Down, down to the Hudson Sea
Edgar Pangborn wrote science fiction intermittently during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. He is most remembered for his philosophical debate about human nature and our propensity to either excel or incinerate ourselves, A Mirror for Observers. Being remembered is not one of his best characteristics, alas, as he was the 3rd winner of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award in 2003, an award akin to “Comeback Player of the Year”, which entails having had some career mishap from which to come back.
Still I Persist in Reading
When remembered, particularly during his writing life, Pangborn was honored by sf fans with Hugo nominations and with the International Fantasy Award in 1955 for Mirror. What brought him to my attention (aside from memories of his notable first sf story, “Angel’s Egg”, much anthologized) was the posthumous collection Still I Persist in Wondering (1978), which tossed me into his post-apocalyptic Northeast US, a land of Balkanized mini-nations and shreds of Old Time knowledge surviving as unwanted weeds amid a low-tech, high-theocratic landscape. It was not a new landscape for sf; Stephen Vincent Benet was there early with “By the Waters of Babylon”, and Leigh Brackett had detailed the anti-science angle in The Long Tomorrow (1955), right around when Pangborn was getting his IF award. But something in Pangborn’s stories, the feeling of an almost remembered and nearly recognizable Old Time that was my contemporary reality, tugged at me. And so I wandered off to read his longest work of these “Tales of a Darkening World”, the novel-length memoir of a young man of Moha and Katskil who crosses the Hudson Sea to Conicut and Nuin, Davy.
Oh, To Go A-Ramblin’
Davy (who, being an indentured servant, has no surname) is a young man discovering his world and his physical maturity. If we may call it a Young Adult book, the emphasis is certainly on the “adult” part, in both senses of maturity and sexuality. Davy, published in 1964, would have been ‘R’ rated. Even now, the feeling of brio that pervades Davy’s narrative washes out any shame or guilt that in a more contemporary story might envelope its teen (and certainly pre-marital) sex. It also enlivens the less happy discoveries that Davy makes, when he confronts the tragedy of lives spent in a pointless “war” (more of a tiny skirmish over 30 miles of borderland) or when he comes to terms with his own varied failures of moral behavior.
Numerous reviewers bring up the comparison of Davy with Huck Finn, due to both the matching satiric tones of Pangborn and Twain and to the moral dilemmas of the young men faced with conflicts between personal and social creeds. Davy may be even more conflicted than Huck as he does commit outright larceny (admittedly, to gain the glorious Old Time horn that gives him the impetus to run away from home). He does show remorse when he feels he should, when he sees himself being able to act better, not always a clear point for a servant. An innocent “mue” (mutant) condemned by the Church, a dying Katskil soldier, traveling medicine show folks, even the pirates of the (Cape) Cod Islands gain some sympathy for their situations. Phony spirit mediums, on the other hand, or officious guards, those who hold and abuse authority, get none.
The Sails of Levannon, the Green Hills of Vairmant
In many ways, Davy encompasses the whole of Twain’s book in himself, being both fugitive slave and shepherd, Jim and Huck combined. And, like Huck’s story, Davy’s does not end so much as it stops, with Davy’s fate a mystery. At the same time, the geography of Pangborn’s world is not as morally charged as Twain’s, where the journey further south down the Mississippi is definitely into darker and darker territory. Although Pangborn’s “Missipan” is practically unknown, with land south of Penn obscured by tropical jungles, thanks to global warming, it is not a moral darkness. Davy, moving from central New York state to Boston (“Old City”) and finally overseas, finds instead that people are people wherever he goes, which makes the central question of just what lives we shape for ourselves into the universal question of just what fate humanity is building for itself.
“And still I persist in wondering whether folly must always be our nemesis”, asks one of Pangborn’s protagonists. Pangborn may not have answered the question of where to find Paradise, but he does prove to be a good guide to the territories that may surround it.