Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Voyage of the Space Beagle Part 1: Black Destroyer

Last week we looked at a forgotten writer of Science Fiction's Golden Age, A.E. van Vogt. This week we begin reading one of my favorite of his novels, The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Like many of van Vogt's novels, this one originally appeared as short stories which he later stitched together into composites he called "fixups". The resulting novel is an episodic tale of a scientific expedition out to explore the far reaches of the galaxy and beyond. The Space Beagle isn't just one of the roots of Science Fiction, elements of the book are a part of it's DNA.

On and on Coeurl prowled.
The Coeurl, from the story "Black Destroyer" which became the first part of the novel, is one of the great aliens in science fiction, partially because of his striking appearance but also because much of the story is told from his point of view. I can think of no fewer than three iconic SF monsters directly or indirectly inspired by him.

He is large and cat-like, with dark fur, antennae-like tendrils at its ears and large tentacles coming out of his back. Old School gamers will recognize the description as a Displacer Beast, one of the classic Dungeons & Dragons monsters. Mughi, the alien pet in the anime series Dirty Pair was also based on the Coeurl. Although he is drawn to look like a giant bear in the animated version, in the novel upon which the anime was based Mughi is clearly a Coeurl.

The Coeurl is prowling because he is hungry. It has been tracking a group of id-creatures for several weeks but has now lost track of them. There is very little food on its planet and the id is hard to come by. Then he sees the spaceship land and senses that it carries creatures possessing plenty of id.

The ship is the Space Beagle, a scientific exploration vessel. Some of the scientists on board have already disembarked and are looking around. One of them is Elliot Grosvenor, head of the ship's Nexial department. Theoretically, this puts him equal to the heads of the other scientific departments on board the ship, but since Nexialism is a new science and he's the only Nexialist on board, the rest tend to ignore him. His space suit radio isn't even tuned to the official channel which would allow him to participate in the department heads' conversations about the strange cat-like creature who has come out of the ruined city to meet them.

The creature seems intelligent as it curiously approaches the ship, and one of the scientists notes that the tentacles on his back end in suction cup manupulators. "Provided the nervous system is complex enough, he could with training operate any machine." They speculate that "pussy" might be a descendant of the inhabitants of the ruined city the ship landed near.

Morton, the mission's Director wishes there was some way to take the critter aboard their ship for study, but Kent, the head of the Chemistry Department, thinks it's impossible. "This atmosphere has a higher chlorine than oxygen content, thought actually not much of either. Our oxygen would be dynamite to his lungs." But when they give the curious creature a whiff of oxygen from the ship's airlock, it doesn't seem to bother him. "Well I'll be damned! He doesn't notice the difference! That means he hasn't any lungs, or else the chlorine is not what his lungs use. You bet he can go in! Smith, here's a treasure house for a biologist -- harmless enough if we're careful. What a metabolism!"

The critter docilely follows the scientists on board the ship, but panics when he finds itself enclosed in an elevator. He freaks out, doing considerable damage to the elevator, as well as giving a good scare to the scientists riding the lift with him. Morton kicks himself for inadvertantly spooking the critter. Now they've lost it's trust.

The funny thing is, Coeurl is thinking the same thing. He wanted them to think he was mild and placid. Now that they've seen an example of his strength and ferocity, they'll be more cautious and it it will be more difficult for him to seize their ship.

The scientists let the creature have its way and allow it to come and go as it wills, hoping that they'll have a better opportunity to study him. Meanwhile, other teams go out into the city and elsewhere on the planet to collect data and try to determine what happened to the civilization which once dwelt there. Grosvenor, having nothing else to do, takes a small patrol ship and assigns himself the job of watching Coeurl. The critter is wandering around a lot among the various teams gathering samples and such, and while listening to some other men speculating on why the planet's culture died, he loses track of him.

Coeurl is going crazy. The strain of acting harmless while surrounded by all this id is becoming more than he can bear. But he noted one man going off by himself into the ruins. He chooses an opportune moment to slip away into the city, track the man down and kill him; ripping open the man's spacesuit and feeding himself on the man's id. Then he hurries back to the worksite, before the men there even know he was gone.

The body is discovered and pussy is quickly suspected; after all, they haven't discovered any other large predators on the planet capable of ripping open a man's spacesuit and reducing the body to jelly. The victim was a member of Kent's Chemistry Department, and a close friend of his.

Kent wants blood. "I say, take no chances. Kill the brute on suspicion before he does any more damage." Smith, the chief Biologist, wants the creature alive for study. Morton is reluctant to kill a creature who might be innocent. He asks the ship's chief historian, Korita, for his opinion.

Korita is an interesting character. A tall, quiet Japanese man who is respected by the other scientist on the Space Beagle, which is remarkable when you consider that the original stories were written between 1939 and 1950. He is a historian with a theory, and as Karl Marx has taught us, there are few things more dangerous than a historian with a theory. Nevertheless, he's a sympathetic character, and his cyclical theory of history is used repeatedly in the novel as a key to understanding the beings the Beagle encounters.
"Director Morton, there is a mystery here. Take a look, all of you, at that majestic sky line. Notice the architectural outline. In spite of the megalopolis which they created, these people were close to the soil. The buildings are not merely ornamented. They are ornamental in themselves.... This is not a decadent hoary-with-age civilization but a young and vigorous culture, confident, strong with purpose. There it ended....
"I say that this culture culture ended suddenly in its most flourishing age. The sociological effects of such a catastrophe would be an end of morality, a reversion of bestial criminality unleavened by a sense of ideal. There would be a callous indifference to death. If this -- if pussy is a descendant of such a race, then he will be a cunning creature, a thief in the night, a cold-blooded murderer who would cut his own brother's throat for gain."
Despite Korita's warning, Morton decides to hold off for the time being and keep pussy under observation, while Kent performs an autopsy. Kent's analysis comes up with something interesting.
"I've identified the missing element," Kent said. "It's potassium. There was only about two-thirds or three-quarters of the normal amount of potassium left in Jarvey's body. You know how potassium is held by the body cell in connection with a large protein molecule, the combination providing the basis for the electrical charge of the cell. It's fundamental to life. Usually, after death the cells release their potassium into the blood stream, making it poisonous. I proved that some potassium is missing from Jarvey's cells but that it did not go into the blood."
Potassium??? Croeul's id is potassium? Yep. Van Vogt suckered us. By referring to the substance Croeul consumed as "id", he suckered us into thinking it was some sort of life-force or something. But then again, considering the role Kent says potassium plays in cells, perhaps you could call it something like that. And here we're reminded of another iconic SF monster, the "Salt Vampire" from the Star Trek episode "Man Trap", which also had suction cup-like apendeges which it used to remove the salt from its victims. I can't say there is a direct connection between the two, but the similarity is striking.

Kent sets up a test. Previously Coeurl had turned up his nose at food they had offered him. Now Kent prepares some food in which the potassium is artificially kept suspended in a similar manner to living cells and sets it before the critter. Coeurl realizes they are trying to trick him and angrily hurls the food in Kent's face. The chemist responds by drawing his own "vibrator", a low-level ray gun, and shooting Coeurl squarely in the face. This is another mistake on the Coeurl's part; he is forced to defend himself by neutralizing the gun's beam. He didn't want them to know he could do that.
The scientists decide they want Coeurl in a cage. Grosvenor suggests they just put the cat out for the night -- he doesn't think Coeurl will stray far -- but he is outvoted. Kent still wants the cat dead, but concedes, "If four inches of micro-steel can't hold him, we'd better give him the ship."

They lead Coeurl into a special room designed to hold specimins. The critter realizes it's a trap but permits himself to be detained. He can manipulate energy fields -- that was how he neutralized the beam from Kent's weapon -- and so it is an easy task for him to open the cell's electronic lock.
He listens for the movements of the guards outside the cell, and when they move away, he slips out and goes hunting. He breaks into a cabin and kills the occupant; then another, and another; timing his kills so that he can be back in his cell before the guards check up on him. He's starting to form long-range plans now. He doesn't just want to kill all the humans on board the ship; he wants to seize the ship, find a few more of his kind and travel to the humans's homeworld, where there will be an unlimited supply of id.

But on his second sortie, he returns a bit too late and is forced to kill the guards. His chance to wipe out the crew quickly before they realize what is happening is gone. He retreats to the cell.
Even now, Morton and the others aren't entirely sure that the Coeurl is the culprit. How could he have gotten out of the cell? As they argue about what to do, they hear a heavy crashing noise inside the cell. The ship's Captain, Leeth, shows up. He's a military man, and he's decided that it's time to take matters out of the hands of the scientists. Just then, as Morton finally agrees to kill the cat, they feel a tremendous lurch as the Space Beagle lifts off. The Coeurl has knocked a hole out of his cell by electromagnetically weakening the bonds of the micro-steel walls and is now barricaded in the engine room.

Morton calls a meeting of all the department heads as well as Leeth's senior officers to come up with a plan.
"I'm going to ask various experts to give their suggestions for fighting pussy. What we need here is a consultation between many different specialized fields and, however interesting theoretical possibilities might be, what we want is the practical approach."And that, Grosvenor decided ruefully, effectively disposed of Elliot Grosvenor, Nexialist. It shouldn't have. What Morton wanted was integration of many sciences, which was what Nexialism was for. He guessed, however, that he would not be one of the experts whose practical advice Mortons would be interested in. His guess was correct.
The trouble with what the scientists had agreed on was that it was not thorough enough. A number of specialists had pooled their knowledge on a fairily superficial level. Each had briefly outlined his ideas to people who were not trained to grasp the wealth of association behind each notion. And so the attack plan lacked unity.
Nevertheless, Grosvenor prepares his own report for the Director. He gathers as much information as he can from the other departments, some of which are more helpful than others. He has the misfortune of speaking directly with Kent and winds up antagonizing the chemist further. When his report is complete, he delivers one copy to Morton, (and is blocked by a obstructive assistant who tells him that "The Director is a very busy man," but who condescends to "bring it to his attention." He has slightly more success with Captain Leeth, who at least listens to Grosvenor's recommendations before rejecting them. "The military... has a slightly different approach to these matters."

Morton convenes another meeting for all the Department Heads to present their plans to pry the kitty out of the engine room. They mostly amount to simultaneous attacks to confuse and overwhelm him. Korita has little to add except some further analysis of the critter's culture. "As you can see, his record is one of the low cunning of the primitive, egotistical mind, which has little or no understanding of it's own body processes in the scientific sense, and scarcely any conception of the vast organization with which it is confronted."

Then, to Grosvenor's surprise, Morton asks him to speak. "...I have received a document from a young man who is aboard this ship representing a science about which I know very little. The fact that he is aboard at all requires that I give weight to his opinions."

Somewhat nervously, Grosvenor gives his own analysis of the kitty and the culture which produced him. From the information gathered from the other departments, he has reconstructed a picture of how and why the civilization of this world fell. Layers of ash found by the surveys suggest that at some point in the past a major event cast large amounts of dust in the atmosphere, wiping out much of the existing plant life. With the loss of plant life, the population of larger herbivores dropped as well, which were the only food source for the Coeurl. "It does not seem to have occurred to these creatures to farm their food and, of course, the food of their food. An incredible lack of foresight, you'll admit." From this point he deduces that the Coeurl are not the actual builders of the cities, nor even the descendants of the builders, but rather animals which the builders had experimented on. As for the builders themselves, Grosvenor speculates that they wiped themselves out in a nuclear war, which caused the atmospheric dust resulting in the catastrophic climatic change. Yep, he doesn't use the exact words, but Grosvenor is talking about Nuclear Winter.

As for his recommendation, Grosvenor says that since they are dealing with a beast -- an intelligent beast, but a beast nonetheless -- they should allow it to escape. "Once out of the ship, he will be at our mercy." There is currently a partially disassembled lifeboat in the machine shop adjacent to the engine room and an air lock at the end of the hallway nearby.

The experts are unconvinced. Captain Leech is unwilling to let the beast go, but concedes that if their plan for attack fails, he will consider other measures.

In the engine room, Coeurl is under siege. His control over the energy fields around him have protected him so far, but he's not sure how long he can hold out. But the attacks and the challenge of operating the equipment in the engine room have reawakened much that he had forgotten of the skills the builders had taught him. He has finished repairing the lifeboat in the maintenance bay and loaded it with equipment. He will return to his planet and teach his fellow Coeurl to build spaceships of their own.

He boards the lifeboat and breaks his way out of the ship. But as he turns his lifeboat around to head back for his planet, the Space Beagle disappears behind him. And the pinpoint of light he identified as his sun is growing smaller! He frantically searches for a landmark to aim for, and thinks he's found it; but as he approaches the growing point of light he guesses is his sun, he sees it is actually the ship he just left.
Something happened to Coeurl in that moment. His mind was spinning like a flywheel  faster and faster. It flew apart into a million aching fragments... His tentacles clutches at precious instruments and flung them against the walls of his ship. Finally, in a brief flash of sanity, he knew that he couldn't face the inevitable fire of disintegrators that would now be directed against him from a safe distance.
Coeurl was unfamiliar with the Beagle's anti-acceleration drive, the spacedrive it used to travel interstellar distances, which was how it managed to disappear and then reappear before him. Captain Leeth takes no chances and makes sure the Coeurl is good and dead before he'll let anybody touch the wreckage of the lifeboat.

Kent still wants vengeance. "We've got a job -- to kill every cat on the miserable world." Korita muses that it shouldn't be hard. "They are but primitives. We have merely to settle down, and they will com to us, cunningly expecting to delude us."

Grosvenor has a better suggestion. "Don't forget that pussy's attack on us was based on a despearte need for food; the resources of this planet apparently can't support this breed much longer. Pussy's brethren know nothing about us, and therefore are not a menace." He suggests they just leave, and let nature take its course.

NEXT: The Space Beagle comes under a psychic attack, and Grosvenor must defend his Nexial Department from the greatest danger of all --- Politics!!!

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