I have the 1976 Manor Books printing (128 pages) of The Changeling, which first appeared in 1944 in Astounding. I like the Bruce Pennington painting on the cover; it’s a realistic painting of a girl and flying saucers, but the limited color palette, the girl’s archaic helmet, and the repetitive patterns of the laces on her boots, the saucers, and the running figures in the background, lend it some of the attractions of an abstract design. The painting and back cover blurb have almost no correlation with what actually happens in the story, however. The same painting was used on the cover of an earlier edition of Van Vogt’s The Weapon Makers.
Van Vogt’s stories often depict characters who are disoriented and confused, facing bizarre and novel circumstances, and Van Vogt, either by design or because of his difficult writing style, often similarly confuses the reader. This story fits that mold. Business executive Lesley Craig has memories of working at the same firm his entire career, working his way up from a teen age office boy to, today, a fifty year old general manager. Yet today one of his colleagues casually lets slip, and the pay records indicate, that he has only been at this company for four years!
Immediately after he realizes this Craig is taken captive by slender women wielding shiny pistols. The women wear short skirts and by their “bright” appearance Craig recognizes them as women who have taken drug treatments to make them equal to men! Thousands of women have taken such treatments, but the “equalized” women have not benefited much by it; ordinary women resent them, and men refuse to marry them! One of the themes of this short novel is the role of women in society and men’s resistance to any increase in women’s authority, though Van Vogt's treatment of the topic is unlikely to win him any awards from feminist groups.
The equalized women, ostracized by society, have become the personal bodyguard of the ambitious U.S. President, and Craig is taken to see the President. Van Vogt, writing this story during World War II and setting it in the 1970s, posits that the traumatic war will damage the morale of the human race and lead to scientific, technological and social stagnation. The solution to this stagnation is a strong leader; the president believes he is just the man to be that leader, but he is having trouble winning the next election and thinks that Craig can, indirectly, help. After a brief interview Craig is forced to give a blood sample, and then he is released.
It turns out that Craig is some kind of superman with super healing abilities. A transfusion of his blood into someone with a suitable blood type will rejuvenate that person, taking 30 years off his age. The President, who thinks that he should become dictator of the U.S. for life, and maybe the world (why not?), has just the right blood type, and thinks that suddenly appearing 30 years younger will help his political fortunes and make the U.S. population more likely to accept his seizing unprecedented powers. There’s another conspiratorial group in the mix that knows about Craig’s abilities and isn’t crazy about the president’s Napoleonic ambitions, and Craig spends the bulk of the book escaping imprisonment by and then pursuit from one or the other of these two groups. Over the months he is on the run his powers expand and increase, until he becomes virtually invincible and is in a position to solve the world’s problems with stagnation and gender politics.
This is a pretty crazy story, full of the skepticism of democracy, interest in elite conspiracies, and fascination with human evolution and mental powers that we see in other Van Vogt tales. And then there are Van Vogt’s ideas about the increasing prominence of women in the post-war world, and how the trauma of the war might damage human morale. While Van Vogt's prediction of post-war stagnation is 180 degrees wrong, it is still intriguing, and the stuff about women facing resistance when trying to achieve equality is a little closer to the mark. The (apparent) advocacy of authoritarian government is a little hard to take, and seems to contrast with the concern for freedom and individualism seen in Van Vogt’s more famous story, “The Weapon Shop.”
The Changeling is a worthwhile read for those of us interested in Van Vogt’s odd ideas and strange body of work, but perhaps will not appeal to others.
If you are at all interested in A. E. Van Vogt it is worth your time to check out Isaac Walwyn’s blog and A. E. Van Vogt bibliography.
Yutaka Morita also has a fun Van Vogt site; there you can see some original illustrations by Paul Orban for The Changeling.