Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Planets for Sale by A. E. van Vogt

"So Artur Blord has the reputation for saving himself from apparently insoluble difficulties with some last minute, brilliant action, which, it is said, leaves his enemies no recourse except surrender or flight.  I'd like to see the single idea that can both save him, and, at a stroke, defeat us on more than two hundred planets." 

In our last episode we met Artur Blord of the Ridge Stars, the greatest of the many tycoons and self-made billionaires of that rough-and-tumble, semi-lawless, region of space far from Earth, in the 1943 story "Invisibility Gambit."  The novel Planets for Sale, first published in 1954 (I have a 1975 paperback released by Tempo Books), is a fix-up of five further Artur Blord tales published in the 1940s in Astounding under the byline E. M. Hull, a pseudonym based on the name of van Vogt's first wife, Edna Mayne Hull.  At various times the Blord stories have been credited entirely to Hull, or credited to a collaboration between her and her husband, but documentary evidence published in the 1990s indicates that Hull probably had little to do with the content of the stories.  (Van Vogt expert Isaac Walwyn discusses this at his terrific website here.)

At the end of "Invisibility Gambit" Blord moves to Earth and gets married to a woman scientifically determined to be perfect, so I guess the adventures in Planets for Sale took place earlier in his career.  Blord's headquarters is in a city on planet Delfi II. Sharing an orbit with Delfi II is Delfi I, a desolate world covered in the ruins of a lost civilization, the Skal, a reptilian people who were more intellectually and technologically advanced than the human race.  One Skal remains, living in an impregnable fortress equipped with irresistible energy cannon; this creature looks down upon human beings the way we might look down on ants or worms, and takes pleasure in using its tremendous mental powers to observe and manipulate the Earthlings who have colonized the Ridge Stars.  His human agents kidnap beautiful women to work as sex slaves in his fortress, which the Skal rents out as a bordello and secure meeting place for interstellar criminals.  The police forces of humanity have attacked the Skal's fortress repeatedly, losing almost one hundred ships in the process without even denting the fortress's walls!

I love the logo on the spine
The Skal is a pretty good villain, and the book has other interesting villains, like the zilth, hideous human mutants with super fast reflexes who carry a disease which can turn normal humans into zilths. (I'm guessing the zilth are supposed to remind you of, or are based on, Dracula.)  The zilth think they are a superior race which should supersede the current strain of humanity, and two of them escape the star system to which they have been quarantined by the government, hoping to found an empire far away, breed a huge army, and then return to human space to take over.  Then there is Professor Brian Emerson, the most famous scientist in the galaxy, who abandons his lab on Earth to become the crime lord of the Ridge Stars and then infiltrate the Ridge's space patrol with his agents so he controls both the demi monde and legitimate authorities of the 200-planet region!  (I've been warning people not to trust those college professors for ages!)

These villains, all of whom Artur Blord tangles with and outwits, are more interesting than Blord himself.  Blord is a guy who never fails--he always has a trick up his sleeve, and has at his disposal tons of money, an army of scientists and spies, and innumerable gadgets.  Reminding me of the Nexialism practiced by the protagonist of the book-length version of Voyage of the Space Beagle (Nexialism synthesizes all the sciences and is thus more powerful than the individual sciences), Blord is a master at coordinating technologies; he has a huge storehouse of gadgets and can intuitively figure out how the various devices can be used in a complementary fashion to achieve spectacular results and further his many schemes.

An interesting facet of Blord's character is his vigilantism.  Blord executes criminals in large numbers, and when I say "execute," I mean execute--he doesn't just kill enemies in desperate firefights, he actually captures criminals, makes a conscious and deliberate decision to not turn them over to the police for a fair trial, and then murders them in cold blood.
"You don't think," Blord said grimly, "that we'd let that gang stay alive, particularly in view of the fact that there was no real evidence against them."
This vigilantism suits the Ridge Stars setting, a setting which, I suspect, will warm the hearts of you rugged individualists and libertarian types out there.  The Ridge sector, according to Blord, is where "For the first time in history, the lust to build, to create and to enjoy can be experienced simultaneously, not by a few privileged, but by all." Van Vogt waxes poetic over the idea of a place where men build new cities out of the wilderness, take risks and build fortunes, where men are unconstrained by traditional morality about things like sex and gambling.  (A magnificent casino figures in the novel.)  This is in contrast to the stifling conformity of an overlegislated and overregulated Earth:
Blord laughed.  "Earth is trying to keep its population.  Therefore, practically everything is illegal.  There are no easy ways to make money." 
At the same time van Vogt romanticizes the freedom and possibilities of frontier life, he also portrays the Ridge region as full of every kind of crook.  On the less outrageous end are the fraudulent star liners that sell tickets to a dozen systems and then abandon all of their passengers together on a single planet.  At the other end are the slavers and murderous pirates ("Kill all the men and bring all the women to me!") One of the most oft used tools in Blord's toolkit is bribery; people in the Ridge region are greedy and untrustworthy, and even at the highest levels of Blord's own organization are people who commit graft and embezzlement.  The frontier is very dangerous: Blord tells a newcomer to the Ridge Stars: "Fear of death is the most dangerous of all phobias out here.  One thing you've got to be prepared for is to die any minute."

The plots of the episodes that make up this "novel" generally revolve around somebody getting kidnapped (Blord himself gets captured a few times) and/or forced to commit some crime ("I just poisoned you; you have seven days to do this thing and get back here for the antidote") and Blord using a trick or some piece of technology to rescue the captive.  There are lots of disguises and impersonations, lots of people and space ships sneaking around behind invisibility devices.

Van Vogt tries (a little) to give the novel a few overarching plot lines, so it feels like more than a collection of short stories.  As the novel progresses we see the Ridge Stars evolve, becoming somewhat more civilized and stable, and near the end of the book Blord admits "Rampant industrial capitalism has proved itself effective in a fast-growing economy, but here in our area of space, it's just about run its course."  A relationship also develops between Blord and one of his female employees which culminates in marriage on the last page.  (What happens to this woman between the time of this book and "Invisibility Gambit?")

Since everybody nowadays looks at everything through the lens of identity politics, I suppose I should note that van Vogt stresses that Blord has many female employees (the head scientist of the vital coordination department is a woman, for example) and finds women more trustworthy than men.  In one of the later adventures described in the novel it is a woman (the one Blord marries at the end) who puts on a disguise and infiltrates a criminal enterprise and achieves a notable success, something she does totally on her own initiative (though after years observing Blord pull such capers.)

Blord and the Ridge region reminded me a bit of some of Jack Vance's books in which a super competent man takes the law in his own hands in a crime-ridden frontier region.  I'm thinking of the Demon Princes books, the Magnus Ridolph stories, and to a lesser extent the Cadwal Chronicles.  As we do in many Vance stories, in Planets for Sale we also meet a race of humans who, in isolation, have evolved into strange creatures, and there are also lots of private space yachts, another common element in Vance's work.  Is there any chance Vance was influenced by the Blord stories?  The theme of the frontier as a place of freedom that gradually loses that freedom as it becomes integrated into the metropole reminded me of Heinlein (Hazel, if my memory is to be trusted, talks about this in The Rolling Stones.)

Planets for Sale is entertaining, though a little slight.  It doesn't have the crazy ideas or the confusing plots we often associate with van Vogt.  (Going simply by the text itself, it is easy to believe it was written in collaboration with somebody else--maybe van Vogt deliberately affected a different style for some of the stories that first appeared under the Hull byline.)  And while it is all about people betraying, kidnapping, escaping from and killing each other, it doesn't generate any thrills or suspense the way the best adventure or horror stories do--you know Blord is going to survive and that he isn't going to suffer PTSD or be reduced to penury or anything like that.  So, I'll be giving Planets for Sale a mild to moderate recommendation.  


In our next episode, the final installment of MPorcius Fiction Log's 2016 Van Vogt Marathon!

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