Thursday, August 4, 2016

Four Mind Benders from A. E. van Vogt

Added this baby to my collection
in Carolina in Dec 2014
Our last three slantastic selections were novels by A. E. van Vogt which erupted into the public consciousness in the wild and crazy "Me" Decade, and perhaps the preoccupation with sexual promiscuity and Kirlian phenomena we saw in those books reflects the 1970s milieu.  Today we're looking at four stories from the period of World War II and the Korean War, collected by the Paperback Library in 1971's The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind Benders.  The people at Paperback Library assert that this volume represents "A Six-Star Triumph!"  

Not everybody is as sanguine about our favorite Canadian as are the good people at Paperback Library; van Vogt has many detractors, probably most famously esteemed critic and editor Damon Knight.  (By the way, the interview of Knight and his wife, Kate Wilhelm of Killer Thing fame, in Charles Platt's Dream Makers is amazingly snobbish, self-pitying, self-important and arrogant.  I think the fact that they read their answers onto a tape while Platt was not present may have relaxed their inhibitions or something.)

We defenders of van Vogt can take comfort in the knowledge that Angus Wilson, important British man-of-letters, is among our ranks; his ringing endorsement of the abilities of the mad man from Manitoba is to be found on the first page of The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind Benders.  Now, I've never actually read anything by Angus Wilson, and it sort of sounds like Angus Wilson is one of those novelists whom nobody reads anymore, but I won't let that stop me from cherishing these musical lines:


"Rebirth: Earth" (1942, as by E. M. Hull)

This story first appeared in Astounding, in the same issue as van Vogt's famous story, "The Weapon Shop."  It was printed with the title "The Flight that Failed" and appeared under the byline of van Vogt's wife Edna Mayne Hull.  Here in The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind Benders we are told it was written in collaboration with Hull.  According to van Vogt scholar Isaac Walwyn, van Vogt probably wrote this story himself with a minimum of input from his wife--the "E. M. Hull" byline was most likely just a pseudonym based on her name.

This is a World War II story, written and published, of course, during the actual war. An American transport plane is carrying a valuable cargo across the Atlantic to England, a cargo so important the result of the war hinges upon its arrival!  A mysterious man as if by magic appears on the plane, saying the air crew needs his help if they are to succeed in their mission.  He carries with him a book apparently published 700 years in the future, a book which indicates that the Krauts won the war and Hitler conquered the world because the Luftwaffe shot down this very plane! When the German aircraft attack, the future man somehow turns the 1940s aircraft into a space ship with devastating ray guns and powerful engines which get it safely to Blighty lickety split!

This is a pretty straightforward story which includes lots of additional layers and complications: the future man isn't from a settled future but from a possible future (it seems like the Nazi-dominated future is the "real" future the visitor is trying to prevent); the future man can only appear if the people on the plane believe in him (like a fairy or something); the future man uses moonlight to get to the 1940s and there are lots of literary-type descriptions of the moonlight glittering off the ocean, being refracted by clouds, coming through the cockpit window, etc; the plane carries not only the (unspecified*) MacGuffin but all kinds of extraneous people like British diplomats and American scientists.

This story is alright, but no big deal.  It reminded me of Terminator and that whole Harlan Ellison brouhaha about it, and also those Roman stories about Castor and Pollux appearing to fight alongside the Roman army.

*I can hear all you comedians suggesting that the secret cargo was the $400 million cash ransom demanded by Mussolini for Albania.

"The Invisibility Gambit" (1943, as by E. M. Hull)

Another Astounding story initially credited to Hull; this one's original title was "Abdication."  It is a sort of crime caper about double-crossing mobsters and business tycoons, told in the first person and set in the far future in the "Ridge" sector of the galaxy, a frontier area where there is much less law and order than on Earth but where ambitious men can make a fortune exploiting newly discovered uranium mines on desolate virgin planets.

The coolest thing about this story is the invisibility suits people on the frontier use to sneak around, and the dangerous frontier setting is also pretty good.  The plot is kind of confusing, with the narrator, Artur Blord, manipulating another Ridge uranium mine tycoon into abandoning plans for retirement and doing Blord's dirty work for him, stealing that guy's girlfriend (scientific tests have certified that she is a perfect female specimen with a 140 IQ), and tricking gangsters into thinking some other guy is Blord with crafty space telegrams.  Maybe we should call this a space noir.

Entertaining, and reflecting van Vogt's interest in psychology at an early date ("...I used my knowledge of the psychology of spacemen...once those kind of forces are set in motion, they can't be stopped"), but not particularly remarkable.

"The Problem Professor" (1949)  

World War II Army Air Force veteran Robert Merritt has a dream: that man conquer outer space!  His wife also has a dream: that Merritt bring home a big fat paycheck! This is a story about how Merritt tries to infect others with his passion for space flight and how he finds that people just don't care.  (This reminded me a little of Barry Malzberg's various novels, like 1971's The Falling Astronauts, in which astronauts are depressed to learn the public doesn't give a shit about the space program.)

Anyway, Merritt, whom his wife compares to a "Washington lobbyist" (it is interesting to see that people in 1949 were apparently as familiar with the phrase "Washington lobbyist" as we are today) tries to gin up support for the space program among Hollywood actors, business people, and scientists, in hopes they will in turn generate interest in senators and the president.  He and his fellow dreamers use various tricks and psychological manipulation to get attention and endorsements.  In the end success is achieved, the government approves funding, and the story's action scene has Merritt becoming the first man in space.  The story ends on a hopeful note, with Merritt confident mankind will soon visit the stars and that even sooner he will be bringing home the dough his wife so earnestly desires.  This is a much more positive and optimistic story than those Malzberg stories, and, with its science lectures and jokes about how ignorant of the hard sciences the average person is, sits comfortably in the classic tradition of pro-science, pro-engineering, elitist hard SF.    

Not bad.  "The Problem Professor" was originally titled "Project Spaceship" when it appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories; that is a better title because the drunken and disillusioned (by his role in developing the atomic bomb) academic is not as prominent a character as the later title implies.  The story is perhaps interesting because while it acknowledges the fears of atomic power felt by many (with its example of the depressed prof), it remains firmly optimistic about atomic power--Merritt has no regrets about the atomic bombings of Japan, having served in the Pacific and thinking those bombings prevented his own death, and he is sure that it is atomic-powered rockets which will carry humanity to the stars.  "To me atomic energy is open sesame to the future."

"The Star-Saint" (1951)

This story has a terrific central idea: it is about a superhero, a superman, but told from the point of view of a mere mortal who envies the superman's powers and is jealous of the way he effortlessly makes women swoon!

Leonard Hanley is the leader of a group of colonists who have just arrived at their destination after a two-year space flight.  Everybody is already a little on edge because the space ship crew has contempt for the colonists, and then when they get to planet Ariel they find that the colony they have come to join has been mysteriously wiped out, the buildings toppled, the colonists who preceded them physically crushed into the soil.  The space ship's captain calls for help, and Mark Rogan arrives.  Rogan is an "alien communications expert," a member of the Space Patrol and a mutant who can fly through space without benefit of a space ship, crossing interstellar distances in the blink of an eye.

Hanley and Rogan take a shuttle to the surface to investigate what happened to the first wave of colonists.  Hanley is wounded in an attack by natives and has to be sent back to the ship; instead of showing concern for her injured husband, Hanley's wife frets that Rogan (a goddamned superman!) might get hurt while all alone on the surface! Hanley becomes determined to solve the mystery on his own without the help of the superman.

I'd like to report that the ordinary man solves the problem without the help of the super-powered mutant, but we all know how elitist these old SF books can be.  (And I bet the new ones, too--I haven't read any Harry Potter books, but I'm pretty sure its the Chosen One born under the Sign of the Whoozit and bearing the Mark of the Wyrm whose coming was foretold in the Sacred Ledger of Legerdemain, and not the school janitor and the lunch lady, who saves the universe from the evil dark one and his minions.)  Hanley screws things up even worse, further angering the natives and inspiring more attacks, and it is Rogan, using his super cross-species communications powers, who makes peace.

As if that wasn't bad enough for our man Hanley, Rogan solves the problem of fostering communication long term between the natives and the human colonists--after all, Kal-El, I mean Rogan, can't stick around Ariel, what with the galaxy being so full of Lois Lanes and Jimmy Olsens, I mean dopey colonists, who need his help.  (The natives of Ariel are rocks and trees who have achieved sentience and the ability to move, and so it's not like ordinary humans can just learn their spoken or written language so they can deal with them--you have to have Mark Rogan-type psychic powers!)  Without coming out and saying it (this is 1951, not 1971) van Vogt makes it clear that Rogan impregnates Hanley's wife so she will give birth to a child with those much-needed communication abilities.  Of course it's not Rogan who will be tilling the fields to feed this little half-mutant brat, but poor cuckold Hanley!

Because it is "out there," includes a super being and psychic powers and excuses a guy's love 'em and leave 'em lifestyle, I think this is the most characteristically van Vogtian of the four stories we're talking about today.  It is also my favorite, because it is the most surprising and weird, and at the same time showcases that most ordinary and universal emotion, envy and jealousy because your spouse has a crush on a famous person with whom you cannot possibly compete.

"The Star-Saint" was first published in the famous issue of Planet Stories with Leigh Brackett's "Black Amazon of Mars."  A good issue!


Four entertaining classic SF stories.  The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind Benders is a good collection, even if the ones we read today aren't all exactly "mind benders."  The other two stories in the collection, "Proxy Intelligence" and "The Gryb" I read years before this blog was hatched; they were both integrated into fix-ups, the former into Supermind, the latter into The War Against the Rull.


In keeping with our theme of commoners going ga ga for their society's celebrities, the last page of my copy of The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind Benders has a full page ad for a biography of Jackie Kennedy.  Is there a big overlap between classic SF nerds and Kennedy-worshippers?  

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