A companion review of Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror for Observers (Doubleday, 1954) also appears in this issue.
The following two books deal with prodigies or wonder kids. The Hampdenshire Wonder might be the first science fiction novel on the theme, the author being a contemporary of H. G. Wells. A Mirror for Observers involves a child whose abilities lie in the more unusual area of ethics. It is the second book by Pangborn I have reviewed for Bewildering Stories. Now on to The Hampdenshire Wonder.
This book begins on a train with a man reading a work by Henri Bergson. This is relevant as Bergsonian ideas play some role in the story. In any event, a mother comes on the train with an unusual infant. The baby has an abnormally large head and is mildly deformed. More important, the baby is non-responsive except for his stare. This stare makes even adults feel inferior. The whole incident horrifies the passengers, on the whole because of the odd nature of the infant, but they express a clear disdain for any deformed child who is allowed outside a freak show.
His origins are as follows. His father Ginger Stott is a gifted cricket player. The details of his cricket playing skill went over my head, but what seems to matter is his determination to have a son similarly gifted in cricket. He later abandons his son for being “a freak” who would never be a cricket player. His mother Ellen has more of a role in his life. She may also be the source of his gifts. At first she seems a somewhat unusual woman who maintains her independence until late in life. She even proposes marriage to Ginger instead of the other way round. He vents a bit, through describing her, about the restrictions women face in that age. Later she becomes the almost worshipful mother of a super-human child.
Later the book details his relations with the world at large. The local pastor, landlord, and village idiot being the most important here. The pastor had once been a progressive, but has come to reject science in favor of Medievalism. He grows to believe the boy is evil, an idea strengthened by the skeptical attitude with which “The Wonder” views Christianity. The landlord acts as his advocate and introduces him to books. However he feels a certain distance toward him. A boy that has to talk down to adults and seemingly has the answer to every question unnerves him. The village idiot is the only one not scared of him. He even appears to think they have much in common. This makes him deeply disturbing for Victor Stott a.k.a. “The Wonder.”
As for the character himself he remains somewhat enigmatic. In the beginning he rarely speaks or reacts. Yet curiously it is in these parts that he seems the most super-human and strange. Indeed his later education somehow appears to do little except allow him to express what he always knew. That education begins at the age of four. By five he understands the sum of human knowledge up to that point. He can read Spinoza in Dutch, do calculus in his head, etc.
None of this gives him much pleasure. Humans seem so beneath him he finds little they do to be of interest. The praise or condemnation he faces seems to bother those around him more than it does him. He even finds it difficult to talk to people, as the smartest ones remain far below his level. This leaves him isolated and somewhat hard to understand. In the end he dies, or is murdered, before reaching eight years of age.
The book is interesting for a variety of reasons. First it comes in the Edwardian age before WW I or WW II. This period is sometimes seen as more jubilant about progress. Indeed the book is quite enamored with progress. It also shows other issues important to the more progressive elements of Edwardian society. It briefly discusses the rights of women. It takes a fairly critical view of religious authorities. It highlights the aristocratic tendencies that still survived. It also dealt with the issues of the deformed and disabled.
Some of these concerns relate most to the author himself. He was the son of a minister who became a staunch agnostic. Judging by this book, his agnosticism went further than thinking some questions were unanswerable. Instead he seemed to believe that answers to such questions ultimately did not satisfy. The striving to find answers was what mattered. This makes the skepticism and mysticism of the work go together. Skepticism toward those who claim to have all the answers, and an anti-intellectual mystical turning away from those who might. As he had been crippled by polio in youth this may have heightened the interest in the disabled or deformed in this work.
Click here to go to the review of A Mirror for Observers.
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas R.