Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Battle of Forever by A. E. Van Vogt

So, I'm standing in Half Price Books, a sealed paperback copy of A. E. Van Vogt's The Battle of Forever in my hand, wracking my poor brain; is Battle of Forever a fixup of stories I already own, like so many of Van Vogt's later books? Or is this an original novel I have never seen before in my life, in a store or in a library, and so a necessary purchase? I'm finding that The Battle of Forever is hard to resist because on the cover, painted by the famous John Schoenherr, is my new hero, the rifle-toting avatar of the hopes and dreams of amphibious pachyderms everywhere, HippoMan!

I whipped out my battered iphone 4 and checked the ISFDB entry for Battle of Forever. I must not be the only one routinely baffled by Van Vogt's extensive bibliography, because some concientious SF fan had appended a special note to the page on Battle of Forever: "Note: Seems to not be a fix-up novel." Relieved, I was able to part with my $3.18 with confidence, and head home, looking forward to learning all the ins and outs of the saga of HippoMan and his sidekicks, CoyoteKid and Cheetahperson. Yesterday I unsealed the plastic and eagerly cracked open the book, published by Ace in 1971, wondering what adventures Van Vogt had in store for me.

It is thousands of years in the future, and mankind has evolved. People are about two feet long and have heads 14 inches across! People don’t eat food (they use photosynthesis) or walk (they have genetically engineered intelligent six foot tall mantis servants to move them around) and the very idea of sex or childbirth is disgusting to them. The human race, reduced in number to a thousand individuals, lives in a secluded sort of fortress, tended to by a legion of insect-derived humanoid servants.

For over 3000 years no human has bothered to see what is going on outside the fortress; humanity is now pacifistic and passive, feeling that life has no meaning and so there is not much point in doing anything.  As the book begins, Modyun, one of the more adventurous humans, agrees to undergo a four year treatment that will transform his tiny feeble body into the sort of body humans had long ago, so he can cross the barrier and explore the outside world, where live millions of the intelligent humanoid beasts that man bioengineered in the forgotten past.

Hippoman appears on page 10, a passenger in a car which Modyun hails. Also in the car are Jaguarman, Foxman, and Grizzly Bearman. Over the centuries the animal-people who live outside the barrier have forgotten all about humanity, and these four individuals are led to believe that Modyun is a species of ape they have never seen before. He tells them he just arrived from Africa, and they show him around the creature-man city, an automatic metropolis run by computers built by men millennia ago. At the same time that Modyun is learning about the city, he is learning what it is to have a body that can move and feel, growing accustomed to the tedious need to eat and use the toilet.

Mankind had left the various animal people in a state of equality, but it soon becomes apparent that the hyena men are now in charge.  Modyun discovers that space aliens have secretly taken over the Earth, and put the the hyena men on top to serve as their henchmen!  The peaceful animal people are being sent off into space in the millions to fight in the aliens' campaign to conquer the galaxy! These aliens ignored humanity as long as men stayed shut up in their fortress, but when Modyun starts poking around they blow up the human fortress with one blast.  Modyun is now the last man on Earth!

In a clever parallelism, we learn that thousands of years ago, before humans had "improved" animals through genetic engineering, the aliens had "improved" human beings, in a bid to turn them decadent, so they wouldn't resist conquest. Modyun, in his investigation of the aliens who have exterminated humanity and duped the animal people into being their foot soldiers, may have to bend the rules of his pacifistic philosophy a bit. This investigation takes Modyun into space, along with his four buddies, to various worlds where they face diverse challenges.

I thought Battle for Forever was fun, and easier to follow than many Van Vogt novels. I also thought this one had a little more human feeling, thanks to its portrayal of the first man in thousands of years to physically experience such emotions as fear, anger, and affection.  Modyun is also the first man in over 3000 years to attempt sexual intercourse. Some of Modyun's interactions with the aliens and with the animal people were quite amusing.

Battle for Forever still has much of the stuff we expect from Van Vogt, like mental powers, jarring plot twists and scene transitions, and poorly constructed sentences. I'm a supporter of Van Vogt's, but I have to admit that when it comes to the nuts and bolts of being a writer, like putting together sentences that are clear and/or beautiful, Van Vogt is not very good. I've come to accept this as part of the Van Vogt experience; not every SF writer can be a Tom Disch or a Gene Wolfe, after all.

HippoMan is not the leader of the animal people, or even his little band; in fact he is the youngest and the stupidest. But I still enjoyed The Battle of Forever.


  1. Love the intro to this review. I completely identify with the angst of wondering: "Is this something I've read already, or something new? If I walk away and later discover I haven't read it, what if somebody else has bought it in the meantime? How do I know? Should I say 'To hell with it.' and just buy it, or should I wait and do the research, and take a chance no one else wants it?

    I see you solved the problem with, what else, technology. Indeed, you exhibit all the symptoms of being a genuine sci-fi reader.

    And here's another classic scenario: "Oh, that's interesting. Look at this book lying innocently on the shelf. I've heard of this author, and Joachim at Scientific Ruminations recommends them, and other people seem to like them, but I've never read anything by them. Should I take a chance and plop down the cash, or wait and do a little research? If I don't buy it now, maybe somebody else will snap it up. It is a bargain..."

  2. I've always "loved" this cover... I saw this one in the store a while back, but, I tend not to pick up his novels. I really wonder how his short stories read -- are they clearer, more focused, less disjointed and abrupt?

    1. Some are more clear and focused. The 1948 version of "The Rull" is a pretty straightforward story about a human and an alien who struggle against each other with high tech weapons and hypnotic techniques. The four stories that ended up being the four parts of Voyage of the Space Beagle are similarly straightforward. These stories got more complicated when they were integrated into novels.

      "Defense" is one of my favorite short-short stories by any writer (it's 2 pages.)

      "Secret Unattainable" is written as a series of letters and memos, telling the story about the German discovery of a super weapon during WWII. Van Vogt really seems to have tried to write in the style of the people who would write such documents, and it is probably the best written of his stories, and may be my very favorite Van Vogt story.

    2. I have The War Against the Rull but that seems to be a novelization of the original short story. I bought it because of the Powers cover not because I was planning on reading it anytime soon...

      Those two shorts sound intriguing. Let me see if there's a collection with both in it....

    3. So, I want the collection Destination: Universe (1947) (great cover!)

      And Away and Beyond (1952)

    4. I own the 95 cent Destination Universe! with the black and red Powers cover.

      I read "Secret Unattainable" in a library copy of the recent collection, Transfinite.

    5. I love the Powers cover.... head and shoulders above the Transfinite cover.