Sunday, February 1, 2015

Future Glitter by A. E. Van Vogt

"Comrades, workers, supporters of the New Economic System.  I imagine that you were all surprised this morning when you saw my image on one or another wall in your house."

We are told that one reason for Damon Knight's famous hostility to A. E. Van Vogt is the latter's apparent sympathy for autocracy and skepticism of democracy.  There is plenty of evidence for Van Vogt's opinions on these matters; he devotes one of Earth Factor X's short chapters to pointing out how the people of Earth "needed somebody to look after them...definitely needed somebody to tell them what to do," for example. Between the covers of Future Glitter we find additional evidence of Van Vogt's political beliefs.

I read the Ace 1973 printing of Future Glitter, which I believe is the book's first edition.  I like the colors on the cover painting by Bart Forbes (I'm guessing it's a watercolor) and the woman with the long neck.  Unfortunately, the text is full of typos. Shame on you, Ace!  If you really thought this was Van Vogt's greatest novel, you would have assigned a proofreader to the project, wouldn't you?

This cover is nice, but has nothing
to do with the story
I also like the British hardcover edition's cover. UK paperbacks of Future Glitter were retitled Tyrannopolis, and given less abstract, more dramatic covers.

In the three and a half pages of the introduction to Future Glitter Van Vogt brags that he is an expert on communism and the People's Republic of China, having "read and reread approximately 100 books on China and Communism" while writing his 1962 novel The Violent Man.  Van Vogt assures us he is a "middle liberal" (a phrase I don't think I've ever encountered before and which, because Van Vogt doesn't provide any context, could mean a number of different things) and then tells us "We must remember that dictators can often solve problems by fiat." Van Vogt provides examples of problems in Peking that a Communist Party official, in the US in 1971 on a UN mission, told him were solved thanks to Party policy.  But Van Vogt warns that some may not like the price to be paid for solving problems via such methods.

I was pleased to find that Future Glitter, published within a year of Earth Factor X, was better written, had a better plot, and included images considerably more arresting and characters much more compelling and sympathetic than that novel.

In the clever first section of the novel, 30 or so of its 200 pages, we meet the elderly Dr. Dun Higenroth, one of the top scientists of the 23rd century, a time when the Earth is ruled by a collectivist dictatorship.  Thanks to the dictator, Martin Lilgin, the world has been spared hunger, war, disease, and pollution for over a century.  On the other hand, there is no private property, the government periodically subjects everyone to invasive psychological testing, and also has absolute control over where you can live, who you can marry, and whether you can reproduce.  The paranoid Lilgin, over the course of his 200 years as ruler, has executed a billion people, based on whims or for such infractions as "questioning the Official Religion."

Nota Bene: There actually is no scene in
 the novel in which people fight in the arena
Higenroth has developed a technique that allows the precise control of "fields" and electricity.  ("When Higenroth discovered that electricity can be made to move from one location in space to another in a simpler way than in nature, many problems in spatial relations became resolvable.") These techniques, generally called "The Pervasive System," provide their user tremendous power, the ability to teleport oneself or others, for example. Higenroth comes up with a way to use his new technique to record and transmit images; by a mere act of will he can cast a field around Lilgin and cause live moving images of the dictator to be projected on the plastic walls of every residence on the Earth.  Higenroth hopes that thus exposing the dictator will undermine his rule.  (This idea hearkens back to the spy rays used by the Weapon Shops to expose the corruption and cruelty of the Empress Innelda in Van Vogt's famous Isher tales.)

His dissident ideas having come to the attention of the authorities, Higenroth is sentenced to public decapitation.  One of my favorite elements of the novel is how the dictatorship's propaganda has convinced the populace that when it beheads intellectuals (apparently a common occurrence) it is not a punishment, but an honor, and a way of immortalizing the man so honored: Higenroth's students divvy up parts of their mentor's brain, and believe that upon his death portions of Higenroth's vast store of knowledge will be transmitted to their own minds.

One of the themes of the novel is how Lilgin uses sex to manipulate important men, like bureaucrats and scientists, whose help he needs but whom he also fears.  The dictator's agents scoured the world to find the prettiest teenage girl on the planet, and married her off to Higenroth two years ago.  This young woman has refused to have sex with her aged husband since their marriage.

In order to keep Higenroth from trying to escape, his wife is instructed to occupy his attention by surrendering her body to him for the very first time.  After finally consummating their marriage, Higenroth acts to preserve his scientific breakthrough for the future: he uses a device upon his sleeping wife that embeds the critical knowledge in the cells of the zygote of their child!

The lion's share of the novel concerns Higenroth's son, who is spirited away from his mother immediately after birth and raised by foster parents he believes are his own. The dictator knows the boy, named Orlo, has the secret of the Pervasive System hidden in his cells, and, hoping to acquire this knowledge, keeps a close eye on him. At the age of twenty Orlo is brought to the dictator's palace and put in charge of a colony of scientists who live in what amounts to a prison (Van Vogt tells us in the intro that he got this idea from reading Solzhenitsyn.)  Lilgin wants Orlo to be close at hand and under government control when the potentially world-shattering knowledge he unwittingly carries bursts forth.

You'll be happy to learn that this cover illo
does actually represent a scene in the novel
Like in a lot of Van Vogt stories we follow the protagonist as he learns the reality of his own life and his world, develops amazing mental powers, and then causes a paradigm shift. Psychological and political theories are also presented.  Like Hedrock in the Isher books, who refuses to depose the House of Isher but instead hopes to moderate it and limit its excesses, Orlo decides that it would be pointless to overthrow the Lilgin dictatorship; his project will be to reform its policies and provide a little more freedom to the human race.  Echoing the cynicism of Earth Factor X, when the knowledge lurking in Orlo's cells is activated and all the world can watch the tyrant's every move, 24/7, this only briefly discomfits the canny dictator.  The charismatic Lilgin directly addresses the common people, and a mob five million strong rushes to his aid and preserves his dictatorship!

Here and in the Weapon Shop books Van Vogt argues that firm rule is preferable to anarchy and war, though he also advocates for checks on that rule--not necessarily democratic or republican checks, mind you, like elections or referenda, but the moderating power of an additional, confrontational, elite.  (To be fair, there are sections of The Weapon Makers which stress the importance of constitutionalism, portraying the fact that the Weapon Shop council is not, or should not be, above its own laws.)  I have already pointed out how in Earth Factor X Van Vogt suggests that ordinary people crave authority and want to be told what to do, and he does that in Future Glitter as well.

Van Vogt is hardly alone in his (apparent) beliefs; in fact, a contempt for the common people and acceptance of undemocratic elite rule are sentiments we see often in the work of Golden Age SF writers.  L. Ron Hubbard's Final Blackout depicts how the rule of a single superior man brings peace and stability after a long destructive war.  In "Slow Sculpture" Theodore Sturgeon calls for an elite to prune and mold humanity like a gardener would a tree.  Cyril Kornbluth's "Marching Morons" has a sympathetic elite manipulating the masses, who are too stupid to look out for their own interests.  I haven't read any of Isaac Asimov's fiction since I started this blog, but aren't those Foundation books about how a small intellectual elite should be manipulating the rest of us for our own good?

I'd like to see a larger
image of this intriguing cover
The Golden Age writers we think of as libertarians also exhibit some of these attitudes. Many stories by Robert Heinlein stress the importance of respecting the authority of the captain of a ship.  In his The Moon is a Harsh Mistress the common run of humanity isn't interested in and won't pursue freedom, and our heroes deceive and manipulate them in order to achieve their goals.  Poul Anderson seems skeptical of authority and government power, but in "Master Key" we see his adventurous merchant character, Van Rijn, express contempt for the people whom he sees as the majority, those who would rather enjoy government-provided security than take responsibility for running their own lives.

I think it is fair to say that there is an element of snobbery to SF; this is something that I am not always comfortable with.

Van Vogt fans should definitely seek out Future Glitter, but, unlike House That Stood Still or Earth Factor X, I am also willing to recommend it to general SF fans: there are plenty of surreal images, speculations about politics and psychology, and characters who made some kind of emotional impact on me.  I think basing a book on his readings of Chinese and Russian history (instead of just his dreams and psychological theories as it seems he sometimes did) paid off for Van Vogt and for his readers.

************

A side-note: The phrase "politically correct" appears to be in the news again, so it was a weird bit of synchronicity finding Van Vogt use the phrase in this 1973 novel: "A politically correct statement spoken with the tiniest lapse from correct tone of voice--Lilgin heard the lapse.  That man was not allowed near him again."

No comments:

Post a Comment