You hear people talking about a “classic” author as if he were the best thing ever. But you’re unnaturally skeptical, because you already “know” all the big time grandmasters. And you “know” that after Dune and Foundation and Starship Troopers there’s just not going to be much else from the bad old days that really registers at that level. You see bloggers you read regularly talk of his stories with an almost giddy degree of excitement. But you just. Can’t. Believe it.
Given that that’s your inevitable frame of mind, let me just present you with the opening of one of van Vogt’s most famous stories:
On and on Coeurl prowled. The black, moonless, almost starless night yielded reluctantly before a grim reddish dawn that crept up from his left. It was a vague light that gave no sense of approaching warmth. It slowly revealed a nightmare landscape.
Jagged black rock and a black, lifeless plain took form around him. A pale red sun peered above the grotesque horizon. Fingers of light probed among the shadows. And still there was no sign of the family of id creatures that he had been trailing now for nearly a hundred days.
He stopped finally, chilled by the reality. His great forelegs twitched with a shuddering movement that arched every razor-sharp claw. The thick tentacles that grew from his shoulders undulated tautly. He twisted his great cat head from side to side, while the hairlike tendrils that formed each ear vibrated frantically, testing every vagrant breeze, every throb in the ether.
There was no response. He felt no swift tingling along his intricate nervous system. There was no suggestion anywhere of the presence of the id creatures, his only source of food on this desolate planet. Hopelessly, Coeurl crouched, an enormous catlike figure silhouetted against the dim, reddish skyline, like a distorted etching of a black tiger in a shadow world.
What did you just read…?
The first appearance of the first edition AD&D game’s Displacer Beast. That’s right. The same game designers that pillaged the old John Carter planetary romances for White Apes and Sterling Lanier’s mutant future novels for Green Slimes were also “borrowing” from Campbellian science fiction as well. But it wasn’t the classic “hard” science fiction writers that are still on the shelf at your local big box book store today. No, it was this other guy that, like Edgar Rice Burroughs, has been weirdly airbrushed out of the science fiction and fantasy narrative.
How good is he…? Well let me tell you. I’ve read countless descriptions of imaginary worlds for use in Traveller-like space games. Very few of them give me that “I’ve totally gotta play this” feeling. Insane pulp free-for-alls like Barsoom or the Planet of Adventure have such a lock on this, very few of the more “realistic” settings can compete. But this one can. If you are looking to run a First In scenario set in the Zhodani core expeditions, you will definitely want to check this out.
The heavy? In my opinion you have something here on par with Khan Noonien Singh. This is one of the great science fiction adversaries of all time– and the stats in your copy of the Monster Manual just don’t do this justice. The science for his various superpowers is all there. But at the same time, he manages to pull off a very believable rendition of the kind of pulpy monstrosities the classic crew of the Starship Enterprise was liable to encounter.
Now… if you’re on the prowl for literary antecedents to the sort of pulse pounding action you see on the old Star Trek episodes, then you’re actually going to want to pass on this. There is no stereotypical square-jawed hero here. There’s no mind-blowingly good looking space princess. In fact, what you do have is as far from that as is aesthetically possible. Nobody gets their shirt ripped off in a brawl. Nobody even throws a punch.
See, the Space Beagle has an all-male crew. The “hero” of the story isn’t really the Hari Seldon-like Elliot Grosvenor. Granted, the guy has a knack for navigating the tedious and byzantine bureaucracy that encysts almost any sufficiently complex STEM-related activity. But the real “star” here is Nexialism, a sort of meta-science that allows this guy to be way more insightful than the stodgy and blinkered scientists of his space collective.
I’m sure that this seemed like a really good idea at the time. And the resolution here is way more developed than the typical “reverse the polarity” and “re-route a phase inducer” tricks of science fiction television. But really smart guys thinking their ways out of difficult problems is only ever going to be just so compelling. Nevertheless, the heavy and the setting do manage to overcome this inherent weakness of the unrestrained Campbellian ethos. van Vogt really was a grandmaster. And this book should be required reading for anyone that calls himself a science fiction fan.
So check it out!!!
“And this book should be required reading for anyone that calls himself a science fiction fan.”
Amen! Preach it, brother!
Since Star Saint is in the public domain, I may rewrite it starring a displacer beast.
A displace beast has heard the colony’s troubles and is on its way to solve them.
The women of the colony fawn all over the displace beast.
When the displacer beast has finished what it came to do, the protagonist resigns himself to the fact that it’s probably for the best that the displacer beast has sired a child with his wife.
Since A Connecticut Yankee is in the public domain, I may rewrite it as A California Progressive in King James’ Star Chamber, or perhaps An Oregon Wiccan in Queen Isabella’s Court
It’s always a temptation to go back to “progressive” classics and inject some reality in them for the lolz. Then again, other than the Commie Manifesto, progressives don’t hold much that is old enough to be PD sacred — if they even know such works exist — so the transgression/outrage factor would be a bit low. A rewrite of the Harry Potters using common sense and real world socio-sexual dynamics would be a blast.
Interesting timing on your post. I just picked up a copy of Space Beagle at a thrift store – and was extremely pleased to find something on the shelf that wasn’t Nora Roberts/JD Robb/James Patterson/Danielle Steel. It’s just jumped to next on the TBR pile after I finish my A. Merritt binge.
“As for monsters in online games, the Displacer beasts I ripped off from the novel, Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle…if I recall rightly. That was one of the monsters in there – they sucked out something from humans with their tentacles, I don’t remember!”
– Gary Gygax
Yep, that’s where the displacer beast came from. A pity Damon Knight ran ol’ van Vogt out of SF.
In regard to Knight, I echo the the old battle-cry of the Constantinopolitan mob:
“Dig up his bones!”
Van Vogt was a Merritt fan.
Don’t forget Ixtl! Precursor of the Xenomorphs, but with a more awesome origin story.
Van Vogt was actually recruited to write for ST:TOS, but it didn’t work out. The things that might have been…
Van Vogt was rather influenced by Korzybski. Nexialism was clearly mostly Korzybski, but also system theory of Bertalanffy, cybernetics, perhaps even a bit of Gregory Bateson. And also Spengler, who is rather obviously alluded to in the Black Destroyer.
Those influences are more visible in non-fictional works of his friend Colin Wilson.
Korzybski was one of the last followers of the anti-Newton faction of Leibniz (Korzybski’s Non-Aristotelian thinking is actually Non-Newtonian; he knew that to gain popularity he had to hide his allegiance).
After Korzybski the Leibnizian faction was represented by LaRouche, but he was an outright cult leader.
BTW there are two interesting parallel books by Colin Wilson and Van Vogt – Space Vampires and Supermind, two variations on the same theme.
“And also Spengler, who is rather obviously alluded to in the Black Destroyer.”
Well that would explain the memory holing of Van Vogt out of Campbell’s Big Three.
Any SFF that did not cow tow to the progressive view of history was generally ridiculed, slandered and/or “forgotten.
Funny enough “The Black Destroyer” was first printed in the July 1939 issue of Astounding. The same issue that printed Asimov’s “Trends”.
If he saw the same Spengler allusion that you did, which i am sure he did, he must have seethed with indignation.
Made worse by “The Black Destroyer” getting the cover art and first billing above “Trends”.
Note: “Trends” is a dystopian yarn about how “ignorant” Christians in the future put an end to scientific progress.
“Take a look, all of you, at that majestic skyline. Notice the almost Gothic outline of the architecture. In spite of the megalopolis which they created, these people were close to the soil. The buildings are not simply ornamented. They are ornamental in themselves. Here is the equivalent of the Done column, the Egyptian pyramid, the Gothic cathedral, growing out of the ground, earnest, big with destiny. If this lonely, desolate world can be regarded as a mother earth, then the land had a warm, a spiritual place in the hearts of the race.
“The effect is emphasized by the winding streets. Their machines prove they were mathematicians, but they were artists first; and so they did not create the geometrically designed cities of the ultra-sophisticated world metropolis. (…) there is no record of a culture entering abruptly into the period of contending states. It is always a siow development; and the first step is a merciless questioning of all that was once held sacred. Inner certainties cease to exist, are dissolved before the ruthless probings of scientific and analytic minds. The skeptic becomes the highest type of being.”
This is pure Spengler, in fact – barely digested Spengler.
But really smart guys thinking their ways out of difficult problems is only ever going to be just so compelling.
We’ve reached the point where tastes differ. Congratulations, you dislike the traditional Agatha Christie style mystery (I’m not even mentioning sci-fi here – obviously I’m a huge “I, Robot” fan and that’s more or less the conceit of those stories).
Popularity would tend to indicate that this is not necessarily a measure of objective quality. I hear Agatha Christie sold rather well.
I LOVE smart guys thinking their ways out of difficult problems when it’s done right. But it too seldom is. It’s harder to right, I think, than a nice spot of face punching.
It’s all in how you define “difficult problem”.
When I read a story about how a guy avoided going to his Mother-in-Law’s retirement party, and then I follow it up with Hound of the Baskervilles or The Porloined Letter, I can’t help but think that the guy in the first story isn’t on the same intellectual level as Doyle or Poe.
Poul Anderson could nail that basically every time. His smart guys are a blast to read about. Asimov…not so much.
Interesting column by Resnick and Malzberg where they discuss Van Vogt about halfway down. Mainly, they say he was great, but spawned many terrible imitators (without naming names). Also, Van Vogt tried to put in a new idea every 800 words. Dialogue #11 if the link doesn’t work
Resnick is the gift that keeps on giving.
Very funny interview. Those two people are very provincial. Here they are, trying to write “serious sf” and to be taken seriously by the New York Literary Establishment, and such a Van Vogt is writing some unscientific crap as SF and compromising them utterly by association.
The fact is, Van Vogt was more or less keeping up with the intellectual work of his time, while Resnick was reading Western and crime novels. “Van Vogt’s malarkey was extraordinary; he was able to find the kid in all of us and the non-science he made up page by page may have been utter nonsense (“this is the race which will rule the Sevagram”) but had that kind of compelling, hypnoagogic quality of induced awe characteristic of dreams.”
Van Vogt was making up very little; he was quoting, sometimes literally. But poor Resnick, who never read anything, had no chance to find it out.
But the Shaver affair! That is the best! Here they are trying to be Serious Writers, and Shaver is outselling them. And how: “in an era where Astounding was selling 50,000 copies an issue, the mid-to-late-forties Amazing was selling 200,000. These figures were never equaled. They were extraordinary.”
And some of the most popular writers in that magazine (eg Alexander Blade) were Shaver.
And the fact is, his fiction is schizophrenic – in a clinical sense. It has all the typical aspects of a letter from a schizophrenic complaining about his neighbour sendind rays which force him to do things, but transformed into a whole consistent SF world. And it is done very well.
” This is one of the great science fiction adversaries of all time”
Van Vogt has one even more impressive. Read his short story ‘The Monster’next.
At least one world famous sf writer called that tale a life changing experience. I go not so far, but the parallel and contrast with the Coeurl are thought provoking.
Well. I might as well pick it up for after An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity. I’ve only read the Null-A books that proceeded Null-A Continuum, but darned if they weren’t amazing.
This critter, this giant-cat-with feelers design, is in the Final Fantasy series without even being called by a new name.
Pretty shameless, perhaps; but it makes you wonder where today’s crop of popular monster designs actually come from. It also reinforces my burgeoning belief that Japan has not forgotten the SF canon the way the progressive west has. I wonder if there is any way to find out what the influence of across-the-seas writing actually had there. What stuff got printed in Japan.
And is it still remembered, or has it been forgotten?
Final Fantasy started in the ‘eighties, so its designers were old enough to have cut their teeth on the pre-watershed stuff anyway. Perhaps it isn’t a cause for too much hope that some folks in another country obviously were familiar with this stuff, any more than it is that AD&D designers were, if the new generation is just as clueless as they are here.