"Dolores, the human cortex isn't full-grown until about age eighteen. That's why we have outfits, to protect partly grown cortexes from bulging. You bulged. And now you're just a little confused slab..."recent blog post about Robert E. Howard science fiction stories, I mentioned A. E. van Vogt's Children of Tomorrow. I remembered reading the 1970 novel, but, since I had done so in that benighted dark age before MPoricus Fiction Log had risen to cast light upon a dismal world, I decided to read it again and typety type my impressions for the benefit of the masses.
The Earth is under surveillance by aliens who employ multiple esoteric means to learn the basic facts about homo sapiens. One alien who is with a war fleet on the edge of the solar system observes via some sort of remote viewing, like an invisible camera that can move from one spot to another in the blink of an eye. Another alien, the remote viewer's young son, has taken the form of a teen-aged Earth boy; the bogus teen goes by the name Ben and has been installed in the Jaeger household, disguised as their son who ran away years ago, he can telepathically communicate with his "father." These two cloaked investigators are conducting their espionage work in the city of Spaceport, five miles train ride from New York.
Commander John Lane has just returned from a ten-year trip to outer space, the longest space trip in human history, and is surprised to find that his daughter Susan isn't even home to greet her pioneering father! She is at a meeting of her "outfit;" an institution that didn't exist when Lane left the Earth a decade ago.
Van Vogt's strategy in Children of Tomorrow is to withhold essential information, information that the characters have, and then spring it on us readers long after we would have liked to have had it. For example, for several chapters we have no context for the alien spies--Van takes his sweet time revealing to readers that stuff about the alien fleet and the Jaeger family, stuff I told you immediately. Instead of promptly and directly satisfying our curiosity about the SF material, van Vogt spends a lot of time on domestic drama, on scenes of Lane and his wife Estelle, or Estelle and Susan, or Lane and Susan, in tense conversations over coffee or breakfast, describing everybody's facial expressions and manipulations of cups and glasses and mental states and inner thoughts. Susan's emotionally fraught interactions with many different kids from her school and outfit get the same verbose treatment, with van Vogt including some long tedious scenes of outfit meetings in which an outfit's leadership is determined and punishments for rule-breakers are debated.
Gradually our man Van doles out the skinny on the three big things we care about--the aliens, the space trip, and the outfits--and how they are linked to each other and to all these human relationship dramas, which, if one is in a charitable mood he might call an examination of human sociology and psychology, and, if one is wishing he was reading an adventure story, might call a bunch of soap opera goop.
(Looking at my blog post on van Vogt's 1972 novel Darkness on Diamondia I am reminded that one of its many elements was the idea of "unions" of women who band together to provide mutual protection from callous or exploitative men. I guess in the late '60s and early '70s van Vogt was very interested in the idea that what we might call NGOs could arise to ameliorate the social problems caused by the shortcomings of men.)
As for Lane's ten-year space mission, he was in command of an entire fleet, and in the last year of the mission they encountered a hostile alien fleet and fought them; after the battle, Lane's force flew a convoluted route back to the solar system, hoping to shake any pursuers and keep Earth's location a secret. Lane doesn't realize it as he is reunited with his family, but his efforts to evade pursuit failed--those two alien spies are members of that alien fleet.
Lane is hostile to the outfits, though more out of prejudice than measured consideration--Susan gives him a copy of their rulebook but he doesn't read it, and Lane doesn't bother to investigate the level of public and government support the outfits receive--he thinks of them as just youth gangs. Van Vogt doesn't make it explicitly clear to the reader until the final quarter of the 250-page text that the outfits are endorsed by the vast majority of the Spaceport population and that merchants and police will enforce punishments decreed by the outfits, for example, denying to people who break outfit rules cigarettes and rich foods.
As the plot grinds forward Lane and the other defenders of Earth come upon and try to interpret clues about the alien spies, and we see both sides of the chess game played by human counterspies and alien agents. Similarly, Lane struggles with his wife and daughter and the outfits, each side learning about the other and maneuvering to achieve its goals. Van Vogt portrays Lane as letting his preconceptions and emotions get in the way of figuring out the truth (about both the alien spies and the outfits) and the best path forward, and it is the outfits who figure out Ben Jaeger is an alien spy. When Ben realizes the jig is up he hypnotizes Peter Sennes and Sennes takes him into space in that war vessel. Ben's father wants him to kill Sennes and deliver the space craft to the alien fleet for analysis, but Ben's experience with the outfits was so good that he doesn't want to help the war effort of his own people and his own father, but to make peace with Terra. Whereas the adults of both human and alien races would have triggered an interstellar war and unleashed terrible destruction, the kids of both races want peace and they achieve it--the aliens even ask for help setting up their own outfits and giving political power to the teenagers of their world!
I am not impressed by the claim that teenagers would make better parents and police and foreign policy makers than adults, and I don't like the idea of the outfits; these unelected busybodies, who interfere in everybody's life untrammeled by any notion of due process, remind me of Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution or the social credit score of present day China. (I have to admit that I sympathized with slutty bitch--or as I like to think of her, assertive and sex-positive individualist--Dolores Munroe and clueless space admiral John Lane more than the flat and boring leaders of the outfits.) I suspect van Vogt, who did a lot of reading on communist societies for his book The Violent Man (as he relates in the intro to Future Glitter) got the idea for the outfits from his study of revolutionary socialist states--late in the novel, when an adult outfit supporter is explaining to Lane that teenagers can accomplish great things, one of his examples is the claim that 80% of the members of the communist armies that took over China were teenagers. Maybe the outfits' book of rules was inspired by Mao's "Little Red Book?"
Less dismaying than the idea that van Vogt is taking a cue from Bolshevist tyrannies is the fact that van Vogt, in Children of the Future, which Isaac Walwyn reminds us was the first entirely-new SF book van Vogt had published in almost two decades, is apparently responding to the perceived crisis of young people getting involved in crime and drugs and risky sexual activity and suggesting that by giving teens responsibility they will be more amenable to following rules and more likely to contribute to society.
Perhaps by coincidence, but perhaps related to the presumptive totalitarian source material for some of the ideas in the novel, Children of Tomorrow is all about surveillance and espionage, about the acquisition of knowledge, particularly knowledge that people would like to keep secret. Besides all the spying and scouting and cloaking and detecting done by the aliens and Lane's space navy personnel, and all the scenes in which the outfits confront and interrogate people, there are multiple scenes reminiscent of a sitcom in which teens--members of the outfit as well as my girl Dolores--hide behind trees to watch Susan at her front door.
I am fascinated by van Vogt and his career, so of course I thought reading Children of Tomorrow was worth my time. This is one of the least entertaining van Vogt novels, however, and I have my doubts that general SF fans will want to read page after page of Van's clunky prose about marriage woes and teen angst. Here's a sample:
The man sat there, and he was visibly in a state of mixed emotions. One emotion that struggled to find a way to be communicated was a desire to point out that it was she, not he, who had gotten off the subject. Another emotion seeking for life of its own was a kind of here-we-go-again anger. But it was the third emotion that won: a sense of helplessness in the face of superior mental footwork.I guess if you are writing your doctoral dissertation on SF responses to the youth crisis of the 1960s, you should read this one. Otherwise, I think Children of Tomorrow is for van Vogt superfans only!