A.E. van Vogt

A.E. van Vogt

A.E. van Vogt, who was born in Canada on this date in 1912 but moved early to Southern California and never left, became a major sf writer with almost his first story and remained so through the rest of the Campbelll revolution.

That first story was “Black Destroyer,” in the July. 1939 issue of Astounding, and it did almost what Stanley G. Weinbaum had done with his first story, “A Martian Odyssey.” It revolutionized science fiction’s treatment of aliens. Weinbaum’s character Tweel had been the first successful attempt to describe an alien creature not merely as a threat to humans but as a character — not human in any way, but with as much personality and individuality as any homo sapiens. Van Vogt completed the process by telling his story from the Black Destroyer’s point of view.

And that was only the beginning. For the next decade Van Vogt was among Campbell’s most prolific contributors, with stories that delighted most of the readers — novels like Slan, The World of Null-A and many more. True, there were some that felt less than delight, perhaps especially sf’s iconoclast-in-chief, Damon Knight. Damon went over some of Van Vogt’s most famous stories, pointing out that they could hardly be called science fiction because Van had not provided any science at all for some of his most important story inventions. He never said what the ten points in ten-point steel measured, only that it became s really steely kind of steel, et cetera.

Not long after the publication of Knight’s review, Van Vogt’s production began to slow down and nearly to stop entirely. By the time I was editing the Galaxy magazines and trying to get a new trail-blazer from Van he was friendly but not productive.

Indeed Van Vogt was not entirely unwilling to use actual science — that is, what he considered science — in his stories. He was deeply attached to many of the principles set forth by Alfred Korzybski, and even more so to the “scientific” work described as “the Bates eye cure,” a putatively revolutionary system for improving vision problems by — if I understood it aright — taking in as much light as possible by gazing at the sun. And there is no doubt that Van bought into L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics from the beginning, not only following its precepts for himself but setting up as a sort of mentor for converts who wished to attain the status of “clear.”

He would not, however, have anything to do with the changeover to the religion, Scientology, that Hubbard developed when Dianetics began to have problems with the government. He wouldn’t say why, either, though I asked him more than once.

13 Comments

  1. David B. Williams says:

    One of the flaws of early SF was the idea that it had to contain science, or at least speculations about the future based on science. But SF is just a sub-genre of fantasy, and the science-speculation story is just a sub-genre of SF, not the whole thing. I’m not saying that Van Vogt was a great writer, but as a storyteller he understood that you don’t have to emulate Hugo Gernsback and teach science to your readers as you go along. I wouldn’t know there was an internal combusion engine in automobiles if I hadn’t read it somewhere; I just get in my car and go. That’s how Van Vogt wrote stories and, more importantly, how his readers read them.

  2. Walt G says:

    I just love these reminiscences, Mr. Pohl.

  3. H. E. Parmer says:

    I agree with David B. Williams: I don’t see how Knight’s making a valid criticism of Van Vogt by carping about the scientific underpinnings of what are ultimately plot devices and color. Didn’t Sir Arthur Clarke — who wrote more than his share of “hard” science fiction — say “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”?

    Personally, I’ve never quite understood this classification mania, whether a work is science fiction vs. science fantasy vs. speculative fiction. The best of the genre rarely falls so neatly into what are very artificial categories.

    I’d also argue that something like “ten point steel” is a very clever trick for adding some spurious
    verisimilitude to a tale set in the medium-to-far future, a detail so commonplace its (seemingly) offhand mention would need no explanation for a contemporary. The concept’s based on something familiar to the present-day reader (steel) but the context tells them it’s significantly different in a mysterious way, possessing a hardness which can only be measured on a scale that doesn’t exist yet, because the process hasn’t even been invented.

  4. jackdstephen says:

    “And all this science I don’t understand.
    It’s just my job, five days a week.”

    – E John & B Taupin “Rocket Man”

  5. lee says:

    Vogt’s “Weapon Shops of Isher” remains one of my all time favourite stories. I think it was the time pendulum that did it for me, never mind the science behind it would not easily be explained.

  6. Dan Allosso says:

    My favorite was Quest for the Future. People take this stuff too seriously sometimes when they review it. The pace is fast for a reason. But if you approach it like Doctor Who, it’s a lot of fun. How’s he going to get out of this convoluted plot? And sometimes there’s just a great iconic image that sticks with you forever, like weapon shops. Or a second brain. Even if the story isn’t up to the image.

    There’s a great moment in someone else’s story called Wolfbane, I think, where people wired into a computing “Matrix” use the idle cycles to beat their machine masters. You’ve gotta just stop and cheer for stuff like that, don’t you?

  7. susan says:

    he did as well as possible, with only a Klug brain.

  8. susan says:

    His wife had the best name ever: Leigh (Lie) Bracket!

  9. Bruce Arthurs says:

    Susan, Leigh Brackett was married to Edmond Hamilton, not van Vogt. Van Vogt’s wife was E. Mayne Hull, who wrote a number of short stories and several novels (the latter in collaboration with van Vogt).

    And I’ve never heard Leigh pronounced as “lie”. “Lee”, yes. “Lay”, yes. But not “lie”.

  10. Dan Gollub says:

    A Klug brain nevertheless can attain ten point thinking.

  11. H. E. Parmer says:

    Dan:

    That “someone else” was none other than our talented host, in collaboration with Cyril Kornbluth. I re-read Wolfbane for the first time in many years just last summer; it was every bit as good as I remembered — maybe even better, now that I’ve a bit more experience and (hopefully) maturity to bring to my side of the writer/reader equation.

    Not to gush, but it’s no exaggeration for me to say that I’ve read plenty of sf by authors who spent three times as many words trying to convey a fraction of Wolfbane‘s imagination and originality.

  12. Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey says:

    I read through this hoping that the corpse would be explained, but it wasn’t. Neither was the skylight.

  13. Alishba says:

    Congrats on your win! I knew I had read that somewhere was in the late 80 s was a short lived mag discissung the history of radio plays Have a Great Ending to 2010 and the Best for a better 2011.Wish those of us that love sci fi and those that created the Goldern Age of Sci Fi would be the ones to decide Humanitys’ Future TO THE STARS!