Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Review - A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn

Short review: Martians live among us, observing, and waiting for humanity to ethically grow enough to accept them. But can one observe without being changed in return?

A kind invasion
To observe and not meddle
Observer altered

Full review: The classic fairy story involves the protagonist leaving his home, journeying to the fairy realm where he encounters strange denizens, overcomes an obstacle, learns something about himself, grows a little, and then returns home. In many ways Edgar Pangborn's A Mirror for Observers, the 1955 winner of the International Fantasy Award for Best Fiction Book, follows this fairy story formula, but the exotic and dangerous fairy realm that the protagonist goes to is our world, the obstacle he must overcome is one of his own kind, and the strange denizens that help him learn about himself are us. Elmis, the central character of the book, does not intend to change himself, instead intending merely to observe, but he discovers the fundamental truth that the mere act of observation irrevocably changes both those that are observed, and more radically, those who do the observing.

In A Mirror for Observers Earth has been invaded by Martians who were fleeing their dying planet. It was something of a gentle invasion: No humans noticed it happen when it took place thirty thousand years ago. Now the Martians live sequestered in their hidden cities around the world bound by their strong sense of ethics to avoid interfering in humanity's affairs until humanity evolves its own sufficiently advanced ethical framework that would permit the Martians to reveal themselves and live openly among the Earthlings. Or at least most of Martians adhere to this view, and form a faction called the "Observers". A small handful of Martians called the "Abdicators" reject this, believing that humanity has proven itself to be irredeemably savage, and seek to tip the balance of human ethics in such a way that humanity destroys itself, clearing the way for the Martians to assume ownership of the planet.

The story of the book involved Elmis, an Observer, and Namir, an Abdicator, and their shared but competing interest in the development of a single twelve year boy named Angelo Pontevecchio who lives in the small and somewhat sleepy town of Latimer, Massachusetts. The two Martians focus their attentions on this boy because they believe that he has the correct intellectual capability and inclination to develop the kind of ethical system that the hidden invaders have been hoping for through the centuries. The problem is that while Elmis yearns for such a development to come to fruition, Namir wants to derail Angelo's education and set the stage for humanity to commit racial suicide. In the story, Angelo quickly demonstrates his precocious nature, already immersing himself in the writings of Socrates and Plato, but also displays the carelessness of youth, as he flirts with becoming involved with a gang of local ruffians in order to prove his manliness. And it is in this struggle, between the path of learning and accomplishment, and the path of macho posturing, that Elmis and Namir enter Angelo's life and begin trying to pull him one way or the other. Or rather, that Namir enters Angelo's life and attempts to set him on the road to juvenile delinquency while Elmis, for the most part, is constrained by his ethical beliefs to merely observe.

And this is the first point at which the real point of the book comes into play. The book is not actually about the conflict between Elmis and Namir, or about the development of a superior ethical system, or about Angelo. It is about how Elmir is changed by his contact with humanity, and how, perhaps, the allegedly advanced ethical system of the Martians may in fact be somewhat wanting. Because by doing nothing other than observing, Elmis leaves Angelo to be preyed upon by Namir. By refusing to take a side in this conflict, Elmis actually is taking a side and conceding Angelo's future to his ideological opponent. Noninterference in the cultural development of others is usually seen as a virtue, but in his slow, almost dream-like way, Pangborn quietly calls that belief into question, and poses a severe dilemma for Elmis, even though Elmis himself is mostly oblivious to the danger Namir truly poses. Ultimately, the denouement of this portion of the story is sad, tragic, and devastating, as Namir proves to be even more wily and ruthless in pursuit of his goals than Elmis could imagine.

Intertwined with the story of Angelo coming to grips with being a precocious yet somewhat undersized and fatherless boy while being led astray by an inimical agent, is the story of Angelo's relationship with Sharon, a young girl his age, and both of their relationship with music. Pangborn himself had been something of a musical prodigy in his youth, and for unexplained reasons gave up his musical career to the extent that people who knew him later in life didn't even know he could play an instrument. But in A Mirror for Observers, the artistry of music takes center stage. One human achievement that Elmis and most other Martians admire is music - Elmis himself plays the piano, although he is hampered somewhat by the fact that his alien hands had to be surgically altered to sport five fingers. For Angelo's part, he is also described as being a quite capable musician, but the true musical talent is Sharon, who Elmis immediately identifies as being prodigiously gifted.

And by focusing on music, Pangborn suggests that what makes a society "advanced" may not have anything to do with technology, but rather the art they produce, whether they appreciate the art, how they treat the artists, and ultimately how they treat each other. While Elmis is overwhelmed by the beauty of Sharon's musical gift, Namir pays them no mind at all. And even though Elmis is mostly content to sit on the sidelines and watch Angelo founder on his own with nothing more than a handful of conversations, the Martian is so moved by Sharon's music that he makes arrangements for her to receive proper instruction in her art. Art, it seems, is what makes a society worth having, but at the same time, it lifts us up to make us worth saving. Namir, whose life is entirely lacking in art, has become bitter and cruel as a result; a pattern that is repeated more than once in the book, as those who lack an appreciation for art end up full of hatred and self-loathing.

After documenting Namir's manipulation derail Angelo's life, the story leaps forward by about a decade and moves to New York. Elmis comes to the city because he believes that he will find Angelo there after searching for the boy for years. First, however, he runs across Sharon, who has matured into an accomplished concert pianist who performs in front of large and appreciative audiences. But her music is the one bright note in a dreary and desolate world. The Russians and the Chinese are at war. The Organic Unity Party, which is headquartered in New York, preaches a vicious form of exclusionary nationalism and is only opposed by the tepid Federalist Party. Elmis believes, based upon the scanty evidence of seeing a former youth gang member from Latimer in a photograph with the leader of the organic Unity Party, that Angelo has gotten himself involved in some way with this repugnant organization. This supposition turns out to be correct to a certain extent, and Elmis sets about subtly trying to convince Angelo to disentangle himself from his circumstances. Angelo, now calling himself Abe Brown, feels obligated to the disguised Namir and his prot&eactue;gés for the "help" they have given him - help that seems to have mostly been aimed as ensnaring Angelo into their sphere of influence and diverting his interests away from ethics.

Even though Angelo is the focus of Elmis' efforts, Angelo himself, and even his hoped for development of a superior ethical system, is merely a vehicle to tell the story of Elmis' own journey. As Elmis sheds his Martian ethic of noninterference and becomes more involved in persuading Angelo to take particular actions and pushing Angelo and Sharon together, he becomes less of an observer and more of a participant. Eventually the world enters into a crisis when , despite not actually intending to, the Organic Unity Party unleashes a worldwide epidemic of proportions akin to the 1918 influenza pandemic (which Pangborn himself would have lived through when he was a similar age to Angelo in the first portion of the book). Faced with this human catastrophe, Elmis discards any pretense of merely being an observer and becomes an active participant in events, working in a hospital to provide aid and comfort to the sick and dying. Symbolically, Sharon is struck down by the epidemic and loses her hearing, and in the chaos, Angelo finally does break from Namir's influence.

But all of this is a sideshow. The real story is in Elmis' own transformation. By observing, he is changed. Even though he starts the book with what he believes to be his own superior Martian ethic, the events of the book play out in such a manner that his assumptions are called into question. Through observing, Elmis is changed as much as he changes the characters by his own actions, even if he didn't necessarily realize that he was changing those he came into contact with. In many ways, A Mirror for Observers is about unintended consequences, both those unintended consequences that inure to the instigator and those unintended consequences that redound back upon the original actor. Elmis intends only to observe Angelo, but by his very presence he alters the course of events, affecting not only the lives of Angelo and Sharon, but also his own.

In the end Angelo ends up living in a small town living a small town life with Sharon. Whether or not Angelo ever actually develops the humane ethic that the Martians desperately yearn for him to create is not a question that is ever answered in the book, and is a question that is more or less beside the point. The discovery in the book is that the Martian vigil may have been an exercise in vanity rather than a display of ethical forbearance. And while much of the novel seems to have a dream-like quality, at the end, it feels like Elmis, and possibly the entire Martian race, may be emerging from a self-imposed sleep to become ready to join or ultimately completely eschew the world they have secluded themselves from for so long. Overall, Pangborn's novel about how even our most innocuous actions change the world and ourselves is a fascinating read, and one that should be on every science fiction fan's reading list.

1954 International Fantasy Winner: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon
1957 International Fantasy Winner: The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) by J.R.R. Tolkien

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  1. A belated thanks!

    -- Michael Walsh, ye olde publisher

    1. @Michael Walsh: Thank you! I will see you at CapClave, and probably buy some books from you.