Edgar Pangborn: The Darkening World Cycle

Covers of Edgar Pangborn's Darkening World cycle
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And still I persist in wondering whether folly must always be our nemesis.

Edgar Pangborn, “My Brother Leopold” (1973)

Edgar Pangborn had a great name—not enough people mention that, I feel. He’s the latest author to feature in my intermittent project of rereading classic-but-not-now-famous science-fiction stories from my formative years—the sort of stories that some people recall fondly without recollecting the author’s name, or without knowing that there are more stories set in the same imagined world.

Pangborn was a New Yorker, with a background that included musical training and farming. He wrote in a number of genres—his courtroom drama The Trial Of Callista Blake (1961) and historical novel Wilderness Of Spring (1958) are both out of copyright and available as free downloads from Project Gutenberg, as are his first science fiction novel, West Of The Sun (1953), and three of his early short stories (one of which I’ll return to later).

Here, though, I’m going to write about his Darkening World cycle—three novels and ten short stories, written between 1962 and 1975, set in the aftermath of a near-extinction event for humanity, and spanning seven centuries of “future history”. I’m calling this set of stories a “cycle” because they’re not really a series, in the sense of tracking the stories of a particular set of characters, and they’re not even a sequence, since successive stories do not follow any internal chronological order. But Pangborn quite consciously constructed them as a set of interlinked legends—most overtly in The Judgment of Eve, “The Legend Of Hombas” and “Tiger Boy”. So by analogy with the Lancelot-Grail Cycle or the Ring Cycle, I’m going for the Darkening World Cycle.

In Pangborn’s imagined world the Twenty Minute War (a brief nuclear exchange, which goes by different names in different stories) occurs in 1993. Those who survive in rural areas and bomb-shelters begin to rebuild civilization, but are visited by a sequence of devastating plagues. The few who live through that then find that they can bear few healthy children—mutations caused by radiation and disease are common in their offspring.

Within a couple of centuries, the surviving humans inhabit a resource-poor mediaeval world—living in stockaded villages, oppressed by fundamentalist religion and superstition, and hemmed in by rising seas* and encroaching wilderness. All but one of the stories is set in the much-altered landscape of New England and the flooded Hudson River valley (now the Hudson Sea). The area becomes balkanized into tiny warring territories and city states. Over later centuries a renaissance of sorts takes place, aided by access to the few books that have survived a long period of destruction, loss, neglect and religious suppression. But the potential for recovery is limited by the much-depleted natural resources accessible to future humanity.

It’s a feature of Pangborn’s writing that his stories are fundamentally about flawed humans who are trying their best to get by in an uncertain world. The science-fictional setting is  interesting, and provides anchor-points from which to hang his narratives—but some short stories, such as “The Night Wind” and “The Legend Of Hombas”, could have been told without any sort of science-fiction setting at all.

Pangborn’s central characters are often middle-aged men, oppressed in some way, but cynically and wittily observant of the foibles of others, and of themselves. Failing such a character, Pangborn’s own narrative voice often provides a similar viewpoint. Here, for instance, is an observation from “Harper Conan And Singer David”:

Councilman Oren of Donsil remarked, during those first three days when David of Maplestock visited Donsil alone, that when this young man was singing a person dying in agony of a mortal wound or illness would hold off death until the song ended. The Councilman was an honest old fellow not thought to be very imaginative, and since at that time he was suffering an illness that did prove mortal, his words were remembered with a bit of keenness.

And on a lighter note, the narrator of “Mam Sola’s House” makes his views clear when describing a particularly ugly frieze of painted cherubs:

The late husband of the landlady Mam Gebler had paid 300 Penn dollars, pre-Convention value, inciting a journeyman artist to commit those cherubs.

He is also adept at introducing his characters with a few telling words. Here, for instance, he describes Demetrios, the story-teller protagonist of The Company Of Glory:

His gray hair, lightly silvered, fell straight to his shoulders. He was sixty, not old but seasoned, like his walnut stick, like a wine held long enough in the cask to have ripened in a way that might not suit everyone.

And here are two men encountered in the wilderness, in The Judgment Of Eve:

[…] the boy’s face had the sweet-sickly, poisonous quality of one who found pleasure in cruelty and boredom in everything else. The black-bearded man’s voice was strong but with the suggestion of a whine, as though he were carrying on some unappeasable quarrel with himself […]

Pangborn loves words and lightly turned phrases, and enjoys gathering them together into sharp little observations. Sometimes he seems to relish this almost too much, which has irritated some of his readers (but delighted many others). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction even goes so far as to accuse him of “not infrequent descents into uneasy bombast”, which seems harsh—Pangborn’s bombast is never uneasy, and usually entertaining.

He also seems to enjoy complicated narrative structures, which appear in all three novels. I first encountered Pangborn’s writing in his last novel, The Company Of Glory, and was delighted by the audacity with which the narrator simply leaned into the story from time to time to inject a little personal note. Here, for instance, we receive an update on a minor character whose contribution to the story has just ended:

—Here I who wrote this book must intrude an instant—no more than an instant I promise you and then I’m gone, out of sight—to say that this woman is no fiction (O stars in daytime, what is fiction?)—indeed, I stayed a day or two at her house on my last return to Nuber, and wasn’t she full of peace and quiet and pregnant again, wouldn’t you know it? Real, yes, but sensitive, does not wish her name to be used. Now I’m gone—

The Judgment Of Eve has an omniscient narrator who nevertheless seems to be a future historian, who intrudes from time to time to discuss the sources on which his narrative is based. He is snarkily dismissive of the work of other historians, but coy about how he could possibly have come to know the intimate thoughts of his protagonists.

And Davy takes the form of a Bildungsroman, with the eponymous character as narrator. But the 35-year-old Davy who is telling us the story of his formative years is distractable, intruding from time to time to relay the circumstances under which he is writing. And his friends, acting as proof-readers, also add their own views in occasional footnotes.

There are recurring themes throughout the stories. At a physical level, almost all the narratives at least make reference to “brown tigers” roaming the wilderness; sometimes (as in “Tiger Boy” and Davy) they have a major role to play. These, we are told, are Manchurian tigers descended from a pair released from the Chicago Zoo at the time of the Twenty Minute War—but they are clearly symbolic of the resurgent wilderness that threatens humanity, simultaneously alluring and deadly. A primitive clay idol also appears in several stories, to the fascination of the characters who handle it. Here, it’s described in “The World Is A Sphere”:

[…] a crude two-faced image of blackened stonelike substance, probably clay, male on one side, female on the other, which surely belonged to some period earlier than the Age of Sorcerers, although the mere notion was heresy.

It always seems to be associated with acts of transgression or subversion, though its specific significance eludes me.

Also, at a philosophically level, Pangborn returns again and again to certain themes. Firstly, to the power of music—building on his own background, he writes movingly about his characters’ relationships with musical instruments. He also comes back repeatedly to themes of religious intolerance and oppression, using his fictional Abramite religion as a stand-in that nevertheless bears a remarkable resemblance to Christianity. And finally, there’s love. Pangborn’s characters strive to love each other, despite their flaws, and struggle to suppress jealousy. Polyamorous relationships are common. Homosexuality is treated as entirely unexceptional—common enough in today’s writing, but it’s remarkable to see the topic treated without any kind of fuss or fanfare in the 1970s.

So why did I decide to reread Pangborn? I enjoy his use of language, I enjoy his sly humour, I enjoy his elaborate and eccentric narrative style. There’s a deep human warmth to his stories, although often suffused with melancholia. And then there’s the game of working out the geography of his future world. Pangborn’s place-names are often distorted versions of present-day locations, so there’s a puzzle involving words and maps that I find irresistible (as you might well have guessed, if you’ve visited this blog regularly).

If you like plots with heroes and villains and problem-solving and no loose ends, then Pangborn is not for you. Stuff happens in his stories, characters share their thoughts, Pangborn makes his weary, gentle points … and then the story finishes, often with a sort of half-grasped potentiality rather than a dénouement. Of the novels, I rate The Company Of Glory most highly, for its interesting characters and satisfying trajectory. The Judgment Of Eve is fascinating, with a semi-mythic construction, irascible narrator and knowing nods to Shakespeare and the Brothers Grimm, but it does feel a little stilted compared to his other works. And Davy, though perhaps Pangborn’s most popular novel, only works for me about 75% of the time—there’s some splendid dialogue and humour, but the picaresque Davy and his homespun wisdom could sometimes do with a bit of a slap, in my opinion. And Pangborn also stumbles unpleasantly with Davy’s jack-the-lad attitude to sex, which is precisely the opposite of endearing.

You can pick up second-hand physical copies of all the novels fairly cheaply. The Company Of Glory is available as an e-book from Gollancz’s increasingly impressive Gateway collection; they also distributes a Pangborn omnibus that includes Davy.

The Darkening World short stories were distributed across numerous science fiction anthologies, most notably some of the early Universe collections by Terry Carr, and Roger Elwood’s Continuum series. Seven of them were collected and prepared for publication by Pangborn shortly before he died, and published in a posthumous collection entitled Still I Persist In Wondering, with an insightful and moving foreword by Spider Robinson. (The title refers to the quotation with which I opened this post.) This one is also available as an e-book from Gateway, which offers the immense advantage that you will never have to look at the truly hellish cover illustration of the original paperback. (Even in the seventies, a decade renowned for its hellish covers, Dell really pushed the hellish-cover boat out on that one.)

The three omitted Darkening World stories are “The World Is A Sphere”, which is the only story set outside Pangborn’s core territory around the Hudson valley, and two light and humorous pieces, “Mam Sola’s House” and “The Freshman Angle”, which do not sit well with the tone of the other works. (They also try just a bit too hard with their arch polysyllabic wit, in my opinion—a little of that stuff goes a long way.) The Internet Speculative Fiction Database provides a useful Darkening World bibliography and publication history for those trying to track down copies of these outlying stories.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Pangborn’s short story “The Music Master Of Babylon” is available for free download from Project Gutenberg. It predates the Darkening World stories by nearly a decade, and is not set in quite the same world, but it prefigures many of the ideas that Pangborn would work out more thoroughly in the Darkening World. If that story appeals, then I’d suggest finding a copy of The Company Of Glory, and taking it from there.


Here’s a full list of the stories in order of their internal chronology, with elapsed years since the Twenty Minute War in brackets:

The Judgment of Eve (26)
Three men arrive at an isolated farmhouse, inhabited by a young woman (Eve), her blind mother, and a young man with learning difficulties. All the men fall in love with Eve in a single night, and Eve sets them a task to complete in order to prove their worthiness.

“The Children’s Crusade” (30)
The Prophet Abraham leads a group of children on a hazardous journey, ending in martyrdom.

The Company Of Glory (47)
Driven out of their home town by religious persecution, an ill-assorted group heads westwards into the unknown.

“The Legend Of Hombas” (~100-200)
A tribal elder encounters a blind bear that he believes to be the embodiment of Death.

“Harper Conan And Singer David” (>200)
A blind harper and a singer go in search of a cure for blindness, visiting a group who are striving to recover lost medical knowledge.

“The Witches Of Nupal” (266)
An ecclesiastic recalls his teenage years, when a make-believe witches’ coven turns into something nasty.

“The Night Wind” (~300?)
A young man, running away from his village, encounters a bed-bound woman in an isolated cottage.

“The World Is A Sphere” (chronology difficult—~300??)
A government official in the empire of Misipa buys an artefact dating from before the Twenty Minute War—a globe of the Earth, which contradicts the official teaching that the Earth is flat.

Davy (317-339)
Thirty-five-year-old Davy looks back on his teenage years spent roaming both sides of the Hudson Sea, first as a runaway and then as a member of a group of travelling entertainers, and explains how he now comes to be sailing into exile in the Azores.

“My Brother Leopold” (427-465)
The story of a man burned at the stake for heresy, only to be later beatified as a saint.

“Tiger Boy” (488)
A mythic story about a mute poet who encounters a boy who roams the forest in the company of a tiger.

“Mam Sola’s House” (635)
Two academics and a carpenter try to settle a bet in a brothel. (Pangborn has something of a thing about cheerful and fulfilled prostitutes—this is the most egregious example.)

“The Freshman Angle” (713)
A freshman student attempts to write a history of the 20th Century in 2000 words.


* Pangborn, writing in the early 1960s, was already worrying about the ice-caps melting.
The novel Davy was assembled from two novelettes, “The Golden Horn” and “A War Of No Consequence”, both previously published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1962, marking the genesis of Darkening World.
Continuum was a nice idea that never took off. Elwood recruited eight science fiction authors who each undertook to write four linked stories to appear in four Continuum volumes. Patrick Woodroffe produced a series of covers featuring characters from the stories, which linked together into a sort of frieze if the books were placed side by side.

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