Saturday, October 4, 2014

"The Replicators," "The First Martian" & "The Purpose" by A. E. Van Vogt

Recently couchtomoon read World of Null-A, and Jesse at Speculiction read a "Best of" collection of Van Vogt stories selected by the Dutch-Canadian crazy man himself.  I thought I'd get in on the non-Aristotelian fun myself, but tackle something a little more obscure.  So I took down from the shelf The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt, Ace paperback H-92, published in 1968.  The collection has an appropriately weird cover painting by Jeff Jones, and on the back cover the people at Ace promise surprise and "unforgettable 'nova' concepts."  My grandmother drove a tan Nova with a black interior--sounds like a good omen!

There are twelve stories in The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt, and I read three this week  I think it only fair that we judge each based on how good it is (of course), and also on how "far-out" it is.  Bring on the nova concepts! 

"The Replicators" (1964)

What is that adorable creature on the cover of Worlds of If's February issue and where do I buy one?

Van Vogt starts this one in medias res: Steve Matlin, a World War II vet, is looking at the 12-foot long space monster he has just shot down; it lies dead in the back of his dump truck.  What to do with the alien beast? Matlin decides to dump it on the street in front of the local police department; after all, it would be a hassle to bury the colossal corpse on his farm!

The 21-page story gets crazier and crazier as it proceeds.  It is soon revealed that the monster is in fact intelligent and technologically advanced.  It is able to replicate its own body, in various sizes, and shift its consciousness from one body to another, so killing one body only slows it down. The alien can, in fact, replicate anything it wants, and the second time Matlin has to deal with it the creature is carrying an exact replica of Matlin's rifle, only it is the size of a cannon!  Then the alien creates a Brobdingnagian dump truck scaled to its own size for a little road warrior action.  When the military gets involved, attacking the alien with helicopter gunships, the alien produces an over-sized chopper of its own.  And then the military uses an atomic bomb on the creature!    

The story includes more than one nova concept, exploring the misanthropic Matlin's psychology (Van tells us he is "an abysmally suspicious and angry man"); the relationship between USMC enlisted men and their superiors; three and four sided diplomacy between Matlin, the civil government, the military and the alien.  Perhaps craziest is the alien's bizarre technique for familiarizing itself with new cultures as it explores the universe; it blanks its mind, reads the mind of a native, and takes on the native's personality.  If the alien is violent and vengeful, that is only because it has based its current personality on Matlin's own!  

Full of off-the-wall ideas, jokes I actually laughed at, and at least one wacky metaphor that I laughed at even if that wasn't Van's intention ("His shock on seeing this second creature was like a multitude of flames burning inside him") "The Replicators" is quite fun.

"The Replicators":            Is it Good?: Yes.             Is it Far-Out?: Yes!

"The First Martian" (1939...or is it 1951?)

The publication page of The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt informs us that this story was first published in 1939, but isfdb insists it first appeared in 1951 in Marvel Science Fiction's August issue under the title "This Joe."  You are never on a firm footing when you are dealing with my man Van.  At the valuable website, you can check out the illustration for "The First Martian"  done by Harry Harrison, who would later become famous for his Stainless Steel Rat and Deathworld novels.

"The First Martian" is the story of racism on the Martian railroad.  The trains of Mars have been manned by white men, due to the prevalence of white supremacist thinking. But then the capitalists who own the railways of the red planet (Van subtly names one of these guys "Philip Barron") realize that they can increase profits by employing Andean Indians.  Caucasians on Mars need to live in pressurized domes and wear pressure suits outside, but Indians from the mountain tops of South America can safely breathe the thin Martian air!

The plot of the story concerns the first of the Indians on Mars being assessed in a sort of exploratory pilot program.  Can Jose Incuhana really man the controls of the train without a pressure suit?  Our narrator is an open-minded white engineer willing to give Incuhana a fair shot, but other whites, racists who fear job competition, try to sabotage the Indian.  One bigot in particular tries to murder the narrator, but Jose saves the day.

This is an entertaining classic-style SF story, based on a scientific fact and using the future as a setting in which to talk about contemporary social issues.  Van Vogt's vision of a Mars traversed by railroads is also actually pretty cool, he coming up with various obstacles and hazards to Martian railoading particular to Mars.  So "The First Martian" gets a thumbs up, but with its conventional straightforward plot it is not the kind of confusing, convoluted, insane story we associate with Van Vogt, and is not at all "far-out."

"The First Martian":            Is it Good?: Yes.           Is it Far-Out?: No.

"The Purpose" (1945)

We all should have a purpose in life.  The jury is still out on whether trying to get all the achievements in Gemcraft 2: Chasing Shadows counts as a purpose, but we can't all discover the New World or cure small pox or invent the light bulb, now, can we?

The purpose of Dr. Dorial Cranston is to bring about universal peace by encouraging people to share their life energy.  The purpose of Professor Norman Mention is to liberate his wife Virginia from the clutches of a secretive cabal of individuals who have taken advantage of Cranston and used his scientific genius for evil.  Cranston and the Mentions are the three main characters of "The Purpose," and yes, this is exactly the kind of story we expect from Van Vogt.  It appeared in Astounding, with illustrations by Paul Orban that you can view here.  

Virginia Mention, a newspaper reporter, starts investigating a curious storefront on the main street of the city whose sign reads "FUTURIAN SCIENTIFIC LABORATORIES."  Virginia has not made much progress in her investigation before she disappears.  Norman starts looking for her, and when he gets on the right track he receives a warning from a man who can walk right through walls: there is no point in looking for help from the police, government or the newspapers, he is told.  The people who manage these institutions are all in the cabal's pocket because the conspirators have provided them with life-saving organ transplants, operations that conventional medicine cannot yet perform.  Where does the cabal get the spare organs?  Seeing as they have his wife in their power, Norman doesn't even want to think about it!

Happy Valentine's Day, I guess.
The 40 pages of "The Purpose" are full of strange powers, plot twists, advanced technology, and even a few compelling images, like a warehouse full of neatly arranged shelves holding hundreds of two foot cubic glass cases--inside each case is suspended a beating human heart!  (In an inexplicable artistic decision, Paul Orban chooses to depict the hearts as shaped like boxes of candy!)

In the end Norman's ingenuity overcomes the cabal, Virginia is imbued with spectacular "godlike" powers, and Cranston is, perhaps, a step closer to achieving his dream of world peace.

Van also gives us a metaphor that totally went over my head: "Virginia had thought his face was as colorless as it could possibly be.  But now it blanched, and visibly grew paler.  A curious darkness seemed to creep over it finally, as if the half-life of the young man's body was suffering a great defeat."  Maybe I don't really understand what "half-life" means, or maybe Van doesn't.  Maybe neither of us do?

This story is good; it has a characteristic Van Vogt plot and, I think, is more streamlined and comprehensible than much of his work.  But is it far-out?  Well, it's about a guy who can take out your brain, heart and lungs and put them in a warehouse, and replace them with transmitter/receivers which not only interface with the organs back in the warehouse, but also can absorb other people's life energy; with enough stolen life energy you can walk through walls and even teleport. Sounds plenty far-out to me!

"The Purpose":            Is it Good?: Yes.            Is it Far-Out?: Yes!


I'm quite pleased with The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. Van Vogt so far.  In our next episode three more of these crazy excursions into the mind of my man Van.

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