The Astonishing Worlds of A.E. Van Vogt
Canadian by birth, Alfred Elton van Vogt began his SF career in the late 1930s and early 1940s with a number of stories for John W. Campbell and his Astounding Science Fiction magazine. It was not long before his prolific output and vaulting imagination established him as one of the key figures of the Golden Age. His ideas were bold and new, and his importance to the development of the genre at this crucial period should not be underestimated.
Van Vogt's first novel "Slan" (1946) is his most famous work. It tells of a man born into a mutant race whose members have strange paranormal powers. He and his fellow mutants are oppressed by 'normal' society until one day the emergent supermen throw off their social shackles and it is revealed that the dictator of the planetary empire is in fact a mutant 'slan' himself. The story is pure pulp adventure but it is still fondly remembered for the sheer excitement and sense of wonder that it gave to its readers.
"The World of Null-A" (1945/48) and "The Pawns of Null-A" (1948/56, also published as "The Players of Null-A"), features Gilbert Gosseyn, a superhuman whose consciousness moves between bodies, but he has no memories of his own past and eventually discovers he is a tool used by one alien species to protect the Earth from yet another. He overcomes one menace in the first book, only to face an even greater threat in the second. "Null-A Three", published in 1985, sends Gosseyn off to battle the masters of the universe, but this final adventure is inferior to the other two.
Van Vogt's next important books are the two novels that together comprise the Weapon Shops sequence, "The Weapon Shops of Isher" (1951) and "The Weapon Makers" (1947/1952). These novels showcase van Vogt's style and surrealistic imagery perfectly, they concern the political wrangling between a totalitarian galactic empire and a libertarian movement over control of the technologically advanced weapon factories built by an immortal. "The Book of Ptath" (1943/47) features a battle between superhumans in the very distant future. Immortals plot an escape from an Earth besieged by aliens in "The House That Stood Still" (1950)
"The Voyage of the Space Beagle" (1950) is comprised of a series of short stories about the adventures of an interstellar exploration team, one story “Black Destroyer” was the author’s first science fiction sale (Astounding Science Fiction 1939). In this classic story a lethal cat-like alien infiltrates a spaceship and starts killing the crew one by one. A big influence on sci-fi movies such as It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and Alien (1979). Space Beagle's other influential story “Discord in Scarlet” features an alien species which lays eggs inside the crew, the young eating their way out after hatching.
During the fifties van Vogt's passion for alternative modes of thought led him to become involved with L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics and Scientology movement. Van Vogt invested much energy in this and when he eventually returned to writing after a decade-long hiatus the new wave movement was in full swing. Van Vogt's work still had a pulp feel about it and, although his earlier novels had in their time been cutting edge, times - and tastes - had changed.
"The Silkie" (1969) seemed to promise better things. Humans create an artificial race to help them administer their society, but the silkies prove to have an agenda of their own. Although also published initially as short stories, the end result was more cohesive than the previous quasi-novels. In "Children of Tomorrow" (1970), a space traveler returns to Earth after a long absence and discovers that the current generation is developing psi powers.
"Quest for the Future" (1970) is an expanded version of van Vogt’s classic short story “Far Centaurus” (1944), in which a slower-than-light starship is launched to Alpha Centauri, arriving to discover that the subsequent development of faster-than-light travel has led to its colonization in advance of their arrival. "The Battle of Forever" (1971) takes an inhabitant of a supposed utopia out into a wider universe inhabited by unfriendly aliens and other challenges. "The Darkness on Diamondia" (1972) is a less ambitious and reasonably well done adventure involving a rebellious colony world and a super weapon.
A. E. van Vogt occupies an important position in the history and development of the SF genre. He may not have produced a Foundation series or a Dune sequence but his novels and stories nonetheless continue to offer readers an intellectual stimulation and narrative excitement that is unique.
A. E. van Vogt died in 2000, aged eighty-eight.