Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Earth Factor X by A. E. Van Vogt

Resentment seethed...Damn those male rats!  Doesn't a man ever have a human feeling for a woman?  Is it all just sex?

In 1974 The Secret Galactics appeared as a large-sized paperback; on its purple cover were emblazoned the words "ONLY THE BRAIN-MAN COULD STOP EARTH'S TAKEOVER!"  The cover also claimed that Van Vogt was "America's greatest science-fiction writer."  It is debatable who had the most reason to find this bold declaration irritating, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, or the people of Canada, where Van Vogt was born and lived the first 30 years of his life?  Well, if we've learned one thing reading all these SF books, it is that you can't take the things written on their covers too seriously.  So, no hard feelings, Canada!

Two years later DAW printed the novel in paperback with the title Earth Factor X.  DAW No. 206, a copy of which I own and read this week, has an embarrassingly amateurish red cover by Deane Cate.  Later DAW editions of the novel would have a banal but competent white cover by Greg Theakston.  

The heroes of Earth Factor X are Dr. Carl Hazzard and his estranged wife Marie, a couple of Nobel-prize winning scientists.  A year ago Carl was "murdered," but the world's finest brain surgeon managed to save Carl's brain and hook it up to a life-sustaining machine.  As the novel begins Carl has just been installed in a robot body equipped with six wheels, claws, a blow torch, and a powerful rifle (Van Vogt at times describes it as a "cannon.")  It is fun to compare how Hazzard in his robot body is depicted by different artists:
Nobody saw fit to depict the cannon!
Early in the novel Hazzard travels around town (I think Los Angeles) in a specially modified box truck, doing detective and counterespionage work.  From within the truck he can fire weapons, but he isn't afraid to roll out of the truck and get his claws dirty, breaking and entering, eavesdropping and hunting for clues.  The wheels of his robot body are "flexible" and each can be "manipulated separately," allowing him to climb stairs.  Carl, following tips from Silver, one of his many mistresses, learns about the impending conquest of Earth by aliens who currently live among us in disguise!

So, who are these aliens?  We are told there are numerous alien races represented on Earth, sitting in positions of power in the government and business, but only three play a prominent role in the story--the Deeans, who have decided to take over the planet and have sent a huge space ship (almost a mile long) to accomplish this task; the Sleele, who are universally considered untrustworthy, and the Luind, the most advanced and benevolent of the alien races.

A third of the way through the novel Carl and Marie are captured by the Deeans, but with Silver's help Marie manages to escape.  (Silver is married to one of the Deean leaders and provides Marie with an energy gun.)  Marie also receives aid from the Luind leader on Earth, who is one of her lovers.  We witness quite a bit of diplomacy between the three main alien players.  In the end Carl, the Luind leader and the Sleele leader work together to trick the computer running the Deean ship to fly back home, which totally ruins the Deeans' plans (the ship won't be back for 100 years.) Van Vogt suggests that all three of them are acting not in the interests of the people of Earth, but in order to further their relationships with Marie, Silver, and other women.        

Despite the alien takeover plot, Earth Factor X is about gender roles and sex; maybe the title is a reference to the X chromosome?  The prologue of the novel is a "Special Report" from the alien "Galactoid-Embrid Institute" to members of the Deean invasion force.  The subject of the report is "Human Women" and it asserts "It is agreed by all: women of earth have to be experienced to be believed.  In the entire universe there seems to be no female quite so complex and unpredictable."  The aliens lament that their failures to conquer Earth have been the result of neglecting to take the human female into account.

Because he is a disembodied brain that can't have sex, Hazzard, who has been obsessed with sex since his youth and has had nearly 200 sex partners, is wracked by doubts about his manhood.  Before he was "murdered," Hazzard was writing a book on "the whole mystery of women's behavior," inspired by his own difficult sexual relationship with Marie.  This work, entitled Women Are Doomed, was never published, but Hazzard had a copy bound and he shared its wisdom with his friends. One female friend wrote a rejoinder, Men Are Doomed.   Van Vogt treats us to sample aphorisms from both of them:
"A large part of a woman's brainwashing includes a set of assumptions that men do the risky things that have to be done in this world....So long as a woman, or women, permit such attitudes to control them, she will deliver sex as a payment and never as a gift."
"The terrifying neurosis of the Real Man is that he wants what he can't have, and doesn't want what he can." 
Earth Factor X is full of discussions between men about women and sexual relations (or as Hazzard puts it, "the man-woman thing"), and conversations between male characters which reveal that all of them, be they alien spies, cops, scientists, whatever, live lives that revolve around their relationships with their wives and girlfriends. There are similar conversations between women which indicate the primacy of men in their lives. We also get Marie's internal monologues about her own sexual encounters, and flashbacks to Carl and Marie's marriage.

I'm not sure to what extent Van Vogt is endorsing the ideas about male and female psychology and sociology put forward by Carl and the other characters, and to what extent he is challenging them.  Carl is kind of a jerk, and misjudges Marie, which calls into question the value of the wisdom to be found in his book.

So, is this book any good?  I don't think I can recommend Earth Factor X on its merits.  I don't feel like I wasted my own time reading it because I am curious about Van Vogt's crazy career, but I doubt it will appeal to the typical person, someone who reads SF books in hopes of finding adventure, excitement, jokes, good writing, or unusual new ideas.

Van Vogt is to be commended for using science fiction as a vehicle to talk about gender and sex, but nothing he has to say is particularly groundbreaking; women like to spend [other people's] money, men are obsessed with sex, women like to get attention, men get bored of having sex with the same woman, women are attracted to ruthless powerful men, and playing hard to get is an effective sexual strategy, are all things we've heard before.  And it's not as if Van Vogt is a Somerset Maugham or a Vladimir Nabokov, someone with a good writing style who can create memorable characters and thus pull our heartstrings with timeworn plots about marital infidelity and sexual frustration.  The writing in Earth Factor X is poor; half or more of its sentences could be rewritten profitably, and this time Van Vogt doesn't have the excuse he had in Computer Eye, that he is writing in the voice of a nonhuman.

This one is for Van's devoted fans only, and people new to Van Vogt should start with Isher and Rull stuff, and Voyage of the Space Beagle.


Perhaps in keeping with the sex theme, my edition of Earth Factor X includes an ad for the DAW editions of John Norman's books, including Norman's sex manual and guide to "the man-woman thing," Imaginative Sex.


In our next installment, Van Vogt again tackles the tough issues!  We'll be looking at 1973's Future Glitter, perhaps better known to our British friends as Tyrannopolis.


  1. Weren't a lot of van Vogt's novels of the 70s hastily expanded versions of his earlier books? If I remember correctly he was HEAVILY involved with scientology at this point in his career and wasn't writing much new material. That might explain why the quality was down on this one.... even by his "standards."

    1. I think the Dianetics period is the 1950s; in an interview with Charles Platt (another of your favorites, right?) Van Vogt says he was essentially done with Dianetics in 1961. According to the interview Van Vogt was never into Scientology because he had no interest in religion or mysticism; he describes Dianetics as a sort of variant or refinement of Freudian practice.

    2. Oops, I meant to link to the interview, which is pretty interesting.

  2. Great write up - have just read this and was looking to compare notes. I'm linking your blog from mine (Pamphlets of Destiny if you want to search, but I won't link it from a comment as that would be rude) as we seem to cover some of the same ground. This was something like my thirtieth van Vogt and I'm still trying to figure the guy out. I do actually feel the first five or six (admittedly short) chapters of this one constitute prime cuts by van Vogt standards, at least in terms of that peculiar atmosphere in which his best books are steeped, but it just seems to dissolve into undifferentiated mush after that. Shame - I'm sure this one could have been a classic had it gone down a road other than that of his peculiar views on sex. Will post my own review in a couple of weeks in case yr interested.

    1. Thanks! Van Vogt is a unique and mystifying character, and almost everything I read by him holds some kind of surprise.

      I would like to encourage people who read this here blog to not be shy about including links to applicable material; you should definitely post a link here to your discussion of Earth Factor X when it is available!

    2. Here you go: - not so thorough as your review, but hopefully of some interest. There are a few other van Vogt reviews on there if you have a look around. He doesn't always quite hit the target, but even when he fails he does so in an interesting way so has become one of those authors whose books I will always pick up on the strength of the name if I'm sure I haven't read it.