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.