A Mirror for Observers

by Edgar Pangborn
Release date: 1954
Type: speculative fiction
Genres: science fiction

"Millennia ago, Martians moved from their dying planet to ours and proceeded to observe our development, hoping we would reach a point where contact could be made. With surgery, they can be made to look like us, but they don't think like us. And they are very long-lived. They discover a young boy, a super-genius with a bent for philosophy, and set about observing him with some hope he can change the world as Plato or Aristotle did. The observer who is the protagonist goes out of the hidden Martian city to live in the rooming house owned by the mother of the genius boy. The dispatcher of this observer gives him an antique mirror made of bronze, an Earth artifact they've collected and kept. It has magical properties, and essentially shows the Initiate the Self as it really is. The observer, not realizing the power of the mirror, lets the boy see this mirror before he's mature enough. This, along with other events, changes the boy's life and, thus, human destiny. This novel was published in 1954, long before "Fantasy" became a recognized field, and long before it became acceptable in science fiction to include magic as a plot-driving element. Most of the novel's plot is straight adventure formula, and there is a very serious attempt by the author to extrapolate trends. Pangborn's futurology is top notch – as good as Heinlein or better."Jacqueline Lichtenberg

"The plot, in the light of modern sf standards, is implausible when it isn't trite; the alleged "Martian observers" are purely human archetypes; and some of the dialogue is just godawful. But read it as an allegory of the struggle between good and evil, and it becomes thoughtful, incisive, and magnificent in scope. It is a slap in cynicism's face, a letter of reference to God on behalf of humanity, the story of a bitter conflict for possession of a single human soul, and its happy outcome."Spider Robinson, Galaxy (March 1976)

"Unusal for its period, this is a slow-moving, painstakingly atmospheric and decidedly "literary" science fiction novel. A Mirror for Observers brought Pangborn a measure of critical acclaim, although it has never been a very popular work with the general sf readership. One can see why. The various sections of the book begin with quotations from Plato, Santayana and Emerson, which are indicative of the sententiousness and high moral tone the author strives for throughout."David Pringle, Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (1985)

updated 2017-01-16

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