Thursday, July 9, 2009

A. E. van Vogt: Man and Superman

A. E. van Vogt was one of the leading lights of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, one of the most influential writers from that era, and, with the exception of L. Ron Hubbard, one of the weirdest.

van Vogt was a Canadian who moved to the U.S. after having established himself as a science fiction author of note. His stories had an acuteness and intricacy that drew readers in and left a memorable impression. A common theme of his was that of the burgeoning psychic superman man who must face innumerable trials while coming into his own. Like H. P. Lovecraft and H. G. Wells before him, van Vogt often turned to his dreams for inspiration. This gave the his novels a somewhat surreal dimension that served to intensify the extraordinary events they dramatized.

In the span of a decade, van Vogt produced stories at an almost superhuman rate, as though in imitation of his own protagonists. For the most part serialized in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction, these became the tales for which he remains best known. It was during this period that he wrote novels like Slan, a tale of telepathic, superhuman mutants who are persecuted by human society. His other books of this period include The Weapons Shops of Isher, about trans-dimension arms dealers who fight against tyranny; The Worlds of Null-A, a novel based on the teachings of General Semantics; and The Book of Ptath, about an amnesiac who must regain his memories to overcome his enemies.

van Vogt also coined the term fix-up, describing the technique by which an author takes a series of separate stories and combines them as a novel. He used this device to connect many of his own earlier stories as the memorable books The Voyage of the Space Beagle, about an inter-galactic space exploration mission, and The War Against the Rull, an alien invasion tale involving shape-shifting extraterrestrials.

van Vogt's fascination with psi-powered superhumans was no idle fancy. He believed that humans had vast and mysterious potential that could be unlocked with the right training. When L. Ron Hubbard's essay "Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science" appeared in the pages of Astounding in 1950 alongside one of his own stories it fell on sympathetic ears. van Vogt threw himself behind Hubbard's new "science" with a passion that left no room for mundane pursuits like writing. For over a decade his pen fell silent as he devoted himself to Dianetics.

Eventually he returned to the field, producing a few noteworthy titles like The Silkie and The Battle of Forever, But for the most part his later works did little to enhance his reputation. And in the meantime his star had fallen. Between his involvement with Hubbard's controversial cult and criticism like Damon Knight's scathing essay "Cosmic Jerrybuilder," van Vogt's reputation had been seriously tarnished and he was largely overshadowed by his peers, Asimov and Heinlein.

But his influence lives on in countless sf works down to this day, both directly and indirectly. Some subsequent works were homages, like Philip K. Dick's interrogation of the paranoid construct that is game theory, Solar Lottery. Charles L. Harness can be said to have beat van Vogt at his own game with his masterful novel Flight into Yesterday. And given that Harness was a direct influence on Frank Herbert's Dune series, it's fair to say that they are the indirect heirs of van Vogt. Ian Wallace's Croyd series of space operas are written very much in the mold of van Vogt. Clearly Marvel comics borrowed heavily from both Slan, for their X-Men title, and The War Against the Rull for their alien Skrull. And the movie Alien takes its plot from one of his early stories, a fact that resulted in a successful lawsuit against the filmmakers.

van Vogt's influence even extends around the globe. Keiko Takemiya's 1977 manga, Terra e... (地球へ…), recently made into an impressive anime series, is an homage to Slan, building on many of the novels elements. Perhaps the most surprising, and most overlooked, indication of van Vogt's influence can be seen in Jean-Luc Godard's film Alphaville, which can be viewed as a reply to The Worlds of Null-A. In the film the protagonist, Lemmy Caution, is taken to the Institute of General Semantics, the same organization that dominates van Vogt's novel. But for Godard, van Vogt's vision of a logical, computer controlled society is a place of dehumanizing existential dread. Here the characters are redeemed not by superhuman powers but by human emotion.

And so van Vogt, despite his foibles and shortcomings, remains one of the legends of the Golden Age and serves as a reminder that, when it comes to science fiction, man can become superman.

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