Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Mirror for Observers, by Edgar Pangborn (1954)

When I wrote a couple weeks ago that I had borrowed a copy with intent to read, I got a few unsolicited comments from people testifying how much they loved this book.

Well, now I've read it. I didn't like it.

It's the near future, as of the date of writing. Martians have been living secretly on earth, disguised as humans, for thousands of years. Most of the book is the journal of a Martian agent who's been assigned to watch over a 12-year-old boy in a Massachusetts mill town, to protect him from the Bad Martian. The agent is not very good at his job. He misplaces the boy and doesn't find him again until he's an adult nine years later. Nor does this prevent the Bad Martian from carrying out his Evil Plan, although as world-destroying Evil Plans go it's something of a damp squib. (But it's still a major disaster, so making it come across as a damp squib is a monumental achievement in bathos.)

However, it was never clear to me why the Bad Martian is interested in this particular boy, or how the Evil Plan couldn't be carried out with his presence, or alternatively - since this seems to be how it actually goes down - without his presence. This lack of understanding on my part isn't that important: it just destroys the entire plot and character motivation for me, that's all.

Also, none of the dialogue sounds as if was spoken by human beings, even humans who are actually Martians in disguise. This is particularly glaring with the lines spoken by children, even though they're supposed to be precocious children. But then, precocious children are an SF specialty almost always handled spectacularly badly. That, in addition, the Martians don't seem very alien is a trope so common in SF as hardly to be worth mentioning.

John Hertz asked me about this book because he wanted my opinion of the writing about music. The 12-year-old boy has a 10-year-old girlfriend (yes, they get married at the end, after they're grown up) who is a budding piano student, and she bonds with the Martian because he plays piano also, despite one finger on each hand being artificial as part of his human disguise.

After the girl is grown up, the Martian attends her debut piano recital in New York, and this is where most of the book's music natter is located. The one thing that's clear is that Pangborn - who was conservatory-trained - loves piano music, especially Beethoven and Chopin, and gives that love to his characters. The description of her concert rendition of Beethoven's "Waldstein" Sonata is detailed enough that, as I am tolerably familiar with the work, I get an impression of what it would have sounded like. I wish I could hear it.

I got less out of the description of Chopin. The recital includes "the sonata" (which one?) and "the F Sharp Minor Impromptu." There is no F Sharp Minor Impromptu. It probably means the F Sharp Major Impromptu, one of that majority of Chopin pieces I don't get much out of, so I can't judge the Martian's emotional reaction to it.

The most curious comment comes in connection with the music of a (fictional) contemporary composer. (Remember, the story was published in 1954, and this part takes place 18 years later.) The Martian, as critic, contrasts this composer with "the I-don't-really-mean-it school of the '930s and '940s." The reference is presumably to something historical, and I might be better able to guess what school this is if I knew Pangborn's own stylistic affiliations in modern music. As the antidote to this school is being influenced by Brahms, I wonder if it means neo-classicism, as Brahms is smooth and shaded while neo-classicism is bright and brittle, and was thought by some at the time to be mannered and insincere.

But neo-classicism is traditionally considered to have been founded by Stravinsky's Pulcinella and Prokofiev's Classical Symphony in 1917-20, and flourished in the 1920s, so it's of slightly earlier date. The style that most distinctly flourished in the 1930s-40s is socially-conscious populism, as in Copland's most popular works. The reference is unlikely to be to serialism, which began earlier but didn't become dominant until slightly later. So I dunno.

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