Ever psychoanalyze your own reading choices? Ever wonder about the unique appeal of science fiction? Ever wonder if your personal daydreams overlap with the authors’ own fantasies? Are stories just stories or do they the trigger synapses storing your hidden desires?
Every science fiction story has at least one weird idea in it. Some stories are subtle with one slight bit of strangeness. Others are overflowing with the fantastic. Each bit of added weirdness is like an ingredient in a recipe. Most of the ingredients are common off the science fiction spice rack. I’m developing a new theory. I’m realizing each writer brings their own special flavor of weirdness to the genre. Think about all your favorite science fiction writers, don’t their collective work leave a unique aftertaste in your mind? Just recall Philip K. Dick or Ursula K. Le Guin as examples.
To be completely holistic, we should consider our own weird interests and how we resonate with the pet themes of the writers. Most sense-of-wonder aspects of science fiction are not part of our everyday reality. What science fiction fans love are far-out concepts presented as mundane. We want reality to include our pet fantastic, weird, strange, and unbelievable concepts. If asked, we might say we’re only pretending, but I can’t help but believe that deep down we all want science fiction to come alive. And all of us are psychically drawn to our own hidden daydreams reflected in the fiction we read.
Maybe all readers are Walter Mittys, leaving writers to the hard work of generating fantasies. Books are VR machines powered by our own CPU-brains. If you start thinking about fiction this way, you become a connoisseur of hidden emotions.
I used to assume it was the science fictional tropes that shaped science fiction stories, the spaceship, the robot, the alien, but I’m now wondering if authors’ own inner obsessions and philosophies sculpt SF stories more, and the stories we love most are the ones that resonate with our own emotions. I’m even wondering if writers don’t go into science fiction because it offers the tools to promote their own weird hopes, desires, and fears better than any other literary form.
The story I’m going to discuss as my example is “Angel’s Egg” by Edgar Pangborn. Not because it’s special, but simply because it’s the last story I read and it’s stuck in my mind. “Angel’s Egg” was Pangborn’s first published science fiction story, appearing in the June 1951 issue of Galaxy Science Fiction. Since Galaxy began publishing in October 1950, Pangborn was essentially a new SF writer for a new SF magazine, and “Angel’s Egg” is different from the SF norm Astounding Science-Fiction had established. Times were changing. Although, I do wonder if Pangborn had submitted “Angel’s Egg” to John W. Campbell first? Was it a reject, or had Pangborn been inspired by the new magazine H. L. Gold was publishing? It actually feels more like an F&SF story, a magazine that launched in 1949.
Another part of the flavor of science fiction is where and when it’s published. “Angel’s Egg” presents a kind of weirdness for America in 1951. People were still freaking out over atomic bombs, plus the flying saucer craze was stirring up the crazies in the late 1940s. The early 1950s were a boom time for science fiction with dozens of magazines, new hardback publishers, TV shows and movies. America and the world feared total annihilation. Earthlings dreaded invasion by superior beings. We thought the human race was being judged and we all knew we weren’t going to pass the test.
Edgar Pangborn (1909-1976) got his first novel published in 1930, a mystery. His father and sister were also authors, and they all often wrote about the supernatural. All that went into the weird flavor of “Angel’s Egg.” If you follow the link you can read the story at Project Gutenberg. You can also read the story at the Internet Archive, in digital editions of the original June 1951 Galaxy Science Fiction magazine.
I wonder if H. L. Gold’s lead-in is how Gold really saw Pangborn’s story:
When adopting a pet, choose the species that
is most intelligent, obedient, loyal, fun to
play with, yet a shrewd, fearless protector.
For the best in pets—choose a human being!
If I had been Pangborn, I would have been pissed and insulted. Actually, I think it’s also insulting to the science fiction reader. Maybe “Angel’s Egg” was too weird for H. L. Gold, or maybe Gold just had a non-serious attitude towards science fiction. His mag was often filled with satire and humor. Yet, in some ways, it is hard to take Pangborn’s story seriously. “Angel’s Egg” is really about a savior from another world who asks one human to sacrifice life to save our species. That’s heavy. Pangborn is actually telling a spiritual story using the language of science fiction.
How serious should we take Pangborn? Is he inventing a weird story just to make a few bucks? How Freudian or Jungian is this story? Is “Angel’s Egg” a message from Pangborn’s unconscious mind about the state of humanity in 1951? If you haven’t read the story you have no idea what I’m talking about. I’ll try to include enough quotes to make sense, but you might want to read it first.
The story starts with a frame. A letter from an FBI agent to a local police captain who had asked the agency to investigate the death of a person named Dr. David Bannerman who died in 1951. Attached to the letter is a note from a librarian who found the letter in 1994. Included with the letter is Dr. Bannerman’s journal dated from June 1, 1951, to July 31, 1951.
The story is Bannerman’s journal extract. Writers use this kind of framework to give their tale a greater feel of authenticity. It’s also a trick to allow a first-person narrator to die in the story. Pangborn also wanted to use the first-person narrative to make the story feel as real as possible. But such techniques were also common in older, especially 19th-century science fiction. We know Pangborn came to science fiction rather late, so he might not have known the conventions of the genre.
How “Angel’s Egg” is told has a kind of archaic flavor that I enjoy. Pangborn leans toward the sentimental, more like Bradbury and Simak, his contemporaries. Here’s how the story begins and where the egg comes from in the title.
It must have been at least three weeks ago when we had that flying saucer flurry. Observers the other side of Katahdin saw it come down this side; observers this side saw it come down the other. Size anywhere from six inches to sixty feet in diameter (or was it cigar-shaped?) and speed whatever you please. Seem to recall that witnesses agreed on a rosy-pink light. There was the inevitable gobbledegookery of official explanation designed to leave everyone impressed, soothed and disappointed. I paid scant attention to the excitement and less to the explanations—naturally, I thought it was just a flying saucer. But now Camilla has hatched out an angel. I have eight hens, all yearlings except Camilla; this is her third spring. I boarded her two winters at my neighbor Steele's farm when I closed this shack and shuffled my chilly bones off to Florida, because even as a pullet she had a manner which overbore me. I could never have eaten Camilla. If she had looked at the ax with that same expression of rancid disapproval (and she would) I should have felt I was beheading a favorite aunt. Her only concession to sentiment is the annual rush of maternity to the brain—normal, for a case-hardened White Plymouth Rock. This year she stole a nest successfully, in a tangle of blackberry. By the time I located it, I estimated I was about two weeks too late. I had to outwit her by watching from a window; she is far too acute to be openly trailed from feeding ground to nest. When I had bled and pruned my way to her hideout, she was sitting on nine eggs and hating my guts. They could not be fertile, since I keep no rooster, and I was about to rob her when I saw the ninth egg was not hers, nor any other chicken's.
Doesn’t this seem like a very strange way to begin a science fiction story? A mysterious ninth egg? Then Pangborn tells us:
That was ten days ago. I know I ought to have kept a record; I examined the blue egg every day, watching how some nameless life grew within it, until finally the angel chipped the shell deftly in two parts. This was evidently done with the aid of small horny out-growths on her elbows; these growths were sloughed off on the second day. I wish I had seen her break the shell, but when I visited the blackberry tangle three days ago she was already out. She poked her exquisite head through Camilla's neck feather, smiled sleepily, and snuggled back into darkness to finish drying off. So what could I do, more than save the broken shell and wriggle my clumsy self out of there? I had removed Camilla's own eggs the day before—Camilla was only moderately annoyed. I was nervous about disposing of them even though they were obviously Camilla's, but no harm was done. I cracked each one to be sure. Very frankly rotten eggs and nothing more. In the evening of that day I thought of rats and weasels, as I should have earlier. I hastily prepared a box in the kitchen and brought the two in, the angel quiet in my closed hand. They are there now. I think they are comfortable. Three days after hatching, the angel is the length of my fore-finger, say three inches tall, with about the relative proportions of a six-year-old girl. Except for head, hands, and probably the soles of her feet, she is clothed in feathery down the color of ivory. What can be seen of her skin is a glowing pink—I do mean glowing, like the inside of certain seashells. Just above the small of her back are two stubs which I take to be infantile wings. They do not suggest an extra pair of specialized forelimbs. I think they are wholly differentiated organs; perhaps they will be like the wings of an insect. Somehow I never thought of angels buzzing. Maybe she won't. I know very little about angels.
Angels? Really, in a science fiction story? Are we reading a tall tale, or is this science fiction? Where are the rockets and robots? Why does Pangborn couch his alien in religious garb?
I made no entry last night. The angel was talking to me, and when that was finished I drowsed off immediately on a cot which I have moved into the kitchen to be near them. I had never been strongly impressed by the evidence for extrasensory perception. It is fortunate that my mind was able to accept the novelty, since to the angel it is clearly a matter of course. Her tiny mouth is most expressive, but moves only for that reason and for eating—not for speech. Probably she could speak to her own kind if she wished, but I dare say the sound would be above the range of my hearing as well as my understanding. Last night after I brought the cot in and was about to finish my puttering bachelor supper, she climbed to the edge of the box and pointed, first at herself and then at the top of the kitchen table. Afraid to let my vast hand take hold of her, I held it out flat and she sat in my palm. Camilla was inclined to fuss, but the angel looked over her shoulder and Camilla subsided, watchful but no longer alarmed.
Now we have an angel that’s telepathic. What we quickly learn is the angel is really an alien from a very advanced civilization. But its physical form is more like Disney’s Tinkerbell than modern angels. In Biblical times angels were a non-human species that came from another realm to visit Earth. In modern times, angels are people who have died and gone to heaven. Why is Pangborn recasting a Biblical image?
There is also a slight undercurrent of sexuality to Bannerman’s angel even though there is no possibility of sex. Bannerman is a lonely man, who is crippled from the war, living away from other people out in the country. The angel saves him.
I don’t know why Pangborn made his tiny alien into an angel. Maybe he considered an ordinary alien cruising around in a flying saucer too common and ugly. I’m also wondering if Pangborn has the same theory as I do, that science fiction is a modern replacement for religion? Instead of dying and going to heaven we build a rocket and fly up into the heavens to other planets and stars. Instead of God(s), we imagine super-intelligent aliens. Instead of being saved and given everlasting life, we develop scientific ways to achieve immortality. Instead of the power of prayer, we evolve telepathy.
Pangborn’s little alien with wings is really a wise being from an ancient civilization that wants to save humans from self-destruction. Her father and nine siblings came to Earth to uplift us. And she asks Bannerman to sacrifice himself to save all of us. This is a very Christian story. Pangborn’s second SF novel, A Mirror for Observers (1954) has pretty much the same theme. It won the International Fantasy Award in 1955. Pangborn isn’t well-remembered today, but he had a certain level of success in the 1950s and 1960s.
Reading “Angel’s Egg” and A Mirror for Observers are my only experiences with Edgar Pangborn’s work. I own three more of his novels, but they are unread. Yet, from this small sample, I detect a rather unique mind using science fiction for its philosophical purposes. I feel Pangborn yearning for humanity to be saved from itself, and that was a very common hope in science fiction of the 1940s and 1950s.
If you think about it, there are two ways to be saved. One is to be rescued, the other is to overcome. Christianity is all about being saved by a higher power. And it’s rather strange that so many science fiction stories in the 1940s and 1950s had humanity being rescued by a higher power, not God(s) but aliens. The most famous example is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke. But that story is really a retelling and refinement of his 1953 novel Childhood’s End.
Personally, I don’t like the idea of humanity being rescued by outsiders. I’m a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of guy. But after Hiroshima, many people felt humans were children with a dangerous toy they couldn’t handle. Remember the old film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)? It was saying we needed guardian robots. I admire the Prime Directive from Star Trek.
Pangborn imagines his aliens as gentle guiders of the uncivilized. But isn’t that still being uplifted? If we’re reshaped by an outside force are we really ourselves? I never understood the basic tenet of Christianity, that we should be forgiven of our sins. I believe we should overcome our sinful ways, not be saved.
You’d think I’d dislike this story because it conflicts with my personal philosophy. But I still loved “Angel’s Egg” even though it’s rather clunky with religious imaginary and I’m an atheist. Although I kept thinking of the little angel as a more sophisticated Tinkerbell. What I loved were Pangborn’s emotions. What I loved was Bannerman’s sacrifice and how it was made. But then memory is a pet theme of mine.
The angel offered him two choices.
I made plain that I would never willingly part company with her, which I am sure she already knew, and she gave me to understand that there are two alternatives for the remainder of my life. The choice, she says, is altogether mine, and I must take time to be sure of my decision. I can live out my natural span, whatever it proves to be, and she will not leave me for long at any time. She will be there to advise, teach, help me in anything good I care to undertake. She says she would enjoy this; for some reason she is, as we'd say in our language, fond of me. Lord, the books I could write! I fumble for words now, in the usual human way. Whatever I put on paper is a miserable fraction, of the potential; the words themselves are rarely the right ones. But under her guidance— I could take a fair part in shaking the world. With words alone. I could preach to my own people. Before long, I would be heard. I could study and explore. What small nibblings we have made at the sum of available knowledge! Suppose I brought in one leaf from outdoors, or one common little bug—in a few hours of studying it with her, I'd know more of my own specialty than a flood of the best textbooks could tell me. She has also let me know that when she and those who came with her have learned a little more about humanity, it should be possible to improve my health greatly, and probably my life expectancy. I don't imagine my back could ever straighten, but she thinks the pain might be cleared away, entirely without drugs. I could have a clearer mind, in a body that would neither fail nor torment me.
I think this is the choice we’d all jump at. But Pangborn wants to give us a science-fictional Christ. I might need to remind you that Camilla was the hen who sat on the angel egg.
Then there is the other alternative. It seems they have developed a technique by means of which any unresisting living subject, whose brain is capable of memory at all, can experience total recall. It is a by-product, I understand, of their silent speech, and a very recent one. They have practiced it for only a few thousand years, and since their own understanding of the phenomenon is very incomplete, they classify it among their experimental techniques. In a general way, it may somewhat resemble that reliving of the past which psychoanalysis can sometimes bring about in a limited way for therapeutic purposes. But you must imagine that sort of thing tremendously magnified and clarified, capable of including every detail which has ever registered on the subject's brain.
The purpose is not therapeutic, as we would understand it; quite the opposite. The end result is—death. Whatever is recalled, by this process is transmitted to the receiving mind, which can retain it, and record any or all of it, if such a record is desired; but to the subject who recalls, it is a flowing away, without return. Thus it is not a true "remembering," but a giving. The mind is swept clear, naked of all its past, and, along with memory, life withdraws also. Very quietly. At the end, I suppose it must be like standing without resistance in the engulfment of a flood tide, until finally the waters close over. That, it seems, is how Camilla's life was "saved." When I finally grasped that, I laughed, and the angel of course caught the reason. I was thinking about my neighbor Steele, who boarded Camilla for me in his henhouse for a couple of winters. Somewhere safe in the angelic records there must be a hen's-eye image of the patch in the seat of Steele's pants. And naturally Camilla's view of me too; not too unkind, I hope. She couldn't help the expression on her rigid little face, and I don't believe it ever meant anything. At the other end of the scale is the saved life of my angel's father. Recall can be a long process, she says, depending on the intricacy and richness of the mind recalling; and in all but the last stages it can be halted at will. Her father's recall was begun when they were still far out in space and he knew that he could not long survive the journey. When that journey ended, the recall had progressed so far that very little actual memory remained to him of his life on that other planet. He had what must be called a deductive memory—from the material of the years not yet given away, he could reconstruct what must have been, and I assume the other adult who survived the passage must have been able to shelter him from errors that loss of memory might involve. This, I infer, is why he could not show me a two-moon night. I forgot to ask her whether the images he did send me were from actual or deductive memory. Deductive, I think, for there was a certain dimness about them not present when my angel gives me a picture of something seen with her own eyes. Jade-green eyes, by the way. Were you wondering? In the same fashion, my own life could be saved. Every aspect of existence that I ever touched, that ever touched me, could be transmitted to some perfect record—the nature of the written record is beyond me, but I have no doubt of its relative perfection. Nothing important, good or bad, would be lost. And they need a knowledge of humanity, if they are to carry out whatever it is they have in mind. It would be difficult, she tells me, and sometimes painful. Most of the effort would be hers, but some of it would have to be mine. In her period of infantile education, she elected what we should call zoology as her life work; for that reason she was given intensive theoretical training in this technique. Right now I guess she knows more than anyone else on this planet not only about what makes a hen tick, but how it feels to be a hen. Though a beginner, she is in all essentials already an expert. She can help me, she thinks, if I choose this alternative. At any rate, she could ease me over the toughest spots, keep my courage from flagging. For it seems that this process of recall is painful to an advanced intellect—without condescension, she calls us very advanced—because, while all pretense and self-delusion are stripped away, there remains conscience, still functioning by whatever standards of good and bad the individual has developed in his lifetime. Our present knowledge of our own motives is such a pathetically small beginning! Hardly stronger than an infant's first effort to focus his eyes.
Of course, we know which one Bannerman chooses. The rest of his journal is about forgetting as his memories are peeled away. In some ways, this part of the story reminds me of Charlie Gorden from Flowers for Algernon when Charlie was on his decline.
I have read science fiction my whole life. Often just for escapism and entertainment, but I must admit I wished reality was different and sometimes science fiction reflected an alternate reality I preferred. Pangborn’s dream isn’t mine, but I feel great sympathy for him. His story draws me back to how some people felt during the year I was born.
[The above illustrations are the ones that first appeared with the story in Galaxy Science Fiction.]
James Wallace Harris, 11/26/19