"He's come back after ages of being merged with the race. Look closely! His face! Like the statue in the temple."
The goddesses expect Ptath to free L'onee and chastise Ineznia, so in hopes of thwarting this destiny Ineznia has used her magic to trigger the god's return prematurely; when Ptath appears his invincible body is intact, but he has less knowledge than a child--he doesn't even remember what clothes, food, and water are! Ineznia's plan was for him to appear in her palace in this vulnerable state, but with the last reserve of her own sorcerous power L'onee has mitigated Ineznia's spell--Ptath materializes a thousand miles away. L'onee further contrives to retain in the god's body, along with Ptath's own amnesiac consciousness, the mind of one of the men whose physical form he tenanted in the distant past, that of Captain Peter Holroyd of the United States Army, who was killed fighting in Germany in 1944!
As I have told readers of this blog before, I love stories in which people's souls or brains or whatever get switched into other bodies, and stories in which multiple personalities inhabit the same body. (I suppose I love these kinds of stories because they seem to defy the inevitable death and inescapable loneliness of our lives.) The Book of Ptath is all about these kinds of shenanigans, with four (three?) main characters who shift from one body to another more times than I can remember!
|...and something totally wack.|
The diabolical Ineznia, seeking to become master of the world, conspires with the rulers of the kingdom of Accadistran to breed an irresistible air force of giant birds. Ineznia helps the Accadistranians kidnap her own citizens, innocent people from Gonwonlane; in Accadistran these poor souls are warehoused by the thousands in concentration camps, where they are thrown into the arena as fodder for the squadrons of giant birds! When the feathered Accadistran luftwaffe attacks Gonwonlane, millions of Gonwonlanian civilians are devoured by the ravenous man-eating birds. (Presumably these scenes of horror were inspired by German aggression and atrocity in the period of the Second World War.)
Ineznia's evil backfires on her, and we learn exactly how in the final chapter of the novel. (Van Vogt loves to present the reader with a convoluted and bizarre plot and then explain how all that crazy shit happened in a few lines on the last page of the book.) The horror of the murder bird invasion inspires a religious revival in Gonwonlane, and the prayers of the besieged Gonwonlanian people strengthen Ptath, giving Holroyd powers that rival Ineznia's and allow him to turn the tables on her, liberating the world from her oppression and ushering in an era of more responsible government.
|These covers actually convey some of the content and tone of the novel. |
Plus...praise from Damon Knight?!?
The relationship between the ruler and the ruled, and how untrustworthy and exploitative rulers can be, is another theme of the book. We learn that Ptath took the risky move of leaving the normal world to "merge with the race" (giving Ineznia the chance to take over and murder millions of people--oops!) because he felt that his great power and distance from the common man was corrupting him:
"As for merging with the race [L'onee explains to an inquisitive Holroyd] in one sense that does seem to have been disastrous. But he said he could feel in himself dark, alien, inhuman urges that he must purge by a return to the spring source of decency--the life force of the people."Van Vogt stories are generally pretty elitist (in this story parliamentary government is judged too unwieldy for the Earth of Year 200 Million), and I seem to recall that one of Damon Knight's many gripes about him was his apparent anti-democratic attitude. So I think it significant that, in The Book of Ptath, both power and goodness literally come from the people.
On the topic of criticisms of van Vogt, one of the memorably odd things about The Book of Ptath, and I think something van Vogt's detractors have mentioned when attacking his work, is how he tries to use big numbers in a childish sort of way to increase the drama of the story. The world Holroyd finds himself in isn't just two thousand or two million years in the future, but 200 million! The armies of Gonwondlane are made up of billions of soldiers, and it is hundreds of millions of innocent people who are eaten by the giant birds.
I enjoyed The Book of Ptath. The pace never lags (the philosophical asides about government and religion are not too long or frequent, like they were in Anarchistic Colossus), the characters are interesting, the mysteries of the plot induce curiosity instead of frustration, and there are scenes which are surprising and scenes which are horrifying. I'm glad I could end this Van Vogt Marathon on a positive note!
So ends MPorcius Fiction Log's 2016 Van Vogt Marathon. Is that a tear I see in your eye? Don't worry--I own enough unread material by the Grand Master from Manitoba that, barring death on the highway, a 2017 Van Vogt Marathon is an inevitability!