by Graham Sleight
Every time I write this column I try to answer, for a series of authors now considered canonical in science fiction, two questions. Firstly, are they worth reading today for pleasure? Secondly, were they of historical importance in the development of science fiction? No author I’ve discussed so far, and I suspect no author I ever will discuss, gets more different answers to those two questions than A.E. van Vogt. His work has been generously reissued lately, so it’s relatively easy for the contemporary reader to explore. There are a couple of especially important pieces of work: the sequence begun by The World of Null-A (1945/1948), the singleton Slan (1941/1946), the sequence beginning with The Weapon Shops of Isher (1951), and the stories subsequently fixed up into The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950). The NESFA retrospective Transfinite collects a generous and thoughtfully chosen selection of stories. Van Vogt had a long career, stretching into the 1970s, and since his death in 2000 there have also been "posthumous collaborations" with Kevin J. Anderson and John C. Wright. But the early work shows you most clearly what was unique about him.
The obvious place to start is "Black Destroyer", van Vogt’s first published story it appeared in Astounding in 1939 and, Gary K. Wolfe has argued, as good a marker as any for the beginning of the Golden Age of science fiction. It’s also the first of the Space Beagle stories. It begins like this:
On and on Coeurl prowled! The black, moonless, almost-starless night yielded reluctantly before a grim reddish dawn that crept up from his left. A vague, dull light it was, that gave no sense of approaching warmth, no comfort, nothing but a cold, diffuse lightness, slowly revealing a nightmare landscape.
Black, jagged rock and black, unliving plain took form around him, as a pale-red sun peered at last above the grotesque horizon. It was then Coeurl recognized suddenly that he was on familiar ground.
He stopped short. Tenseness flamed along his nerves. His muscles pressed with sudden, unrelenting strength against his bones. His great forelegs twice as long as his hindlegs twitched with a shuddering movement that arched every razor-sharp claw. The thick tentacles that sprouted from his shoulders ceased their weaving undulation, and grew taut with anxious alertness.
It’s not that there’s any one thing wrong with that passage, but lots of little things that throw you off. That exclamation mark at the start: isn’t that just artificially amping up the tension? Does tenseness flame along nerves? Do muscles press against bones or work with them? And so on. What you recognise, though, is that everything in that passage is designed to make you as a reader more excited. Nothing is done by half-measures. Every adjective intensifies the extremity of the situation: the nightmare landscape, the razor-sharp claw, the grim dawn. That’s the first thing to register about van Vogt: he’s a writer who will not calm down. His stories have lulls or quiet stretches, to be sure, but even then they’re always telling you about how urgent and important they are.
"Black Destroyer" is, characteristically, a story that sounds saner to paraphrase than to read. In the first pages, Coeurl watches a spherical rocket-ship touch down; humans step out of it. This is the Space Beagle, on a mission to discover new life-forms. Coeurl tricks its way on board by pretending to be a dumb animal rather than the savage predator he is. (He feeds on "Id energy," and it’s stated early on that he wants "to kill everything in the ship, and take the machine back to their world in search of unlimited id.") Coeurl does succeed in killing several crew-members, but ends up being tricked into launching himself from the ship in an escape rocket, realising that he’s doomed himself, and committing suicide. The paraphrase doesn’t, however, come close to the experience of reading the story. It alternates between the viewpoint of Coeurl and the human crew, each escalating in urgency as the narrative goes on. There is some tension the reader is clear on the danger from Coeurl far earlier than the crew but the main impact of the story is that van Vogt keeps throwing in new ideas. There are super-senses for Coeurl, a whole range of new sciences used by the humans, an "anti-acceleration" drive that propels the Space Beagle, and so on. Whatever the actual process of writing, it certainly looks as if van Vogt just created whatever occurred to him to keep the excitement going.
One way of understanding van Vogt is by contrast with the early Heinlein, who was coming into prominence at the same time. Heinlein was all rationalism and hardheadedness; van Vogt was transcendence and excitement at the expense of realism. As soon as you start questioning the logical bases of a van Vogt story, it very often falls apart, but that’s not the point. What exactly is the "id" that Coeurl feeds on? How do the Space Beagle’s "anti-acceleration" drives work? You are not supposed to ask these questions: the ideal effect is of surfing the wave, not asking about fluid dynamics.
There are several other Space Beagle stories in Transfinite, including "Discord in Scarlet", an acknowledged ancestor of Alien. Another sign of his influence can be seen in a crew member’s speech in this story:
"Just a minute!" Von Grossen, the plump but hard-boiled physicist, spoke. "Let’s get this straight. The Beagle is going to another galaxy on an exploration voyage the first trip of the kind. Our business is to study life in this new system..."
You don’t have to go many steps from there to "to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." And once that realisation clicks into place, it’s obvious how much the original series of Star Trek owed to van Vogt. There’s a sparring but generally friendly crew, an episodic format, a frequent resort to previously unheard-of ideas to resolve a story.
One such unheard-of idea, present throughout the Space Beagle stories, is "nexialism," a supposedly synthesising meta-science advocated by one of the crew-members, Grosvenor. Although it’s very difficult to fathom what the content of nexialism actually is, what it does in the stories is give Grosvenor a shortcut to the right answers. However, unlike similar plot-signalling devices such as the Force, nexialism is a supposedly rational creed. One winds up feeling that the stories are rigged to favour those who believe in the wildest of van Vogt’s ideas. (So the reader is encouraged to believe, as well.) And if there’s a single root problem with van Vogt, I’d identify it as an unreasoning faith in the power of abstract nouns. Again and again there’s the idea that a word that sounds right, that seems sufficiently encompassing, can describe the world, a civilisation, or a problem, fully. Other things, such as characterisation or internal logic, take second place. Nexialism is just one such encompassing idea, and so is Coeurl’s "Id": the problem is also visible in The World of Null-A, perhaps van Vogt’s most famous novel. The Tor reissue carries on its cover a line from the New Yorker, "Fine for addicts of science fiction," as backhanded a not-really compliment as I’ve ever seen actually printed on a book.
The World of Null-A is set in a future where, supposedly, the dictates of Aristotelean logic have been surpassed. (Hence "Null-A," taken from Alfred Korzybski’s real-world doctrine of General Semantics.) With this step away from two-valued, yes/no logic, the world is now governed by computers, with seemingly idyllic results. The story follows the protagonist, Gilbert Gosseyn, through a series of adventures that slowly reveal to him the true nature of the world and, relatedly, his true story. (And so he’s also a prototype for that typical sf figure, the amnesiac superman.) As in the stories, van Vogt still keeps opening trap-doors under the reader each time they think they have a hold on the shape of the narrative. In the Space Beagle stories, though, that was a relatively contained problem: each tale (or episode) returned you to the frame-story of the ship. At novel-length, there’s a problem of revelation compounding revelation. So in The World of Null-A we get multiple identities, implausible captures and escapes, escalating jeopardy, all piled on top of each other so that by the end parsing what’s happened in the story is nigh-on impossible.
I try to steer clear of secondary criticism in these columns, and to present an unmediated view of each author, but with van Vogt I think that’s impossible. For a start, Damon Knight’s "Cosmic Jerrybuilder", a demolition job on The World of Null-A in In Search of Wonder, remains one of the great classics of invective in the field. Its charges are that van Vogt was wildly inconsistent, a poor characteriser, a flat stylist, and so on. I don’t go quite as far down the same road as Knight; van Vogt’s style seems to me now efficiently pulpy rather than actively bad. But a lot of his charges seem to me irrefutable. (It’s worth noting, also, that in the wake of Knight’s 1945 essay, van Vogt revised a number of works to try to address his criticisms. Most of the available van Vogt texts and most of those considered here are the revised ones.) On the other hand, the critic Leslie Fiedler (in a 1981 Eaton conference talk called "The Criticism of Science Fiction") argued that any account of the virtues of science fiction had to provide an account of what made Van Vogt good:
Any bright high school sophomore can identify all the things that are wrong about Van Vogt, whose clumsiness is equaled only by his stupidity. But the challenge to criticism which pretends to do justice to science fiction is to say what is right about him: to identify his mythopoeic power, his ability to evoke primordial images, his gift for redeeming the marvelous in a world in which technology has preempted the province of magic and God is dead.
The problem is that you can no more extract just the mythopoesis from van Vogt than you can extract just the strawberries from a milkshake. Van Vogt has, as Fiedler hints, been hugely influential on writers like Philip José Farmer, and Philip K. Dick; but I’d argue that what they took from him is what’s least interesting and characteristic about their work. That’s not to deny, though, that van Vogt does quite often find his way to the sort of mythic story-structure Fiedler was describing. Case in point: Slan.
The setting for Slan is a future Earth where human evolution has produced a tiny minority of "Slans" with abilities beyond the norm. Some Slans are visible as such because their heads have tendrils in their hair; others, with lesser abilities, do not. Slans of the first kind have telepathic abilities, and both kinds have greater than normal strength and intelligence. The book opens with its protagonist, the Slan Jommy Cross, walking with his mother through Centropolis. Even this basic activity reveals how much Slans are persecuted. Jommy’s mother is killed, and he has to shelter with a malicious old woman named "Granny." As he does, he grows more knowledgeable about the Slan condition, and the crusade against his kind led by a man named Keir Gray.
Of all the van Vogt books I’ve discussed, I suspect Slan will be the one that’s most accessible to readers now. It exemplifies what I often end up calling the Hollywood epistemology, that things are only real to the extent that they affect the protagonist: you have very little sense of a felt world present when Jommy (or a subplot protagonist called Kathleen) is not there. This reinforces the idea that only the Slan-world matters. One outgrowth of the idea that you’re the only real thing in the universe is paranoia, and it’s for its dramatisation of that state of mind that I think Slan may be of interest. We live, after all, in paranoid surveillance-state times. Even if the idea that "Fans are Slans" now seems pretty far-fetched, the idea that ordinary citizens might be persecuted by all-seeing "security forces" does not. The book is very good, also, on what it feels like to identify as an outcast. Here’s Jommy describing his family history to Granny:
"My mother and father were the finest people alive," he said softly, "And they were terribly unhappy. They met on the street one day, and saw in each other’s minds that they were Slans. Until then they’d lived the loneliest of lives, they’d never harmed anyone. It’s the human beings who are the criminals. Dad didn’t fight as hard as he could when they cornered him and shot him in the back. He could have fought. He should have! Because he had the most terrible weapon the world has ever seen so terrible he wouldn’t even carry it with him for fear he might use it. When I’m fifteen I’m supposed to "
He stopped, appalled at his indiscretion. For an instant he felt so sick, so weary, that his mind refused to hold the burden of his thought. He knew only that he had given away the greatest secret in Slan history, and if this grasping old wretch turned him over to the police in his present condition, all was lost.
I have no idea whether it was an accident or a strategy on van Vogt’s part that a creed of outsiderdom like that should chime so well with the way many SF readers evidently felt both about the relationship of their genre and, perhaps, their lives, to the outside world. These days, perhaps, we understand that far more people live in the overt world but feel themselves not belonging to it, and so required to pass for normal. (Or, alternatively, not to pass for normal and say to the world that it’ll have to deal with the way they are.) But in Slan, this myth of a secret cabal of outsiders, reviled by but better than normal humans, feels as if it’s put into definitive form. The story itself is as roller-coasterish as ever with van Vogt, and the final revelations manage to be both extensively foreshadowed and pretty unconvincing. But you do feel he’s found the motherlode here, putting into fictional form a potent dream of childhood. I suspect, though, that most readers in 2009 will feel they’ve put away these childish things.
That’s not to say, though, that van Vogt shouldn’t be read by those wanting to discover how sf got to where it is currently, and Transfinite is probabably the most useful volume from this point of view. I reviewed it, at some length, in the New York Review of Science Fiction (10/03) and will try not to repeat myself too much here. Perhaps the first thing to say is that the book shows van Vogt to have far greater range than the books I’ve already discussed would suggest.
As an example, take "Film Library", from Astounding in 1946. The audience at a contemporary electronics convention is baffled by a film showing "an automatic electric stove that merely had to be supplied with the appropriate ingredients, and it would mix them and serve up the finished meal piping hot." A curious attendee asks the man who showed the film if he had any similar ones, and it turns out that he does: footage of a Venusian squid haunting the warm seas of that planet. Other examples are shown. Slowly, a partial explanation for these films becomes clear to the characters. They all originate from the same library of stock footage, whose films have been substituted with these mysterious ones, seemingly from the future. Only in the last page or two, though, does van Vogt provide a full account of what has happened. A film projector in 2011 somehow became synchronised with one in 1946 and "for one second of eternity two motion-picture projectors in two separate space-time periods lost some of their aspects of separateness, and there was a limited liaison." Exactly how this happened is not really explained, except through some flummery about time being "the great invariant." Again, the instructive contrast is with Heinlein, who even in his first story "Life-line" was treating ideas of space and time with more rigour than this. But van Vogt is trying for different effects. In the last scene of the story, the original film exhibitor is packing up his equipment, bemused and disappointed by the response to what he thinks of as a "novelty film": "Blue was that sky above, alive with the mystery of the immense universe. Corteya scarcely noticed."
That idea, of the wonders of the universe only being fully revealed to those who read van Vogt stories, is also present in "Recruiting Station" (1942), the longest of the stories here. It’s another time-travel story. The initial hook, a young woman being recruited into "the Calonian cause" is soon bypassed. Indeed, "Recruiting Station" is probably the clearest example of a van Vogt story that’s just a series of trap-doors, every so often letting the reader know that what they’ve thought is the frame of the story isn’t really. The trap-dooring is often done crudely:
He braced himself. Where the devil was this all-knowing machine?
The corridor opened abruptly into a plain, black door, exactly like all the other doors, that held not the faintest promised of anything important beyond.
Amazingly, it opened onto a street!
A street of the city of the future!
Garson stiffened. His brain soared beyond contemplation of his own danger in a burning anticipation; and then, almost instantly, began to sag.
There’s no question that the contemporary reader will have problems taking a passage like that seriously, and that the cross-temporal exposition that ends the story will also seem pretty crude. In fact, that’s a general problem for van Vogt: having started off, especially in his longer stories, so many potentially contradictory accounts of what might be going on, he has to spend their conclusions frantically knotting them together. So several other stories here have, in their last few pages, similar huge blocks of exposition as the author invokes previously unknown sciences to justify what has gone before.
Transfinite also contains a fair number of what might be thought of as "gimmick stories." Because these are often of shorter length, van Vogt doesn’t get too burdened by the need to keep shifting perspective every few pages. In "A Can of Paint" (1944), for instance, an Earth expedition touches down on Venus and discovers a crystal cube containing Venusian paint made from "liquid light." This has been left by the Venusians as an intelligence test to see whether Earth-creatures are worthy of their attention. The astronaut who discovers the cube fails the test, and is unable to get the paint off him, but does manage to pass on the news to the next landing-party. "The Rulers" (1944) is also a gimmick story, the twin premises here being a consciousness-altering drug and a history-altering conspiracy. It’s the sort of work where one can see the seeds of Philip K. Dick’s writings, but only faintly; and there’s a huge gap between van Vogt and Dick in how intensely felt distortions of reality are.
Perhaps the best story to finish with is "The Rull" (1948), which like the Space Beagle stories also became part of a longer sequence. Van Vogt’s strengths and weaknesses are clearly on display here. The story follows a human protagonist, Jamieson, at a point where our species has been involved in an interstellar war with the alien Rull for centuries. All sorts of devices that we now take for granted in such stories - "defensive screens" for spaceships, for instance, are introduced and used almost offhand. The telepathic Rull are an interesting creation. But the story itself, wherein Jamieson captures a Rull and discovers things about its nature that explain the way the war has been fought, makes the usual kinds of not-sense. Van Vogt takes a real-world notion (in this case Pavlovian response to stimuli) and extrapolates them into a set of ideas about how the Rull perceive the world that’s barely coherent, and seemingly made up on the spot. With this knowledge in hand, Jamieson can return home: "the Rull-human war was over". But, you keep wanting to say, it’s not that simple in the real world. And so it becomes very difficult to believe in these idea-packed but incoherent stories. Van Vogt may have created much of the language of science fiction, but not its grammar.