I've written before about my Dad's collection of science fiction paperbacks which fascinated me when I was little and which introduced me to new galaxies of the imagination. Many of the authors in his collection are well-known masters of science fiction, like Heinlein, Asimov, and Bradbury. He also had several novels by a writer with a peculiar name whom I had never encountered elsewhere in my readings of science fiction. Yet, during a brief span in the Golden Age of Science Fiction, A.E. van Vogt was reckoned as one of the greats. Writers such as Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison admired him and cited him as an influence on their own works.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle is the first van Vogt novel I ever read and it remains my favorite of his works. It's an episodic tale about a space exploration vessel, stitched together from short stories originally appearing in Astounding Science Fiction. Because van Vogt is somewhat obscure today, I thought that this time around, instead of jumping right into the story, we would take a week to look at this forgotten master of the imagination
Alfred Elton van Vogt was born in 1912, on a farm in Manitoba, Canada. His father was a lawyer, and his family moved frequently when he was young. He began his writing career doing "true confession" stories for pulp magazines like True Story, before switching over to science fiction.
His first published science fiction story, "Black Destroyer", appeared in 1939 in John Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction. It was the cover story that issue, which featured a number of notable works and which has been called the beginning of Science Fiction's Golden Age. The story was set aboard a scientific exploration vessel named the Space Beagle, after the ship Charles Darwin sailed on in the 19th Century. Some critics have suggested that the Space Beagle was an inspiration for the Star Trek.
He was a prolific writer during the '40s and '50s, producing many short stories and serialized novels for Astounding. In the '50s, he reworked some of his short stories into what he called "Fixups": novels created by stitching together existing shorter works. When the stories were related, as in his Space Beagle stories and his book The War Against the Rull, this worked; in other cases, such as The Beast and Quest for the Future, it resulted in a mish-mash of plot.
Possibly his best novel was Slan, the story of a young mutant growing up in a society that hates and fears him, searching for others of his kind. This theme of "Mutants are Hated and Feared" has become something of a cliché, thanks to Chirs Claremont's run on the X-MEN, but van Vogt came up with it first. Modern critics may argue about whether the X-Men are supposed to be a metaphor for Black Civil Rights or for gays, but the fans of Slan when it first appeared in 1940 knew what being a mutant was really about. The Slans of the novel were adolescent science fiction geeks, marginalized by the "mundane" society around them, but possessing a secret power, the power of imagination.
Often his protagonists were synthesists, who were able to draw upon a wide range on knowledge to solve their problems. For his Space Beagle stories, he created a scientific discipline called Nexialism, which gives his main character Dr. Elliot Grosvenor a broader view than his colleagues who are narrowly focused on their specialties. In Planets For Sale, which he wrote with his wife E. Mayne Hull, super-space entrepreneur Artur Blord claims not to be a scientific genius; but he has a large research staff and an even larger pool of science and technology which he has acquired. In Empire of the Atom, (essentially the Roman Empire with atomic energy and updated to a post-apocalyptic future), Clane the Mutant studies ancient science which is preserved only in the temples and uses it to stay one step ahead of his scheming family.
He was attracted to fringe ideas. One of his late novels was based on the idea that Kirlian photography could record a person's aura and postulated a society where Kirlian surveillance cameras were monitoring the public to identify people who were about to commit crimes. He was friends with L. Ron Hubbard and for a time was head of Hubbard's Dianetics organization in California. Through much of the 1950s, he and his wife ran a Dianetics center, partially financed by his writings, until he "signed off" in 1961.
In the 1940s van Vogt became interested in Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics and used it as the theme for his novel The World of Null-A. It's hero, Gilbert Gosseyn, was a typical van Vogt superman who used Korzybski's non-Aristotelian logic, (non-A, or Null-A for short). I tried reading Null-A when I was younger, but found the plot difficult to follow and the quoted passages from Korzybski to be incomprehensible. I might try tackling it again to see ow van Vogt's "Null-A" compares to the Objectivist "A=A".
I was not the only one who found it hard to follow. A young science fiction writer and critic named Damon Knight wrote a scathing review of The World of Null-A when it first came out in which he called van Vogt "a pygmy who has learned to operate an overgrown typewriter" and labeled him "the Cosmic Jerrybuilder."
Damon Knight is probably best known to the general public for his short story "To Serve Man" which was adapted as a Twilight Zone episode; but he had greater influence as a science fiction critic and editor. He founded the Science Fiction Writers of America and was a leading voice in the movement to raise SF out of the pulp ghetto and hold it to more literary standards. And to be fair, by those standards van Vogt's writing was not very good.
Van Vogt could write a gripping story, but his grasp of science was sometimes tenuous and occasionally his plots could get incoherent. Partly this was because of a conscious effort to put "something new" in every 800 words. This kept the story moving and the reader surprised, but sometimes at the cost of an orderly plot. In addition, van Vogt liked to incorporate elements from his dreams into his stories, and his tales follow a dream-logic which does not always make sense if you try to dissect them into proper syllogistic form. These qualities were aggravated in some of his "fixups" where he shuffled together previously unrelated stories.
But these non-Arisotelian qualities also had their fans. Philip K. Dick cited van Vogt as one of his influences, and Harlan Ellison lobbied for van Vogt to receive the SFWA Grand Master Award. Since such an honor would be considered an insult to Damon Knight, the founder of the SFWA, van Vogt was not recognized until Knight had received his own Grand Master Award in 1994.
Van Vogt's writing output declined in the 1950s as he fell out of favor with the SF Establishment and as Dianetics ate up more of his time. He made a bit of a comeback in the late '60s and '70s, publishing some new works and reprinting several of his classics. Towards the end of his life, he suffered from Alzheimer's and ceased writing altogether.
Critic David Hartwell in 1984 said of van Vogt:
No one has taken van Vogt seriously as a writer for a long time. Yet he has been read and still is. What no one seems to have noticed is that van Vogt, more than any other single SF writer, is the conduit through which the energy of Gernsbackian, primitive wonder stories have been transmitted through the Campbellian age, when earlier styles of SF were otherwise rejected, and on into SF of the present.C.S. Lewis liked to use the word "mythopoeic" in describing the works of his favorite author, George MacDonald, who also wrote dream-like works of imagination. "Mythopoeia" is a type of story which stirs the imagination the way the best myths do. Lewis admitted that in terms of literary style, MacDonald could have been better, but insisted that his works had an imaginative power to them. I think the same could be said of van Vogt.
NEXT: We board the Space Beagle to visit a desolate planet with a dead civilization. And among the ruins prowls the Black Destroyer!