If you like the pulp science fiction of the Campbellian Golden Age from the late 1930’s to the early 1950’s, you’re bound to run across A.E. van Vogt’s name on nearly every must-read list. (Incidentally, not everyone, including me, considers this era to be the real Golden Age of science fiction). For fans of vintage science fiction, van Vogt is essential because his works were crucial in the canalization of many of the core ideas that we now consider essential to science fiction. At the same time, van Vogt is infuriating because his writing is annoyingly juvenile, even when compared against the other writers who shared pages in the same magazines aimed at juveniles.
When you read van Vogt today, it’s hard not to wonder what people saw in this guy when they ranked his works as some of the greatest ever in science fiction. His work reads like a story made up on the fly by a very imaginative and nerdy 10-year-old with no social life or short-term memory, and it makes today’s young adult science fiction seem like the highest of highbrow literature. Van Vogt’s plots have been charitably described as ‘complex’, but the complexity is due to the fact that they make absolutely no sense whatsoever. A typical van Vogt plot involves a super-science hero, who is trying save his small-minded, angry compatriots from some mortal threat by a malevolent alien. The rescue plan always involves some overly complicated series of steps that follow a logic comprehensible by nobody except the hyperactive genius who cooked it up. Van Vogt’s prose in generally compares poorly to that of his best contemporaries like Henry Kuttner, Catherine L. Moore, and Robert Heinlein.
The baffling plots are accompanied by long expositions of fantastical, all-encompassing scientific theories that consist of a chain of statements intended to sound like a logical argument, but which read like they were produced by a random sentence generator. For example, the basis for civilization in The Weapons Makers goes beyond the dreams of even the most die-hard 2nd Amendment enthusiast, as we learn in this lecture explaining a non-overthrowable government based on the free availability of defensive weapons for solving problems:
It is apparent that you have all forgotten your history, or that you are blinding yourself to the reality. The Weapon Shops were founded several thousand years ago by a man who decided that the incessant struggle for power of different groups was insane, and that civil wars and other wars must stop forever… His idea was nothing less than that whatever government was in power should not be overthrown. But that an organization should be set up which would have one principal purpose: to insure that no government ever again obtained complete power over its people.
A man who felt himself wronged should be able to go somewhere and buy a defensive gun. What made this possible was the invention of an electronic and atomic system of control which made it possible to build indestructible weapon shops, and to manufacture weapons that could only be used for defense.
Worst of all, science in a van Vogt story is a cult, a foolproof and completely unambiguous system founded on rigid hierarchies of properly qualified men. He who knows more technical facts than everybody else always wins, like the hero in The Voyage of the Space Beagle who is trying to understand the alien assault on his ship:
It was not sufficient that he had a theory about how they were operating. The great mystery was an enemy who had curiously wormlike bodies and faces, some partly doubled, some single. He needed a reasonable philosophic basis for action. He needed that balance for his plan which only knowledge could give him.
He turned to Korita, and asked, “In terms of cyclic history, what stage of culture could these beings be in?”
And yet, like much of the science fiction of this era, van Vogt’s novels can be compelling in spite of the author’s fumblings. While reading van Vogt is an exercise in tedium, it’s hard not to be impressed by his energetic imagination, which produced some of science fiction’s most enduring and iconic ideas. The Voyage of the Space Beagle anticipates the plot of Alien (monster invades a space ship and inserts its eggs in to the stomachs of hapless crew members). It was also an inspiration for Star Trek, whose opening sequence is a summarizes of the premise of Space Beagle:
“Space the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise, its five-year mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Robert Silverberg and others have suggested that to really appreciate Van Vogt, you have to read his best work as “a goofy masterpiece with no internal logic of plot or character, a kind of hallucinatory fever-dream that carries the reader along on a pleasant tide of bafflement.” This helps somewhat, although it’s hard to deny that the fever-dream is a one of a maladjusted adolescent in dire need of the other type of dream… In addition to some short stories, I’ve read three of van Vogt’s books: The Weapons Makers, Slan, and The Voyage of the Space Beagle. As it turns out, reading only one of these would have been sufficient to get the van Vogt experience. My recommendation is that, if you’re a fan of the era’s science fiction, you should read at least one of his books for the experience, and then call it a day.
For some more vintage sci-fi reviews, check out the Vintage SciFi Not-a-Challenge over at the Little Red Reviewer.