To my amazement, it is nearly three months since the publication of The Productions of Time. It is therefore perfectly reasonable for my audience to ask, hey, what have you done lately? Well, for one thing, I have written a chapter on the theme of “paradise and exile” as reflected in modern literature and culture for a projected six-volume History of Western Mythology to be published by Bloomsbury Press, the press that published six novels by an unknown woman about a young magician known as Harry Potter. I cannot tell you how tickled I am to be (possibly) published by the press that published the Harry Potter books.
I am well aware of the contemptuous dismissal of Harry Potter by some academic critics: literary critic Harold Bloom called them “goo.” But if you go back and reread the description of the rise of authoritarianism, fueled behind the scenes by Voldemort, I think you will find that much of it is uncannily prophetic of what has happened in the United States in the last four years, and particularly the last four months.
That leads me to a second attempt to justify my existence post-Productions, so to speak: I am writing another book, this one on fantasy and science fiction. Disappointed noises, perhaps. Oh, that stuff? I prefer to read about real life. Let me in a non-judgmental way suggest that fantasy and science fiction are about “real life,” depending on what you read and how you read it. Some of the deepest examples of these genres even go on to ask, “What is real life, and are we sure it’s real?”
If Harry Potter is not “literary” enough for you, let me suggest a book called A Mirror for Observers by Edgar Pangborn, which won the International Fantasy Award in 1954. Pangborn is not nearly as well known as he deserves to be (maybe my book will someday change that). He posthumously won a Rediscovery Award in 2003, but I guess it didn’t take. He has been admired, however, by Ursula LeGuin and Kim Stanley Robinson: LeGuin says it was the work of Pangborn and Theodore Sturgeon that convinced her that science fiction could write about real people in a literate style. If you want to give science fiction and fantasy a try, all of these writers are a good place to start.
The connection with Harry Potter concerns the “prophetic” element in literature, which has little to do with predicting the future, even though that is what science fiction is popularly supposed to do. A Mirror for Observers is narrated by a dryly witty and humane Martian, several centuries old, who is a hidden Observer living disguised among the human race, hoping to influence it for the better, hoping that one day it will actually manage to develop something that deserves the name of civilization. His efforts are opposed by a renegade Martian known as the Abdicator, who tries to influence humanity for the worse. Yes, the scenario deliberately invokes the Biblical: the opening clearly alludes to the debate between God and Satan at the beginning of the Book of Job, and the tempted human protagonist is not very subtly named Angelo. But there is nothing supernatural about the story at all. Neither is there any attempt to predict a technological future: a few references to “copter buses” are about it. (It’s funny how that Jetsons notion of flying cars seems to have been ubiquitous during that period, yet there was never even an attempt at making it a reality).
What is prophetic is on the human level, and what this book, published when I was three years old, prophesizes is the rise of homegrown American fascism, the kind that is attempting to take over the country right now. Angelo falls in with a political party called the Organic Unity Party. Of its demogogue, the Observer observes, “He no longer yelps in public about racial purity, though some of the whispers against the Federalists’ Negro-Indian candidate must originate with Max. In public he approves of human brotherhood—there are votes in it. He’ll make a try in the fall election, shouting for America to rule the world.” Promising, no doubt, to make America great again. The Organic Unity Party is looking for donations from people with a sense of grievance, from people who feel that “the world was dangerously drifting. Internationalist delusions. Losing touch with the Eternal Verities. Rampant skepticism.”
To further its aims, the Abdicator has manipulated the human demogogue to employ a scientist to engineer a virus that will spread uncontrollably, with symptoms that start like a cold but become polio-like, fatal for older people, dire but survivable by the young. The virus escapes and becomes a pandemic that kills perhaps a third of the population before burning itself out.
Where do science fiction writers get their crazy ideas? The book was published in the year in which Joseph McCarthy was—finally—condemned by the U.S. Senate. When I was growing up, McCarthyism was depicted as a form of Cold War hysteria. We were never told that McCarthy was supported by people whose grievance had nothing to do with the Red Scare.
The Wikipedia article on “McCarthyism” says this: “Although right-wing radicals were the bedrock of support for McCarthyism, they were not alone. A broad ‘coalition of the aggrieved’ found McCarthyism attractive, or at least politically useful. Common themes uniting the coalition were opposition to internationalism, particularly the United Nations; opposition to social welfare provisions, particularly the various programs established by the New Deal; and opposition to efforts to reduce inequalities in the social structure of the United States.” Sounds vaguely familiar.
So Pangborn was prophetic not in the sense of technological prognostication but in the sense of a famous title by Robert Heinlein: “If This Goes On—” (which is about the turning of America into a fundamentalist theocracy, decades before The Handmaid’s Tale). He simply saw accurately what was there, and predicted that it would not go away. If it went underground, it would resurface. And now it has. As for the conjunction of a fascistic movement with a pandemic—the word is actually used in the novel—well, that’s spooky, although it is the publicizing of the Unity Party’s role in creating the pandemic that in fact defeats it.
Pangborn is inquiring into the nature of evil—but even more so into the nature of the goodness that opposes it. The epigraph of Part One is a luminous, pun intentional, passage from George Santayana: “The problem of darkness does not exist for a man gazing at the stars… the problem is not why there is such darkness, but what is the light that breaks through it so remarkably; and granting this light, why we have eyes to see it and hearts to be gladdened by it.” But in Pangborn the light is not supernatural, as it is in The Divine Comedy, each of whose canticles ends with the word “stars.”
If there is no supernatural intervention, and even the Martians are only Observers, what is the hope of the human race? The mirror of the title is a gift from the Observer to Angelo, a 7000 year-old mirror from Minoan Crete. Like all old mirrors, it is not glass but polished bronze, so that images in it are seen “through a glass darkly” (that is what Paul’s famous New Testament image is referring to). Hope for the human race lies in the capacity of individuals to look in that mirror and see themselves accurately. The evil people of course cannot: they are narcissists (Narcissus fell in love with his image in the water), and demand that the mirror tell them that they are fairest of them all, becoming furious when the mirror fails to cooperate.
What is the mirror? The book suggests two things. First, the arts: Angelo is a gifted painter, and Sharon, the female lead, a gifted pianist (Pangborn was classically trained at Harvard and the New England School of Music and took up painting later in life). But there is also what we may broadly call criticism, including literary criticism, philosophy, and science, an intellectual detachment that attempts to see the Big Picture reflected, however darkly, in the mirror of human and natural phenomena. What hope we have resides not in mass movements but in individuals with the courage to look in the mirror and the honesty to confront their own image. There is nothing that terrifies some people so much as that, and they will unleash any amount of hatred and aggression to avoid looking at what they are.