Monday, August 1, 2016

The Man with a Thousand Names by A. E. Van Vogt

He said, in effect, that truth was best.  That the punishment for a harmful act or lie was automatic.  You remained psychically connected to the harmed or lied-to person, and to that extent were not free. 

Van Vogt Marathon 2016 continues!

One of the reasons I enjoyed Quest for the Future more than The Anarchistic Colossus was that the former had at its center a human character with an evolving personality who was driven by personal goals, while the latter was really a story about a system, to which was appended a bunch of bland, almost lifeless, characters.  The plot of The Anarchistic Colossus is weakened by the fact that the actions of the characters are basically moot: Chip and the psychiatrist go to great lengths to make sure there is an Earth space fleet ready to oppose the Ig, but the Earth is saved not by this fleet, but by the anarchistic system itself, which is so enticing that it inspires revolutionary reform among the Ig, reform that renders them pacific.  This makes an interesting philosophical point about foreign policy, but a story is generally more satisfying when its characters' personalities and decisions determine or at least affect what happens.

It is with such thoughts that I began The Man with a Thousand Names, the very title of which gave me hope that this novel would focus on the personality and adventures of a single character.  The Man with a Thousand Names first came under the gaze of the public in 1974 as a DAW paperback, #114.  I own just that edition, complete with its static, collage-like cover illo and far more fluid and dynamic frontispiece, both by Vincent Di Fate.  On the cover we see the celebratory tagline: "A NEW MASTERPIECE BY A SCIENCE FICTION TITAN."  Heady words!  Can the text live up to this adulation and my own hopes?

In the later stages of his long career Van Vogt developed a strong interest in psychology, and especially the psychology of "the violent man," and this is reflected in this novel's protagonist, Steven Masters, the amoral and decadent son of a New York business tycoon, the world's richest man.  Steven is solipsistic, vindictive and deceitful, quick to anger and to inflict violence on others, a serial abuser and exploiter of others.
In his mind had been a very simple, pure thought.  The thought was that these people didn't count, and he did.  By definition, it was impossible to do a harmful act to someone who didn't count. 
Over the course of the novel we witness this 22-year-old man rape a woman and act with a reckless negligence that causes three of his comrades to be killed, while in flashbacks we learn of his earlier escapades--his mistreatment of employees, pursuit of an unjust legal vendetta against an innocent man, and habitual physical abuse of young women he seduces and discards days later.

Bored, with no direction in life, and totally uninterested in art, culture, or business, Steven joins the crew of a space ship on a mission to explore the planet Mittend. Steven doesn't care about science or adventure or anything like that--he doesn't care about anything besides having sex and playing tennis--but he felt compelled to go on the mission to save face after stupidly bragging, while inebriated, about how he could.  Acting with his routine irresponsibility, as soon as the ship lands on Mittend he wanders off alone and unarmed into the uncharted wilderness, and is promptly captured by natives who look just like humans.

When touched by the aliens Steven suddenly finds himself back on Earth, in the body of another man!  It is the body of a former servant of the Masters family, a man Steven callously mistreated and got sacked when he (Steven) was a teen.  Steven has mistreated many people over the course of his life (a thousand!), and as the story progresses his consciousness shifts from one such person to another.  At the same time, a mysterious power is also hypnotically directing people, those who have suffered at his hands and at the hands of those whose bodies he possesses, to try to murder him.  Steven's consciousness zips back and forth between bodies and his bodies blast back and forth between Earth and Mittend on human and alien space craft; all the while willfully ignorant Steven and we poor readers are in perplexity--what the hell is going on?

In the final third of the book it is revealed that Steven has been drawn into a war between an innocent race of shape shifters, the descendents of ancient Greeks who left Earth four thousand years ago, and a sinister extragalactic being known as Kroog, also a shape shifter.  The leaders of the space Hellenes, who share a single collective soul and are in intimate psychic contact with beings all across the universe, tell Steven that "Our race attained perfection too soon....We had reached a level of inner purity where we could not kill, or do a harmful thing."  Because they can't fight back they have been preyed upon by less advanced peoples for centuries, severely reducing their numbers.  What they need is an influx of genetic material of a coarser type, so their children will be able to fight back.  Kroog took up this delectable task, but the children produced, called "Gi-Ints," are too crude and violent.  So the space Hellenes have selected Steven to replace Kroog, but the extragalactic monster won't make way for Steven without a fight!  If Steven wants to play sperm donor to Mittend's 886 fertile women he'll have to defeat Kroog and the Gi-Ints, who have infiltrated the highest levels of Earth society!

(I'm guessing the name "Gi-Ints" is meant to evoke the famous Gigantomachy, the war between the Olympian gods of Greece and the Giants which is so stirringly depicted in ancient sculpture.  Maybe we are supposed to think the stories of the Greek gods were inspired by the travails of these perfect people who fled to Mittend.)

English-speaking SF fans may recognize this
cover painting by Robert Foster--it appeared
on William F. Nolan's 1971 anthology
A Wilderness of Stars
The book has another 58 pages to go after this revelation, and there are all kinds of weird shenanigans and plot twists (some of which I must admit my little brain and I had some trouble following) as Steven is pursued by Kroog and the Earth government and military (they have been infiltrated by the Gi-Ints, remember.)  Here we'll just say Steven, with help from his long-suffering father and his father's lawyer, manages to retain his life and his freedom.  There's a battle scene in which the Gi-Ints transform into eagles and battle an Earth military aircraft in which Steven is a passenger--it turns out eagles are no match for machine guns (too bad they couldn't transform into F-15s.)  In the end Kroog and his brood are vanquished and Steven moves into the 886 women's city on Mittend to enjoy a lifetime of making daily donations of his genetic material.

The Man With a Thousand Names has some elements of a Twilight Zone-style fantasy, a fable about justice.  (You'll remember all those Twilight Zone episodes in which a Nazi in Hell experiences life as a Jew in a death camp or an innocent civilian on a torpedoed freighter or whatever.)  Early in the story we learn that Stevens' father once told him that bad acts create a strange and horrible bond between the victim and the perpetrator (see epigraph above), and Steven, thanks to the aliens, experiences that bond in literal, terrible fashion.  But Van Vogt's is a modern fable grounded in cynicism and psychology instead of Judeo-Christian ethics or liberal Western values--we are told and shown repeatedly that [a significant proportion of] women find Steven's dismissive treatment and boorish attitude attractive, and in the end Steven, despite his crudity and crimes, triumphs to live the dream of enjoying a harem of over 800 gorgeous girls and fathering thousands of children.

I think we can see this novel as claiming that the traditional sex roles (aggressive dominating man and pure submissive woman), that the fashionable cognoscenti have been telling me for my entire life are nothing but inimical bunk, are, in fact, not only a genetic reality but actually complementary.  The brutish sex machine, Steven, and the so-pure-they-can't-defend-themselves alien girls, together, a sort of yin and yang, will create a race of high moral and intellectual ability that is rugged enough to endure the cruel realities of the universe.  From two flawed theses we get a miraculous synthesis (yeah, somebody talked to us about Hegel for five minutes back in my Rutgers days.)

I doubt I have to point out the similarities between The Man with a Thousand Names and the last two 1970s Van Vogt novels we read this month, Quest for the Future (asshole "playah" is the savior of the race) and The Anarchistic Colossus (aliens use hypnosis to direct attacks on our protagonist.)  Like The Anarchistic Colossus, The Man of a Thousand Names also includes mention of that all that Kirlian chicanery.

(The Man with a Thousand Names was also the inspiration for a little classic SF inside humor from Fred Kiesche on twitter, back in April on the occasion of our man Van's birthday.)

Fast-paced and full of crazy ideas, I thought The Man With a Thousand Names was pretty good.  I very much appreciated that Van Vogt put so much effort into describing Steven Masters' personality, and based what happened in the story on that personality, even if said personality was repulsive.  Of course, some will find the book's (apparent) view of the world ridiculous and/or offensive, and the novel is hardly a model of clarity or style.  I'm giving The Man With a Thousand Names a thumbs up while at the same time recognizing that many (most?) of the people who read this blog will probably not like it.


In our next episode the sevagram steam train rolls on with four stories by Van Vogt which appeared in SF magazines in the 1940s and '50s.

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