Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Book of Ptath by A. E. van Vogt

"He's come back after ages of being merged with the race.  Look closely!  His face!  Like the statue in the temple."
A. E. van Vogt's The Book of Ptath was first published in the October 1943 edition of John Campbell's fantasy magazine Unknown, the commercially unsuccessful sister publication to the venerable Astounding.  Because it is widely regarded as a fantasy, and because the Paperback Library editions have cover illustrations by Jack Gaughan and Jeff Jones (I own the 1969 Jones edition) that depict swordsmen, I expected The Book of Ptath to be about a world of elves and wizards and dragons and guys who hit each other with swords.  In fact, there are no such well worn fantasy elements in The Book of Ptath; it is exactly the kind of story we expect from our man Van--a guy is plucked from our world and set down in another where elites with crazy abilities are fighting each other, and there he develops mental powers and becomes a superbeing who saves the world; along the way people impersonate and manipulate each other in ways that may strain the reader's ability to follow.

It is 200 million years in the future on an Earth unrecognizable to us 20th-century types, a world with different continents, different seas, different cultures and creatures.  In a dungeon beneath the royal palace of the kingdom of Gonwonlane, lies a dark-haired goddess, bound in enchanted chains.  The good goddess L'onee has been held thus for ages, taunted by the evil blonde goddess Ineznia, ruling Queen of Gonwonlane.  Both goddesses await the return of that greatest of deities, invincible Ptath, who has been away, in the ancient past, for untold generations, "merged with the race," his divine soul reincarnated again and again in the bodies of a nearly endless succession of mortal men.

The goddesses expect Ptath to free L'onee and chastise Ineznia, so in hopes of thwarting this destiny Ineznia has used her magic to trigger the god's return prematurely; when Ptath appears his invincible body is intact, but he has less knowledge than a child--he doesn't even remember what clothes, food, and water are! Ineznia's plan was for him to appear in her palace in this vulnerable state, but with the last reserve of her own sorcerous power L'onee has mitigated Ineznia's spell--Ptath materializes a thousand miles away.  L'onee further contrives to retain in the god's body, along with Ptath's own amnesiac consciousness, the mind of one of the men whose physical form he tenanted in the distant past, that of Captain Peter Holroyd of the United States Army, who was killed fighting in Germany in 1944!

As I have told readers of this blog before, I love stories in which people's souls or brains or whatever get switched into other bodies, and stories in which multiple personalities inhabit the same body.  (I suppose I love these kinds of stories because they seem to defy the inevitable death and inescapable loneliness of our lives.)  The Book of Ptath is all about these kinds of shenanigans, with four (three?) main characters who shift from one body to another more times than I can remember!

...and something totally wack.
Holroyd, in Ptath's body, travels across this future world (as befits a fantasy, this future world isn't the kind in which robots do the work and people fly air cars and shoot each other with ray guns; here peasants do the work and soldiers and the upper classes fly on oversized birds and shoot each other with arrows) trying to get the magic items that will allow him to awaken the full power of Ptath and defeat Ineznia.  The goddesses Ineznia and L'onee send forth their souls to inhabit and control the bodies of women Holroyd encounters, drawing him into traps or offering guidance--in one memorable episode, fearing Ineznia has tricked Holroyd into committing a terrible crime, L'onee animates a drowned corpse and tries to assassinate Holroyd with a magic weapon!  The behavior of the goddesses reminded me of Athena, who, in Homer, appears in the guise of various mortals to advise Odysseus or Telemachus or callously manipulate Hektor or Pandarus.

The diabolical Ineznia, seeking to become master of the world, conspires with the rulers of the kingdom of Accadistran to breed an irresistible air force of giant birds. Ineznia helps the Accadistranians kidnap her own citizens, innocent people from Gonwonlane; in Accadistran these poor souls are warehoused by the thousands in concentration camps, where they are thrown into the arena as fodder for the squadrons of giant birds!  When the feathered Accadistran luftwaffe attacks Gonwonlane, millions of Gonwonlanian civilians are devoured by the ravenous man-eating birds.  (Presumably these scenes of horror were inspired by German aggression and atrocity in the period of the Second World War.)

Ineznia's evil backfires on her, and we learn exactly how in the final chapter of the novel.  (Van Vogt loves to present the reader with a convoluted and bizarre plot and then explain how all that crazy shit happened in a few lines on the last page of the book.)  The horror of the murder bird invasion inspires a religious revival in Gonwonlane, and the prayers of the besieged Gonwonlanian people strengthen Ptath, giving Holroyd powers that rival Ineznia's and allow him to turn the tables on her, liberating the world from her oppression and ushering in an era of more responsible government.

These covers actually convey some of the content and tone of the novel.
Plus...praise from Damon Knight?!? 
Women play prominent, critical, roles in The Book of Ptath.  For long stretches of the novel Holroyd, who finds everything in the year 200,000,000 AD bewildering, is worked like a puppet by the two goddesses, and relationships between minor characters include a monarch who is more or less controlled by his wives and a lord managed by his daughter; the theme of woman as manipulator is a strong one in The Book of Ptath.  It is also women who dominate the religion of Gonwonlane, with priestesses in charge of the institutions and common women doing all the worshiping and sending all the prayers--it is from women that Ptath ultimately derives his world-saving power.

The relationship between the ruler and the ruled, and how untrustworthy and exploitative rulers can be, is another theme of the book.  We learn that Ptath took the risky move of leaving the normal world to "merge with the race" (giving Ineznia the chance to take over and murder millions of people--oops!) because he felt that his great power and distance from the common man was corrupting him:
"As for merging with the race [L'onee explains to an inquisitive Holroyd] in one sense that does seem to have been disastrous. But he said he could feel in himself dark, alien, inhuman urges that he must purge by a return to the spring source of decency--the life force of the people."      
Van Vogt stories are generally pretty elitist (in this story parliamentary government is judged too unwieldy for the Earth of Year 200 Million), and I seem to recall that one of Damon Knight's many gripes about him was his apparent anti-democratic attitude. So I think it significant that, in The Book of Ptath, both power and goodness literally come from the people.

On the topic of criticisms of van Vogt, one of the memorably odd things about The Book of Ptath, and I think something van Vogt's detractors have mentioned when attacking his work, is how he tries to use big numbers in a childish sort of way to increase the drama of the story.  The world Holroyd finds himself in isn't just two thousand or two million years in the future, but 200 million!  The armies of Gonwondlane are made up of billions of soldiers, and it is hundreds of millions of innocent people who are eaten by the giant birds.  

I enjoyed The Book of Ptath.  The pace never lags (the philosophical asides about government and religion are not too long or frequent, like they were in Anarchistic Colossus), the characters are interesting, the mysteries of the plot induce curiosity instead of frustration, and there are scenes which are surprising and scenes which are horrifying.  I'm glad I could end this Van Vogt Marathon on a positive note!     


The people at Paperback Library apparently think that if you read A. E. van Vogt you must be the kind of person who believes in the lost continent of Mu; the last page of my edition of Book of Ptath is an ad for a whole freaking library about "The Ancient Civilization of Mu" and its "Cosmic Forces."  As a kid I loved reading about sasquatch and the Loch Ness monster and UFOs, but I always thought stories about sunken continents were silly, so I know almost nothing about Mu.  Is Mu just another name for Atlantis, or is Mu Atlantis's rival, a Carthage to its Rome?  Do people who believe in Mu also believe in Atlantis, or do the Atlantis believers and Mu believers scoff at each other for being gullible dupes?


So ends MPorcius Fiction Log's 2016 Van Vogt Marathon.  Is that a tear I see in your eye?  Don't worry--I own enough unread material by the Grand Master from Manitoba that, barring death on the highway, a 2017 Van Vogt Marathon is an inevitability!

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