Consideration of Works Past: A Mirror for Observers

(Picture from here.)

I’ve been wanting to reread this for a while now for a number of reasons. It is a small novel– the great movements and changes that SF is so famous for are either absent or merely backdrop for the transition of the characters.

I like books like this– for that matter, I write books like this. I like a great space opera as much as the next SF reader but there’s a soft spot in my heart (or head) for little books.

The other book I was considering was The Revolving Boy by Gertrude Friedberg but I decided on this one. It has a plague in it.

Edgar Pangborn, like Clifford Simak, is a writer that has fallen out of the limelight. Both are good writers of their time but their time has largely passed. It is interesting how what I considered canon when I was younger in fiction and in film has changed. Heinlein and Asimov remain but I think, like Pangborn and Simak, the change is generational. New readers don’t tend to read them unless it’s part of a class or a book club.

A Mirror for Observers tells the story of Elmis, an expatriate Martian– who name themselves Salvayans– who has lived for hundreds of years. His species came to Earth over thirty thousand years ago and live among humans. Some guide human beings. Some vilify them. Some leave them alone. Elmis is an Observer: a Martian whose task it is to live within humanity and report. Observers are hopeful of humanity’s future.

Elmis is pursuing a boy named Angelo Pontevecchio, a precocious child of tremendous potential. Also pursuing Angelo is Namir, an Abdicator– those Martians who want to find human beings a lost cause and want to destroy them.

Angelo is the intended target of influence of both Martians. (I was reminded of the Giacinto Gimignani painting at left.) Elmis meets Angelo when Angelo is twelve.

Pangborn writes love stories. Not romantic stories but love is often the primary motivation between people in his works. This was true of West of the Sun. Like WOTS, Mirror is about love and the lack of it. Again, I must emphasize, neither novel is romantic at all.

The book is in two parts. The first part, where Angelo is a child, consists of the tug of war between Elmis and Namir. This ends when Angelo flees them both. Later, Elmis rediscovers him.

One would expect the love Elmis has for Angelo would be the center of the story. And there is a good deal of it. Elmis loves people and Angelo in particular. He was married for decades but his wife is dead.

However, the real affection here is between Elmis and another child prodigy, the musician Sharon. Pangborn was an artist and musician. It’s not surprising, then, that Angelo is a gifted painter and Sharon a gifted pianist.

This relationship is the heart of the novel. Elmis has some affection for Angelo but he deeply loves Sharon. And she has great love for him– though, of course, her romantic fixation is for Angelo and his for her.

When I read this book– when I remembered this book over the years it was this relationship between truth and falsity, the continuing philosophical discussion between the characters and the mirror– a Cretan masterpiece referred to in the book– that reveals the truth of the person. Not in a crass way– that person is a Martian. This is a human. But the underlying self. Pangborn stays inside Elmis throughout the book so when revelations come to the characters, he can only see what they do and say and is denied their internal revelations. There are several scenes where such a revelation occurs and Elmis cannot know what it is because the character does not reveal it.

In rereading this book, I found I wanted Pangborn to be a better writer. He chose a set of mirrors himself in which to write the book. Elmis is writing letters back to his friend Drozma about what has already occurred. I am no fan of epistolary novels. I find them tedious. They lack immediacy.

It is worse in this novel. Elmis is already removed from the changes in his character just by being the point of view character. He’s further removed by not being human. And, finally, he is removed further in the writing of these letters.

The first section feels too long. Pangborn skips the intervening years where Elmis is searching for Angelo– a first rate opportunity to see how Elmis ticks. The second section– where the plague happens– feels actually too short, though both sections are more or less the same. We never find out what Angelo is capable of or if he will realize anything at all– which doesn’t bother me. The book stops before  Angelo can show that.

Mechanical issues aside, Pangborn is not afraid to show love in his work and he’s not terribly sentimental about it. That part I liked.

The plague is well executed, though contrived. It comes with a sort of leaden inevitability.

I don’t remember when I read Mirror but it was probably before I graduated high school. The book cannot mean the same to me now as it did then. But while it did reach as far as I remembered, I did enjoy the love.

Which brings us to our own plague. This is one of those situations where if we sit still and do nothing, the reaper might pass us by. Even more, we might enable it to pass others by as well.

This is not a narrow temporary thing. It is a marathon, not a sprint. And when we reach the other side, if we are honest,  how we dealt with this will remain with us. Will we handle it with kindness and patience? Will we blame people with whom we did not agree?

Will we act with love?

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