each system are – to the credit of its creator, J Michael Straczynski, far more ambivalent.
Mythically, of course, these are archetypal forces; Law and Chaos; God and Satan; Good and Evil, Light and Dark. The concept of duality is rooted in our very natures as a bipedal, two-sexed species.
This is however, not a novel which concentrates exclusively on this battle. It is more a work which, like the mirror of the title, casts back a reflection of the human race seen objectively by Elmis.
Namir’s perception of Humanity is that of a violent self-destructive species which is best served by aiding it toward its own demise. Namir firstly involves young Angelo in gang culture and then introduces him to the Organic Unity Party, a thinly-veiled Nazi White Supremacy outfit. Elmis stands on the side of Ethics and Liberalism and eventually – once Angelo has decided which path to follow – kills Namir.
Of course, Elmis and Namir are merely metaphors for the Light and Dark side of the human soul. Pangborn is optimistic in his belief in the future of Humanity, but is restrained in his political sermonising, something which tends to overwhelm other US authors of the time, such as Heinlein. In comparison to other novels of the decade, this certainly stands out in other ways particularly in the fact that the female characters are not patronised, and there is a refreshing lack of macho heroics.
What Pangborn does have in common with Heinlein is his failure to anticipate social change. Like ‘The Puppet Masters’ this novel (set in the mid Nineteen Eighties) has the surreal atmosphere of a Nineteen Fifties America with futuristic trappings.
The dialogue, characters and settings are very much identifiable as Fifties America, but there are automated robot taxis and ‘flying cars’ are already in development.
The only real flaw in the novel is that Namir is deemed to be evil without qualification, and although Elmis questions the Martians’ right to interfere with Humanity he concludes that he is right to do so. The book would have been stronger had the relevant ideological merits been not so polarised, and more cleverly argued.
To this extent, ‘A Mirror For Observers’ is yet another US Nineteen Fifties novel which reflects a national paranoia regarding political movements within the population which are a threat to the integrity of American freedom.