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.