Tales of a Darkening World

Edgar Pangborn
Tales of a Darkening World

darkening

This demonstrates a pitfall the preferred length of modern SF generally skirts. I began intended just to reread Edgar Pangborn’s post-holocaust Bildungsroman Davy but because I was also planning to reread Canticle for Leibowitz, which covers centuries to Davy’s decades I then began to ponder if it would be better to reread all the stories Pangborn wrote in that setting so I would be comparing similar spans of time or at least half a millennium to 1800 years. After all, both The Company of Glory and The Judgment of Eve are short and the collection Still I Persist in Wondering is under 300 pages. Of course, it all added up to something as long as The Past Through Tomorrow or Adventures in Time and Space. I am sure there is a lesson here somewhere and equally sure that I didn’t learn it.

Although he is comparatively obscure now, in the 1950s Pangborn won an International Fantasy Award for his A Mirror for Observers, a Hugo nomination for Davy (which lost to Leiber’s execrable The Wanderer ; what the hell, SF fandom?), and Nebula nominations for “A Better Mousehole” and “Mount Charity”. A fair fraction of his work was set the Darkening World, in a world where thanks to resource depletion, overpopulation, light nuclear war, and a host of almost certainly engineered plagues, civilization collapsed, leaving in its wake a small and infertile population of people to survive as best they can.

To make a bad situation worse, radical climate change and an implausible rise in ocean levels flooded many of the low-lying regions; this was in part compensated by the fact that very few children were being born and of those many were deformed. The culture of the islands of New England are neither charitable nor wealthy enough to give in to whatever rudimentary impulses they might have in that direction; “mues” are generally killed at birth and often their mothers are killed as well as a precautionary measure.

I thought about what order to discuss the Tales of a Darkening World stories and while I freely admit internal chronology makes sense, I think there’s a distinct pattern that emerges when you look at them in order of publication so that’s what I am going to stick with.

Davy [1964]

What probably caught my eye when I was 15 was this Boris Vallejo cover.

Which interestingly is fairly true to the book while also being a cover your average 15-year-old should not bring with him to a rural High School. A lot of 1970s science fiction cover art has gratuitous nudity for the sake of gratuitous nudity but in this case Davy invests as much of his time as he can having sex with various women. The main misleading element in the book are Davy’s shorts; among thr many technologies lost is the ability to make trousers.


The French horn comes from the plot at well and has been featured in many of the covers, from the first edition:


to the Old Earth Books edition.

(I am not sure if Old Earth still has copies of that edition or not. As I understand it they did not actually have the rights at the time and an agreement was reached to just let the stocks run down to zero)


About three centuries after the Twenty Minute War, Davy tells the life story of the eponymous character, his early years told in reminiscence by a much older Davy who with lover Nickie and their friends have just fled a disastrous attempt to drag the nation of Nuin into a sort of primitive modernity, something opposed by the rabble, the Church and various ambitious soldiers. The plot heads towards the middle from past and future; we see Davy growing up and we hear, second hand, more about the failed attempt to modernize Nuin.

Davy is the son of a whore, given according to the custom of the republic of Moha to be raised in an orphanage and then bonded out as a servant to repay the state the cost of raising him. This is not an awful life by the standards of this time, which is a terrible, terrible time and not likely to get better soon, but he tires of life on the second lowest rung of society and so he resolves to run away. It takes him some time to actually get around to leaving Skoar (about a third of the book) and it indicates how little his master notices him that his periodic absences while he builds up the resolve to leave are easily explained away.

Once he does leave Skoar, he has the usual sequence of encounters and learning experiences one expects in a Bildungsroman; he narrowly avoids being caught up in the war between Moha and Katskil and what he witnesses teaches him that the soldiers of Katskil are much like the people of Moha. He falls in with a party of deserters fleeing the war, some foolish and some just self-serving, and has a number of learning experiences thereby. Luck and his skill with a stolen French Horn earns him a place with Ramblers, migratory entertainers who live largely outside of society’s rules, which in turn leads him to an encounter that will shape the rest of his life and lead to the calamity we see him fleeing and its aftermath.

As a wizened old man in his mid-30s Davy has enough self-awareness that his account of his life (informed by helpful comments from his lover Nickie and mentor Dion) often admits young Davy’s flaws and self-serving crimes but not often enough for my taste. For example, a chance encounter with a mue living a terrible and lonely life out in the wilds near Skoar gives Davy a chance to steal the French horn with which he will earn his living for much of his life. The consequences of this theft are awful and such that Davy cannot kid himself about them. In contrast to the guilt he feels over the theft, Davy leaves every sexual encounter he has convinced the women wanted to have sex with him as much as he did with them and particularly with a woman named Bonnie, I think he was kidding himself about what happened [p233]:

That night, I remember, I had to have Bonnie — complaisant Minna wouldn’t do, it had to be Bonnie, and never mind her quick and snippy No and her maybe-sometime. And I got her — remembering Emmia, I think. I warmed her up with kissing when I caught her behind our wagon, and followed her to her compartment after she broke away with a friendlier backward look than I was used to from her; when she would have dismissed me there at the curtains I simply went in with her and kept up the good work. When she tried to freeze me, I tickled her under the ribs and she had to laugh. When she informed me she was about to yell and scream and fetch Pa Rumley who’d give me the cowhide but good, I informed her that she probably wasn’t, anyway not if she was the sweet, passionate and beautiful Spice I thought she was — in fact prettier than any quail I ever saw — and so I went on with my enterprise, warming her here and there and yonder until there wasn’t really one sensible thing she could do, except beg me to wait till she got the rest of her clothes off so they wouldn’t be rumpled. And I will be damned if she wasn’t a virgin.

Also relieved to be one no longer, and a bit grateful — and a good wife to Joe DuIin when she got around to it — but above all a hell of a musician, bless her: I’ve never known a better, certainly not excepting myself. I was fifteen. You can excuse me (if you like) for going rather cocky and quick-tempered and full of brag the next year or two. However, my half-comic good luck with Bonnie was only a part of the reason for it.

I strongly suspect Bonnie’s perspective on all this was very different from Davy’s. Some of this is Davy is the sort of exploitative jerk who has convinced himself that he is a good guy but also some of this is the change in values since the 1960s; this sort of wheedling and pestering and worse would have been seen as acceptable back them (and even now, in various selected science fiction conventions around the world). Davy’s rollicking sex life is a large part of the book and it undermined my enjoyment of the work that he’s as predatory as Alfie in how he goes about it.

It’s clear Nickie manages to domesticate him to some degree by being better than him in most of the things he cares about but the route to that point – !

The general tone of the book is we have irredeemably ruined the world, which will be a very long time recovering, if it ever does, that humans are doomed to live poverty stricken, short lives, ones made even worse by the natural human tendency to pick the worst available option available but moments of happiness are possible at the individual level. Value them while they last, because they won’t last long.

It’s probably not a good idea to examine the world-building in Pangborn’s work too closely (for example, I have no idea where all the water comes from to drown the Earth; the ice caps don’t seem to be able to account for it all) but the question of the mues vexed me because at several points in the various works set in this world we are told that the nuclear exchange was very limited and that most of the reduction in population was due to plague and chaos. This does not seem to be the sort of radiation-soaked setting like Anderson’s Twilight World to have such an issue with mutation and deformity and I wonder if something else isn’t at work here.

The Judgment of Eve [1966]

I can tell from various value-undermining marks on this first edition Dell MMPK that I bought it at the Book Barn on King Street, an establishment long since gone that was one of my favourite haunts as a kid (along with Now and Then Books, whatever that used bookstore at Charles and Ontario was called, and KW Book Exchange back in the days before they discovered how to alphabetize their books) and that before that it spent some time in a place called the Book Bin in London and that I paid twenty five cents for it.

This is set in the generations soon after the Twenty-Minute War. This is a very empty world, with small pockets of survivors here and there. Eve has been lucky enough to spend her life so far with her doting mother and loyal slave-moron Caleb, but her mother is old and will die soon, raising the question of what Eve is to do with herself.

Three men arrive together: old Claudius, who survived the war, near-blind Kenneth and woodsman Ethan, all of whom desire Eve and all of whom have both virtues and flaws. When jealousy provokes violence, Eve sends them all away on a quest to find the meaning of love, to return to her on a specific date so that she can choose who she will from among them. The story turns out to be more about the three men’s journeys than their destination.

OK, hands up anyone who didn’t think that after the book ended and the characters were out of sight of disapproving editors, Eve picked all three of them and they all lived happily together exploiting the hell out of poor idiot Caleb until each of them died in some horrible way typical of this time, perhaps separately or maybe all at once? Pangborn showed a great fondness for affection in any form and for unconventional relationships so I am convinced that’s what he intended. It might be some of you have access to notes or other material that suggests that Eve picked just one of them and I invite you to share it in the knowledge I will hate you forever for doing that.

It takes the people of this world essentially no time at all to reinvent slavery and the justifications needed to practice it. Various comments by Pangborn’s characters appear to indicate that this is because Pangborn didn’t think slavery ever went away; it only changed its name. That’s as may be but I find I prefer my naïve love interests in novels to have backstories that involve less beating the hell out of the mentally retarded unpaid workers than this book actually had. That angle was a real detriment to my overall enjoyment.
I note that the kindly people at Dell made a point of mentioning Davy on the cover but failed to spell check the name.

The Company of Glory [1975]

A comparatively slight novel set about half a century after 1993’s Twenty Minute War, by which time the new world has taken on much of the form it will keep for the next five centuries. Demetrios works in a brothel, telling tales to the customers to help earn a living. Too keen a memory of recent history makes him a danger to the rulers of Nuber and with others who find the city-state too dangerous for their health, he sets out to find a better land. Happily, this is an empty world where brave explorers can find new homes far from the authorities. Less happily, Demetrios is an old man and he may find himself playing Moses in more ways than one.

Like so many people, I encountered the collection Still I Persist in Wondering before I found a copy of The Company of Glory and I took Spider Robinson’s comments in the introduction to Still I Persist in Wondering about how this was chopped up by a homophobic editor at face value because I was young(er) and stupid(er) than I am now. Michael H. Hutchins actually sat down and compared the text of the serialized version with the novel and I am sad to say it’s not clear what Robinson was talking about.

The mass market paperback has a glowing blurb from James Baen of Galaxy Magazine. Galaxy serialized the novel from August 1974 to October 1974. I have to say that in many ways “Edgar Pangborn” is not one of the authors who comes to mind when one thinks about authors who would appeal to Baen, just on the basis of the extreme global warming that is such an integral part of the setting. I will have more to say on this when I get to Karma but it just goes to show how much Baen’s editorial tastes evolved over the next 30 years.

I guess the way Baen changed from the editor who published Pangborn and Darnay, Bujold and Scott to the guy who published Ringo and Kratman goes to underline Pangborn’s lesson about the good things in life being ephemeral.

Still I Persist in Wondering [1978]

An unfortunately posthumous collection, it collects most of the short stories set in this world. The ISFDB lists 25 short works written by Pangborn over his quarter century career and of those six were written in the 1950s, seven in the 1960s and 12 in the 1970s, no doubt a reflection of the short golden age of anthologies in that time. This does not collect all of the stories set in the Darkening World – The World is a Sphere and The Freshman Angle are both omitted – but it is as complete a one as we have thus far got. Unfortunately it is also long, long out of print in North America, although British people might still be able to snag the 2011 Gateway/Orion ebook.

Introduction: The Country Called Edgar . essay by Spider Robinson
Ah, for the days when I could uncritically read a Robinson essay. He’s very enthusiastic and in fact would have instigated a collection like this one if it had not turned out Pangborn had put the MS together before he died. One can never doubt Robinson’s enthusiasm for various works but at times his research skills are second only to William Patterson’s.

Author’s Note (Still I Persist in Wondering)” — essay by Edgar Pangborn

Some brief comments from the author about his stories, giving among other things a rough internal chronology. I will come back to this.

The Children’s Crusade” [Tales of a Darkening World] — (1974)

By Davy’s time, the main religious is a Christianity knockoff whose messianic figure is a man named Abraham who was broken on the wheel at Nuber. This is the story of Abraham as told by one of the witnesses. On the one hand, Abraham meant well but on the other his folly got a lot of people killed and worse.

Harper Conan and Singer David” [Tales of a Darkening World] — (1975)

After he loses his sight in an accident, Conan becomes a skilled harper. His friend and fellow musician believes there may be hope for Conan but in fact what they get is a lesson in how much was lost in the collapse of civilization.

The Legend of Hombas” [Tales of a Darkening World] — (1974)

A semi-mythological story about an aging elder of a particularly backward tribe and the extremes to which he will go to fulfill his duties to his people.

Tiger Boy” [Tales of a Darkening World] — (1972)

A wandering wild boy becomes a psychopomp to the ignorant people of the Darkening world. An attempt to befriend one young man ends very badly for all concerned.

The Witches of Nupal” [Tales of a Darkening World] — (1974) 

What starts off as a very sexy foray into harmless Satanism takes a dark turn as it becomes increasingly clear the cult leader is a murderous sociopath.

My Brother Leopold” [Tales of a Darkening World] — (1973) 

The life and death and rehabilitation of a holy madman, as told by the holy man’s unfortunate brother.

The Night Wind” [Tales of a Darkening World] — (1974) 

Cast out for being gay, the protagonist has a chance encounter with an old, dying woman, a woman he refuses to abandon to die alone.

Bibliography (Still I Persist in Wondering)” — essay by uncredited 

What it says on the label. It only covers up to 1974 so it could have been prepared by Pangborn. As well, it is not identical with the ISFDB list because it includes non-SF works like “The Singing Stick” and “Mrrrar!”; Pangborn was also the author of non-SF works like The Trial of Callista Blake


The pattern I noticed by reading these in publication order is that while Pangborn was in no way an optimist save on very small, brief scales when he wrote Davy and The Judgment of Eve, he was a sunny Pollyanna compared to where he was by the time he wrote The Company of Glory and the stories in Still I Persist in Wondering . Davy and his chums could dream of making the world a better place, despite knowing how poor a thing they had been left, and Eve could dream of true love but poor Demetrios and his friends have to settle for fleeing a corrupt society while most of the efforts in the short stories to find something better than ignorant poverty prove self-sabotaging. The stories make it clear that while the future New England would recover to the point of having one grand polity and reestablishing some form of academia, the culture would remain poor, ignorant, backward and spiteful for as long as Pangborn cared to document.

These works definitely held my interest but they sure are dark; I wouldn’t recommend any of them for people looking for some light entertainment. Nixon getting elected definitely didn’t help Pangborn’s optimism any but I think he was pre-adapted to embrace the most doleful predictions of the Club of Rome and Paul Ehrlich and to seek out confirmations of his direst fears. I am not in any way convinced living longer would have led him to reject his pessimistic predictions for the future, except maybe to adjust the date of doomsday a bit later than 1993.

I did try to contact Peter S. Beagle, who currently is in charge of Pangborn’s literary estate, or his agent but while I got a very nice letter back I cannot at this time point you at any upcoming publications. Happily for me, I took Pangborn’s advice to appreciate fleeting pleasures while one can and I own almost every Pangborn work ever published. The rest of you will have to search used bookstores online and otherwise. I recommend you start now.


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