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Sunday 17 June 2012

The wacky world of A.E. van Vogt

There was a time when the name of A.E. van Vogt would have been instantly recognizable to anyone remotely interested in science fiction. This was in the days before anyone called it sci-fi, and when “science fiction” meant fiction -- not movies or video games or Japanese comics. Van Vogt’s best work was published in the pages of Astounding magazine in the 1940s (as illustrated on the right). Even as late as November 1966, Astounding’s successor Analog magazine published a Reader’s Poll of favourite writers in which van Vogt’s name appeared fourth on the list -- after Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, but ahead of Poul Anderson and H.G. Wells. But since that time, van Vogt’s reputation has plummeted, and if his name is known to SF fans today, it is more likely to be as an example of a “bad” writer than a good one.

One reason for the decline in van Vogt’s reputation is common to many once-popular writers of fiction: his stories focused on plot and ideas, at the expense of the character development and literary style demanded by modern readers. But there is another factor, which is unique to van Vogt and entirely his own doing. When he came to revise his early magazine stories for book publication in the 1950s and 60s, he didn’t just give them a quick polish like other writers. He stitched them together into longer novels, which he referred to as “fix-ups”. In some cases this involved taking two or three completely unrelated stories—unrelated in theme, setting and characters—which worked perfectly in their original form, but are bewilderingly complex and self-contradictory after van Vogt had finished with them.

A few years ago I made a concerted effort to unravel all of van Vogt’s fix-up novels, and this has just been published on the Sevagram site: Unravelling van Vogt's Fix-Up Novels. There’s no doubt that the stories van Vogt produced for Astounding in the 1940s were by far the most imaginative and way-out science fiction of that period... but the problem with being “ahead of your time” is that once the rest of the world has caught up with you, your ideas simply look glib and hackneyed.

Take the well-known (and distinctly Fortean) notion of “Nazis on the Moon”. Nowadays if you type “Nazis” into a Google search, the second suggestion in the auto-complete list is “Nazis on the Moon”... the idea is that hackneyed. But in November 1943, when van Vogt’s story “The Beast” appeared in the pages of Astounding magazine, the idea was brand new. In those days, Nazis weren’t a bizarre joke -- they were breaking news. World War 2 was in full swing, and the Nazi war machine was attempting to take over the civilized world. In 1943 Hitler hadn’t even started firing rockets at London, let alone the Moon.

“The Beast” may qualify as van Vogt’s wackiest story ever. Besides the aforementioned Nazis, the Moon also harbours cowboys from the American West, a sabre-tooth cat, and a sex-mad Neanderthal with a harem of female slaves. Sadly, the story has never been reprinted in its proper form. In 1963 Van Vogt produced a novel called The Beast, which includes a much watered-down version of the original story (minus Nazis), interwoven with another excellent but completely different work from the 1940s called “The Changeling”. For full details of how the stories originally looked and how they were altered, see the full article on the Sevagram site.


Kandinsky said...

Sometime in the past 10 years, I bought one of his books 2nd hand thinking it was Vonnegut. Only after the first 30 or so pages had numbed my will-to-live did I once more look at the cover and realise my mistake.

Bit of a silly moment there...

Undercover Aliens is the book and it is woeful. The cover art is so-so and unattributed.

Andrew May said...

LOL - obviously our tastes are completely different! I thought The Undercover Aliens (aka "The House That Stood Still") was a great read. Apparently van Vogt reworked it later as a soft-porn novel called The Mating Cry -- I'd love to get hold of a copy. But I've never been able to get past the first few pages of a Vonnegut novel... much too heavy going for my simple tastes!