Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Three 1978 stories by A. E. Van Vogt

Via Twitter, Joachim Boaz reminds us that A. E. Van Vogt's birthday is this month.  To celebrate, I read three stories by my man Van which I had never read, from the collection Pendulum, DAW 316.  These stories all appeared for the first time in Pendulum.

Pendulum, published in 1978, provides insight into the powerful influence the first Star Wars film had on the people at DAW.  Besides the dreamlike (that's a nice way of saying "insane," right?) cover by Jordi Penavla, in which helmeted topless men use laser swords in their fight against cave men, we have the advertising pages in the back of the book, one of which is pitched directly at Star Wars fans.  The good people at DAW recommend to "Star Warriors" four of their series: Gordon Dickson's Dorsai novels; A. Bertram Chandler's space navy stories starring John Grimes; the Dumarest novels by E. C. Tubb; and Brian Stableford's Daedalus novels.  I can't assess how good these recommendations are because I'm not familiar with any of the listed books.  I have read four or five John Grimes books, and liked them OK, but none of those listed.  I've read one (non-Dorsai) book by Dickson and two books by Stableford in his Hooded Swan series, and didn't think them bad, but found them uninspiring and forgettable.  I've never read any Tubb, but Michael Moorcock considers Tubb's Dumarest of Terra books excellent, or so he says in a year 2000 article about Leigh Brackett entitled "Queen of the Martian Mysteries."      


The title story of the collection depicts a near future Earth facing a food shortage.  Our main character Hudman is a Dutch sailor working on a civilian ship employed by the U. S. Navy, lowering machinery to the ocean floor which will warm up the cold water there and make these areas of the ocean more hospitable for life and thus more productive as fishing waters.  In a bizarre turn of events (are there any other in these van Vogt stories?) these activities awaken a civilization of thirty billion people who have been in cryogenic sleep on the ocean floor for millenia.  Hudman is chosen to be the emissary between the surface people and this revived race, which it turns out has the technology to easily take over the planet.

The people from under the sea declare that their benevolent rule will improve everybody's life.  One of the first things on their agenda is to eliminate all the disparate and confusing human languages and replace them with a single logical language, which will be easy enough with their "mind-to-mind" teaching methods.  Hudman is then deluged with exhortations, threats, and bribes from people who try every possible means to preserve their own dialects from extinction.  "Pendulum" is a story about ethnic pride and what van Vogt calls "race consciousness," and the lengths individuals will go to to honor and preserve the culture and memory of their peoples.

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the violence people are willing to employ to protect their own dialects and honor their ancestors is a sign that van Vogt was skeptical of ethnic pride and sympathetic to the "melting pot" view of American race/ethnic relations which, nowadays, has been abandoned.  In the end of the story, in order to protect him, the submarine people transport Hudman to a city in a distant time period - Hudman eagerly embraces the culture of his new home, "determined to fit in with no thought at all about his past."  

"The Male Condition"

From racial and cultural diversity issues to gender and sexual issues!

I think of van Vogt as a guy who often writes stuff that is kind of crazy.  "The Male Condition" definitely fits in the crazy category.  It also seems to be in part or whole a kind of joke, one which some may find in poor taste.  I cannot deny that the audacity of the story, its twisted surprises, the lengths van Vogt was willing to go, made me laugh.

We open in a government office where two academics, psychologists, are talking.  We are immediately alerted to the fact that this is a strange world when we learn that 30 is considered an old age and that the male psychologist, Jolo, is smoking a "kolo," a product introduced by aliens.

Crazier still, Jolo tells the junior psychologist, a woman 23.25 years old named Lasia, that there have been no cases of rape in 38 years.  Sounds good, right?  But this phenomenon presents the researcher with a problem: Jolo is directing work on an encyclopedia of human nature, and how can the book be complete without a rapist to study in the flesh?

The rapist shortage, apparently, is the result of an additive in drinking water that makes people unable to feel anger.  Jolo proposes injecting himself with something that will make him a rapist(?) and having Lasia act as observer, which is to say, rape victim(!).  Lasia needs the money, so she signs onto the project!

This 13 page story is stuffed with wacky elements: aliens only women can see, psychologists whose whole therapy technique consists of having sex with their patients, a computer database put together by a feminist government agency which lists men with whom women are forbidden to have sex (if this story had been written after 2001 presumably this would be called the "no-fuck list.")  Lasia turns to a male psychologist for help, but he takes advantage of her, so she then fools Jolo's wife into taking her place as rape victim.  The intervention of aliens into this demented slapstick leads to murder, necrophilia, and a jury trial at which the aliens save the surviving characters from going to prison.

Crazy man, crazy.

"Living with Jane"

This story, with its convoluted plot and characteristically van Vogtian sentences, was a little hard to follow.

The year is 2288.  Androids are on the market which are almost impossible to distinguish from real humans.  Parents of young children who get divorced routinely buy an android replica of their former spouses, so that their children will not suffer the psychological problems that result from living in a single parent home.  In a way that van Vogt explains but which I didn't understand, living with androids has given our heroine, teenaged Jane, what amount to psychic powers.

A new type of android has been built, a model even more human-like.  Unfortunately, these super-androids have decided to take over the world.  Jane's father, a scientist, is the natural leader of the resistance to the android takeover, and a natural target of the androids, who contrive to enter Jane's home and hold her and her mother hostage.  The androids threaten to kill his family if Jane's dad doesn't cease working against their takeover.

Fortunately, Jane's high intelligence and mental powers mean she is up to the task of neutralizing her captors.  Jane saves the day, not through any kind of violence, but through charm, persuasion, and logic.  Having lived her entire life with androids, Jane likes them and understands them, and is able to manipulate and even befriend them.  The story has a happy ending; Jane will be able to assure peace and freedom for everybody, human and android, and now she has an android duplicate of herself who will be the twin sister she has always wanted.        


It is hard to recommend such strange stories to other people, but I enjoyed them. 

Pendulum contains three more pieces of fiction which I have not read before, so I will be grappling with Van Vogt's weird plots and clunky verbiage in the near future.


  1. The anti-psychiatry makes sense considering the Scientologist position on it -- but, there was a more general anti-psychiatry movement at the time as well.

    1. Yeah, one of the minor characters in "Living with Jane" is a psychiatrist who is collaborating with the androids and supports their takeover.