Sunday, October 5, 2014

"The Earth Killers," "The Cataaaa" & "Automaton" by A. E. Van Vogt

A British hardcover edition.  Groovy!
Let's explore more far-out stories from my paperback edition of The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt.  As in our last episode, we are not only judging these stories on their literary merit and entertainment value, but assessing the veracity of the publishers' advertising: are these stories truly "far-out?"

"The Earth Killers" (1949)

Like "The First Martian," this is an anti-racist story.  Unfortunately it is inferior in every way to that tale.

Morlake is the most physically fit of the American military's test pilots, and he is up in the air, testing the new S29A superplane, on that terrible day in 1979 when atomic bombs blow up the largest U.S. cities, killing forty million people!  Morlake actually sees the bomb that hits Chicago, and notices that it is falling straight down.  A bomb sent from Russia or China or one of America's other rivals would follow a parabolic path, so the bomb must have come from the Moon!

Morlake is the only man with this information, and when he lands he runs into serious resistance to his theory that the devastating attack came from space.  The US government, which now consists of the military and just a handful of senators who were away from D.C. on that day that will live in infamy, scrambles to figure out who launched the attack, but there is no evidence to point to who may have done it.

Morlake gets imprisoned, escapes, steals the S29A (he is the only guy who can pilot it), and travels across America, trying to alert people to the fact that the bombs came from space.  At the end of the 28-page story Morlake (whom we were told hates racism on the second page of the story) reveals that it was racist Southerners, led by one of the few surviving senators, who have (somehow) secretly built a base on the Moon and launched the atomic attack so they could re-institute Jim Crow.  Morlake shoots the unarmed racist senator down in the middle of a government meeting, and the army prepares rocket ships for an assault on the moon base.

The plot is just OK (and somewhat reminiscent of 1947's Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein), and the story is choppy, switching back and forth between scenes with Morlake, "big historical picture" exposition, and scenes of the military personnel who are leading the pursuit of Morlake.  The racism theme feels superficial; there are no non-white characters and race issues are not discussed. You'd only have to change a few words of the story to make the villains aliens or bankers or Communists or some other group.

It is also a little hard to believe that American dissidents without foreign help could secretly build a moon base and stock its arsenal with atomic bombs.  On the second page of the story we learn that the government rocket program is extremely expensive and was discontinued before any government astronauts got to the moon; this means that the KKK has a better space program than NASA!  Did the racist Southerners build their own rockets and atomic bombs?  If they had a clandestine network of supporters in the military who stole the space ships and bombs Van Vogt does not tell us; in fact, after Morlake kills the bigoted senator, the military leadership is all on Morlake's side.

"The Earth Killers" first appeared in Super Science Stories and was illustrated by Hannes Bok; check out the illos here at, the invaluable website for Van Vogt aficionados.

"The Earth Killers" is barely acceptable as a story, and there is nothing crazy or wild or new in it.  Sure, I love warplanes, atom bombs, and space ships, but those are de riguer, not far-out.

"The Earth Killers":         Is it Good?: Not really.          Is it Far-Out?: No.     

"The Cataaaaa" (1937)

That's more "A"s than on a [insert ethnic group here]'s report card!

"The Cataaaaa" first appeared in Fantasy Book, and was reprinted later in Marvel Science Stories and even a men's magazine, according to  It also appears in the British version of Best of A. E. Van Vogt, and so is perhaps one of the works Van Vogt is most proud of.

Cat people are a fixture of SF (though recently it has come to my attention that there is a faction of SF fans and writers who are into raccoon people.)  "The Cataaaaa" is about a five foot tall cat person who comes to Earth and ends up as an exhibit at the carnival freakshow, where he keeps his civilized nature a secret.

The cat person reveals himself to our human first-person narrator, a college professor.  The cat person is a graduate student taking a Grand Tour throughout the galaxy; his kind live for thousands of years and have the ability to travel through space using mental energy alone.

I think this may be one of Van Vogt's favorites of his own stories because of its philosophical nature.  The feline grad student takes from each planet he visits a single item that represents all significant facets of the planet's civilization.  I thought maybe a gladius or a revolver would represent humanity's constant struggle and people's all-too-common will to dominate others and need to resist domination.  Of course I would prefer space aliens to think a Greek vase or a Chinese bowl or maybe a model of the Empire State Building best represents humanity.

When the alien asks the college professor what single object he thinks should represent mankind, the prof argues that humans are essentially religious, that they need faith to survive; even those who eschew traditional religion have faith in some scientific or economic theory.  He suggests a little statue of a man with his arms raised to the skies, its base inscribed with the phrase "I Believe."            

I thought that was pretty clever, but the cat person instead says that Earthlings are characterized by their narcissism, exhibitionism, and self-love.  (Ouch!)  When he teleports away he takes with him as his souvenir the man who ran the freak show--by exhibiting freaks, we are led to understand, he was really exhibiting himself!

The college professor loses his job because when he tries to tell people about the cat alien they think he is nuts.  He starts travelling around the country, going into several bars in every town he comes to tell the patrons about the cat alien.  Ostensibly he is trying to spread the word about the dangers of self-love and exhibitionism, but Van Vogt lets us know that by telling his story at every opportunity he is simply showing himself off, proving the feline visitor right.

"Cataaaaa" is OK, I'd give it a passing grade, but I am not enthusiastic about it.  Is it far-out?  A little, I suppose.

"Cataaaaa":          Is it Good?: It's OK.            Is it Far-Out?: Maybe a little?

"Automaton" (1950)

I'm happy to say we are back in far-out territory!

"Automaton" is about a future world in which the artificial people we built go behind our backs and secretly duplicate themselves in vast numbers.  They infiltrate the government, take over the world, and enact a policy outlawing sex!  Are we going to stand for that?  Hell no!  World-wide civil war erupts between human and tobor (the artificial people call themselves "tobors" because that is the reverse of the term "robot," which they find offensive.)  Those sex-hating tobor bastards have a lot of tricks up their sleeves; for example, they have a process whereby they can take a human and turn him into an automaton, a slave ready to fight to the death for the tobors!

John Gregson is one of these poor souls who has been captured by the tobors and "dementalized," turned into an automaton. Before capture he was a brilliant chemist with a beautiful fiance, Juanita Harding; now he is just Number 92, pilot of a reconnaissance plane in the tobor air fleet!

Number 92 gets shot down over a ruined city. He survives, but is surrounded by human forces.  The human intelligence service realizes who 92 once was, and wants to capture him alive, and repair his psyche, thus returning to him his humanity.  Their strategy for doing so is to broadcast propaganda at 92 which will remind him that he is a human being, and set up a movie screen near where 92 is taking cover.  The human forces project upon the screen a film of bathing beauties!  The sight of all that feminine pulchritude undoes the tobor programming, and John Gregson is back!  He is reunited with Juanita Harding and his knowledge of chemistry ends the war--he comes up with a chemical which will make the tobors as horny as the rest of us, ending the tobor prudery which caused the war in the first place.

We've seen Van Vogt tackle the topic of android takeovers before in stories like "Living with Jane." and then there are the computers who seize power over humanity in "The Human Operators" and Computerworld.  And I seem to recall the use of movie screens and broadcast propaganda on the pilot of a downed enemy craft in the classic short story from 1948, "The Rull."

"Automaton" first appeared in Other Worlds with an illustration by Malcolm Smith.  It is a short and fun story; I found it amusing, though I'm not quite sure in what proportion I am laughing with Van and laughing at him.

"Automaton":         Is it Good?: Yes.            Is it Far-Out?: Yes.


My edition of The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt, Ace paperback H-92, includes a silly jokey bio of Van Vogt from Forrest J Ackerman which may be worth reproducing here.  Ackerman was van Vogt's agent and friend.

The final page of the book is an ad for Ace "Classics of Great Science-Fiction."  Of the fifteen listed books I've only read three, Brackett's The Big Jump, Vance's Big Planet, and Simak's City.  I liked all three, and strongly urge you to print out the page, mark the titles, and put it and two singles in an envelope and mail them off to beautiful Manhattan immediately.

My man tarbandu reviewed Laumer's Worlds of the Imperium earlier this year, and couchtomoon tackled Leiber's The Big Time.  Maybe you should put three singles in that envelope.


Not as good as the first three stories (did the publisher purposefully put the strongest material up front?) and not as far-out, but these three are worth reading.  Soon we'll take a look at what else The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt has to offer.

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