A Tunnel in the Sky

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Edgar Pangborn

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted July 27, 2000

Born in New York City, his higher education included Harvard University (1924-26) [that's right, he was at Harvard by age 15], and later the New England Conservatory of Music. He left before receiving any degrees however, and became a farmer in Maine from 1939 to 1942, when he entered the Army to serve in the Medical Corps. He began his writing career with a mystery in 1930, submitting quite a few stories to the pulps under various pseudonyms, but did not publish his first SF story until June of 1951, in Galaxy Science Fiction. That story, "Angel's Egg" is considered by some to be one of the finest novelets in genre history.

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His first SF novel came two years later. West of the Sun (recently reissued in hardcover by Old Earth Books) concerns six human astronauts, stranded on the distant planet Lucifer, who must survive in conjunction with that planet's two sentient native species. When a rescue ship finally arrives they decide they would rather remain to further develop the society they have established. This is far from his best work, and yet it closes on such a poignant and hopeful note that the reader is left with many profound thoughts on which to ponder. The closing pages contain one of my favorite passages from any book I have ever read. The person speaking is the colony's leader, Dr. Christopher Wright, and he is explaining what he feels are the important factors that have contributed to, and will continue to insure, his group's successful survival.

"As soon as [our children's] minds are old enough to think with some independence and explore, we insist that they start the lifetime struggle with man's primary dilemma. That he is an individual, his selfhood precious and inviolate, yet he must live in harmony with other individuals whose right to life and welfare is as certain as his own....We think, here, that the most rewarding answer is in the old virtues of self-knowledge, charity, honesty, forbearance, patience....We make them understand that lip-service will not do; if one is to make himself honest he must eat honesty with breakfast, sweat with it in the sun, laugh and play and suffer with it and lie down with it at night until it's near as the oxygen in his blood. Yes, we aim high. Cruelly high, would you say? We don't think so. Perfection is a cold spot on top of a mountain, and nobody ever climbed there. We have trouble and fun and arguments; sometimes the garden weeds grow until tomorrow or the day after, but we sleep well."

Pangborn won the International Fantasy Award for his second novel (and my personal favorite), A Mirror for Observers (1954), which postulates that Mars has been guiding humanity on its road to civilization for thousands of years. Two different Martian observers - one good, one evil - contend for control over a human boy genius, a potential leader in man's next evolutionary step. I believe Old Earth Books did reprint this a year or so after their West of the Sun release (along with Davy), only problem being that their rights to Pangborn's books had expired, so I am not linking those titles for you to purchase at amazon, since I don't think OEB should profit from that deal.

Two non-SF novels, Wilderness of Spring (1958) and The Trial of Callista Blake (1961) would come before EP's return to the genre, and the remainder of his work published in book form would be devoted almost exclusively to what is referred to as the Davy cycle. The novel by that name was the first of the series published, in 1964, even though it recounts incidents at the far end of the sequence, some 250 years after a nuclear holocaust has plunged the U.S. into a balkanized and somewhat medieval-like existence. Most of the remainder of this series was presented in collections of linked short stories, even though some were marketed as if they were novels. As we have seen in other "future histories" - such as with Heinlein and Cordwainer Smith - the publication schedule does not necessarily equate to the chronological sequence of the stories themselves. Using internal clues, the Davy chronicle can be roughly ordered in this way: The Company of Glory (1975 collection); Still I Persist in Wondering (1978 collection); The Judgment of Eve (1966 novel); and Davy (1964 novel - although portions had been previously published as short stories). Other stories outside of this sequence were collected in the volume Good Neighbors and Other Strangers (1972), as far as I know the only one of his SF titles that I do not have.

Editor and critic Damon Knight once said this of Pangborn's work: "...very much like the thing Stapledon was always talking about and never quite managing to convey: the regretful, ironic, sorrowful, deeply joyous—and purblind—love of the world and all in it."

Spider Robinson, in his introduction to Still I Persist in Wondering, echoed much the same sentiment: "His two essential themes were love and human stupidity (perhaps human insensitivity is more correct)…He said again and again in his books that love is not a condition or an event or even a state of mind—that love is a country, which we are sometimes privileged to visit—and again and again he wrote of the exploration of that fantastic region."

I realize this article is entirely too brief, considering how good a writer I consider Pangborn to be. Yet in all his years he gave us so few stories (less that a dozen shorts outside of the Davy cycle, and only four or five other novels). His work was not significant enough to merit a Grand Master Award even if the SFWA allowed those to be presented posthumously, and they don't even do that for their Author Emeritus category, besides that wasn't implemented until nineteen years after Pangborn's passing. His fans had to settle for him being honored in 2003 as the third recipient of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award. His is a body of work that definitely deserves to be rediscovered by anyone who wants to have a full view of the scope of science fiction literature.

Unfortunately, the majority of Pangborn's work is out of print, although some have been released on Kindle in recent years. Take this link to amazon to search for available titles. A purchase through our links may earn us a commission, even if it is a used copy through one of their third-party sellers.

Related Links:
Still I Persist In Wondering - another very good Pangborn essay by Bud Webster
Pangborn's Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com


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February 25, 1909
New York City

February 1, 1976

1 Hugo & 2 Nebula nominations

International Fantasy Award (A Mirror for Observers)

2003 Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award

No Official Website
check links at end of article for other references