There were more than a few moments when I was reading Edgar Pangborn’s The Judgment of Eve that I feared the 1966 book was heading to a lame conclusion.
I was afraid that, like many another science fiction writer, Pangborn would manipulate his story so that his characters would find a future of happiness by living the way humans should live, rather than the way people actually do live.
Robert Heinlein at his most bombastic falls into this trap. He likes the idea of free love so, in some of his novels, he’ll posit future societies where everyone falls into bed with everyone else, and jealousy never rears its ugly head. Forget it.
In many sci-fi stories, this sort of utopian wishful thinking is not at the center of the story so it’s easy enough to ignore. Not so with The Judgment of Eve.
The year is around 2000. A quarter of a century earlier, a one-day nuclear war had erased major U.S. cities, such as Boston and New York, and transformed the landscape. Plagues that followed killed off much of the population, and many of the survivors were unable to conceive or gave birth to heavily deformed babies.
Grown up in isolation
Eve is 28. She’s grown up in isolation on a farm in what had been upstate New York with her increasingly blind mother and Caleb, a mentally and physically stunted handyman.
Into her world walk a trio of men, loosely travelling together: Kenneth Bellamy, a tall and bookish 30-year-old, hampered by nearsightedness; Ethan Nye, a bear of a man, younger than Bellamy but an accomplished hunter; and 51-year-old Claudius Gardiner, a widely travelled loner with a crippled arm.
Eve — who has never before seen any men except Caleb and, while very young, her short-lived father — is awash with joy, confusion, desire and practicality when suddenly faced with three potential suitors.
Actually, given the depopulated world in which they all live, there’s no “potential” about it. These are suitors, even if not all of them initially think of themselves that way. And Eve finds herself attracted to each.
So, to help her decide, she sends them away for several months, each to follow his own path and to come back with an answer to her question: What is love?
In three succeeding chapters, Pangborn tells the story of each man in turn — the dangers and temptations they face, the discoveries they make about the world in which they are living, and the insights into their own hearts that they achieve.
All this, of course, sounds a lot like a fairy tale or a fable. And Pangborn does a clever thing by positioning his storyteller as a 26th century author, looking back to relate the history of Eve in a clear, naturalistic way and to counter the writers of a century earlier who had turned her story into a kind of fairy tale or fable.
How humans should live?
Here, though, is where my fear came in.
Pangborn writes of the three men in a way that gets the reader to like and cheer for each one. The reader likes Eve, too. So, how will Pangborn bring his story to a close without alienating his reader?
At the reunion and before Eve makes her decision, Grainger, the best educated of the three men, is ruminating about the pre-war times and about “how some clumsy constructions go blundering from age to age — like marriage, trousers, theology…”
Uh-oh, I said to myself. Is Pangborn going to lead Eve into a triple marriage with her suitors because, well, humans should be able to live and share together, especially when the future of the species is at stake?
I’m glad to say he doesn’t. Instead, in an authorial sleight-of-hand, he comes up with an ending that I found surprising and surprisingly satisfying.
That said, I have to acknowledge that the ending is so unexpected, you might not find it as pleasant as I did.
Indeed, I know that it’s more than possible that you’ll have a different reaction. You might even think it is, well, lame.
Patrick T. Reardon