Friday, January 25, 2008
Having nothing to do with politics: A. E. van Vogt and why you should read him
Nothing in today's world is as out of date as a dead science fiction writer who stopped publishing in the late 1980s when Alzheimer's struck him. The technology in his stories is out of date, his futures have been superseded, and unless someone picks him up for a classic reprint, he's relegated to eBay and the second-hand bookstores.
I mean, look at him--even the suit is cheesy.
But I want to make the case that you should go out and find, and then read reverently, some of the best (and even some of the worst) of A. E. van Vogt's work.
The beginning of modern science fiction is generally traced not to the appearance of the first story by Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein, but to the appearance of Van Vogt's Black Destroyer in John W. Campbell's Astounding during the summer of 1939. This story would later become a major inspiration for Ridley Scott's Alien movies.
Within a few years Van Vogt would establish himself as one of the titans of science fiction, with his most-remember creations being Slan [which has recently had a posthumous sequel--Slan Hunter by Kevin J. Anderson--crafted from Van Vogt's notes]; a classic Libertarian story The Weapon Shops of Isher [voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America as one of the best twenty SF stories of all time back in the 1970s]; and his Null-A trilogy, loosely based on the concepts of General Semantics.
Oddly, none of those--with the possible exception of the first Null-A books is among my favorites, primarily because they are all too ... polished.
Van Vogt wrote based on an obscure system that required him to break every story into 800-word scenes, and to literally try to send you on some kind of plot twist at the end of each scene. He would set his alarm clock at night to wake him up at odd hours, then scribble down what he could remember of his current dream (having gone to sleep with the conscious injunction to think about the plot he was working on), so that he could incorporate that into the next scene.
Then there were the fix-up novels. Having specialized in short stories and novelettes in the early 1940s, Van Vogt gave up writing for a time (wherein he partnered with L. Ron Hubbard at the start of the Scientology movement), but then suddenly needed money. Paperback novels were just coming into play in the early 1950s, so Van Vogt--instead of writing new novels--just apparently randomly gathered together bunches of old short stories and novelettes, fixing them up into short novels of about 60,000 words.
The results were not surprisingly ... uneven.
But that's Van Vogt. You don't read him because all the plot elements get neatly tied up at the end, because sometimes he throws in so many ideas that only a gigantic sleight of hand, complemented by scientific mumbo-jumbo, can bring the story to an end.
Along the way, however, you will find brilliant characterization, incredible investigations of the nature of consciousness, deeply layer future societies, and some of the most interesting aliens you'd ever want not to be eaten by.
By the late 1950s Van Vogt had started writing original works again (including collaborations with James Schmitz and Harlan Ellison), but a lot of people thought he was past his prime, and that his later work couldn't hold a candle to the earlier (somewhat like Robert Heinlein when you think about it). I disagree. There are absolute pieces of brilliance in The Darkness at Diamondia, The Anarchistic Colossus, Future Glitter, and Cosmic Encounter.
One of Van Vogt's least know works is a novel called The Violent Man, a non-SF story of an American held in a Chinese brainwashing experiment in the late 1950s or early 1950s. If you can get past the fact that every woman in the Orient seems to want to fall into the sack with our anti-hero, it is one of the most amazing books on conditions in Maoist China every written.
Baen Books has just republished a bunch of short stories and novelettes in a trade paperback collection entitled Transgalactic, but I don't think it represents Van Vogt's best work (although at that it's pretty damn good).
I can't give you an order in which to read his books, because finding them is becoming progressively more difficult.
But here are my favorites:
Cosmic Encounter Late; hard to find; aliens vs Elizabethan pirates along with multiple timelines and the collapse of the universe into its original constituent atom (no kidding).
Future Glitter Simply the most amazing treatment of a world-wide Stalinist totalitarian state you will ever read.
The Anarchistic Colossus The Fleet went out and beat the aliens and came home (but not really, the aliens just messed with their minds) and now an Earth with no government is about to be invaded, except that.... Naw, I'm not telling.
Earth's Last Fortress [also as Masters of Time] A recruiting station for a future war is opened in the present--but is it by the bad guys or the good guys?
The Man with a Thousand Names Forget the plot, which involves body transmission between the stars and other improbabilities; the thing about this story is that the main character is completely unlikeable, never becomes likable, and yet Van Vogt manages to make you empathize with him and eventually root for him.
Supermind, Quest for the Future, and The Universe Maker are all fix-ups in which--at times--come completely apart. The characterizations are so deft and the ideas so intriguing that you won't care that the last third of the plot makes no sense.
No links except this--to the best A E Van Vogt site on the Net. (It was just updated last week--this guy cares about his material).