Simon & Schuster/SFBC Edition, 1951, 527 pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN Unavailable
Tonight, ladies, gentlemen and extraterrestrials from Cylonak, we are going to delve deep into the archives of Science Fiction to dredge back a forgotten masterpiece, or three for that matter. At a time where men were men and women were irrelevant… at a time where it was plausible to postulate non-Aristolean logic without howling with laughter… at a time where you could have spacemen waving vibrators around without having your book banned… at a time where SF fans perceived themselves as being persecuted and hunted down like rabid dogs… lived an author named A.E. van Vogt.
A curious fellow, this Arthur Elton van Vogt. Born in Canada in 1912, emigrated in the United States in 1944, he had by that time established himself as one of Science-Fiction’s giants. He specialized in grandiose tales of space-opera, of supermen, of monsters and empires. He never made too much sense, but he wrote with such intensity that few were left unimpressed. Today, we will see three of his finest novels, brought together in one handy package unimaginatively called Triad.
van Vogt’s first novel was Slan, a classical wish-fulfilment fantasy starring a superhuman boy, a princess, an evil empire and a book-long chase. It was enormously popular among SF audience, who identified with the persecuted protagonist. Slans being superior humans, the novel was the basis of a fannish rallying cry: Fans are Slans!
As for the novel itself, we can already see in Slan the distinguishing characteristics of the latter van Vogt: Endlessly surprising twists and counter-twists of plot, often brought up without rhyme, reason or latter accountability. It is never too clear whether van Vogt has a fantastically complicated outline, or is making it up as he goes along. Modern readers will find Slan interesting in a certain naïve way, as if the sheer chutzpah of van Vogt can carry the novel through. But modern readers will most likely see in Slan the blueprint for more than fifty years of wish-fulfilment novels.
With The voyage of the Space Beagle, modern readers will experience virulent déjà-vu reactions. Not only does the Space Beagle function eerily like the “Star Trek” paradigm, but a sequence from the novel contains the genesis of the movie ALIEN. (van Vogt sued, and settled out of court for $50,000, says the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction)
The Voyage of the Space Beagle is a collection of mostly enjoyable short tales describing the adventures of a space ship on a deep exploration tour. Surprisingly, the human squabbling and political infighting are more interesting than some of the aliens. The hero is likable, the plot twists are numerous and the aliens are imaginatively created. It reads like STAR TREK on acid. Creaky, musty fun.
The World of Null-A has an interesting MacGuffin: There are other modes of thought than Aristolean, Newtonian and Euclidean logic. Nothing interesting is done with this premise, but the ever-exciting plot has a twist every five pages and quickly buries its incoherencies under a cloud of plots, counterplots and counter-counterplots. Again, you never quite know if van Vogt has an incredible outline, or he’s just making it as he goes along. No matter; even despite all its numerous faults and its increasingly hilarious creakiness, The World of Null-A manages to entertain.
If Triad teaches us something, it’s that SF has certainly grown up. No author could now afford to publish novels as ill-conceived as van Vogt’s. On the other hand, it’s unclear if today’s fiction has the same sense of fun that’s present in van Vogt. It’s also a matter of debate as to which kind of fiction will read better among non-literary readers a half-century from now.
In the meantime, Triad contains the essential van Vogt. A worthwhile buy if you can find it in used bookstores, along with a copy of his other major novel, The Weapon Shops of Isher.