It’s somewhat surprising that this 1954 International Fantasy Award winner has never found a very large audience in the SF genre. The writing style is reminiscent of Theodore Sturgeon or Ray Bradbury, very much focused on the characters and their inner thoughts and struggles, a big contrast with the more pulpy science and space-adventure tales featured in pulp magazines like Galaxy and Astounding.
I knew about A Mirror for Observers only because it was included in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. Although it is ostensibly the story of two undercover Martian Observers who battle over the heart and soul of a promising young boy, it basically breaks down to 65% character study (quite well done), 25% observations of human nature in general (with some valuable ruminations), and 10% threadbare sci-fi framing story about the two Martian factions (one protective of humans, the other antagonistic) that have meddled secretly in human affairs over the last 30,000 years.
The story, for what it’s worth, follows Angelo Pontevecchio, a child prodigy unknowingly caught between two rival factions of Martians, the Observers and Abdicators. The novel is told from the point of view of Elmis, Angelo’s Martian guardian, who must protect him from the malignant Abdicators.
There are dozens of very elegant passages that show Edgar Pangborn was a sensitive, intelligent, and above all humanistic writer (Ursula K. Le Guin says that his works showed that SF could be focused on emotions and psychology, not just laser beams and bug-eyed monsters).
However, and this is a big however, the SF elements of the story are extremely flimsy and not at all important to the narrative. Instead, this book could just have as easily been a contemporary fiction novel that studies a boy growing up in a small New England town, and then follows him later as a troubled young man torn in different directions by older people with greater influence (including the Martians).
So there was never any need to have a SF framing narrative about Martians in order to deliver insights about human nature from the outside. You can do that just fine in a standard novel. And the supposedly dramatic events of the final chapters simply didn’t work for me at all. In addition, the period details feel extremely dated, although the word “bodaciously” was used once in a very unexpected way (I thought Bill & Ted invented that one).
Purchase A Mirror for Observers.