Saturday, September 2, 2017

Five early 1970s stories by A. E. van Vogt

It feels like a long time since we read anything by one of the Great White North's greatest exports, A. E. van Vogt.  Luckily, I have a 1972 printing of DAW's The Book of van Vogt handy!  This volume, DAW Collectors No. 4, has a great Karel Thole cover depicting a future city and some of its oh so charming inhabitants; a later DAW edition, retitled Lost: Fifty Suns, has a cover depicting three odd characters, on supposes a potentate and two of his advisers.

The first few books printed by DAW included on their very first page "A Statement to Science Fiction Readers" explaining what DAW was all about and bragging about how awesome Donald A. Wollheim was, and my copy of The Book of van Vogt has just such a first page.  Among other things, Wollheim promises that every DAW book is one which never before appeared in paperback.  "Thus, you can be assured that, besides being the selection of an expert, the DAW Book you buy will not be something you may have bought once before with a different cover."  You have to wonder if perhaps Wollheim, in the very first year of DAW's existence, was already testing SF readers' trust when you realize that two of the seven stories in The Book of van Vogt, "The Barbarian" and "Lost: Fifty Sons," are excerpts from fix-up novels printed in paperback in the 1960s (the former as part of Empire of the Atom and the latter as part of Mission to the Stars, an alternate title for the novel The Mixed Men.)  Presumably by 1979, when Lost: Fifty Sons was printed, this promise was long forgotten.

(Isaac Walwyn's very cool van Vogt site Sevagram is helpful for figuring out these confusing van Vogt bibliography issues.)

Today we'll be talking about the five stories in The Book of van Vogt that were first published in 1971 and 1972; four of these stories were original to The Book of van Vogt.

"The Rat and the Snake" (1971)

This is one of those switcheroo stories, like the Twilight Zone episodes in which a Nazi ends up in a death camp or a U-Boat captain ends up on a torpedoed freighter, or those EC comics in which a guy kills a spider and then gets caught in a giant spider web.  A dude loves feeding rats to his pet python.  Then Word War III breaks out and the resulting economic slowdown means there is a shortage of rats for sale! The python-lover tries to steal rats from a laboratory nearby, and the scientists there punish him by testing their new war gas on him.  This gas shrinks you to the size of a rat.  The python-lover is then eaten by his own pet.

I am going to give this one a marginal thumbs up, even though I find the switcheroo gimmick irritating, because I think my man Van is playing the whole thing for laughs rather than trying to make some banal philosophical point or indulging in some kind of fantasy of punishing his enemies.  And the following lines did make me laugh:
Until those words were spoken, Mark hadn't really thought about becoming a rat-stealing criminal.  Except for his peculiar love for his python, he was a law-abiding, tax-paying nobody.  
Also, this story is just three pages long--short and to the point.  And it reminded me of the scene in The Weapon Makers in which the protagonist has to fight a twenty-foot rat, and the scene in which he turns himself into a giant.  Good memories!

"The Rat and the Snake" was first published in Witchcraft and Sorcery, a periodical billed as "The MODERN Magazine of Weird Tales."  Since 1972 "The Rat and the Snake" has appeared in a few collections and anthologies, including two Continental European volumes with Chris Foss covers.

"The Timed Clock" (1972)

This is one of those time travel stories in which a guy goes back in time and becomes (or realizes he is) his own grandfather.  This is also one of those stories with an elaborate frame story in which a guy is hosting a party and tells his friends a wacky story and they have to decide if they believe it (hmmm..doesn't H. G. Wells' Time Machine also feature the time traveller describing his time travel to his buddies at a get together at his digs?)  I guess this story is a little off the beaten track because the main character's grandmother accompanies him to the present day to live with him as his wife.

Competent, so acceptable, but no big deal.

"The Timed Clock" has not appeared again in English, but our French, Dutch and Italian friends all have the opportunity to read it in their native jibber jabber in SF magazines and van Vogt collections.

"The Confession" (1972)

This is more like what we expect from van Vogt; "The Confession" is a story which is hard to understand and is full of psychology, hypnosis, ruthless superpowerful beings from another time or dimension, sexual relationships and class conflict.

Paul Marriott is the last of the Marriotts, the family that was once the richest and most important in town but which has fallen on hard times; not only is the big and once beautiful Marriott house mostly bare of furniture, but Paul is working at another man's shop, sweeping the floors!  Paul has started having strange hallucinations, or maybe they are vivid dreams, of the house being furnished, and of seeing himself, twenty years older, living with Judith, his girlfriend.  People in the town remind him that he was recently hypnotized by a travelling showman, and imply that Judith is no longer around.  Paul's hallucinations continue, he actually experiencing life married to Judith in an atomic-powered future of glittering lights and towering translucent buildings--in this future world Judith's business acumen has made them financially comfortable, reversing the decline of the Marriott family.  Is Paul getting glimpses of a potential happy future?  Is his psyche actually travelling back and forth between the dreadful present and a happy future?  Can he do anything to make sure that happy future comes to pass?  But where is Judith in the present day--what happened to her?

Paul tracks down the travelling hypnotist to get further clues, and then meets an even more eldritch character.  This figure suddenly appears on the penultimate page of the 15-page story, and his motives and actions are alien and somewhat opaque, but I think he is a time-travelling rogue who seduces (or rapes) women from different time periods.  It appears that after he had his way with Judith that she, fearing she was no longer good enough to be part of the exalted Marriott clan, committed suicide Lucrece-style.  Judith lays dead, a futuristic implement buried in her chest, but, somehow, as Paul and the future man wrestle, their actions, by accident or design, shift Paul and Judith onto another time stream and twenty years later, into that peaceful and comfortable atomic future.

This is the genuine van Vogt article; I like it.  "The Confession," like all the stories we are talking about today, appeared in translation in multiple non-English publications.

"Ersatz Eternal" (1972)

This is a trifling sort of thing, just four pages, that I cannot endorse.  Three Earthmen land on a barren planet; one by one they leave the vessel to look for fuel.  Each astronaut finds a simulacrum Earth complete with his friends and family and childhood home, etc.  Each lives for centuries--they do not age, and are immune from injury. Then, by chance, in New York City, two of the astronauts meet.  They speculate that some life force created this imitation Earth and they are "being held in reserve...possible substitutes if anything goes wrong."

This story feels like a waste of time, it is just too mysterious, amounts to nothing.  I may be missing its significance...there is a hint that the astronauts are from a different, happier, dimension, that the  imitation Earth is our own Earth, and that it is the product of the mind of the third astronaut, who is violently insane--if so, van Vogt is saying that you and I live in a nightmare world, a twisted caricature of the real happy universe!

Forrest J. Ackerman, who was van Vogt's literary agent (among others, Ackerman also represented Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury) included "Ersatz Eternal" in Best Science Fiction for 1973.  The story also saw print in foreign venues, including in an issue of the Polish SF magazine Fantastyka, which you can read at the internet archive.

"The Sound of Wild Laughter" (1972)

This is a substantial piece, like 50 pages long, a convoluted story with a plot like a soap opera's! Remember when we read Earth Factor X (AKA The Secret Galactics) two-and-a-half years ago?  Well, "The Sound of Wild Laughter" stars the same main characters, Nobel-prize-winning physicists Dr. Carl and Dr. Marie Hazzard, and some of the same supporting players!  It takes place earlier than the novel.

Carl and Marie's marriage is in bad shape, because Carl keeps cheating on Marie, so she refuses to sleep with him, and he hypocritically and irrationally flies into jealous rages, accusing her (unjustly) of cheating on him.  This has been going on for fourteen years!  It doesn't help that Carl, whose work doing Nobel-worthy research, managing Hazzard Laboratories--a successful firm that creates and sells scientific equipment--and acting as president of the Non-Pareil Corporation, as well as juggling two or three mistresses at any one time, is also an amateur expert on psychology!  He has a bunch of aphorisms about female behavior that he has inscribed in a journal he has entitled Women Are Doomed, and is always working them into conversation.  His aphorisms aren't like the ones we hear all the time, like "Girls rule, boys drool," or "A woman has to be twice as good as a man to get half as far," or "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle."  No, Carl's aphorisms are more like:
"A perfect marriage exists when a wife is bound to her husband by emotional ties that she does not even try to understand."
"It takes a lot of energy for a man to get a frigid female into bed and progressively more energy for him to keep her there."
I guess Carl long ago wrote off any ambitions of working for the Google people.

Anyway, as the story opens, Carl has been hit by a truck and practically killed, but the world's finest brain surgeon, Dr. Angus MacKerrie, in a pioneering operation, has managed to save Carl's brain and preserve it in a nutrient fluid!  Mac hooks the brain up to machines so Carl, still conscious as what he calls "a nothing, a mind suspended in a great night" can talk to people.  Marie is our main character, and we follow her as she deals with the aftermath of these startling events:
  • Mac the brain surgeon is in love with Marie and endeavors to seduce her (his seduction methods will look like rape to many 2017 readers.)
  • Carl in his neurotically jealous way has long suspected that one of his and Marie's top employees, fellow physicist Dr. Walter Drexel, is having an affair with Marie, and now he thinks Walter was the one who ran him over.  Walter pressures Marie to limit Carl's opportunities to talk to the press and other people, as he fears his career (and Marie's) will be ruined if Carl's accusations become public.  Now that Carl is out of the way Walter also tries to get in Marie's pants--he is no more concerned with getting affirmative consent than is Mac, but he has his own neuroses that hamper his efforts.   
  • Marie and Carl's lawyer helps her with the legal shenanigans revolving around Carl's will (he left money to several mistresses) and the decision of whether to petition the court to declare Carl, a disembodied but living brain, legally alive or legally dead.  The lawyer tries to blackmail Marie, seduce her, or maybe both--his dialogue is a little oblique and unclear.  Van Vogt stories are full of sentences and passages which are hard to understand, and this is at least partly intentional--Marie spends the whole story confused and disoriented (sample passage: "For Marie, resentment yielded to puzzlement...She couldn't quite decide what he was trying to say") and Van aims to make us readers feel the same way.
  • As the story progresses we learn more about Carl and Marie's marriage--for example, over the years Carl has suggested multiple times that they jointly commit suicide, so they can be "together in some other plane, true lovers for all time."  Carl, from his perch inside a glass dome full of nutrient liquid, suggests such a suicide pact yet again, and tells Marie, and then demonstrates, that he has rigged up a way to detonate a bomb in his quarters that, he says, will kill them both!  BOOM!  Marie is clever enough to escape the explosion, but the fact that Carl also survives suggests that Carl's suicide talk all along has been nothing more than a ruse to provide him the opportunity to murder his wife!  Carl then convinces Mac and Walter that Marie triggered the explosion, that she was trying to murder him!  Now all the men can blackmail Marie!
In the end, Marie is under the thumb of the three men, in a position she compares to that of a slave.

This is a crazy story, and challenging to interpret.  Carl's theories, which Marie is always thinking about and talking about, and the story's last few lines, indicate that "The Sound of Wild Laughter" is about free will and determinism.  Carl comes down hard on the side of determinism--the courses of our lives are just as determined by physical laws (Carl argues that factors like "chemistry of their internal structure" and "electromagnetic flows in the body and brain" control people so that we are "like so many puppets") as are the orbits of Mars and the Earth around the sun.  It is even implied that we all live in a "great night," just like Carl, even though we may still have our eyes and bodies.  Van Vogt seems to agree with these theories, but at the same time we have to wonder because he puts them in the mouth of a neurotic liar and would-be murderer--is this the kind of guy whose theories we should wholeheartedly embrace?

"The Sound of Wild Laughter" depicts a sexist society in which men crush an intelligent woman (she's a Nobel-winner herself, remember), but if we are supposed to accept Carl's theories, are we then supposed to see such sexism as merely an inevitable tragedy we must learn to accept?  Does determinism mean we should absolve the men of their crimes against Marie and each other?  Or are Carl's theories just a rationalization, an excuse for the terrible things he does?  Is van Vogt portraying evil or mentally ill men with a focus on the way they justify their oppressive actions, perhaps even suggesting that we question to what extent theories about human life like Carl's simply describe reality, and to what extent such theories actually help create the sexist and otherwise callous or unjust world we live in?

"The Sound of Wild Laughter" is not necessarily conventionally entertaining, and heaven knows how people nowadays will react to a morally ambiguous story in which an innocent woman is successfully manipulated by neurotic and murderous men who, in a just world, would be in a prison, but it is a thought-provoking puzzle, and I like it.  This is the real van Vogt stuff.  "The Sound of Wild Laughter" was translated into Italian and German, but only ever appeared in English in DAW's various printings of The Book of van Vogt.


The Book of van Vogt is a solid collection that every van Vogt fan will want to own because it includes these five otherwise difficult to acquire stories, and the Karel Thole cover is a nice bonus.  

More from our man Van in our next episode!

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