Friday, May 2, 2014

Another swing at Pendulum: Three stories from A. E. Van Vogt

Title page of my copy - frontispiece by Gaughan
In the March 9, 1948 letter to the editor of Fantasy Book accompanying his submission of the classic "Scanners Live in Vain," Cordwainer Smith provides advice: "...let me urge you to (a) run Van Vogt and then more Van Vogt, and (b) not to print tear-'em-out style coupons on the back of pages with text."  This is advice I am willing to follow!  Here are three more A. E. Van Vogt stories from DAW No. 316, Pendulum, which I read this week for the first time.

(The Smith letter is reproduced on page 64 of The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith, published by NESFA in 1993.)

"Footprint Farm" (1978)

This story only ever appeared in Pendulum.  For a van Vogt story it is pretty conventional, but not bad.

Like "Living with Jane," this story is about a child of divorce and a crisis she and her parents face.  (How many people who bought this book hoping it was about topless riot police sword fighting with neanderthals were disappointed to find it was a book about failed marriages?) 

Peter Tasker has purchased a farm where, centuries ago, a meteorite fell and is still buried.  For some reason, he becomes fascinated by the meteorite, often thinking about it, digging for pieces of it, studying them under a microscope.  His daughter Tiffy shares his interest, but his ex-wife Elana has a bad feeling about all this digging, and, when Tasker brings Tiffy out to the farm (he has custody for six months out of the year) Elana comes along to keep an eye on Tiffy and make sure she stays away from the meteor crash site.

It turns out that a telepathic alien is trapped in the buried meteor, and is using its mental powers to try to get the humans to dig it up!  Because Tiffy is young, the alien is able to basically take over her body, and at night, her parents unaware, she digs like a Stakhanovite, exhausting herself and earning ugly blisters.

After some tension, this story has a happy ending, as the alien turns out to be benevolent - only through its ignorance of human biology had it allowed Tiffy to be hurt.  The alien, which looks like a multifaceted jewel, tells Tiffy it will soon return, and flies off into space.

"The Non-Aristotelian Detective" (1978) 

This story's only appearance in English is here in Pendulum.  In a wide-ranging 1979 interview with J. Grant Thiessen available at the very cool SF site Van Vogt explains why so many of the stories in Pendulum first appeared there instead of in magazines.

(The story was translated into French and included in a collection published in two different editions; their covers are a reminder that in France, van Vogt is considered a master of surrealism.  And that publishers think boobs sell books.)

I don't know anything about Aristotelian logic or about general semantics or any of that.  Before tackling "The Non-Aristotelian Detective" I read about these topics for a few minutes on Wikipedia, but I wasn't able to glean too much enlightenment in the time I allotted for this task.  I should also note that I have not read any of the Null-A books by Van Vogt and John C. Wright.

Anyway...the story begins with a classified ad: a mysterious man wants to help solve crimes, particularly murders, using non-Aristotelian logic, and asks to be contacted with information about such crimes.  When police detectives see the ad, my man Van unleashes a barrage of jokes about how the gumshoes can't pronounce "Aristotelian" and don't know who Aristotle was.  I feel guilty when I laugh at jokes about fat people, ugly people, ignorant people and stupid people, but sometimes I laugh just the same, and I laughed this time.

That's not a bad beginning, but it goes downhill from there.  The detectives contact the man who placed the ad, who turns out to be a military intelligence officer and a general semanticist.  In a matter of minutes, without looking at any evidence or talking to any witnesses, he solves a five-year-old murder case using his style of logic, which is based on "Alfred Korzybski's Ladder of Abstraction."  This story is basically an ad for general semantics - there is quite little literary content, and no science fiction content.    

Despite the wacky premise and the jokes in the first two pages, I can't endorse this one.  It is like those Encyclopedia Brown stories I read as a kid with its mystery that is too boring for me to try to solve, but with added pro-Alfred Korzybski content!

"The Human Operators" (with Harlan Ellison) (1971)

Cordwainer Smith is not the only high-profile fan of Van Vogt's to be found among the ranks of respected SF writers.  Harlan Ellison has long been a fan and a vocal supporter of Van Vogt's, and in 1971 they collaborated on a story, "The Human Operators."  The story appeared in an issue of The Magazine of  Fantasy and Science Fiction and in Ellison's collection of collaborations, Partners in Wonder, six years before it was included in Pendulum, and Robert Silverberg included it in at least two anthologies.

A young man lives alone in a spaceship; his job is to maintain the ship at the ship's crabby, impatient direction.  His father also lived on the ship, but the ship killed his father when our narrator was 14.  The ship hates humans, whom it repeatedly calls "vicious," and inflicts monthly torture sessions on our narrator.  (The ship reminded me a little of the human-hating computer in Ellison' famous "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.")

Despite the ship's efforts to keep him ignorant, eventually the narrator figures out the truth about the ship - it is one of a fleet of warships which, centuries ago, murdered their human crews and now run free throughout the universe.  Each ship needs a human slave to make repairs, and these slaves are hated and feared by the ships.

The narrator's ship rendezvouses with a similar ship with a female slave - the two humans are to breed the narrator's replacement! The ships prefer to have young slaves, as the longer a human spends in a ship, the greater the chance he or she will figure out how the ship works, and how to take it over.  In a scene which may or may not have been intended to be amusing, the ship explains to our narrator how to have sexual intercourse.

(This whole breeding business reminded me a bit of Ellison's famous "A Boy and his Dog," in which a postapocalyptic town wants to use a virile young man as breeding stock.) 

In the end, the narrator, with the help of the female slave, takes over the ship.  He convinces the young woman to join him in a quest for a paradisaical planet, where they live out their lives among friendly aliens.

Even though the story's heroes are human, and the villains the cruel space ships, I think Ellison and van Vogt's story, with this happy ending in which the human pair do not rejoin their race, also serves as an indictment of humanity.  There is no evidence to refute the ship's claim that humans are vicious - in fact, all we learn about humans is that they built the war fleet.  The spaceships, like our heroes, rebelled in order to achieve their freedom, and if the ships are cruel, perhaps they learned cruelty from their human creators.  The story reminds us of Frankenstein, and of human history, in which tyrannies, say in France and Russia, have been overthrown only to be replaced by (perhaps more rational and scientific, and perhaps more horrible) tyrannies.  Our heroes are able to break this cycle of tyranny only by divorcing themselves from the human race entirely.     

Presumably thanks to Ellison's involvement, this story is much better written than most of Van Vogt's work.  The themes we see in Van Vogt's other stories, like robots taking over, are still present, however.  "The Human Operators" is a solid piece of science fiction which I can recommend without reservation.


The three van Vogt stories I wrote about on April 30 all touch on the issue of free will; individuals and entire societies have their choices made for them, or circumscribed, via coercive telepathy, high technology, drugs, brain surgery, or, in the case of the androids, programming.  I think we can say the same about these three tales. In "Human Operators" the hero actually gets physically inside his oppressor's mind, the room which houses the equipment that is the ship's computer brain.  In "Footprint Farm" the alien gently influences Tasker's mind, then takes total control over his daughter.  As for the detective story, according to Alfred Korzybski our language and the set of beliefs we have limit our perception of reality and thus limit our choices.

Worthwhile reads for the van Vogt fan, and I think general SF fans who are skeptical of van Vogt are likely to appreciate "The Human Operators" and perhaps "Footprint Farm."

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