Monday, February 18, 2013

A. E. van Vogt

The Golden-Age science fiction author A. E. van Vogt (1912 – 2000) was famously called "a pygmy with a giant typewriter" by Damon Knight. Well, I must be a pygmy of a reader, because I prefer van Vogt to every other science fiction writer of his period.

Part of the attraction for me, and part of the disappointment for other readers, perhaps, is that the innovations he explores are not primarily technological. He invents all sorts of futuristic gadgetry, but it's there just to make the plot possible and keep it going. What he's really interested in is putting human beings in new kinds of situations, conforming human society to new patterns, and seeing what happens. Ideas are more important to him than technologies.

There is, for instance, the running theme of The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Voyage is a fix-up novel about an intergalactic scientific expedition, knit together from four stories about encounters with alien life-forms. The stories are interesting in their own right—they must surely have provided inspiration for a number of Star Trek episodes—but what's more interesting to me is their contrast of scientific specialism with holistic understanding. Time and again the specialists come up short in crises through not being able to communicate with one another (or, worse, through academic gamesmanship), while the one "Nexialist" on board is able to integrate the results of their findings to arrive at a simple solution. The space voyage merely serves to isolate aspects of the interplay between the sciences, pragmatic militarism, and the crises that face civilization from time to time, and to point out the weaknesses in the modern framework. It's a disappointment that hypnotism and brainwashing—ideas van Vogt was much addicted to—take the place of rational persuasion at critical points.

The best of van Vogt's novels is surely The World of Null-A. In it, the world is divided into two classes: primitives who live as dictated by chemistry and emotion and think according to Aristotelian logic, classifying everything as black or white; and enlightened elites who recognize that there are…gray areas. Null-A is paralleled with null-E (non-Euclidean geometries) and null-N (non-Newtonian physics). Apparently, being null-A gives you powers to do pretty much whatever you want, including defeating an interstellar space fleet with sticks and stones. And the null-A protagonist, who's supposed to be a new breed of genius (he has two brains) seems bent on racing to his death for no apparent reason. (He actually dies at one point, but no matter: his memories are transported to a cloned body on Venus.) So, the null-A aspect of the novel is rather silly. But it's filled with so much beauty and so many interesting ideas that I can forgive its silliness.

The basic premise is this. Earth is ruled by those closest to grasping the null-A philosophy. Those who actually do grasp it are allowed to emigrate to Venus, a law-free utopia ruled by null-A principles. Examination for null-A proficiency takes place during periodic thirty-day games, reminiscent of the "testing hell" of imperial China. The games machine is a vast rational computer housed in a shining tower at the center of the futuristic capital city of Earth. Venus, on the other hand, is a sylvan paradise where the happy null-A live an idyllic pastoral existence. Much of the planet is forested with trees bigger than skyscrapers. The action moves from Earth to Venus and back to Earth again, as the protagonist, Gilbert Gosseyn, dies and lives again…through a cloned body with implanted memories.

(As an aside, it's interesting to note that van Vogt's identification of memory with identity goes hand in hand with his use of brainwashing techniques to influence recalcitrant antagonists. Brainwashing isn't unethical, because it isn't being done to anybody. There's no underlying person to whom this thing is being done. By changing feelings or memories, you're changing the person into another person, as a sculptor pushes his clay from one shape into another. He's doing something to clay, but it's an abuse of terms to say that he's doing something to a sculpture. There's no constant subject undergoing the operation.)

My wife and I like to read things aloud, and I once tried to read The World of Null-A to her. We didn't get very far. "What is going on?" she kept saying. It just seemed like a bizarre dream to her. And the book is weirdly and wildly incoherent. The characters apparently regard themselves as behaving quite sensibly, and they convince the reader of it from page to page, but if you put it all together it's pure irrationality. I suppose that's part of the draw for me. Life is a little like that, sometimes.

Van Vogt's protagonists tend to be smug adolescents (in maturity if not in age) who do bafflingly foolish or unethical things. In this connection, perhaps it's not out of place to observe that there's an understated, immature kinkiness in most of his characters' sexual situations: Slan ends with the adolescent protagonist's prospect of marrying and mating with two older women, one of whom is quite a bit older; The Weapon Makers is about an immortal man who maintains an imperial bloodline by occasionally wedding his own great-granddaughters; the two goddess-wives in The Book of Ptath can possess other female bodies to make love to their god-husband; Gilbert Gosseyn in The Players of Null-A has his mind projected into the body of a timorous weakling married to a gorgeous princess.
Beyond that, as regards the unrealistic action driving van Vogt's plots, Knight referred to him as being like a kid in a sandbox, and one can certainly see grounds for the charge. In a weird way, though, that's part of the draw for me, too. A more positive way of putting it would be to say that van Vogt's stories are naïve. Like an Henri Rousseau painting, they can seem rather silly and childish on the surface, but possess patterns of strange beauty for all that.

His work, sadly, is very uneven. He was a leader in the Dianetics movement that subsequently evolved into Scientology. His later novels, driven to a great extent by fad theories and pieced together from ill-assorted short stories, are his weakest. His best novels are his earliest, written during the forties. My personal favorites are Slan, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, The World of Null-A, The Players of Null-A, The Book of Ptath, The Weapon Shops of Isher, and The Weapon Makers.

Go to your local used bookstore or secondhand store, buy a few van Vogt titles in Ace paperback editions, and read them, savoring the garish covers, the yellow pages, the clumsy dialogue, the brilliant half-expressed ideas.

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