Friday, February 6, 2015

The Darkness on Diamondia by A. E. Van Vogt

"Man thinks with what used to be called modern logic.  But his basic nature, like the universe, operates on finite logic."

Today we complete MPorcius Fiction Log's impromptu A. E. Van Vogt marathon! The finale to this epic exploration of one of Canada's most unique exports is brought to you by The Darkness on Diamondia.  I read the Ace edition of this 1972 novel, which I believe is the first edition.  Some philistine scrawled "30" on my copy, obscuring the interesting cover illustration by John Schoenherr--wait, did somebody pay 30 cents for this thing?

The year is 3819, and the planet of Diamondia is in trouble!  Diamondia was settled by Italians a few centuries ago.  The colonists sought to replicate on the planet the glories to be found in 20th century Italy, from Renaissance palaces and churches to pizza and traffic congestion.  So, despite 2000 years of history having passed, people on Diamondia still recklessly drive ground cars with squealing rubber tires and have maintained their Catholic faith.  There have been some "improvements": the cars use non-polluting engines, the palaces and other classic works of architecture have been built five times the size of their models back on Earth, and the cobblestone streets have been covered with a transparent non-slip plastic that acts as a cushion if you trip and fall.  (Van Vogt doesn't say so, but I bet the pizza is gluten free and 100% organic!)

Native to Diamondia are the Irsk, people with tentacles in place of arms and legs.  For hundreds of years the Irsk were happy to work for the humans and many have taken up human ways (like eating pizza) but ten years or so ago a faction violently opposed to the humans rose up.  Since then a terrible war has been raging between the humans and the rebellious segment of the Irsk population.  Military units from Earth have been trying to pacify the planet, but with no end of the war in sight, the Earth taxpayers are war weary, and it looks like the Earth is about to withdraw its forces.

Future Glitter, the last Van Vogt caper we looked at, was largely inspired by Van Vogt's extensive readings in the history of communism in Russia and China.  Besides his readings in Italian history, it seems likely that Van Vogt wrote Darkness in Diamondia with the Nixon administration's decision to reduce the role of US ground troops in the defense of South Vietnam, a policy known as "Vietnamization," in mind. (By the time Darkness in Diamondia was published, American withdrawal from Vietnam was essentially completed.)

As seen in Wayne Barlowe's rendition here,
Irsk who are friendly to humans wear
green stripes on their clothes
Our main characters are Colonel Charles Morton and Lieutenant Lester Bray, officers from Intelligence on Earth and members of the Negotiating Committee. The Negotiating Committee is ostensibly on Diamondia to broker some kind of peace, but everybody knows that their real job is to put a good face on the fact that the Earth is going to abandon the 500 million Diamondians to their fate at the hands of the billion Irsk.  ("What you and I are here for--to get Earth federation armies out of this war--is too ugly.  We know perfectly well the Irsk will murder all the human beings on Diamondia when we're gone," Bray admits on the second page of the text.)  We follow Morton and Bray as they have various diplomatic, espionage, and superscientific/supernatural adventures. More than once our heroes get captured and then liberated by various interest groups.  Morton is seduced by a Diamondian woman, Isolina Ferraris, who hopes to convince him that the Earth armies must stay.  While Morton is out of commission Bray impersonates him and conducts interrogations and investigations among the Diamondians and the Irsk.

We know Van Vogt loves to write about mental powers and innovative systems of thought, and we get this kind of esoterica in spades in Darkness on Diamondia. Diamondia's magnetic field is unusual, and it turns out that this is because it is home to a non-corporeal alien being of tremendous power!  This creature (or is it a machine?) arrived two thousand years ago and provides a kind of mental network for the Irsk, diminishing their individualism and acting as a sort of ruler or government over them. Even the pro-human Irsk have kept this entity a secret from the humans, but with the arrival of the Negotiating Committee the thing takes action.  Morton and Bray, and other Earth humans, suffer periodic attacks on their psyches from the alien being, which they perceive as and christen a "darkness."  If they are unable to resist these attacks they fall unconscious and their minds are either ushered into the alien's presence (and exhorted to assist in the darkness's quest to exterminate all human life on Diamondia) or temporarily joined to the mind of some other person (Morton spends time in the skull of an important human-friendly Irsk, Lositeen, who may hold the key to defeating the darkness.)  People pop in and out of each other's bodies quite a lot in the novel, and the book also features lots of hypnotism that causes people to take on the personas of others.  With all the impersonating and body-switching going on, as well as the ways humans and the darkness have altered Irsk society, you could say that one of the book's themes is identity.

I got the impression that the simple and innocent Irsk, corrupted and exploited by both decadent human colonists and the merciless darkness, were meant to remind us of tribal peoples caught up in the struggles of European empires or Third Worlders caught up in the Cold War between the West and the communist powers.  I wish Van Vogt had spent more time with Lositeen, who, as a human-friendly Irsk pressured by the rebel Irsk to turn on his Diamondian employer and friends, had the potential to be a compelling character.  Unfortunately, even though Lositeen's name appears on the back cover of the paperback, he quickly fades into the background.

This cover illo accurately reflects
a scene in the novel
Morton and Bray not only have to face the challenges presented by the troublesome Diamondians, the rebellious Irsk, and the strange darkness, but the obstruction of their fellow Earthmen.  Many of the Earth officers on Diamondia are incompetent, and the worst of them is a traitor, a physicist who has already figured out how to manipulate the darkness, and who strives to use it to make himself ruler of Diamondia.

In Voyage of the Space Beagle Van Vogt presented us with Nexialism, a science which subsumed and superseded all earlier sciences. In Darkness on Diamondia our man Van enlightens us about "finite logic."  The modern logic with which we are familiar ignores the fact that no two things are truly alike; we think in sets, like "a dozen eggs."  Finite logic acknowledges the reality that there are no sets, that no two items are identical--each of a dozen eggs is unique.  He who embraces finite logic can achieve great power (one minor character who has mastered finite logic has lived for 400 years.)

The various people and groups in the novel demonstrate the finite logic concept. Morton, a student of finite logic, is able to outwit the darkness because the darkness uses modern logic.  Thinking the flesh creatures on the planet are interchangeable, ("They were all like one person to that thing in the sky," says one character) the magnetic field creature has difficulty finding Morton among them.

Colonialism and innovative logic aren't the only issues Van Vogt tackles in this book's 250 pages.  Sex and gender roles, which we recently witnessed the Canadian mastermind of science fiction address in Earth Factor X, are also a topic in Darkness on Diamondia.  In fact, I suspect the main reason Van Vogt chose to have Italians colonize the planet is because of the stereotype of Italian men as brutes who leer and catcall at women, as exemplified by that iconic (perhaps staged, perhaps misinterpreted) photo by Ruth Orkin of an "American Girl in Italy, 1951."  In fact, the Diamondians are repeatedly portrayed as a bunch of selfish, unscrupulous, and bumbling jerks, and I wouldn't be surprised if Italian readers found the novel offensive.  (One of the many complaints about the Diamondians comes from Bray: "These Diamondians are the damnedest bunch of assassins you ever heard of.")

Sorry folks, there is no evil
monster tree in this novel
Van Vogt posits that by the 39th century on all the many planets inhabited by humans (except Diamondia) women have banded together to form "unions" which, by setting and enforcing various rules, protect women from being sexually exploited and having their hearts broken by callous men.  (A similar idea appeared in Van Vogt's story "The Male Condition.")  There are no such unions on Diamondia, which leads some Earthmen to consider the planet a paradise where it is easy to get laid.  Life for Diamondian women among the hypermasculine Diamondian men, however, is no picnic, as demonstrated by Isolina Ferraris's dialogue ("Diamondian can't imagine what those men are like...") and a scene with her father.  At the end of the novel Isolina is overjoyed to be able to settle down with Earthman Morton.

In the same way that Van Vogt seems sympathetic but condescending towards the "natives," who are either the victims or beneficiaries of advanced imperial powers, I thought he was sympathetic to women, but saw them as weak and lacking in agency, creatures vulnerable to male abuse who deserved to be protected by decent men like Morton.  When Irsk or women misbehave, Van Vogt makes it clear they are emulating, or responding to, the Diamondian men.

Darkness on Diamondia is certainly an interesting specimen of Van Vogt's strange body of work, addressing all kind of topics and including many of his usual themes. However, the plot has many moving parts and is quite convoluted; I found it difficult to keep up with what was going on and to keep all the many characters straight.  I think it all makes sense if you are willing to grit your teeth and reread many passages and work it all out, but is it worth the effort?  A Gene Wolfe novel can be difficult, but the beautiful prose makes reading even a Wolfe novel that you don't quite understand a pleasure, and Wolfe's work usually has some kind of emotional impact.  Van Vogt's writing style is poor, and I didn't really care about the characters in this one.

Darkness on Diamondia is perhaps the most challenging and frustrating of the Van Vogt works I have read, so I'm going to have to say that this one is for Van Vogt diehards only!


Back in late 2013 SF blogger 2theD wrestled with The Darkness on Diamondia; check out his thoughts at Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature, where he includes a scan of the paperback's first page, which one assumes is advertising but reads more like "Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here."


The Ace edition of Darkness on Diamondia is full of interesting advertising.  Bound into the book is a page of glossy ads:

I can only imagine how many readers thought, "Maybe booze or drugs would help me understand this crazy novel."

At the end of the paperback is an ad for Heinlein books, all of which I have read and can recommend, and one for Ned Calmer's The Anchorman, which lays bare to the American public the many loves of a TV news broadcaster--endorsed by legendary newsman Chet Huntley!

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