Books that have been important to me #6 A. E. van Vogt and science fiction

The travails of reading English literature as an undergraduate pushed me away from reading good books for pleasure. I found an outlet in science fiction, the text versions of the comics I had enjoyed, like Buck Rogers. I had started as a boy with Jules Verne, and Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Then came C. S. Lewis’s science fiction yarns, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. They were, like W. E. Johns’s Biggles stories, rattling good yarns, imaginative tales that gave you a sense of a much wider and grander world. The war was just over, ‘our scientists were better than theirs’, and science fiction was suddenly important.

In 1951 came John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, a dystopian story of a world menaced by giant venomous moving plants. Not long after came Limbo 90, another story of a world gone wrong (in 1990, hence the title). At the end of the 1950s came The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle, whom I was to meet in 1963, and have a long talk with. When I started on science fiction I was sixteen, and aware that the world was menaced by a possible nuclear catastrophe. At university I discovered others students who had small collections of science fiction, most of it American, and devoured what they had. Then I started buying it myself, with the money left after buying classical LP records. Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Pohl and Kornbluth, Heinlein — I went through them all, and kept reading them when new novels came out.

One of them was A. E. van Vogt, described by a fellow novelist and critic as ‘a pygmy tapping on the keys of a giant typewriter’ or something like that. He’s the one I remember most, and I have most of his novels. The question is: Why him?

Alfred Elton van Vogt was a Canadian of German ancestry, and one of the founders of modern (American) science fiction. I haven’t read everything he wrote, but what I have read has a strange quality about it. He invented whole new worlds, often with dark histories. The world of Clane (The Empire of the Atom, The Wizard of Linn), for example, has space ships that can get whole armies to Mars and Venus, but the soldiers’ hand weapons are still bows and arrows, spears and swords. We are in a land where there was once a highly advanced civilisation that apparently destroyed itself. Some of the technology survives, but the present inhabitants, while they can use it, do not understand it, or how it works.

Does that sound likely? Not the way I set it out. But while you are reading the novel the improbabilities in the story don’t really worry you. Clane himself seems to have been modelled on Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Roman Emperor from 40 to 54 AD, and the hero of Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. Clane is deformed, as was Claudius, and has a grandmother called Lydia, whereas Claudius’s grandmother was Livia. That and more similarities aside, the story shows Clane’s progression from a handicapped, stammering boy to a powerful ruler who begins to understand the nature of the science that supports the society. It is his understanding, and his real quest for knowledge, that supports his power.

Van Vogt’s severest critics say that he can’t write, while his defenders say that The son-of-a-gun gets hold of you in the first paragraph, ties a knot around you, and keeps it tied in every paragraph thereafter—including the ultimate last one. That accolade comes from John Campbell, who is thought to be the shaper of modern science fiction through his editorship of Astounding, the magazine where so many of the science fiction writers, including van Vogt, got their start. I’m with Campbell. I like the breadth of van Vogt’s imagination, and the speed of his stories. OK, some of the characters are pasteboard, but that is true of just about all the famous SF writers. And, as I’ve already said, the improbabilities in the stories come to after you’ve finished.

My favourites are the Weapon Shops books, The Weapon Shops of Issher and The Weapon Makers. Here the stories are set thousands of years ahead of us, with science that is hard to grasp, and indeed little of it is explained (or could be explained). Those with the knowledge can transmit themselves instantly through space. OK, something goes wrong with an experiment, and a man from the 20th century arrives in the future, upsetting the space-time continuum, as it would…. Many things happen as a result. We follow the adventures of a young man from a country town, Cayle Clark, who has callidetic capacities beyond belief (he has amazing luck, at one point skill at gambling). You’ve never heard of ‘callidetic’? The author invented it. Look it up. The story never stops its speed, and the incidents are enthralling.

Clark is being watched by a super-genius called Robert Hedrock, who turns out to be almost immortal. His long life (he is about six hundred or so) is due to scientific discoveries. In a separate novel, Slan, we meet another small boy who has super-normal powers, and they are related to those possessed by Hedrock. In the sequel to the Weapon Shops, Hedrock has to defend the planet and the solar system against an alien race of spiders, whose science is much more powerful, but whom he defeats through a simple but ingenious technique. The spiders also do not understand emotional relationships, and leave the solar system, conceding that humanity has a strength the spider race neither possesses nor can deal with, and will eventually spread through the universe.

In The World of Null-A and its two sequels we encounter a man called Gilbert Gosseyn (= go sane) who lives in a world five hundred years ahead that seems to be run by a giant games computer. Null A is non- Aristotelian thinking (Aristotelian is black and white, Null A is many shades). The point of what Gosseyn goes through is the training of one’s mind to not simply react emotionally — support one thing and oppose its opposite. Van Vogt got all this from Alfred Korzybski’s theory of general semantics, a faint echo of which I heard as an undergraduate. What is general semantics? Um, a self-improvement and therapy program that is now almost a hundred years old. If you are into it, you do not just react to stimuli, you are aware of the stimuli and choose, or try to choose, how to react, giving yourself time to do so. It is non-Aristotelian in that it denies that things have ‘essences’ which can be set out in a true definition. Although I do use ‘essentially’ I have tried to follow the advice in general semantics.

I came to terms with it through the work of S. I. Hayakawa, a professor of English who was a US Senator for California from 1977 to 1983. I no longer have his book, Language in Thought and Action, but I learned from it about what propaganda was and how it worked both verbally and subconsciously. The book was written before the second world war, in response to Adolf Hitler’s success as a propagandist.

Back to the van Vogt novels. They worked for me not only because they were good yarns, but because he had moral messages in his stories that appealed to me. A good example is the rule of the Weapon Shops, whose science is so much better than that of the Empire of Issher. Why don’t they Shops just take over, someone asks. Ah, says the spokesman for the Shops, what the world needs is balance. People have to look after themselves. The Shops recognise that the world is much less good than people would like, but it is up to people to do something about it. The Shops act only where they can add the necessary balance.

If you want to know how they do it, and what that means, you’ll have to read the books yourself. I guess they’re not for everyone, but I still have my copies, and from time to time I re-read one, happily.

ENDNOTE: I’m pretty sure that none of the authors I mentioned had a premonition about either the advance of biology through the discovery of DNA or the advance of communications through the various advances I’ve seen in my working lifetime. So some of the technologies you read in these books were surpassed only twenty or so years after the books were published. Van Vogt’s future technologies are a good illustration.






Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • margaret says:

    “I guess they’re not for everyone …”
    I think you’re right there.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Don, I have followed your ‘books’ essays with interest, as we seem to have had similar tastes.

    I am not going to indulge in a ‘what was the best’ argument, but in terms of the genre, I think there were two streams, evident from the beginning – the cowboy, and the speculative. Of the former, the Demon Princes novels are superb. I agree that the Weapon Shops is a good story, but for me, it is really a not-very-well disguised argument for the Second Amendment. In the Weapon Makers, Hedrock’s attempt at dynasty is simply overtaken by time., and the alien ‘resurrection’ of his bride is a very poor conclusion.

    The other strand is more interesting, perhaps exemplified by Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End), John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar), and Alfred Bester (Tiger, Tiger, aka The Stars My Destination). One of the great imaginative writers was Theodore Sturgeon (The Synthetic Man), who took the extraordinary and made it ordinary (or vice versa).

    Unfortunately, the line between fiction and fantasy has become blurred over the years, and much of today’s sci-fi has become fairy stories for adults, which I find far less interesting. The last of the genre that I have read are the Void, Gap, and Culture series, to none of which will I bother to return. The Dune series also got tedious very quickly.

  • margaret says:

    Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s tale is a wonderful example of speculative fiction.

    • margaret says:

      “Because women are interesting and important in real life. They are not an afterthought of nature, they are not secondary players in human destiny, and every society has always known that. Without women capable of giving birth, human populations would die out. That is why the mass rape and murder of women, girls and children has long been a feature of genocidal wars, and of other campaigns meant to subdue and exploit a population.”

      It would interest me as to how women are portrayed in A.E. Van Vogt’s science fiction stories.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        Not Van Vogt, but I suggest you read ‘The Synthetic Man’, whose heroine was a small woman with a great big heart. You may prefer it to ‘The Real Story’ ( Donaldson) in which a woman is repeatedly raped. In ‘The Weapon Makers’, Hedrock propagates his line by marrying his female descendants. It’s not too different to real life.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks, Don. Loved “The Day of the Triffids” and many sci-fis but never read van Vogt.

    These days Sci-fi has been over taken by Cli-fi.

    More money in it and therefore more authors.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    What Don failed to mention is that there are a several quite funny stories in the SF literature. Jizzle (a collection of short stories by Wyndham), for one, and ‘The Star Beast’ (Heinlein) for another. The latter is probably adolescent level, but it’s still a fun read. And I read it again, and I smiled.

  • PeterD says:

    As one reaches a certain age – and I am in the zone – it is interesting to identify the books that one has loved and that have had an impact on one’s spirit and thinking about life. The phrase ‘reading good books for pleasure’ will mean vastly different things to different people. If I listed some books from early years I would certainly include ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot, ‘Crime and Punishment’ by F. Dostoyesvky, ‘The Power and the Glory’ by G. Greene, the short stories of Chekhov and de Maupassant and Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’.

    But as one who studied literature for six years at university (USyd/UNE), I have always looked to novels, plays, poetry that makes sense of our Australian experience. So novels such as ‘Cloud Street’ by Tim Winton, ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ Peter Carey, ‘Voss’ by Patrick White are at the highest level; a book such as ‘A Fortunate Life’ by Albert Facey may not be a literary phenomenon but the guy has an amazing spirit and great story to tell.

    But even moreso do I look to novels that interpret our contemporary experience, so I mention ‘Eviction’ by Josephine Wilson – announced at the Miles Franklin winner last Thursday and ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent. ‘Eviction’ is a powerful novel much suited to males like me and indeed many contributors to this website, except Margaret: it is about a retired engineer who moves into a retirement home at the age of seventy, and strikes up a relationship with a feisty grandmother whose son has died of a drug overdose and who feels compelled to take on the role of caring for this seven year old grandson who is in foster care. The engineer, Frederick, is a deeply flawed, damaged individual and the hurt and pain he has caused his wife and two children is almost unimaginable. For those who like escapist literature, or thrillers, or chick lit, or romance, or erotic fiction, ‘Eviction’ is not for you, or for the faint-hearted; it is wonderful and powerful novel but some will feel it is a huge kick in the guts and will reel away from it, nauseous and overcome by the severity of its character depiction. But it is a novel well worth reading – you can get it on Kindle for around $11!

    I am not opposed to a bit of light-hearted reading romp and have read about twenty+ novels of Peter Corris’ Cliff Hardy. I love them while I’m reading them (he’s not writing any more because his eyesight is gone) but the next day I can’t remember where I’ve been.

    For those whose interests run more to autobiography/biography, I’ve just finished Brian Burke’s ‘A Tumultuous Life’ published in March this year. It’s a fantastic read, full of some wonderful portraits and anecdotes. I came to the book thinking of a WA Premier who spent a year in jail for being a conman but I came out of the book with a very different impression. Maybe he conned me! I would highly recommend this book because of its human insights about people such as Alan Bond, Carmen Lawrence, the Courts, Twiggy Forrest, Laure Connell. His comparison of Hawke and Keating is priceless. In fact, he was very close to Bob but was a bit miffed when, with Blanche’s help, he was referred to as a ‘conman’ . He believed this was so unnecessary! Brian Burke is married to the same woman he met at school, he has six children, nineteen grandchildren, and was asked to leave the Labor Party but he is not in any way embittered.

  • PeterD says:

    Hullo Margaret,

    Even though I have been a little bit discourteous and a smartarse in referring to you by name, I believe that ‘Eviction’ is a novel that you will find profoundly moving and honest.

    • margaret says:

      Hi Peter, I do want to read Extinctions yes, and Burial Rites. They are on my list.
      Now, having just watched Jane Hutcheon interview Dava Sobel I must add The Glass Universe.
      Middlemarch, The Power and the Glory, Cloudstreet, de Maupassant, A Fortunate Life, enjoyed them all, most love being reserved for Middlemarch.
      My most enjoyable recent read was A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I have a feeling you would find it fun.
      This morning I went to my essay discussion group. We discussed Julian Burnside’s What Sort of Country Are We? We all concluded that we have become meaner – but in line with the rest of the world.
      Thank you for sharing your interesting reads.

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