The ZONE genre worldwide books movies
the Last Word in
Science Fiction
magazines online
 
 
critical articles, interviews, author profiles, retro lists, genre essays, incisive media reviews

Oh, the Humanity of A.E. van Vogt's Monsters:
Reorienting Critics and Readers to the van Vogt Method 

by Trent Walters

The influence of Alfred Elton van Vogt (1912 - 2000) has diminished since its zenith in the late 1940s when the fan community ranked him as high or higher than Heinlein, and when fans coined the phrase 'Fans are Slans' to identify themselves with the advanced yet ostracised next-stage humans in van Vogt's first novel, Slan (1946). His fix-up (stories pieced into a novel), The Voyage Of The Space Beagle (1950), later inspired the original Star Trek series and the movie Alien. In the 1950s, however, van Vogt's popularity began to wane through, according to Algis Budrys; Damon Knight's building a reputation upon the "destruction of A.E. van Vogt." The criticisms hit home. Although his novel The World of Null-A (1948), the first hardcover science fiction novel, had popularised 'General Semantics' and created a market for science fiction in France, Knight's criticism haunted the back of van Vogt's consciousness until he revised it in 1970.
A.E. van Vogt, in 1961
A.E. van Vogt (in 1961)
   The criticism of pseudo-science, formlessness of "Kitchen Sink Technique" or 'recomplication' in plotting, and plastic characters did not entirely lack validity, but as James Gunn notes in his anthology The Road To Science Fiction #2: From Wells To Heinlein (1979), such criticism "fails to come to grips with van Vogt's basic appeal. Van Vogt's stories dealt not with logic or scientific possibilities so much as archetypes, wish fulfilment and fairy tales." Dealing with these criticisms singly, we see the validity and the failing to come to grips that Gunn mentions.
   First, van Vogt's pseudo-science is a double-edged sword. Science fantasy allows elbowroom for imaginative fudging and little white lies as in Far Centaurus (collected in Destination Universe!, 1952) where a drug puts a man to sleep on a generation starship until he needs to wake up without ageing him or using cryogenics - another science fantasy as yet, though at room temperature molecules surely bounce around at the same rate. Maybe this drug slows down molecular speeds but isn't that the same thing as cryogenics? Not knowing how this hocus-pocus potion works allows the science fantasy genre safe passage past our doubts; however, can science fantasy propose that suns have planets in order to balance out mass, so that, if one approached too close to a sun without planets, it would hurl one conveniently back in time within a month of where and when one launched his starship from Earth? On the other hand, readers do not choose science fantasy for the latest in techno-jargon and gee-whiz ideas. Van Vogt relies more heavily on plotting and character than scientific veracity. Arthur C. Clarke, A.E. van Vogt is not.
   Van Vogt's first plotting technique was the 'fictional sentence.' For the first story he sold, a true confessional, he made every sentence ring with an emotion. For science fiction, he wanted critics and readers to read every sentence and use their imagination to fill the sentence in, leaving at least one - what he called - 'hang-up' per sentence. The hang-up did not yield all there was to know about the subject, forcing the reader on to the next sentence, then the next and so on. He quotes his early science fiction story Vault Of The Beast (sold to Astounding, and collected in Away And Beyond, 1952) for one of his most famous examples (note, too, how ideas are expanded upon from paragraph to paragraph until the final revelation upon which the story hangs):

"The creature crept. It whimpered from fear and pain. Shapeless, formless thing yet changing shape and form with every jerky movement, it crept along the corridor of the space freighter, fighting the terrible urge of its elements to take the shape of its surroundings. A grey blob of disintegrating stuff, it crept and cascaded, it rolled, flowed, and dissolved, every movement an agony of struggle against the abnormal need to become a stable shape. Any shape! The hard, chilled-blue metal wall of the Earth bound freighter, the thick, rubbery floor. The floor was easy to fight. It wasn't like the metal that pulled and pulled. It would be easy to become metal for all eternity.
   "But something prevented. An implanted purpose. A purpose that drummed from electron to electron, vibrated from atom to atom with an unvarying intensity that was like a special pain: Find the greatest mathematical mind in the solar system, and bring it to the vault of the Martian ultimate metal. The Great One must be freed. The prime number time lock must be opened!"

His second and best known yet least-understood plotting technique was what Knight termed, 'the Kitchen Sink Technique' or the more often repeated 'recomplicated' coined by James Blish. Here van Vogt introduced a new idea every 800 words. 'New' is the key term that tripped up critics. 'New' does not mean a complete change of events, rather, a new revelation of old ideas, a further unravelling of the plot. This was simply his way of insuring that the plot was going somewhere - a technique that contemporary writers might take note of. James Gunn in his book on writing, The Science Of Science Fiction Writing (2000), probably explains the technique best by ascribing these 800 words as a scene:

"..each [scene] represents an attempt to solve the [story's] problem and a step on the way to changing the protagonist into someone who can deal with the problem (or fail definitively... in fiction, as in life, we learn only through failure, or the lessons we learn through failure are clearer and more to be trusted - and certainly more dramatic - than the lessons we learn through success)."

In examining van Vogt's landmark The Weapon Shops Of Isher (1951), a portion of which was collected in The Science Fiction Hall Of Fame, one finds the prologue conveniently divided up into 800 word scenes for dissection purposes. The first 'scene', however, should be thought of in two 800-word parts, the ideas of which are subdivided into A and B:

1.  A. McAllister, a reporter from 1951, can enter a gun shop that magically appeared superimposed upon another building in the street. Only he, and not the police officer, is allowed inside.  B. He meets a girl who tries to sell him a gun and who speaks of a mysterious 'her', but who decides something is wrong with McAllister when she discovers her present date bears no relation to McAllister's own 1951.

2.  She states that McAllister's presence represents a potential and potent energy: time.

3.  The villainous 'her' she mentioned is the Empress of Isher, who could send her soldiers to attack the weapon shops with their most powerful cannon at point blank range which would kill both parties. This new time energy, however, can eliminate the Empress' troubles. The weapon shop girl's father, and a 32 member council, step out of a wall that had also changed into a mirror, then a window to view the future. They plan to coerce McAllister to their aid.

4.  McAllister is to become a lever ("if you had a lever long enough and a suitable fulcrum, you could move the Earth out of its orbit") to move the weapon shop.

5.  He is forced to wear an insulated suit to contain his potential energy. The daughter convinces them to hypnotise McAllister first so he'll have self-control.

As the reader can see, at the height of van Vogt's form, one 'new' idea flows seamlessly into the next, so how can critics like David Hartwell today still maintain that "[his] fiction is... often presented in dreamlike sequence, not a rational flow?" Hartwell may have derived this comment from three sources:

1. scene transitions without a page break;

2. an interview in which van Vogt describes his method of sleeping on story problems until he came up with a solution; however, this was a manifestation of works after he learned to speed up the amount of time he spent writing instead of worrying over the next scene; or

3. an otherwise astute commentary from John Clute in the invaluable The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction (1993): "sudden shifts of perspective and rationale and scale are seen as analogous to the movements of a dream."
A.E. van Vogt van Vogt with wife Lydia, photo by Keith Stokes, 1996 van Vogt receives Nebula Grandmaster award from Harlan Ellison, 1995, photo by Stan Burns
It may be that these shifts or recomplication is not what had troubled critics at all. In fact, if a novel like The World Of Null-A were based on new ideas every 800 words to the confusion of readers, how could Knight rescind his earlier criticisms (in 'The Dissecting Table', Worlds Beyond, February 1951) without van Vogt employing a major overhaul of the manuscript's primary structures? More probable is that van Vogt's hang-up technique hung his critics up but not his fans in much the same way that John Ashbery puzzled over how the average reader accepted his poetry when educated readers could not. The average reader expects evidence explained sooner or later while critics get frustrated. Evidence of this can be seen in a short story like Defense (collected in Destination Universe!) where it takes a few moments to register that the moon has launched an attack on Earth. For The World Of Null-A, Campbell advised a handful of perplexed readers to wait a few days for the implications to sink in. In The Vault Of The Beast, the main character seems to disappear momentarily if the reader has forgotten that it can read minds - the pivotal point implied in the story. The final example is found in Slan: Kathleen runs down a corridor, considers the sleeping habits of the palace, and the next mention of her physical position is in bed.
   Three ways of viewing such hang-ups arise, affecting the amount of pleasure a reader derives from a van Vogt tale:

1. flawed, where van Vogt relies too heavily on mystery without foreshadowing, an inferior form of suspense according to Rust Hills in his Writing In General And The Short Story In Particular (revised edition, 1987);

2. fluid, or Hartwell's dream-sequencing, where the reader simply accepts where the author leads him; or

3. artful, where the reader allows the van Vogt transitions to speak to the subconscious instead of expecting every transition to be spelled out explicitly. The latter view is not unlikely since van Vogt also used the sound of language to conjure mood subconsciously. Like all good poets, van Vogt allows his advanced readers to work for their pleasure. But unlike poets he is unwilling to exclude readers who happened to miss the implication, explaining the dénouement without hampering the narrative.

The plastic nature of van Vogt's characters presents the most difficulty if not examined in the proper light. For example, one may choose to identify Jim Brender as the protagonist in Vault Of The Beast, but Brender, however, is a little less than what Gunn refers to as archetype, bordering on the stereotype of the can-do all-American hero. There is nothing wrong with the 'can-do' attitude, exemplified in early science fiction and in Walt Whitman's work, accounting perhaps for much of the America's success. The problem comes when can-do becomes can-do-no-wrong, the point at which the archetype becomes the plastic stereotype.
   The round or dynamic character must struggle with right and wrong. Through the ages, the main character fights the good fight. In Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men, George battles killing his friend and dream, Lennie. In Shakespeare's MacBeth, MacBeth contemplates getting away with murder even after the murder is committed. In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Oedipus runs from a bitter fate only to run into it. In each, the main character is doing something actively to fight the good (or bad, in the case of MacBeth) fight of life. Jim Brender, however, is acted upon. Even when he acts, the viewpoint character - the 'it' quoted above or the monster - using the term 'monster' delineates from aliens since humans, as in Automaton (collected in The Worlds Of A.E. van Vogt, 1968) can be monsters, too - overshadows Brender's inner turmoil. This makes van Vogt's work most unusual. The 'monsters' are often more dynamic and human than his humans (interestingly this phenomenon still occurs today as with Kirsten Bakis' Bram Stoker award-winning Lives Of The Monster Dogs where her dogs feel more real than her humans), setting the reader up for an intriguing dilemma: do you root for the human protagonist or the humane non-human who, though bent on human destruction, struggles moment to moment to make the right choices?
   Even in the brief quote above, the reader can feel the monster's struggle. It isn't a common struggle for humans, but self-identity is, and to do always as your boss commands is. If human Jim Brender ends up on Mars by doing nothing and accepting his fate, he is not a dynamic character and, therefore, not the focus of the story (nor does his action influence the climax of the story).
   Likewise, in Dormant, to find one's mission in life and to accomplish it attracts a reader's devotion more than a ship's captain who is simply trying to understand what kind of monster he's dealing with (a monster/alien worthy of the mantle in Hal Clement's wildly speculative yet wholly credible aliens) and a ship's captain who has no real investment in the story's outcome. No one wants to see humanity destroyed - at least no sane human - but that's the whole dilemma behind van Vogt's accomplishment, creating a change within the reader to see outside the self: here is a self physically unlike myself but thinks more like I do. Of course, as all stories are, this is a construct. Most humans are dynamic with inner turmoil, but it is van Vogt's emphasis that guides the reader to his point. Yes, science fiction writers try to get the reader to look outside the self - the major attribute setting science fiction apart from other literatures - but not with the same impact of van Vogt's dilemma, torn between what looks human and what acts human.
   This dilemma is most creatively applied to Automaton. The story opens with our hero's plane being shot down behind enemy lines, listening to the enemy curse their luck for not getting him, so our hero immediately gains our sympathy. But as we listen in on the enemy's conversation, we learn to switch alliances, learn that our hero is a monster, an enemy of humanity owing to the brainwashing of the Tobors or robots, an enemy struggling to become human once more. The Tobors themselves don't qualify for van Vogt's dynamic monsters since their two or three representatives here are mostly bumbling, babbling.
   Every major writer has at least one masterwork - a work of authorial perfection that should transcend the passage of time. Process, from a December 1950 issue of The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction subsequently reprinted half a dozen times (two of which were the year's best anthologies) and collected in The Worlds Of A.E. van Vogt), is one of van Vogt's masterworks - a brief short story as good or better than any story 20 years its junior and at 20 times its length. A sentient forest fights other forests by building a hedge around itself, flanked by enemy forests on all sides. A spaceship lands, and our monster forest attacks with vines and fast growing trees. The ship burns up the greenery. The forest tries to subvert the fire (as it has in old encounters with lightning) by diverting sap to the fire. It doesn't work. The forest, therefore, resorts to desperate measures and uses its roots to root up uranium, sucking it up (which, it vaguely remembers, was how it had the ship flee before). The ship scoops up the uranium and 'flees'. The uranium still on the ground mushrooms skyward giving the forest the idea to attack its neighbour, which it conquers easily. Meanwhile, knowledge of what's happening leaks through the roots to the other neighbour that roots up uranium of its own. They're at a stalemate again - a beautiful, near-allegory for the cold war with an incredible untrustworthy narrator, the kind of narrator the reader knows more about than the narrator itself.
   Despite harsh criticism that has obscured his popularity, these analyses testify to van Vogt's permanence as an author not to be forgotten among the genre greats. His techniques have much to offer the reader, the writer, and the academic throughout the 21st century.

home  articles  profiles  interviews  essays  books  movies  competitions  guidelines  issues  links  archives  contributors  email
copyright © 2001 - 2002 Pigasus Press