Thursday, July 30, 2015

Two Hundred Million A.D.

As I've mentioned several times, A. E. van Vogt, the famous "pygmy with a giant typewriter," is my favorite golden-age science fiction author. His best novels bear multiple readings, partly because they're so rich in ideas and settings, partly because they're damnably confusing. They're bold yet weirdly naïve, headlong plunges through time and space, peopled with dunderheaded supermen and strong-minded beauties and towering arch-villains, littered with unbearable solecisms and unmotivated actions, touched with sweeping grandeur.

I just finished a repeat visit to Two Hundred Million A.D. (a.k.a., The Book of Ptath), serialized in 1943, published as a novel in 1947. My copy, shown to the right, was printed in 1963.

One thing that strikes me upon this re-reading is that, from a stylistic point of view, the book is very badly written. To wit:
…for a moment he had an enormous, an almost owlish conviction that he had picked a fatal flaw in the whole story.
An owlish conviction? What does that mean, exactly? We seem to be talking about a conviction that is enormous, yes, but, what's more, it's so very enormous that it's almost owlish. As in…like unto an owl?

And then there's this:
These rebels were right, basically. No group had ever been braver, defying an unkillable woman and a religio-slave set-up of temple potentates more powerful than anything that had ever existed anywhere.
An unkillable woman and a religio-slave set-up. That made it into a published novel? It sounds like something I'd use as a placeholder in a rough draft for a rough draft, hoping I wouldn't die before I could revise it.

The plot, on the other hand, is fairly incomprehensible. Restrictions on action shift from paragraph to paragraph. Characters make bold, arbitrary resolutions, then abandon them on the next page. Time crawls by, and then, between two neighboring lines of dialogue, a month elapses. Plot holes yawn like black abysses, unsuspected by their author. Plot points emerge like ships from a dark, foggy night, and vanish vaguely to aft. The whole thing hangs together with a kind of murky dream-logic, not making sense if you look at it as a whole, but seeming to make sense from page to page. Kind of.

And yet, I like it. Honestly, I'd rather read it than a lot of things that make more sense. In Imaginary Worlds, Lin Carter gushes about it on pp. 85 – 86, winding up by calling it van Vogt's "single best novel." He gets a number of details wrong, in typical Lin Carter fashion, but gives a good overall summary. I can't say I agree with his assessment – certainly I'd rank the Null-A books, the Weapons Shops books, Slan, and The Voyage of the Space Beagle as far superior – but it's definitely worth a read.

There's the setting, for one thing. The action spans two continents and the isthmus joining them, moving through jungles, rivers of boiling mud, smoking volcanoes, and stupendous cities, two hundred million years in the future. The earth, it's suggested, is exhausted of ores. Battles are fought with crude weapons of varnished wood and carved stone, but high technology is also present. The human population is in the tens or hundreds of billions. Once-human goddesses pit armies of loyalists and rebels against one another in a strange game where mastery is the prize. In a curious reversion to geological antiquity, the southern supercontinent, where most of the story takes place, is known as Gonwonlane (Gondwanaland), and the sea adjoining it, Teths (Tethys). The armies employ prehistoric-seeming beasts like elephantine grimbs and leather-winged screers.

As a matter of fact, I'm struck by how many material elements of The Book of Ptath remind me of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. I wonder if it served as a partial inspiration?

The protagonist is the god Ptath, returned to the present from a sojourn among the humans of the past, his most recent incarnation being Peter Holroyd, a soldier and casualty of World War II. At the opening he is blank-minded and physically inexorable; later on the Holroyd psyche takes over for some reason that I don't quite understand.

Ptath's age-long merging with the human race has something Christ-like about it, in a Gnostic sort of way, an attempt to grow in compassion and root out the sort of divine cruelty that has conquered the goddess Ineznia. But religion, though the source of Ptath's power, is treated in a coldly scientific, utilitarian way. "Religion is fear," he says on the penultimate page.

Power accrues to the three divinities through the use of prayer-sticks, but only women can pray to the god (Ptath), while men pray to the goddesses (Ineznia and L'onee). This god-power consists of the ability to possess other people (though only of the same sex) and, eventually, depending on the piety of the populace, the ability to transport oneself bodily through space. No, it doesn't make sense to me, either. And van Vogt is, as ever, on the side of the superman.

But still, look at the sheer number of ideas we have thrown together here. Any one of them could have been the basis for an entire novel. As usual, I find myself slightly frustrated that van Vogt didn't develop his speculations more fully or make a better attempt at narrative coherence. But it's hard to think of another science fiction author so useful to steal from, or (for me at least), so enjoyable to read.

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