Notes on the Writings of A. E. van Vogt

The Novels of A. E. van Vogt

Most of van Vogt's novels are in fact fix-ups (a term which he seems to have coined himself) composed of very different short stories. Since often these stories originally had no relationship with each other-even different protagonists, this can lead to some pretty strange "novels". Novels without plots or character and of which the reader cannot even define the subject matter, make for some pretty wild reading. Indeed it is difficult to imagine any rule of novel writing which van Vogt has not violated at some time or other. His novels don't have "plots" in the usual sense of the word. It is impossible to give summaries of his books and this is highly unusual in a commercial genre which insisted on the virtues of strong plotting often on formulaic lines. Pulp magazine editors usually had a strong sense of plot (if often little else). Moreover van Vogt, while not an intellectual in the conventional sense of the word, is a very cerebral and reflexive sort of writer, quite open about his extraordinary writing techniques.

Van Vogt writes his stories in 800 word scenes, each one adding a new plot twist, each one posing an additional puzzle to his readers. This is what Blish has termed "the extensively recomplicated SF story". Moreover van Vogt would willingly interrupt his sleep to dream his way through a story. Hence the frenzied, automatic character of his most powerful fiction and perhaps also, the well-nigh incomprehensible psychology of his characters, who behave in mechanical, often unbelievable ways, impervious to either sense or reason. His amnesiac heroes, who don't know who they are, whose minds are "blank" (a typical van vogtian expression), hardly lend themselves to character analysis.

First period (1940-1950)

All of the core material of the following was originally published in the forties; the dates, some quite late, only indicate that of the first publication as a fix-up novel. (the dates given are of those first publication-in some cases these were originally published as magazine serials.)

"...his first fine careless rapture...that mixture of kookie science...with lyric excitement."
Brian W. Aldiss

Slan (1940) This garish "unknown superman" tale, with its child hero and persecuted telepathic mutants made quite a splash in the pages of "Astounding" when first published. The astonishing plot reversals livened up an otherwise rather sentimental tale of wish fulfillment. Van Vogt's most popular title in the U.S.A.

The Weapon Makers (1943) -vt title- One Against Eternity This is actually a conclusion (?) to the "weapons shop" series: Star travel, telepathy, immortality, super intelligence, time travel, weird planets, cruel but beautiful Empresses, intelligent alien spiders and the most enigmatic last line in all of SF. Not for the faint hearted.

The Book of Ptath (1943)-vt title- Two Hundred Million A.D. Demented, spectacular, pulp adventure. The hero, a reincarnated american soldier, has forgotten that he is "really" the god Ptath, omnipotent ruler of the eighty billion humans of a far future earth, tricked out of his throne by the beautiful but cruel golden haired goddess Inelda, one his rebellious wives. Millions die before domestic matters are set right, as the gods battle for Earth.

The World of A (1945)-vt title- The World of Null-A I'll admit to not having understood what this one was all about. The hero has two brains; is killed, repeatedly; and discovers that his enemy, the ruler of the solar system, is an older version of himself. There are chapter headings by Bertrand Russell and Alfred Korzybski which are meant to lend an air of profundity to the proceedings, which are much concerned with "non-aristotelian modes of thought". This is the best selling of all SF novels ever published in french.

The Players of A (1948)-vt title-The Pawns of Null-A The two-brained superman hero still doesn't know who he really is, but that doesn't prevent him from saving the galaxy. Breathless, mind-boggling, pulp adventure. Some find it "even better" than its predecessor.

The Wizard of Linn (1950) A sequel to The Empire of the Atom (see below), culmination of the "Clane" stories. An "Astounding" serial, van Vogt's last contribution to Campbell's magazine, this one is pretty conventional by van vogtian standards. More mutants, superweapons, swordplay and well-nigh incomprehensible super-sciences.

The Voyage of the Space Beagle fix-up (1950) Nightmarish space adventure as a great starship explores the Universe and encounters a succession of hideously implacable alien monsters. Various super sciences are brought into play by the crew, when they are not quarrelling among themselves. It is composed with some of the master's earliest stories.

The Weapon Shops of Isher fix-up (1951) Probably van Vogt's most succesful fix-up, this one is based on some of his earliest and best stories. It should precede (embrace?) The Weapon Makers: Time paradoxes, glittering future cities, the birth of the solar system, revolutionaries, cruel but beautiful Empresses, invulnerable weapons and much incomprehensible politics. Just more of the usual van Vogt madness.

The Mixed Men fix-up (1952) -vt title-Mission to the Stars Extravagant galactic adventures with centaur races and cosmic storms, gigantic star fleets and noble ladies, super intelligences and variant human races. Based on "Astounding" material of the early forties. Aldiss much admires "The Storm", one of its constituent novellas.

The Universe Makers fix-up (1953) Based on a 1949 "Startling Stories" short novel The Shadow Men. Despite some strong imagery and some problems of cosmic importance, it has little of the compulsive quality of the previous titles. There are no cruel but beautiful Empresses, instead there is just some feeble near future extrapolation, which really spoils it.

Planets For Sale fix-up (1954) Beware, despite the title page this is not by van Vogt but a fix-up of minor stories by his wife, E. Mayne Hull.

Empire of the Atom fix-up (1956) Should precede The Wizard of Linn. Unusually coherent stuff by van Vogtian standards, based on material published ten years previously. Dark and atmospheric palace intrigue on a decadent future Earth, set after atomic wars: Mutant Emperors, beautiful but cruel Empresses, scientific priestcraft, failing technologies and barbarian swordplay. At the time accused of being derivative of Robert Graves' Claudius books, this was actually quite influential. Frank Herbert's Dune is only one of its most obvious descendents.

The War Against the Rull fix-up (1959) More implacable shape-changing alien monsters get their comeuppance from the human race and minor allies during a galactic war.

Siege of the Unseen fix-up (1959) Bizarre tale of parallel universes and third eyes (with "spicy" pulpish romantic interest to boot! Yes, those were innocent days.) based on earlier "Astounding" material.

Earth's Last Fortress fix-up (1960) A mildly intriguing 1942 short story about time wars is bloated beyond acceptable limits. There is a tawdry romantic sub-plot: the heroine is named "Norma", which says it all.

The Beast fix-up (1963) -vt title-Moonbeast I'm sorry but I haven't quite been able to figure this one out yet. There is time-travel, fabulous machines, ancient lunar civilizations, million year old neanderthals(!?!), evil Germans, presidential amazons, bigamy and much much silliness.

Rogue Ship fix-up (1965) Rather dull tale of a generation starship, with conflict among the crew, who behave with amazing stupidity; van Vogt is running out of old material, most of it is therefore new.

Quest for the Future fix-up (1970) Some of van Vogt's best (and unrelated!) thirty year old stories go into this one: ("Far Centaurus" and "Film Library"), but despite the excellence of the original pieces, it does not quite come off. In this case the whole is definitely not greater than the parts.


Second period

-post 1950, only a few representative titles are listed here. Just about everyone recognizes a loss of creative drive.

The Violent Man (1962) Van Vogt's ambitious effort at a psychological novel. It is not SF. A long, grim story of evil communist chinese brainwashing techniques and heroic american airmen. Very much of a period piece. Colin Wilson much admires this(!?!)

The Silkie fix-up (1969) A curiosity. This was assembled from material originally published in "If" magazine during the sixties; it marked the author's return to SF after a long absence. Implacable Shape-Changing All-Powerful Far-Future Super-Humans with Advanced-Brains. Pretty wild, but it does not engage the mind.

The Battle of Forever (1971) Some consider this the best of van Vogt's later efforts. Rather strained galactic adventure, featuring unfriendly alien monsters and a decadent far future Earth.

Null-A Three (1985) I've never read this belated sequel, but from all accounts it adds little to the canon.


Short story collections

This is probably the best way to encounter van Vogt. The earlier collections are also his strongest. They contained much material that was later "fixed-up" to longer lengths.

Away and Beyond (1952) Vintage van Vogt, with some notable stories, like:

"The Vault of the Beast" (1940) An implacable shape changing alien monster from Mars is defeated by a flight of van vogtian super mathematics.
"The Harmonizer" (1944) A stapledonian vignette which compresses eighty million years in a few pages.
"Film Library" (1946) A particularly vivid "hard SF" dream which is not about anything but itself.

Destination Universe (1952) Another strong collection from his best years. Notably:

"Far Centaurus" (1944) A vivid, almost hallucinatory tale of suspended animation on a starship voyage.
"The Monster" (1948) A fine tale of a far future Earth invaded by alien monsters who evoke specters from the long departed human race.
"Dormant" (1948) The U.S. Navy unwittingly wakes up an alien monster who proceeds to blow the Earth into the sun. Marvelous, cosmic stuff.
"The Enchanted Village" (1950) An ironic martian adventure of the first man on Mars.
"The Search" (1943) A mystery solved by effortless dream-logic. There is a hallucinatory quality to this tale which defies description.

A.E. van Vogt's Monsters (1965) A good choice of van Vogt's stories by his agent and friend, the irrepressible Forrest J. Ackerman; however there is much overlap with the two previous collections.

The Far-out Worlds of A.E. van Vogt (1968) There are some fine stories in this collection, but some dross also. It is a mixture of uncollected old stories and a few newer ones.

"Process" (1950) A well written(!), almost stapledonian story of vegetable intelligence struggling for planetary mastery, stands out.

More Than Superhuman (1971) A collection of the new van Vogt which pales beside the older collections.

The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind Benders (1971) A few minor older stories left over from the previous collections plus some new stuff which doesn't really add to the authors' reputation.

M-33 in Andromeda (1971) A collection of old stories, two of which were "fixed-up" in the Voyage of the Space Beagle

"The Weapon Shop" (1942) One of van Vogt's strangest and most famous tales which furnished the basis for his Weapons' series.

The Book of van Vogt (1972) An uneasy mixture of old and new stories. The new ones are not up to the standard of the older ones.

The Worlds of A. E. van Vogt (1974) This is basically an expansion of the Far-out Worlds of A. E. van Vogt, with three additional stories including "the Storm" (1943).

The Best of A.E. van Vogt (1976) Despite the title, this is not the best of van Vogt or even a very good collection. It is a mixture of fact and fiction, not all of which is SF. Most of the material was recent and had never seen publication before. The intercalary material is interesting for the comments of the author on his craft.

Reflexions of A. E. van Vogt (1975) A short if informative autobiography. Van Vogt is a very strange man indeed.


"Ah, careless, rapturous van Vogt!" - Barry N. Malzberg

copyright 1998 Marc-André Brie


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