Monday, August 09, 2010

A Mirror for Observers: Edgar Pangborn

I recently re-read Edgar Pangborn's A Mirror for Observers, and wanted to like it. (It's been nominated for a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award a couple of times.) The story is narrated by Elmis, a visitor from Mars, who has been living among humans for thousands of years as a passive observer. He believes that humans are managing their affairs and their progress quite nicely on their own. His main goal is to prevent Namir, a dissident Martian, from encouraging evil of various sorts from arising among the humans.

The good guy in this story is very good--Elmis values taste and style and life, and wants to ensure that they survive on this planet. But the people he's trying to protect do very little to help their cause. They spend most of their time ignorant of the battle that centers on them, and even spend some of their time collaborating with their apparent enemies. If it weren't for the assistance of the extraterrestrial agent, they wouldn't stand a chance. And in the end, they lose the most important battle, even with his help.

So the underlying message is that the good is worth working for, but it is incapable of defending itself, and even with powerful and intelligent allies on its side, those working to undermine it may come out ahead.

If you read the book, you'll admire the characters, and enjoy their taste and sophistication, but you'll be disappointed in the end by their impotence.

1 comment:

William H Stoddard said...

I'm the one who's nominated A Mirror for Observers; I like it a lot. But its theme is that progress is agonizingly slow: attaining more civilized ways of life is a project for millennia, not mere centuries.

Reread the opening chapter, and note that it's clearly inspired by Goethe's Faust: specifically by the prologue to Faust that's a direct steal from the Book of Job, where Satan makes his bet with Yahweh.