Monday, July 25, 2016

Quest for the Future by A. E. Van Vogt

Caxton was parting his lips to continue with another association of his own, when it occurred to him:  What this guy just said makes no sense. In fact, for several minutes I haven't understood anything he said.

Recently, to commemorate the birthday of John Schoenherr, I dug out from my totally disorganized shelves some of my Ace A. E. Van Vogt paperbacks with covers by Schoenherr.  The particularly good cover of 1970's Quest for the Future inspired me to keep the novel easily accessible, and last week I read it.

The back cover (which invokes the name of Forrest Ackerman, Van Vogt's literary agent, among other things) and the ad copy on the first page repeatedly declare Quest for the Future to be a "new novel," but the very first page of Chapter I felt mighhhhhhhty familiar.  Quest for the Future is, in fact, a fix-up of three stories which first appeared in Astounding in the 1940s: "Film Library," "The Search" and "Far Centaurus."  I had already read all three of the stories, two in my Berkley paperback copy of the collection Destination: Universe! and the third in a copy of Transfinite: The Essential A. E. van Vogt which I had borrowed from the Des Moines Public Library, but since I had read them so long ago, and I remembered them being pretty good, I decided to go through with reading Quest for the Future anyway.

Our protagonist, Peter Caxton, is a man in his early forties living in the late 1970s, and he is a real jerk!  Caxton is an ambitious high school teacher, and you and I both know those are the worst kind!  His current aspiration: to replace the principal, Mr. Varney, whom he derisively calls "Old Varnish" behind his back!  Caxton is also cheating on his wife with one of the female teachers, Miss Gregg, an act of knavery which Caxton finds all the more amusing because his rival for Old Varnish's job, Mr. Dorritt, has a crush on Gregg.  Caxton finds it satisfying to have stolen some heartsick puppy's dream girl!

Don't worry, this isn't a soap opera--here comes the SF content.  Every day Caxton shows films to his classes.  (Being a teacher is very hard work, as we've all been told a thousand times.)  One week he finds that his boring educational films have been replaced by weird shorts with high-production values and amazing special effects, like a nature film about the aquatic life of Venus (that's a Venusian squid on the cover of Quest For the Future) and a guide to how to repair your atomic ray pistol.  Caxton, who is quick-tempered and paranoid, is furious, thinking the kids have replaced the school's films with gag reels, but when he can't pin the substitution on any of the students he figures it must be Dorritt who is sabotaging him.  So then he tries to get his revenge by going to Old Varnish and accusing Dorritt of meddling with the films, and, for good measure, accusing Dorritt of carrying on an affair with Gregg!

This idiotic scheme backfires and Caxton is terminated from his teaching position and divorced by his wife.  Caxton does a little extracurricular experimenting and discovers that the school's mundane films are being transformed by the projector into films from the future.  He steals the queer projector and all the films it has affected and begins a search of the United States for the origins of the unique device.

The next part of the novel, drawing from "The Search," is a convoluted thing involving amnesia and Caxton's career as a travelling salesman for Quik-Photo Supply Corporation, from whom the school got the weird projector. On the train he encounters a salesgirl named Selanie Johns whose wares seem as futuristic as those bizarre films.  When she disappears, Caxton investigates, and learns Selanie is pursued by an old man, Kameel Bustaman, who uses hypnotic powers to divest people of the gadgets they have bought from Selanie.  This guy leads Caxton to another dimension, the vast Palace of Immortality, headquarters of the immortal Possessors, who travel back and forth through time, manipulating people and events to create new dimensions ("probability worlds") which are better than the original violent and unhealthy course of history on Earth. Eventually they hope to create a peaceful universe and to shift to it every person who has ever lived (violent people having been manipulated in such a way that they will be "transformed" into "peaceful types.")  Selanie's father is a leader of this beneficent group, while Kameel Bustaman is some kind of rebel who is trying to gum up the works.  Besides suffering amnesia during this adventure, Caxton also makes his way from the Palace to a metropolis of the year 2083 and back.

Caxton is eager to join the Possessors in order to become immortal himself, but the Possessors give him a personality test which he fails:
"...we were willing for you to become associated with us.  But--" He broke off.  "Tell me, when did you become so worldly wise?  Another word for it would be cynical."          
So Caxton goes back to his work as a salesman in 1979, but bubbling with the determination to figure out a way to get back to the Palace of Immortality and become immortal!

Our man Van Vogt then begins integrating the text of "Far Centaurus" in a way that had me laughing out loud.  A few weeks after being driven out of the Palace of Immortality, Craxton is reading the newspaper and sees that a wealthy playboy is financing the Earth's first interstellar rocket flight.  The playboy is bringing a crew of three along with him to Alpha Centauri, but doesn't yet have anybody to fill the physicist spot--it seems that there are no physicists in the English-speaking world willing to leave their friends and families forever to go on a 500-year trip which they will endure in suspended animation.  Caxton has a masters in physics, and when he calls up to apply, the rich playboy welcomes him with open arms.  He probably wouldn't if he knew Caxton's diabolical plan--to hijack the spaceship and bring it back to Earth, timing his piracy so that he returns to Earth in 2083 to meet himself and help himself sneak back into the Palace of Immortality!

When Caxton tries to put his plan into action, waking up after fifty years of flight to turn the ship around, he discovers that the controls are locked to prevent anybody from doing just such a thing.  So he has to go through with the trip to Alpha Centauri. On their arrival the space crew from 1979 discover that, during their 500-year journey, human technology has advanced to such a point that the system already has long been colonized and space ships exist which can travel between Earth and Alpha Centauri in three hours.  Bummer!

After some time out in Alpha Centauri learning about this future society, Caxton and his fellow astronauts return to Earth, where Caxton meets Bustaman again. Bustaman, using his hypnotic powers and promising to get Caxton into the Palace, convinces Caxton to aid him in sabotaging Selanie and her father.  Caxton agrees and is transported back to 1979, where he infiltrates the Johns' time travelling vehicle (it is disguised as an ordinary trailer) and monkeys things up for those two, and for himself--his interference gets the three of them stuck in the middle of the 17th century in the middle of the American wilderness.  For a few months they think they are stuck there for the rest of their lives, but then the Johns figure out a way to return to the future by merging with some of their selves in other probability worlds.  Caxton can't do this, so the Johns leave him a cryogenics setup; Caxton hides himself and the trailer in a cave and freezes himself until 2476, when he wakes up and rejoins the rich playboy.  (That's right, for 800 years nobody thought to explore that cave.)

The playboy buys a space ship, one of those ones which can fly to Alpha Centauri in three hours, and they explore the universe.  (The extrasolar universe turns out to be boring, with no intelligent life.)  For over a hundred pages astronauts from Earth and psychologists from Alpha Centauri have been suspecting that leaving his cushy 1970s life might drive the playboy insane, and Caxton finds these fears were all too justified when the playboy ties him up and drives the ship right into a dangerous time warp created by a "bachelor star."  He may be crazy, but the playboy can sure use a sliderule--the time warp gets him and Caxton back to 1981, less than two years after they left the Earth!

(What is a bachelor star?  Quest for the Future includes a whole new theory of physics and astronomy based on the idea that atomic particles have a "psychology."  Like half the stuff he is exposed to, this theory is too complicated and counterintuitive for Caxton to understand, and your humble blogger is right there with him.)

Caxton goes right back to the good old USA and his hunt for the Palace and is quickly in the grips of a struggle with the duplicitous Kameel Bustaman!  In the final 30 or so pages of this 253-page saga we learn the shocking origins of the Palace of Immortality, how those films got from 2026 to 1979, and the roles of paranoids Kameel Bustaman and Peter Caxton in these events.  It is Caxton himself who will create the Palace of Immortality and set the entire Possessor effort in motion, redeeming himself and sparking the successful effort to redeem the entire human race. (This circularity will perhaps be no shock to those familiar with other of Van Vogt's works.)

Quest for the Future is a lot of fun.  Besides the wild plot twists there are plenty of crazy scientific speculations about time travel and atomic physics and a bounty of cool SF devices, including several different flying machines and various non-lethal weapons. There is a good horror scene when Caxton discovers that the animation suspension process has failed one astronaut and Caxton has to clean up the mess.  Amusing are the scenes in which, apparently trapped forever in the American wilderness, Caxton hopes to seduce Selanie.  Caxton is what the kids call "a playah" and has always had a lot of success with women ("He was charming with women, and quite a few had loved him, mistaking his selfishness for firmness of character.")  But Selanie is a morally upright individual and a genius with over 400 years of experience behind her, and she doesn't need a man for anything, especially not a man who was the cat's paw of her worst enemy and who smells bad. (The fact that people from the future find 20th-century people to smell repulsive is one of the book's recurring jokes, and a major obstacle to horndog Caxton: "Boy, he thought, there's got to be sex.  Without that I'll kill myself.")

Psychology plays a major role in the book, and part of the book's charm is watching the selfish loner Caxton evolve as a person, acting like a jerk early on, then striving to present excuses for his misbehavior, and then, for the first time in his life, feeling empathy and making friends.

I also liked the book's ultimately hopeful tone, its assertion that people and societies can change for the better, though like so much classic SF, Quest for the Future is thoroughly elitist and anti-democratic: sure, in the end we will all live happily at peace, but only after a tiny secret elite of geniuses manipulates our every move and crafts our minds to suit their selfless agenda!  And then there is the irony that Caxton's paranoia, the very kind of mental problem which the Possessors are trying to extirpate from humanity, is what allows him to actually create the Palace and the peaceful universe that is their goal.


In hopes of burnishing my bona fides as a Van Vogt scholar, I decided to crack open my copy of Destination: Universe! and reread "The Search" and "Far Centaurus" and see what our man Van added to those texts to create Quest for the Future.  (I'd have reread "Film Library" as well, but the Columbus Metropolitan Library doesn't have a copy of Transfinite--score one for the hawkeye over the buckeye, I guess.)

Click to enlarge and take in all that
Richard Powers goodness
"The Search," from 1943, includes the basic background features of the 1970 novel--the salesman who meets Selanie Johns and arrives in the Palace, learns of the Possessors and their campaign to create a perfect probability world of peaceful people, and is sent to sabotage the Johns in their trailer.  However, in this short story Selanie's father is opposed to the Possessors rather than being their leader--he thinks they are "acting like God," committing "sacrilege" by altering "the natural course of existence"--and it is the Possessors who enlist the protagonist to attack Johns.  (Selanie herself is a Possessor supporter; this is a dynamic I have seen repeatedly in my own life, children rejecting their parents' political and religious beliefs.)

Reading "The Search" has exposed to me some weaknesses in Quest for the Future.  In this short story it is clearly explained why the Johns are selling the gadgets; I can't recall any reason being given for this activity in Quest.  Also, there is some recognition of the moral dilemma presented by the Possessors; in the 1970 novel opposition to the Possessors and their elaborate campaign to engineer people and societies is presented as irrational paranoia.

"Far Centaurus," from 1944, covers that 500-year trip and has that horror scene I liked and the plot about the leader of the expedition going bonkers and flying a second ship into the time warp, as well as all that jazz about atomic particles with a psychology and how 20th century people smell repulsive to 25th century folks.  Interestingly, it is also written in the first person, which Quest is not.

"The Search" and "Far Centaurus" are pretty short; Van Vogt added a lot of text to build the brief 1940s stories into the long 1970s novel.  Most importantly, he constructed the character of Caxton, who evolves from paranoid amoral creep to world savior, and his relationship with Selanie.  When I realized Quest for the Future was a fix-up, I expected to have to report that the material was better in its original form, that Van Vogt had just added some gunk in order to hold the stories together and sell people a "new" novel.  But I was wrong; the Canadian Grand Master actually did a lot of rewriting and expanding, and I believe added considerable value to the story.  I am happy to recommend Quest for the Future to classic SF fans, even those already familiar with the Astounding tales which are its basis.

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