Thursday, September 7, 2017

Three early 1970s stories from 1976's The Best of A. E. van Vogt

In 1976 Pocket Books put out a 256-page collection of stories by MPorcius Fiction Log's favorite Canadian (sorry, Norm!) entitled The Best of A. E. van Vogt.  When I read this book's entry on isfdb a week or so ago I found it irresistible and rushed to ebay to purchase a copy. Why irresistible? Well, there's the Harry Bennett cover, which, with its obvious brushstrokes, collage-like elements, beautiful blues and horrifying faces is more like something you'd see in an art museum than on the cover of a SF book. And then there's the intro by Barry N. Malzberg, another of our obsessions here at MPorcius Fiction Log HQ.

Let's take a look at this baby!

"Ah, Careless, Rapturous van Vogt!" by Barry N. Malzberg  

The intro by New Jersey's own Barry Malzberg is dated "Teaneck, N.J., September 10, 1975" and is over two pages long.  The title is actually a paraphrase of something said of van Vogt by Brian Aldiss.  Malzberg argues that van Vogt is difficult to assess and has been "under-assessed" or ignored by the critics (he lists Budrys, Blish, Knight, Russ and Panshin, just their last names, assuming the reader is a SF junkie who will recognize these worthies.)  Malzberg's own theory of van Vogt is that he is the most unique of the Golden Age SF writers:  
Heinlein, Asimov, Del Rey, Kuttner, are marvelous writers making their contributions as a group to a body of literature; van Vogt is standing off by himself building something very personal and unique.
Malzberg, who is a solipsistic sort, then says that he sympathizes with van Vogt because he feels like he has done the same thing in the 1970s that the Canadian mastermind did in the Golden Age, that they are both "sui generis," above all themselves, writers whose work is distinct from the main group of SF writers of their cohort.

Reading Malzberg compare himself in this way to van Vogt brought a smile to my face, because, for years now, I have been enjoying Malzberg and van Vogt in similar ways and seen them as similar writers.  Both eschew conventions and break the rules to produce strange and confusing work, shit that is so crazy and surprising it makes you laugh; both also hit the same themes and topics again and again, even recycling material in the interests of efficiency--for them writing is a business as well as an art.

I felt like with this essay I had already got my money's worth out of The Best of A. E. van Vogt, but there was much more to come, stories I'd never read and page after page of non fiction from van Vogt himself.  Let's check out three stories from the early 1970s, "Don't Hold Your Breath," "All We Have on this Planet," and "Future Perfect," as well as some of the accompanying nonfiction material.


In his brief (just over a page) intro to this collection van Vogt brings up Marshall McLuhan and his theory of hot and cool media--"Long before McLuhan I did things with my style that were designed to make it even hotter."  He also defends "pulp" writing, and says "pulp" can be used to describe "fiction that has in it an unusual vitality," not neccesarily low quality junk.  Van Vogt brings up Norman Spinrad, whom he claims "maintains" that "people who enjoy pulp writing" are "lesser human beings." According to van Vogt, Spinrad has contempt for the vast majority of humanity and thinks the only people living meaningful lives are "the dissidents of the 1960s."   (My reading of Spinrad's The Men in the Jungle and my abortive effort to read Child of Fortune make me think van Vogt is not exaggerating very much.)  Finally, van Vogt claims that science fiction (which he likes to call "unreality writing") will be found to be "of greater importance than is now evident."

"Don't Hold Your Breath" (1973)

The stories in The Best of A. E. van Vogt include intros by the author, and some have afterwords.  In the intro to "Don't Hold Your Breath" van Vogt does the kind of thing Malzberg often does, jocularly complaining that nobody has read, and almost nobody has heard about, Roger Elwood and Virginia Kidd's anthology Saving Worlds and its paperback edition The Wounded Planet, the venue in which "Don't Hold Your Breath" first appeared.  (I read a Malzberg story from The Wounded Planet and Malzberg's own dim appreciation of the anthology's marketability almost a year ago.)

It is the near future, a time of world government and visiphones, and the Earth is running out of oxygen!  The government is having huge underground complexes of tiny apartments built where people can breathe thanks to oxygen manufacturing plants, and also developing drugs which will transform people into flourine-breathers!  (Flourine is being imported to Earth from asteroids.)

Our narrator is Art Atkins, millionaire.  Atkins got rich by fulfilling government contracts for parts of the many subterranean living quarters--his absolute lack of morals and skill at schmoozing and manipulating people served him well in dealing with all-too-corruptible government bureaucrats.  Atkins has a lot in common with Dr. Carl Hazzard from "The Sound of Wild Laughter;" he's an expert on female psychology who juggles numerous mistresses and has a habit of hiding explosive charges here and there for possible future use!

Our convoluted story begins with Art, just days before the oxygen is going to run out, crossing the deserted city (everybody else is already hiding in the local shelter, but Art can wait to the last minute because he has built a secret personal entrance into the shelter) to visit one of his four mistresses.  He has to punch some sense into this chick because she has been defying him!  He assures us that he won't punch her too hard because he doesn't want to ruin her pretty face or curvy body!

It turns out that this mistress of Art's is working for the terrorist underground that opposes the transformation of humankind into flourine-breathers.  These rebels want Art to detonate the explosives he left in the local oxygen plant.  One of these supposed rebels is a double agent working for the government and Art soon goes from rebel hands into government custody. The government wants to know all about Art's secret entrances and hidden bombs, and to severely punish him for his various crimes, but maybe Art's skills at manipulation will help him escape justice!

I read "Don't Hold Your Breath" years ago when I borrowed 2003's Transfinite from the New York Public Library, but I didn't mind reading it again today--it's pretty good.  Art Atkin's narration--thanks to his quirky outdated slang ("I threw on some threads and ankled outside") as well as his abundant self-confidence and shocking amorality--is amusing.  In the Afterword to "Don't Hold Your Breath" van Vogt makes clear that he thinks the current concern over ecology is no more than faddish alarmism ("emotional madness") and opportunism ("The ecology scare, which extravagantly enriched a few writers....") and tells us he focused his story on Art Atkins instead of environmental destruction because he wanted his story to be timeless, not dated once the current pollution-obsession has been forgotten.

"All We Have On This Planet" (1974)          

In the intro to this piece van Vogt relates how, in the 1960s, a bunch of young SF writers appeared who thought SF should be "relevant" and reflect reality, and how the critics quickly jumped on this relevance bandwagon.  Since our man Van has been telling us that he writes "unreality stories" and thinks writing anti-pollution stories is a waste of time, we aren't surprised to hear that he was at odds with the newly revolutionized SF establishment, which declared van Vogt's work "kaput."  Van Vogt doesn't mention the names of any of those new writers here, but he singles out one of the critics, Algis Budrys.  Apparently, at some point Budrys declared he was leaving the SF field (members of the SF community are always quitting for a few years and then coming back) and one of the reasons he said he was doing so was that he found it frustrating that van Vogt still had a paying audience!

Van brags that, despite elite disapproval, his stories kept selling and getting reprinted.  Then he tells us that "All We Have On This Planet" proves that his success is no accident, because in it "I handle reality material of the inelegant type that has been so popular for so long in mainstream fiction and in 'relevant' science fiction."

"All We Have On This Planet" is a wacky satire in which van Vogt parodies literary writers and critics as people who think realistic fiction must include references to using the bathroom and having sex.  The main character of the six-page story is a novelist who craves the approval of others and produces suspense stories by tapping his subconscious via "automatic writing."  In the newspaper, which he sometimes reads while sitting on the toilet, he reads reviews of his own work (complaints that it doesn't reflect reality because it lacks references to bodily functions like going to the bathroom) and the latest news about the alien invasion.  He has two girlfriends, Sleekania, who is a psychic who can read his mind (and dislikes what she finds there) and Devestata, who is a military history buff.  Combining insights from these two women, the novelist calls his father, a brigadier-general at the Pentagon who can speak fourteen Asian languages, and tells him that the Earth space navy should attack the alien invaders every four hours, when they take an hour off to all go to the bathroom at the same time.  This advice saves the Earth.

I guess as a mocking imitation of experimental stories, "All We Have On This Planet" is sometimes written in the third person, sometimes in the first person, switching without warning.

This is a bizarre but memorable novelty, full of strange elements.  It first appeared in a British anthology edited by George Hay, Stopwatch, (according to van Vogt he was asked to contribute something "subversive") and would later be included in a French anthology with a very strange flesh and blood cover illustration by Chris Foss, famous in the SF world for his cold images of huge space ships and machinery (though also responsible for the drawings in the first edition of The Joy of Sex).

Introduction to "War of Nerves"

"War of Nerves" is one of the famous Space Beagle stories and I am already familiar with it and don't want to spend any time on it today, but the intro to the story is remarkable because in it van Vogt presents a kind of theory of science fiction.  Van Vogt brands mainstream literature and TV as "reality fiction," saying that most people like to read and watch TV about real life: "stories about hospitals, crime in the streets, personal tragedies, romantic and married love, etc."

Van Vogt tells us that his "brand of science fiction"--unreality fiction--is more challenging to the reader than reality fiction.
Each paragraph--sometimes each sentence--of my brand of science fiction has a gap in it, an unreality condition.  In order to make it real, the reader must add the missing parts.  He cannot do this out of his past associations.  There are no past associations.  So he must fill in the gaps from the creative part of his brain.  
Van Vogt argues that reading SF changes the readers brain for the better.

This is a fascinating and persuasive theory, and certainly seems to jive with the often confusing experience of reading van Vogt.  Case in point--the famous last line of The Weapon Makers (Malzberg quotes it in his intro to The Best of A. E. van Vogt) includes a word van Vogt just made up and for which he provides very little context.  This also goes along with McLuhan's theory that distinguishes between hot media--that are direct and easy to understand--and cool media--which demand audience participation--though it sounds like here Van is saying his work is "cool," while earlier he implied his work is "hot."

At the same time, you can't deny that this theory appears a little self-serving, as it suggests that van Vot's notoriously opaque work is difficult by design, not incompetence or laziness, and that it is readers who don't "get" van Vogt who are in fact the lazy or dim ones!

"Future Perfect" (1973)

The fourth piece in The Best of A. E. van Vogt is "The Rull," a great story (Malzberg thinks it may be the best thing van Vogt ever wrote) I have read multiple times already and don't feel like reading again today.  The fifth is a lecture on general semantics, one of van Vogt's interests, which I don't feel like reading today, either. But the sixth piece is a story I've never read, "Future Perfect."  In his intro van Vogt promotes SF as a vehicle for philosophical reflection--the SF writer can extrapolate currently fashionable political ideas and depict what a future society in which the "half-baked schemes" of "bleeding hearts" have been made the "law of the land" might look like.

"Future Perfect" is one of those stories about a future society in which the government is running everything.  Over the course of the story we learn that when boys approach puberty their "sex performance capacity" is "placed under control" by drugs, and, when a young man marries one of the small number of women the government computer judges a suitable match, he gets an injection that allows him to have sex, and then a second injection that causes "hormonic alignment" so he can only have sex with his computer-approved wife.  To ease the adoption of this system, the government has also indoctrinated people with new standards of beauty, so that all women are considered beautiful.

(As van Vogt fans know, the Canadian mastermind studied communism in China in preparation for writing his mainstream novel The Violent Man--in the introduction to Future Glitter he brags that he "read and reread approximately 100 books on China and Communism."  Some of the government workers' dialogue in "Future Perfect" suggests van Vogt based this whole idea of controlling sex and marriage on some Chinese Communist Party policy he read about.)

In the economic realm, there is no cash--all transactions are done electronically and carefully tracked by government agents.  You aren't allowed to inherit any money or property from your parents, and when you reach your eighteenth birthday, the government puts a million dollars in an account for you, and any money you earn goes to paying down this debt.  (Most people never pay off the entire debt, but there is no punishment if you chip away at it every week.)

The hero of our story, eighteen-year-old Steven Dalkins, rebels against the system, getting famous by wasting his million dollars and then escaping the government medical facility after his "sex performance capacity" has been reactivated but before he has been conditioned to only have sex with his computer-suggested wife.  After his escape, in theory, he could have sex with any woman he likes!  In practice, he doesn't go on a seduction spree, but instead spends his time organizing a non-violent resistance movement (having thrown away his million, he lives off donations from his followers.)  Much of the story's text follows the conversations of government psychiatrists and bureaucrats as they observe Steven and try to figure out what to do about him; with the help of a computer they try to diagnose whether he is "alienated" or not.  The alienated are dealt with harshly,. but since Steven doesn't appear to be alienated, the state can take little direct action against him, as his rebellious acts--the biggest of which is distributing chemicals that allow people to deactivate their "hormonic alignment" and thus choose their own sex partners--are not quite illegal. It also seems like some factions in the government are sympathetic to Steven or see his rebellion as advancing their own not clearly stated agendas.

In the end it turns out that Steven didn't actually want to overthrow the government--he simply wanted to marry a particular woman of his own choice, one the computer would not have accepted because she is his own age (the computer always matches up men with women who are a few years older, because men die earlier than women.)  He is not alienated, but many of his over 50,000 followers are, and some of them have been expressing their alienation through acts of greed and murder.  Steven helps the government round up the alienated (most are exiled to the space colonies, but the murderers, it is hinted, are executed) and it appears that the government will endure, though Steven has made inevitable major reforms of the government's control of sexuality.

Generally, SF writers construct these totalitarian government settings to point out that such government interventions are immoral or inefficient and cause psychological, spiritual or material misery.  In the end of the story it is clear that van Vogt thinks the government control of the people's erotic life has been damaging, having forced them to live lives bereft of love.  But van Vogt doesn't really denounce his future world's economic system, and in his afterword our man Van suggests that the most interesting part of the story is not the oppressive government, but the "alienated."  Taking shots at young people who don't realize how good life is in the 20th century United States compared to life in earlier times and in other countries, he asserts that a certain percentage of people are going to be alienated and rebel due to childhood trauma, regardless of what kind of government they live under: " any forseeable future we shall have the same percentage of alienated types as now."  This provocative mechanistic theory of rebellion reminds us again of Carl Hazzard's mechanistic psychological theories in "The Sound of Wild Laughter."

As is typical of van Vogt, this story is a puzzle you have to figure out, but it doesn't have any adventure or human relationship type elements to interest you emotionally--because the fact that the reason for Steven's rebellion is love for a woman his own age is kept as a surprise to the end, there is no opportunity to develop this relationship--this woman has no dialogue and we never even learn her name.  Another issue I had with this story, which may have something to do with the volume's editor and not the author at all, is that there is no indication of when a scene has ended and a new one has begun.  In most fiction there is a blank line or a bunch of asterisks or a transitional phrase ("Three hours later he was in the offices of the head of the department...") to signal that a new scene is beginning, but in "Future Perfect" Steven will be sitting in a room, dealing with a guy, and then he says or does something, we think with that first guy, only to realize a few lines later that it is some time later and Steven is in a totally different room with a totally different guy.  Disconcerting, but, bizarrely, it is disconcerting in a way that van Vogt's writing is always disconcerting, so one wonders if it is a printing error or an intentional van Vogt mind game.

I guess "Future Perfect" is acceptable; I can't say I'm enthusiastic about it.  There are no human relationships or wild images to make it entertaining or emotionally stimulating like we see in some of the work I have mentioned in this blog post like Future Glitter, The Weapon Makers or "The Sound of Wild Laughter."  "Future Perfect" was first published in the third of Vertex's sixteen issues and has since appeared in quite a few American and European collections and anthologies, including Jerry Pournelle's 2020 Vision and a French collection for which it was the title story.


Reading the first half or so of The Best of A. E. van Vogt has provided some interesting insights into his thinking and career; I'll visit the second half of the volume in the future when I finally read the Silkie stories and reread the Clane and Supermind stories.

In our next episode we take a look at my latest acquisition of work by A. E. van Vogt's largely unrecognized soulmate, Barry Malzberg!

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