Monday, December 28, 2009

Marvin Martian

In the past few years I've been making an effort to revisit books I read as a kid, especially by the science fiction writers who first got me interested in the genre: Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, Ray Bradbury. Anthologies, especially Groff Conklin's, were a big help in exploring and discovering new writers, and Conklin's Invaders of Earth stood out for me, as it did for many people I think, because it included Edgar Pangborn's first science fiction story, "Angel's Egg."

"Angel's Egg" is the story of an old man who finds an egg-like object that hatches a tiny extra-terrestrial creature that looks like an angel. (When I reread the story recently for the first time in decades, I was startled to realize that the "old man" was 53. Why, he was a mere lad!) They commune telepathically, and he learns that she is from a world ten light-years away, her people have a seventy million year history, but their spaceship crashed on landing. A few survived, including her. She and her people wish to study us. She kills him, with his consent, willingly given to such a superior being. I read it much less skeptically at thirteen, of course.
"What is this 'angel' in your mind when you think of me?"

"A being men have imagined for centuries, when they thought of themselves as they might like to be and not as they are."
"Angel's Egg" announced some of Pangborn's characteristic themes and devices: sentimentality; contempt for humanity and other "lower" species, including women; an older bachelor who befriends a superior, much younger superbeing. Editor Conklin put it more nicely:
Many authors refuse to assume that mankind is the apex, the point of the pyramid, the tip of the top. ... Some authors take it for granted that the creatures from space will be friendly even though they are a few thousand years ahead of us ... and willing to work painstakingly with the few humans who have imagination and ability to learn, even though, in doing so, the aliens might become permanent exiles from their home planet.
Pangborn had been publishing mystery/crime fiction under various pseudonyms since the 1930s, but "Angel's Egg" put him on the science fiction map. He put out several sf novels during the 1950s, along with The Trial of Callista Blake, a crime novel that had a lot in common with Grace Metalious's best-selling Peyton Place. (Sexy scandal in small New England town, world-weary older male characters brooding over small-town narrow-mindedness, beautiful and troubled young woman.) His post-nuclear holocaust novel Davy was the next work of his I read after "Angel's Egg", my fourteen-year-old's attention caught by the buff male model draped over the cover of the paperback. I followed Pangborn's work after that, but ambivalently. I appreciated his skillful, lyrical writing and its growing homoeroticism, but was never really satisfied by it either.

I remember reading A Mirror for Observers in the early 1970s, about 20 years after it was first published, but other than that I remember nothing about it. I returned to it this month after seeing some comments about it online (via):
Both biographical and textual evidence support reading [Pangborn] as gay—or rather, to fit his time period (1909-1976), homosexual, since “gay” implies a certain post-Stonewall consciousness of and confidence about sexual identity.

[Pangborn's] work supports queer readings. He writes from an outsider position assigned by heteronormative culture, and he uses that position to critique social norms and institutions. The best example is his strongest novel,
A Mirror for Observers (1954). Although Patricia Bizzell, in one of the few critical pieces on this neglected writer (Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 8), reads the novel in terms of “an intense homoerotic friendship,” that seems to me a limited or even misguided interpretation of the relationship between the book’s Martian narrator and the gifted boy, Angelo, whom he mentors. Elmis, the Martian observer, is the key to the book; ancient and benevolent, sensitive and cantankerous, he is our species’ confirmed-bachelor uncle.
I disagree with this critic's distinction between "gay" and "homosexual" based on "time period" -- a number of writers of Pangborn's generation, such as Christopher Isherwood (1904-1986), are properly classified as gay writers, even when (like Isherwood) they hated the word "gay." A better description of Pangborn's manner, I suggest, would be "coded" or "closeted." This is probably connected to his work being genre rather than 'literary' fiction, American rather than British or Continental, and to the wishfully pederastic model of the relationships he invents.

So I got A Mirror for Observers at the library. (It's more or less easy to find, having been reissued in 2004 by a small press that hoped to put all of Pangborn's work back into print.) It's a weird, annoying book, with all the faults of Golden Age science fiction. It has the minor disadvantage of being set in the near future -- the 1960s and 1970s -- so you can't read it now without seeing how Pangborn's future history differs from reality; but that's the fun part. My serious objections are more temperamental: a lot of sf celebrates an elect who are set apart from the herd by their high IQs and supposed rationality, and who suffer accordingly. It's a very attractive theme for adolescents, but not a fantasy that should be cultivated and encouraged; it took me a long time to shake it off. It's also the core of A Mirror for Observers.

First, there are the Martians ("Salvayans"), who fled their dying planet to settle on Terra 30,000 years ago. By a remarkable coincidence, they arrived exactly 29,000 years before the beginning of the Christian era, so you only need to subtract 29,000 from the Salvayan dates given in the story to know what year it is in the US. (30,963 becomes 1963, for example.) The Salvayans mostly observe Star Trek's Prime Directive of non-interference with the natives, though at one point we're told that "It was all right to help some of the early tribes find [?] the bow and arrow the way we did, but times have changed." Gee, thanks, Salvayans! In their benign wisdom, they began the arms race, no doubt hoping we'd kill ourselves off, but it didn't work out that way. And just as well, since the Martians have not flourished on Terra; they survived, but not much better than that. They can pass among us by the use of prosthetic makeup and a scent-killer (the narrator is glad that the automobile has made horses largely obsolete, since the equine nose could smell them out); they dabble in our arts and adopt our vices (the narrator likes cigarettes but disapproves of barbiturates as a women's weakness); but they mainly seem to be marking time until they become extinct. It's hard to create credible extraterrestrials, let alone tell a story from their point of view, and Pangborn hardly tries; well, his Martians are assimilated immigrants after thirty thousand years, hardly aliens at all by now.

The year is 30,963. Observers from the North American Missions have spotted a twelve-year-old boy, Angelo Pontevecchio, who has the potential to be, in some obscure fashion, the One. In a subterranean bunker, director Drozma disputes with the evil Namir the Abdicator.
Namir yawned. “So? Did she mention Angelo Pontevecchio?”

“Of course.”

“I hope you don’t imagine you can do anything with that boy.”

“What we hear of him interests us.”

“Tchah! A human child, therefore potentially corrupt.” Namir pulled a man-made cigarette from his man-made clothes and rubbed his large human face in the smoke. “He shares that existence which another human animal has accurately described as ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’” ...

“How can you observe through a sickness of hatred?”

“I observe sharply, Drozma.”
There are echoes here of the biblical book of Job, with Namir as Satan and Drozma as Yahweh. Namir's malignity is basically devoid of motive; he's a moustache-twirling villain from nineteenth-century melodrama.
Despite his dislike for organized religion, Pangborn was a basically religious writer, with a Manichaean view of the world, and when he tried to imagine human beings "as they might like to be and not as they are," his imagination fell as short as most religious writers' have done. Drozma, "painfully old now, painfully fat with age," can do nothing but rouse the Observer Elmis from his contemplation and send him to protect Angelo. Or something.

Elmis checks into Angelo's mother's boarding house, and it's love at first sight -- not for Mom, described by the kindly Salvayans as "‘sweet-minded.’ Not much education, and on a very different psychophysical level; a fat woman in poor health" -- but for Angelo.
I knew him at once, this golden-skinned boy with eyes so profoundly dark that iris and pupil blended in one sparkle. … When we admit that the simplest mind is a continuing mystery, what height of arrogance it would be to say that I know Angelo!
Angelo is precocious, reads Plato and Hegel, shows his sensual paintings to old ladies:
Three mares in a high meadow, heads lifted to the approach of a vast red stallion. Colors roared like mountain wind. A meeting of wind and sunlight, savage and joyful, shoutingly and gorgeously sexual. Angelo should have been spanked.
(Yeah, you'd enjoy that, wouldn't you?) Namir lurks in the background, trying to turn Angelo away from his path, whatever it is. Oh, and there's ten-year-old Sharon Brand, whose father runs the local delicatessen. She's a squirm-inducing Shirley Temple retread -- movies seem to have been the extent of Pangborn's interaction with children, boys or girls.
"Look," she said. "Heck, could this autothentically happen, I mean for true?" ...

"Mr. Miles, how can I ever abdiquately thank you?" ...

"By the way, I love you beyond comprehemption."
Namir succeeds in diverting Angelo from his path, whatever it is, but only for a season. In Part Two, set in 30,972, everyone changes names, and Pangborn tries to depict a nativist, cult-like political movement with a mad scientist, followed by cataclysm that wipes out about a third of the human race. Angelo, wounded spiritually, has withdrawn into himself. Elmis comes to the rescue, but with only partial success. The important thing is that Angelo and Sharon are reunited, and Angelo resumes painting. Elmis rhapsodizes:
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; he meadows, the continuing rivers, the incorruptible promise of returning spring.
Or, as Bette Davis told Paul Henreid at the end of Now, Voyager, "Don't ask for the moon when we have ... the stars!" I just remembered something someone wrote about Carlos Castaneda and his fictional Yaqui men of knowledge and power: that they love the Earth, but not the people on it. That seems to fit Pangborn as well. There are frequent references in A Mirror for Observers to the need for an advance to an "empirical ethics," but no hint of what Angelo is supposed to contribute to it, or what difference it would make. Pangborn kills off a major chunk of humanity including the faceless masses of Asia and Africa, with hardly a tremor; after all, we just clutter up those forests, fields, oceans and rivers, and corrupt the promise of spring.

Art seems to be his true touchstone -- Angelo is a painter, Sharon a concert pianist -- and that's all very well, but more as an escape from humanity than a key to us. Elmis also celebrates an orbiting satellite (and remember, this novel was written before people actually put such an object in space) as the "most dramatic achievement of human science, I think, and something more than science too -- a bright finger groping at the heavens." He praises Drozma for standing "apart, watching both worlds with a clarity I have never achieved." Well, so did Namir. A Mirror for Observers is a classically individualist work, with an ethic that is barely even tribal.