A. E. van Vogt (1912-2000)
I doubt that our literary tastes are genetically programmed. Probably,
chance events are equally important in influencing our choices.
Be that as it may, at age 13 I became a passionate reader of science
fiction stories. The triggering event was the birth of a Swedish
science fiction magazine, "Häpna!". (The
name means "Be amazed!", no doubt a reference to the magazine
"Astounding Science Fiction".) The
first issue in March 1954 contained some riveting stories.
In one of them, "Repulsion
Factor" by Charles Eric Maine, a scientist has invented
teleportation: a physical object is disassembled in a transmitter
and sent as information to a receiver where it is reassembled (just
as in Star Trek). A murderer uses this device to create a copy of
himself by using two receivers, intending to let "his
copy" take the rap. - In addition to being an exciting story,
it made me thoroughly confused over the real nature of identity
and consciousness. (Cf. "The Mind's I"
by Hofstadter and Dennett.)
It also contained the first installment of a novel
by A. E. van Vogt, "Slan", which described the
ruthless persecution of a genetically engineered race of human telepaths.
(It may have been inspired by the fate of the European Jews, even
though it was written as early as 1940.) - In subsequent issues
of Häpna!, van Vogt was a frequent contributor, and
I always enjoyed his original stories, often with an unexpected
twist at the end.
|The cover of the first issue of Häpna! in 1954. Note
the innovative space suit heat radiators.
|| Reality half a century later: assembly of the International
That same year I read "Destination Universe",
a collection of short stories, in Swedish. I soon graduated to reading
van Vogt's stories in English, at first with some difficulty. I
enjoyed such classics as "The Voyage of the Space Beagle"(which
much later formed the basis for the movie "Alien"),
and "The Weapon Shops of Isher", along with
works by Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Alfred
Bester, Robert Heinlein and many others.
What set van Vogt apart from the rest was his unfettered imagination,
the grandeur of his vision, and his predilection for assigning superhuman
powers to his heroes, such as telepathy, immortality, encyclopedic
knowledge, teleportation, superior mental capabilities, etc. It
sometimes seemed as if he had too many ideas for the scope of his
stories, and there are many loose ends in his works.
To a timid teenager, it was hard to resist throwaway lines such
as: "...made it necessary for Robert Hedrock, Earth's one
immortal man, ... to make sure ...", or "The seesaw
would end in the very remote past, with the release of the stupendous
temporal energy he had been accumulating.... He would not witness
but he would aid in the formation of the planets." ("The
Weapon Shops of Isher); "'There is only one such expert
aboard', said Grosvenor coldly" ("The Voyage of the
Space Beagle" - how often have I had to suppress similar sentiments
in committee meetings :-) ); "When he found himself suddenly
back on Earth in another man's body, it was more than he had expected"
(the backside blurb of "The Man with a Thousand Names");
"I suggested that they turn their attention to other galaxies"
("The War Against the Rull").
|My father was especially
struck by the cover in the center. It reminded him of the final
days of the Third Reich.
When I found "The World of Null-A" in a bookshop,
I knew that I was in for a good read. "Could just this one
man block a cosmic conspiracy?" said the blurb. As usual
with van Vogt, the main character, Gilbert Gosseyn had been endowed
with superhuman powers - in this case an extra brain that allowed
him to achieve the teleportation of objects, including himself.
On the other hand, he suffered from amnesia and had no idea who
he was or what his purpose was. The plot centered on his struggle
to find out. An interesting device was that the story was set in
an environment 600 years in the future, where society was built
on the principles of General Semantics. There were numerous allusions
to this "science", including a reference to "Korzybski
Square". Evidently, training in General Semantics was very
beneficial in helping a person withstand the shock of being instantaneously
transported from Earth to Venus at the whim of some unknown manipulator.
Among the actors is a "Games Machine, made up of 25,000 electronic
computers". - Wow! (Irony intended!)
My father used to make disparaging remarks about my choice of literature.
(However, in my Grandfather's memoirs, at age 18 "he only smiles
mildly when the conversation turns to Schiller or Goethe."...)
Still, I caught him reading both "The World of Null-A"
and its sequel "The Pawns of Null-A". Today, at age 13,
my son Christofer devours Japanese Manga comics magazines. Perhaps
I should not be too harsh on him :-)
The allusions to "the science of General Semantics" piqued
my curiosity. I found out that Alfred Korzybski really existed and
had written a book called "Science
and Sanity". Evidently, van Vogt was an early admirer
of Korzybski. Later he developed an interest in scientology, but
was quickly disillusioned.
Although some of Alfred Elton van Vogt's admirers like to claim
that he had to be an extraterrestrial to be able to write such books,
he really was an author of flesh and blood. He was born in Winnipeg,
Canada, in 1912, became a fulltime writer in 1941, and moved to
Los Angeles in 1944. He died there in 2000, a victim of Alzheimer's
- The Wikipedia
entry on A. E. van Vogt.
- The first
chapter of "The World of Null-A".
- A fan
page with some interesting links.
- A complementary fan