Science-fiction writer A.E. van Vogt would have turned 100 last month. He coined the term fix-up, to describe a novel made up of previously published short stories, and so Ted Gioia describes him as the fix-up artist:
He wrote a guide to hypnotism, published in 1956, and his fiction frequently features characters who use forms of mind control to exert their will on others. I suspect that this incessant quest for a superior system led van Vogt to join forces with L. Ron Hubbard. When Hubbard’s Dianetics, a memory auditing technique with pretensions to scientific rigor, evolved into the Church of Scientology, van Vogt refused to participate in the new venture, unhappy with its mysticism and religious trappings. Yet he continued to operate a Dianetics Center until 1961.
Van Vogt’s heroes usually have some superior philosophical system or mental framework that gives them an edge in their dealings with others. In 1948′s The World of Null-A, Gilbert Gosseyn (read: “go sane”) renounces Aristotelian logic in favor of Alfred Korzybski’s theory of general semantics. In The Voyage of the Space Beagle, Dr. Eliott Grosvenor repeatedly outwits his fellow astronauts by applying the science of Nexialism, a method for integrating different disciplines into a holistic view. Nat Cemp, in the 1969 fix-up The Silkie, relies on the similarly arcane “Logic of Levels.” At times, van Vogt seems to forget he is telling a story, and adopts the shrill tone of a huckster delivering a recruitment pitch. But the fervor of his delivery, and van Vogt’s skill — no doubt tested in his non-literary endeavors — for hinting at dazzling revelations known only to initiates, impart a unique flavor to his stories. Reading them, you feel like you’ve been handed some inside information, akin to a hot stock tip or sure-fire bet at the racetrack.
In 1939, van Vogt published his first science fiction story, “Black Destroyer,” in the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. This gruesome tale of a monstrous creature who feeds on the “id” of living bodies and attempts to take over a spacecraft was later incorporated into van Vogt’s The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Like the U.S.S. Enterprise, the Space Beagle is on a five-year mission to explore distant worlds and seek out new life forms — although, more often than not, these new life forms actually seek out the crew of the Beagle. (Another van Vogt work, The Mixed Men, includes a description of a space teleportation machine similar to the famous Star Trek transporter.)
Five months later, van Vogt followed up with another space monster story, “Discord in Scarlet” — also incorporated into The Voyage of the Space Beagle — and in 1940 he returned to the theme in “Vault of the Beast.” Even before his thirtieth birthday, van Vogt appeared to have played out his talent, mastering a single type of story but incapable of moving beyond it. “I was in a very dangerous position for a writer,” he later recalled. “I had to break into a new type of story or go down into oblivion as so many other science fiction writers have done.”
The result was Slan, first published in serialized form in Astounding during the closing months of 1940 (and released in book form in 1946). If van Vogt had previously been guilty of relying on just one plot, he now jumped to the other extreme: in Slan, he adopted the frenetic pacing and obsession with cliffhangers and action sequences that would become the trademarks of his mature style — if one dares use the word “mature” to describe an author whose mindset seems trapped in perpetual adolescence. His “is the realism, and logic, of a small boy playing with toy soldiers in a sandbox,” SF writer and critic Darrell Schweitzer has opined. “There is no intersection with adult reality at any point.”
Slan starts as an account of a mutant race that is hunted and killed by a repressive government — a theme with potential to rise above its pulp fiction origins given the historical context. The Nazi regime in Germany was constructing its first death camp in Auschwitz at the same time van Vogt was writing Slan. Indeed, I would like to interpret this novel as a plea for tolerance and non-violence — and certainly there are sufficient clues in the text to justify such a reading. On the other hand, we must balance van Vogt’s clear obsession, both in Slan and his other works, with master races and his obvious fondness for authoritarian, manipulative leaders. If van Vogt had written 1984, Big Brother would have been presented as a dashing hero with movie-star looks, and “newspeak” lauded as a purified conceptual framework for advanced thinkers.
There is heavy irony in the mismatch between van Vogt’s ideology, so hung up on pseudo-philosophical systems, and his plots, which invariably sacrifice logic and coherence in favor of thrills and chills. He followed a strategy of introducing a new twist or complication every 800 words — a method SF author and critic James Blish called recomplication, and which Damon Knight derided as the “Kitchen Sink Technique.” This approach is both exhilarating and frustrating, and has contributed to the sharply polarized critical response to van Vogt. In the words of Brian W. Aldiss, he was a “genuinely inspired madman.” Philip K. Dick, who ardently defended van Vogt against his critics, asserted that he “influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe which is not to be feared.” At the other extreme, we encounter Knight, the leader of the anti-van Vogt faction, who — in an infamous fanzine article entitled “Cosmic Jerrybuilder” — almost singlehandedly torpedoed van Vogt’s reputation by famously proclaiming: “Van Vogt is not a giant as often maintained. He’s only a pygmy using a giant typewriter.”