Saturday, April 14, 2018

"Recruiting Station" and "The Chronicler" by A. E. van Vogt


Late in February I read Richard C. Meredith's 1970 story "Earthcoming" and thought it might be an homage to A. E. van Vogt.  Exploring this theory, I reread van Vogt's story 1942 tale "Asylum," which first appeared in Astounding.  I enjoyed "Asylum" so much I have decided to reread two other van Vogt stories from 1940s issues of Astounding, "Recruiting Station" and "The Chronicler."  These stories have been reprinted again and again, under various titles, but I will be taking advantage of the internet archive to read the very same texts SF fans read back during the reign of FDR and his successor Harry S. Truman.

Check out Isaac Walwyn's fun and informative website on van Vogt for more information on the crazy publishing histories of "Recruiting Station" and "The Chronicler" and any other production of our favorite Canadian; Walwyn's site has helped me time and again over the years as I have explored van Vogt's perplexing body of work.

"Recruiting Station" (1942)

Rogers's cover illo depicts the beastmen
securing Jack Garson in the cockpit
of a swift little war machine of
20,000 years in the future
I believe I first read this story in a library copy of the 2003 collection Transfinite: The Essential A. E. van Vogt, back in my Manhattan days.  "Recruiting Station," which takes up almost 70 pages of Transfinite, has appeared in book form, presented as a novel, multiple times under the titles Masters of Time and Earth's Last Fortress.  For its appearance in Astounding it was adorned with some respectable drawings by Hubert Rogers.

Ten years ago social science college student Norma Matheson rejected physicist Jack Garner's proposal of marriage so she could focus on her career.  Things haven't worked out so well, and tonight she stands in a dark city park, before a river, considering suicide!  She turns away from this drastic expedient, sits on a park bench, and is approached by a strange figure--a mysterious man, his face in shadow, who somehow already knows her name and her sad history, offers her a cushy job and a decent apartment!  She accepts the offer, and starts work at a recruiting center where American men can volunteer to fight for Calonia, a sympathetic country that is the victim of some kind of aggression (presumably van Vogt is trying to evoke from the reader feelings about the Spanish Civil War; George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia was published in England in 1938.)  Norma realizes at her first day at work that the volunteers she sends into a back room, ostensibly for a medical exam, are being transported via a huge machine to fight in some dreadful war in the future!  She tries to contact the police, but the  head of the recruiting office Doctor Lell, he who hired her and an individual who in light of day is revealed to be of obscure ethnic background (he has dark skin like an African's, eyes like an East Asian's, a nose like a European's, etc.) has irresistible powers of surveillance, punishment and reward, rendering her his slave!  Among Lell's powers are the ability to read Norma's mind, and to adjust her biological age: if she follows orders he can make her as healthy as she was at twenty, but if she shirks he can transform her into a feeble old crone!  "We are the masters of time!" he brags, and in return for Norma's service offers her "eternal youth!"

Norma is no dunce, and neither is she a pushover, so she tests the limits of Dr. Lell's mind reading, writing a letter to her old beau, Jack, telling him of her unbelievable predicament.  When Jack comes to rescue her (this guy is a real softie, coming to the aid of the girl who shot him down a decade ago and is apparently bonkers!) he unwillingly ends up as one of Dr. Lell's recruits!

The narrative shifts from Norma to Jack, and we watch as Dr. Lell gives him a lecture and a little tour of the Earth of 20,000 years in the future.  In 200 centuries this big blue marble of ours will be ruled by the Glorious, a few million aristocrats who hold sway over countless numbers of slaves, beast-like people biologically and psychologically engineered to be strong, dim, and obedient.  These brutes live in vast cities of thousands of identical unadorned buildings.  Again referring to issues salient to 1940s readers, Jack compares this severely hierarchical society and its rigidly planned economy to that of the Nazis and Communists, even suggesting the ugliness of the culturally barren city is another example of the inevitable failure of all planned societies--Dr. Lell bridles at the comparison.

Humankind has colonized the solar system, and the Glorious are at war with the nation states that have grown up on the other planets; this alliance is called the Planetarians.  (The war was precipitated by disagreements over how to deal with overpopulation of the Solar System.)  The Planetarians are winning the war, having landed troops on Earth and surrounded the very city Norma lives in (in the far future this city is called Delpa.)  Every day the hulking Planetarian war machines advance forty feet deeper into the city, pushing back the Glorious "time energy barrier," a sort of force field powered by time (or something... one of the story's themes is how time is "the only reality" and "a titanic energy" that can be directed and exploited, I guess like a superior version of atomic power.)  Running low on brutes, the Glorious are recruiting human soldiers from every period of Earth history to die by the hundreds every day buying precious time for their scientists; Delpa is the site of the laboratory where the Glorious are developing a still more effective time energy barrier, one which will make them invulnerable and enable them to snatch victory from the very jaws of defeat!

As the story progresses it gets more and more complicated and confusing as Jack and Martha meet new people, learn new things, and so many of these people turn out to be liars or just mistaken, and so many things learned turn out to be untrue or incomplete versions of the truth.  Van Vogt keeps us off balance, switching gears and defying our expectations at every turn.  When we get this passage describing Jack's confusion:
Garson sighed wearily.  He felt suddenly genuinely exhausted, mentally and physically, by the twisting course of events.
we readers sympathize with him!

Along with the rest of the day's complement of men shanghaied from throughout human history, Jack is put into a "depersonalization machine" to be brainwashed; the others emerge as automatons willing to sacrifice their lives for the Glorious war effort,  but the machine fails to work on Jack.  In addition, the physicist receives a mysterious mental message, telling him that if the Glorious super time-energy barrier is activated it will destroy the entire universe, and so he must warn the Planetarians of this fact!  Once pushed out onto the battlefield Jack endeavors to get to the Planetarian lines.  Hit by a "paralyzer," he wakes up to find himself a captive aboard a Venus-bound Planetarian space ship--while he was in his coma the other captives have launched a mutiny and taken over half the ship.  The mutiny seems to be led by a character named Dra Derrel, a big wig among the people known as The Wizards of Lin, a civilization which purportedly invented the first space ship thousands of years before the rise of the Glorious.  Wizards of Lin?  Are these the same people referred to in the Clane/Empire of the Atom stories?  Or just our man Van, an early adopter of today's cult of reusing and recycling, using a cool-sounding name twice?  Zoinks, is this an indication I have to reread another van Vogt production I read some ten or more years ago?*  Anyway, Derrel claims to be the source of that mental message Jack received, but Jack isn't so sure, and the goings on he participates in on the ship provide reasons for him to suspect that neither the Wizards nor the Planetarians are all they are cracked up to be.

Interspersed with Jack's adventures in the far future are Norma's back in the 20th century--for three years she works for Dr. Lell, who shuttles back and forth between the war in his time and his job managing the recruiting center in the 1940s.  Norma figures out the means by which Dr. Lell manipulates her biological age, and herself receives mental messages about the dangers of the Glorious time-energy barrier.  Like so many van Vogt characters, she develops tremendous mental powers (we later learn these are called "Insel mind powers"--write your own joke!) and these powers enable her to travel instantly through time and space and to telekinetically fight the robots and computers Dr. Lell sends against her.

Norma and Jack's plot threads join together again when Norma, in the midst of a battle with Glorious robots near where she earlier contemplated suicide, uses her newfound powers to teleport him from the Planetarian spaceship back to the 1940s to aid her.  During his time in the far future Jack has figured some things out, and at his suggestion Norma summons the "mysterious manipulators of the universe," man's ultimate evolutionary form, who live at the end of time and have been sending her and Jack those mental messages.  In the last two pages of the tale these beings resolve some of the mysteries Norma and Jack (and we readers) have been confronted with heretofore and also explain their complex method of saving the universe (it entails creating new universes in which to quarantine malignant elements so that this universe is the best of all possible universes...I think.)  But their power is not unlimited, and they need Norma's help to prevent the Glorious time-energy barrier's construction, just as they needed her help to get to the 20th century.  Norma transports herself back to the very moment when she first met Dr. Lell, to live again her three years of service to him, but this time she knows all his tricks and has those Insel mind powers, and can with ease sabotage the development of the Glorious universe-threatening barrier (and build a happy marriage with Jack.)

"Recruiting Station" is full of wild SF ideas--a woman's  experience of her thirty-year-old body transformed into a more vigorous and beautiful twenty-year-old one, and into a feeble and wretched seventy-year old one; a totalitarian society of supermen who lord it over masses of beastmen; a man suspended in nothingness for millions of years when his girlfriend tries to use her newfound mental powers to teleport him to her from the future and he gets stuck in a "time emptiness" near the time-energy barrier around Delpa--and more!  Van Vogt doesn't necessarily explore these ideas deeply; sometimes he just addresses them briefly or throws them at you, leaving you to puzzle over their ramifications or simply allow them to wash over you in a tide of perplexity as he continues his story at a breakneck pace.  The Canadian mastermind's object is not to do detailed and exacting "world-building," but to generate a mood of strangeness and excitement, a sense of wonder at the dizzying possibilities of nearly unimaginable periods of time and inconceivable amounts of power.

Van Vogt is not known for having a good writing style, but some passages of "Recruiting Station" are actually quite effective.  The opening scenes in which Norma comes close to killing herself and her first few days of work for Dr Lell, in which she learns the extent of his powers, are good, and I liked the description of the starkly uniform city of the Glorious and of the battle at the periphery of the force field.  The fighting in Delpa, in which Jack Garson and the other Glorious soldiers pilot little one-man "torpedo-shaped craft" in a desperate attack on the Planetarian land battleships. reminded me a lot of a battle in Jack Vance's Durdane books, which I read in my New York days and then gave away to a friend so I can't consult them now.  Where I felt things sagged a little was in the scenes on the Planetarian spaceship with the Wizard of Lin; this section of the novel is less vivid and interesting, and felt less connected to the overall plot.

This is a fun story, though I had to make some effort to really "get" some of it (I essentially read the story twice in a short period) and of course it lacks some of the things I routinely praise in stories, like complex characters and human emotion--the characters and tone are essentially flat, van Vogt hitting the same notes again and again, though I guess you could say he hits them harder and harder as he moves the story relentlessly forward, one crazy idea or twist after another until we arrive at the end, Van having taken us full circle and deposited us back at the beginning.  To appreciate "Recruiting Station" you have to enjoy the work of figuring it out, the occasional powerful images, and the recurring surprises and general feeling of confusion and amazement it generates.  ("Dream-like" is a phrase often used to describe his work.)

In my opinion, "Recruiting Station" is a good example of what van Vogt is all about.  It is also interesting as a product of its time, as I have suggested, and feminist readers might find noteworthy its depiction of a college-educated professional woman who is given the responsibility of saving the universe but who at the same time has a man at the center of her psychological life, a man whose help she needs to succeed in her awful mission and to achieve personal happiness.  Students of van Vogt's long career may find his descriptions of the soldiers in the story as lusty, adventurous men unafraid of death, to be of a piece with his interest in "the violent male."  "Recruiting Station" gets a big thumbs up from this van Vogt aficionado.

*After I drafted this line but before I copyedited and uploaded this post I purchased a paperback edition of Wizard of Linn at the maze-like D.C. bookstore Capitol Hill Books.


"The Chronicler" (1946)

Life on the streets of Naze: Vampiric muggers
drink the blood of their victim
I think I first read this one in my copy of the collection M33 in Andromeda, where it bears the poetical title "Siege of the Unseen" and takes up nearly 80 pages.  Later appearances of the story carry the title "The Three Eyes of Evil."  The story was serialized over two issues of Astounding, where it features illustrations by Walter Swenson which, as a group, exhibit both a simple modern design sensibility and a sort of woodcut look.

Stock broker and married man Michael Slade is slightly injured in a car accident.  A strip of skin is torn from his forehead, revealing a third eye!  His wife wants him to have this third eye covered up again via plastic surgery, and when he decides to keep it exposed and see if he can train it to work in concert with his other two eyes, she divorces him!

"The Chronicler" is mostly related in the third person omniscient, with press clippings and court documents providing plot elements and "color."  These "primary documents" also inform us from page one that Slade has been found dead--on page three we learn he was "crushed"--which renders the main text as a sort of flashback.  (Again I am reminded of 1950's Sunset Boulevard, which I just mentioned a month ago; that film starts with us aware that the protagonist has died under gruesome circumstances, and proceeds to explain how the main character came to this pass.)  This way of structuring the story makes "The Chronicler," somewhat like "Recruiting Station," a circle--we both start and end the story with Slade's (spoiler!--supposed) death.

Our man Van is interested in questionable alternative theories of medicine--for example, he was deeply involved in L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics.  In "The Chronicler" Michael Slade trains his three eyes using odd methods that include exposing the eye to direct sunlight, the kind of thing I have been told all my life is akin to eye suicide.  In his brief reviews of the Ace publication of Siege of the Unseen and the Simon and Schuster edition of War Against the Rull in If (as you know, all issues of If are available at the internet archive), Frederick Pohl points out that the methods used by Slade are those of discredited weirdo William Horatio Bates.  Van Vogt describes the methods in detail, but never uses Bates's name, which is a little odd.

Slade briefly gets his third eye operating at full capacity, and sees into a parallel universe of cave men and a naked woman with three eyes!  But then his interdimensional vision fails him, perhaps because of something that woman does.  Slade leaves the city to spend time at his childhood home on a farm, and there is able to transport himself bodily to that other plane of existence.  This alternate world is parallel to ours (the lay of the land, hills and valleys and so forth, are recognizable, but trees and buildings are different) and, exploring a little, he comes upon a landed spaceship in a field.  Aboard the ship he meets the same three-eyed woman, and again his third eye is stripped of its power in short order, and he is returned to our Earth.

A month later Slade heads back to the city where finds that the three-eyed lady (sing it!), has been to his home, leaving with his servant a note signed "Leear" and a self-destructing phonograph record so he can learn the language of the city of Naze!  According to the note, when he can speak the language, he is to make a midnight rendezvous with her at a specified spot out in the country.  When he makes the rendezvous, he doesn't see Leear, just hears her voice a moment before she teleports him to that other dimension, within the walls of the ancient and decrepit city of spires and vampires known as Naze!

Like Delpa in "Recruiting Station," Naze in "The Chronicler" is a city under siege, protected by a force field.  The inhabitants who crowd its streets during the day are decadent and depraved, with no work and no ambition other than to drink human blood!  (To this end everybody carries a syringe and a metal cup!)  At night the most vigorous vampires ambush those foolish enough to walk the streets past sunset, and during the day the weak beg the strong for a few drops of blood the way throngs of people beg me for a dollar every time I go into D.C. to visit the art museums and bookstores!  (In Naze you can whip beggars who importune you, but I don't think I'd get the approval of the authorities if I started tolchocking the impecunious citizens of "the District" with my umbrella.)  Leear has sent Slade to Naze to assist in its destruction, and, seeing the place, Slade is so appalled by it that he agrees that it should be destroyed by the spaceship that for centuries has hovered over the city, menacing the abominable metropolis...but is he sure he really wants to get mixed up with all these crazy people, to actually risk his life for them?  After all, Leear is found to be a master of deceit who has no qualms about sacrificing people to achieve her goal of destroying the city, and even the fifth columnists Slade meets in Naze are so addicted to human blood that they strap Slade down when he is unawares and steal some of his precious bodily fluid!

The people at isfdb warn that this edition is likely
abridged.
Leear's powers only keep Slade in Naze for 36 hours or so, and back on Earth Slade tries to put all this Naze insanity behind him and renew his marriage and relationships--to put an ordinary life back together he even tells his ex-wife he's willing to cover up his third eye.  But wifey and former friends want nothing to do with the three-eyed freak!  So Slade gathers together weapons and equipment, trains his third eye with determination, and transports himself to the other dimension under his own steam!

Slade makes sure he appears on the other side not in the city of Naze, but among those three-eyed cave people. This tribe turns out to not be primitives at all, but sophisticated moderns who have chosen to live the simple life!  (Is Van pulling a Chad Oliver on us?)  The tribespeeps have total control of their nervous systems (down to the molecule!) and begin training Slade in achieving control of his own body.  ("The Chronicler" is all about the importance of training.)  The most important thing they have to teach him is the ability to relax--all our bodily and psychological problems come from tension, and, to be happy and healthy, what you have to do is relax! 

After a month of training to relax, Slade's relaxation is ruined when it comes out that the tribe is training him to control his body so he can help Leear in her war on Naze--she thinks that only Slade can kill the cruel ruler of Naze, a man named Geean.  Leear is not one of the tribe, but the tribe is working with her because the mere existence of Naze limits them--if Naze is destroyed, they can master control of their bodies beyond the molecular level to the very electron level and thus achieve immortality!  Slade storms off into the wilderness, only to be captured by airborne Naze troops!

Back in the diabolical city, Slade meets Geean himself atop the city's central spire.  Slade is astonished to find he has already met Geean among the tribesmen--was the tribe working for Geean under duress and only lying about working with Leear?  Leear appears, and these two competing immortals explain the history of how the hi-tech city of Naze degenerated and why Leear and Geean have been at war for a thousand years.  Ten centuries ago, the human race on this plane was falling into decadence and ennui because they had achieved immortality via machinery.  A vote was held, and it was ordered that everybody destroy his immortality belt so they all could learn how to achieve immortality via the newly discovered relaxation method--as long as any considerable mechanical construction remained it would be impossible to achieve the electron level of relaxation, so all the cities would have to be torn down.

Two people were permitted to temporarily retain their immortality belts, Leear and a companion, who were to observe the transition from the space ship (Leear is the "chronicler" of the title.)  A small number of rebels who opposed this transition struck just after the belts were destroyed--Geean was their leader.  In the fighting every other city in the world was blow up with nuclear weapons, and Geean killed Leear's companion and took his belt and made himself dictator of Naze.  Leear managed to get the space ship airborne before Geean could activate his force field, and she destroyed the immortality belt manufacturing facilities from the air, rendering it impossible to return to a fully immortal society via mechanical means--everybody Leear and Geean had known for thousands of years died while they continued on, immortal, his city and her ship locked in a stalemate.

Slade is able to kill Geean because he is from another plane, and can send Geean to our plane; as they are all in a skyscraper, and there is no parallel skyscraper back in our world, when Slade does so the tyrant falls to his death (his immortality device will not work in a different plane, which Van foreshadowed by demonstrating that the gunpowder in Slade's pistols didn't work on the Naze plane.)  The authorities back on Earth misidentify Geean's crushed body as Slade's--to the two-eyed, I guess all (crushed) three-eyed dudes look the same!

Slade learns that Leear genetically engineered him to have a third eye and manipulated his life on our Earth so he could serve as her cat's paw in her war to liberate mankind on her plane from mortality.  Slade is willing to overlook this (and the ten thousand year age difference), and it is clear as the story ends that Slade and Leear will become husband and wife and live happily forever after.

Though there are plenty of people using disguises and lying, and plenty of people who are misled and spread misinformation, "The Chronicler" is more straightforward and easier to understand than "Recruiting Station."  The story is also less economical, with passages I would consider fat.  For example, the long scenes about the (curiously unnamed) Bates method.  There is also an explanation that "Naze," even though it looks like "Nazi" on the page, is not meant to make the reader think of the German National Socialist party.  Wouldn't it have been easier to just make up a name for the city that didn't look almost exactly like the colloquial name for one of the most famous and provocative organizations in history?  A strange artistic choice on the part of the author.

 I like it, but our man Van has done better.

**********

Two entertaining SF capers about cities under siege, people striving for immortality, individuals manipulated by superior beings, and men and women who ride a rocky road to marital bliss.  More van Vogt in our future!

2 comments:

  1. My go-to Van Vogt collection is Transfinite: The Essential A.E. Van Vogt. Check out the TABLE OF CONTENTS:
    Introduction (Hal Clement)
    Foreward (Joe Rico)
    Black Destroyer
    The Monster
    Film Library
    Enchanted Village
    Asylum
    Vault of the Beast
    The Ghost
    The Rull
    Recruiting Station
    A Can of Paint
    The Search
    Dear Pen Pal
    The Harmonizer
    The Great Judge
    Far Centaurus
    Secret Unattainable
    Future Perfect
    The Great Engine
    Dormant
    The Sound
    The Rulers
    Final Command
    War of Nerves
    Don't Hold Your Breath
    Discord in Scarlet
    Afterward (Rick Katze)

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    1. Transfinite is a great collection; I read a lot of a library copy back in my NYC days. The Bob Eggleton cover is pretty good, too.

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