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A. E. van Vogt

A. E. van Vogt


LibertyCon 4 Author Guest of Honor (1990)

(1912-2000) Canadian writer who moved to the USA at the end of 1944 after establishing his name as one of the creators of John W Campbell Jr's Golden Age of SF with a flood of material in Astounding Science-Fiction, starting with "Black Destroyer" (July 1939 Astounding), though he had been active for several years in various other genres. Van Vogt was the first Canadian sf writer of real importance, and it is arguable that a Canadian solitudinousness colours his work throughout; it is certainly the case that he wrote very few tales involving the penetration of frontiers after the American pattern. The many Space Opera empires in his work generally pre-exist the tales that describe them, and are conquered from within. At a rough estimate (including stockpiled tales published later) Van Vogt wrote at least fifty stories and four novels in Canada before emigrating with E Mayne Hull, whom he had married in 1939. There remains some doubt as to how much she contributed to her collaborations with Van Vogt, and even her solo works have been speculatively credited to her husband. In any case, her active career ceased in 1950 with her conversion to L Ron Hubbard's Dianetics. Van Vogt also converted, becoming virtually silent for several years, publishing no new stories until 1963, after which date he entered a second period of high productivity. His late works have generally, however, been disregarded in any assessment of his importance to the field.

In 1939-1947 van Vogt published at least thirty-five sf stories in Astounding alone, some of novel length, and it was the work of these years, much of it not to be published in book form until long afterwards in reconstructed versions, that gave him his high reputation as a master of intricate, metaphysical Space Opera. Along with Isaac Asimov and Robert A Heinlein, and to a lesser extent L Sprague de Camp and L Ron Hubbard - he seemed nearly to create, by writing what Campbell wanted to publish, the first genuinely successful period of US sf; only in this "Golden Age" did it begin to achieve, in literary terms, what the writers of US Genre SF had eschewed 20 years earlier when they had found that Pulp magazines not only wished to publish sf but were their only consistent market. Although van Vogt catered for the pulps, he intensified the emotional impact and complexity of the stories they would bear: his nearly invincible alien Monsters, the long timespans of his tales, the Time Paradoxes that fill them, the quasimessianic Supermen who come into their own as the stories progress, the Galactic Empires they tend to rule and the states of lonely transcendental omnipotence they tend to achieve - all are presented in a prose that uses crude, dark colours but whose striking Sense of Wonder is conveyed with a dreamlike conviction. The abrupt complications of plot for which he became so well known, and which have been so scathingly mocked for their illogic and preposterousness - within narratives that claimed to be presenting higher forms of logic to the reader - are best analysed, and their effects best understood, when their sudden shifts of perspective and rationale and scale are seen as analogous to the movements of a dream.

It is these "Hard-SF dreams", so grippingly void of constraints or of the usual surrealistic appurtenances of dream literature, that have so haunted generations of children and adolescents; and many of his best stories convey more clearly than his novels the driven hauntedness central to Van Vogt. Although many of the stories published during the first decade of his career were later assembled into Fixups (see below), original versions can be found in collections like Out of the Unknown [for details of revs etc see Checklist] (coll 1948) with E Mayne Hull (see above), Destination: Universe! (coll 1952) and Away and Beyond [for details of revs etc see Checklist] (coll 1952). The earlier Masters of Time (coll 1950) - a volume comprising two stories later published separately as The Changeling (April 1944 Astounding; 1967) and Earth's Last Fortress (March 1942 Astounding as "Recruiting Station"; 1960 dos; vt Masters of Time 1967) - contains in the novella "Recruiting Station", a genuine if primitively couched Changewar in which the victory of one side will mean the extinction of the other throughout history (> also Parallel Worlds; Time Loops). This long tale, plus twenty-four other early works, has been assembled as Transfinite: The Essential A E Van Vogt (coll 2003) ed Rick Katze and Joe Rico.

Van Vogt's first novel, and perhaps still his best known, is Slan (September-December 1940 Astounding; 1946; rev 1951). Its Hero, the young Jommy Cross, is a member of a Mutant race, the Slans, a Pariah Elite long driven into hiding because of the jealousy of normals. Jommy's powers (> Children in SF), which include Telepathy, physical superiority to normals (he has two hearts) and extraordinary Intelligence, enable him to survive the mobbing, arrest and offstage death of his mother and to escape from sight into an adolescence and young manhood during which he begins to sense his true powers. As a man he becomes involved with Earth's mysterious dictator, with defective Slans, and with various intrigues centring on new sources of energy. Matters are cleared up only at the book's close with the revelation that the dictator is himself a secret Slan, that the girl Slan with whom Jommy is in love is the dictator's daughter, and that Jommy is in line for the succession. Slan is a much imitated model for the creation of wish-fulfilment stories. A follow-up tale based on an unknown amount of draft material from the end of Van Vogt's active career around 1984, Slan Hunter (December 2006-April 2007 Jim Baen's Universe; 2007) with Kevin J Anderson might almost be deemed a Sequel by Other Hands, and is very significantly less interesting. Slan & Slan Hunter (omni 2007) assembles the 1951 revision of Slan along with the later book.

However, it was in the two Weapon Shops Time Operas - The Weapon Shops of Isher (July 1941 and December 1942 Astounding; February 1949 Thrilling Wonder; fixup 1951) and The Weapon Makers (February-April 1943 Astounding; dated 1947 but 1946; rev 1952; vt One Against Eternity 1955 dos), assembled as The Weapon Shops of Isher, and The Weapon Makers (omni 1988; vt The Empire of Isher 2000) - that van Vogt's mixture of hard-sf dreams, enormities of complication, and transcendent superheroes was most hypnotically presented. The main protagonist of the two books, the immortal Robert Hedrock (> Immortality; Secret Masters), has not only in the dim past created the Weapon Shops as a Libertarian force to counterbalance the imperial world government long dominant on Earth, but also turns out eventually to have literally begotten the race of emperors and empresses who rule that government in traditional opposition to the mysterious Shops, which are invulnerable and sell weapons to anyone. To cap this dream of omnipotence, Hedrock unwittingly passes a Galactic initiation test at the very end of the second book, a test designed by a Forerunner to select (> Uplift) the next rulers of the "sevagram". The word "sevagram" appears only, as the very last word of The Weapon Makers; this resonantly mysterious Slingshot Ending, which seems to open universes to the reader's gaze, may well stand as the best working demonstration in the whole of genre sf of how to impart a Sense of Wonder.

The second major series of van Vogt's prolific decade - the Null-A sequence comprising The World of A (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948; vt The World of Null-A 1953 dos; rev with intro 1970) and The Pawns of Null-A (October 1948-January 1949 Astounding as "The Players of A"; 1956; rev vt The Players of Null-A 1966), plus La Fin du A (1984; orig English text as Null-A Three 1985; vt Null A-3 1985) - may have appeared weightier in its attempts to present its arguments in terms of "non-Aristotelian" thought (> General Semantics), a claim which might seem ominously to prefigure a rationalization of the effortless dream logic of the earlier stories; but in the event tends to stumble into excessive tangles of complication, especially in the final volume, where the intense storyableness of Van Vogt's early work had dissipated by this late point in his career, and incoherence ruled. The protagonist Gosseyn (go sane), whose Psi Powers include Teleportation, lacks humour even more decidedly than his superman predecessors, and his rapid, confusing, nearly emotionless shifting from one Gosseyn body to another, in a kind of Identity Transfer between Clones but without the concept of cloning to sustain it, makes his eventual supremacy so peculiarly disorganized as to be almost without effect on the reader. By this time van Vogt was nearing the end of his association with Astounding, after an extraordinarily productive decade, and would soon stop writing entirely; perhaps The Pawns of Null-A, which in magazine form stretched to 100,000 words, was about as far as he could go without an extended breather. Certainly his third series from this period - the Clane sequence comprising Empire of the Atom (stories May 1946-December 1947 Astounding; fixup 1957; cut 1957 dos) and The Wizard of Linn (April-June 1950 Astounding; 1962) - is considerably less intense, though something of the effect of the original is recaptured in Transgalactic (omni 2006), which reprints the series in its magazine form. James Blish argued of this series about superscience and palace politics that its plot and characters closely resemble those of Robert Graves's Claudius novels: it would have been a brave critic who, with equal persuasiveness, found van Vogt's earlier series to resemble any previous work of world literature.

The Voyage of the Space Beagle (stories July 1939-August 1943 Astounding, May 1950 Other Worlds; fixup 1950; vt Mission: Interplanetary 1952) marshalled several early stories into a chronicle depicting various ways in which a "Nexialist", Elliot Grosvenor, by using a response to Aliens and their environments that synthesizes different fields of knowledge, copes with First Contacts involving divers Monsters. The book incorporates van Vogt's first two sf stories; and Nexialism itself, which involves a system of intensive psychological training, symptomatically prefigures L Ron Hubbard's Dianetics, with which van Vogt was to become so closely involved. This involvement was the culmination of his persistent interest in all training systems which purport scientifically (or pseudoscientifically; > Pseudoscience) to create physical or mental superiority and awaken dormant talents, an interest which generated not only the three General-Semantics novels described above but also Siege of the Unseen (October-November 1946 Astounding as "The Chronicler"; 1959 dos; vt as title story in The Three Eyes of Evil coll 1973), in which, inspired by the Bates eye-exercise system, he dramatized the curing of eye problems through partly mental means. Though described in less detail, the Dellian mind techniques invoked in The Mixed Men (stories September 1943-January 1945 Astounding; fixup 1952; cut vt Mission to the Stars 1955) are of the same ilk.

During this first decade of his career, van Vogt also contributed material also to Astounding's sister magazine, Unknown, most notably The Book of Ptath (October 1943 Unknown; 1947; vt Two Hundred Million A.D. 1964; vt Ptath 1976), a Far-Future epic in which a reincarnated but Amnesiac god-figure must fight and overcome a She-like usurper to re-establish his suzerainty. The distinction in Van Vogt between an sf and a fantasy Superman is not perhaps great; but it is the case that he rarely wrote in the latter genre.

In Reflections of A.E. van Vogt: The Autobiography of a Science Fiction Giant, with a Complete Bibliography (1975), van Vogt uses the term "fix-up" (or Fixup) in the sense which we have adopted for this encyclopedia: a book made up of previously published stories altered to fit together - usually with the addition of new cementing material - the end product being marketed as a novel. It is possible that van Vogt invented the term for, although fixups are not unknown outside sf, the peculiar marketing circumstances of the genre in the USA encouraged their creation, and certainly van Vogt wrote (or compiled) more fixups than any other sf writer of stature. It was during his time of relative inactivity as a creator of original material - the 1950s and early 1960s - that he began producing these numerous fixups, including titles already mentioned (see above). Further fixups incorporating Golden-Age material include The War Against the Rull (stories April 1940-February 1950 Astounding; fixup 1959), The Beast (stories July 1943-April 1944 Astounding; fixup 1963; vt Moonbeast 1969) and Quest for the Future (stories January 1943-July 1946 Astounding; fixup 1970).

The Silkie (stories July 1964-October 1967 If; fixup 1969), though technically similar, was the first to use substantially contemporary material - and may have been the first whose component parts were all written with the end result in mind. It signalled the beginning of van Vogt's second period of productivity, with Children of Tomorrow (1970) being his first completely new sf novel since The Mind Cage (1948 Fantasy Book #3 as "The Great Judge"; much exp 1957) - although he had also published The Violent Man (1962), a political thriller about the attempted brainwashing of Westerners in contemporary communist China. The most sustained effort of this second wave of titles was perhaps The Battle of Forever (1971), in which the enhanced-human protagonist, Modyun, leaves the Keep where his kind had for aeons dwelt in seclusion and undertakes a Far-Future odyssey through a decadent world and Galaxy, battling against aliens and gradually coming to full stature as a Superman. Compared to the fixups of the previous decade or so, the story is well paced and emotionally coherent, though the oneiric flow of arousing event and imagery is damaged by a sense of self-consciousness. Further novels do not live up to this promise of partial renewal, and were not well received.

Critics such as Damon Knight - in an extended review (1945 Destiny's Child; exp in In Search of Wonder, coll 1956; rev 1967) - have tended to treat the typical van Vogt tale as a failed effort at hard sf, and have consequently tended to describe stories others have written in the modes he developed - like Philip K Dick, Charles L Harness and Larry Niven - as "improvements" on the original model. In some ways, of course, these writers have built upon the complexity of van Vogt's worlds and have significantly rationalized his convulsive shuffling and reshuffling of every element of his stories, but without knowing how to convey the deeply Canadian whited-out wilderness venues, so typical of his work, that in their very absence of human detail impart a chthonic frisson to otherwise jumbled plotlines. Thus freed of any surface verisimilitude, Van Vogt's space operas, as noted, are at heart enacted dreams which articulate deep, symbolic needs and wishes of his readership. Because there is no misunderstood science or cosmography or technology at the very heart of his best work, there is no "improving" van Vogt. In 1995 he received the SFWA Grand Master Award; he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame on its inauguration in 1996. [JC]

(From Mr. van Vogt's page at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction)