The subjects of today's blog post exhibit all these facets of the strange work and career of A. E. van Vogt, a particular favorite here at MPorcius Fiction Log.
Among the stories van Vogt saw published in John W. Campbell's Astounding in 1943 were two featuring James Pendrake, "The Great Engine" and "The Beast." One of van Vogt's 1944 contributions to Astounding was the novella "The Changeling," which did not feature Pendrake but became bound to those two earlier stories regardless when in the early 1960s these three stories were cobbled together to create the 1963 fix-up novel The Beast, which was published in 1969 in Great Britain under the title The Moonbeast. I've never read the 1943 stories, nor the fix-up novel, though I have read and blogged about a 1976 book printing of "The Changeling" with a beautiful blue cover by Bruce Pennington, and I decided it would be a valuable use of my brief time here on Earth to read the three magazine stories as well as the fix-up novel and see what changes might have been made in the transition from pulp pages to life between hardcovers.
Thanks go to Isaac Walwyn and Andrew May, who trod this path before me--I highly recommend Walwyn's invaluable website on van Vogt, and May's article on van Vogt's fix-up novels, even though I have come to some different conclusions than do they.
"The Great Engine" (1943)
'The Great Engine" has two linked plots centered on James Pendrake. The SF plot involves Pendrake making a strange discovery and following the clues to an even bigger discovery: that society's elites are managing a project of tremendous importance behind the backs and even against the will of the people--for the people's own good, of course. The human plot involves Pendrake's psychology--a broken man, we gradually collect clues that show how he became broken and watch as he becomes whole again.
We learn Pendrake's biography in bits and pieces out of order as we read, but I'll just summarize it here. Pendrake was an Air Force officer in the Second World War who was renowned for his terrific physical strength. He was so strong he was constantly breaking things by mistake, for example breaking the locks of doors he didn't realize were locked when he tried to open them. His war service was as a pilot in China, during which time he lost an arm. His relationship with his wife Eleanor collapsed, neither of them being psychologically prepared to maturely deal with the loss of his arm (van Vogt makes much of Pendrake's wife being an "introvert"--van Vogt is fascinated by psychology) and they separated. Pendrake isolates himself in a cottage, seeing nobody and not even reading the newspaper for month after month (now who's the introvert?)
After like three years of isolation, Pendrake discovers a marvelous piece of technology where it crashed into a hillside, a thing like a donut several feet in diameter with a six-inch hole. An item pushed into the hole spins like an axle at an alarming rate--this is a super engine, apparently atomically powered. Pendrake's life suddenly gains meaning as he tries to figure out how the thing works, where it came from, and how he can exploit its astounding power, hooking it up to an airplane, for example. As he goes about these investigations he rejoins the human race, getting in contact with an Air Force chum, Ned Hoskins, and eventually Eleanor.
The people who lost the engine use force and threats to get it back, and Jim and Eleanor Pendrake take on the roles of detectives in an effort to identify these secretive technologists. There is breaking and entering, there is a stakeout, there are disguises, people get captured and then escape, and there is also research at the library and in the old files at the local newspaper. Finally, the Pendrakes learn that a cabal of scientists has a secret fleet of space ships and are building a colony on Venus by kidnapping hardy people who have no relatives and shipping them there. The eggheads assure Jim and Eleanor that once on Venus these people are glad to be shanghaied because Venus is a god-damned paradise! If it's a paradise, why keep it a secret and use force and fraud to build the colony? Because, if the people at large and their governments knew that the inner planets were accessible and valuable, some kind of war would no doubt result--the scientists want to keep the colony a secret until it can stand on its own two feet. Pendrake feels honor bound as an officer of the United States Air Force to report all this to Uncle Sam, but he is not believed, and the Pendrakes are relieved because they have come to admire the project and accept its rationale--Jim forgives the scientists for threatening his wife and kidnapping him and all that.
Like so much SF, "The Great Engine" advocates that the cognitive elite manipulate the stupid masses of common people for their own good; smh, as the kids say. At least I can endorse without reservation the fact that the Pendrake marriage has been saved, with Jim moving out of that cottage and back into the big house with his wife.
"The Beast" (1943)
"The Beast" appeared in the same issue of Astounding as George O. Smith's "Recoil," the book version of which we just recently read.
"The Beast" starts in 1948, two years after the end of "The Great Engine," and we find that the Pendrake family has suffered another tragedy--after patching up their marriage, Jim and Eleanor tried to become parents, but their baby died and Eleanor is in a depression. Jim figures they should move to utopian Venus to start a new life but when he goes to the Venus cabal's HQ he finds it has been taken over by foreigners--Germans--and they kidnap him!
It turns out that a secret group of Nazis found out about the secret Venus colony (van Vogt stories are full of hidden elites who fight each other over worlds which don't even know about them), murdered the scientists and seized all the Venus group's stuff, including the engines, and set up a base on the moon. (There was also a secret Nazi base on the moon in Robert Heinlein's 1947 Rocket Ship Galileo, as you probably already know.) Pendrake's captors fly him to Luna, but before the craft lands Pendrake kills them; the ship crashes and our one-armed hero finds himself lost on the moon. We get a dose of hard sf stuff about space suits and the behavior of light and heat in a vacuum and the value of pumice dust as insulation as Pendrake struggles to survive while he searches for the Nazi base. (I have no idea how much validity there is to any of this science, written over 25 years before a man stepped on the moon by a guy who believed in, or at least wrote about, all kinds of wacky theories.)
While Pendrake is springing over and digging under the desolate lunar surface, day after day, on Earth his old Air Force buddy, Ned Hoskins, and the FBI are slowly uncovering the truth about Venus and the Nazis. Besides murdering all the Venus project scientists, the Nazis have framed the absent Pendrake for the murder of one of his servants and kidnapped his wife. We later learn she has also been brought to the moon.
One of the interesting things about the two Pendrake stories is van Vogt's speculations about the postwar world. In "The Great Engine" van Vogt supposes that there was a post-war economic and technological boom. In "The Beast" we learn about the treatment meted out to Germany by the Allies after World War II. In real life the Western Allies treated Germany rather generously, if only because it was felt that a strong West Germany was needed to stand against Stalin's USSR, which had brutally conquered Eastern Europe, including East Germany. In this 1943 story, the Allies act quite punitively towards a defeated Germany, so harshly that among Christians in the United States there is a popular movement against the "Shaposhenko punishments" and for leniency towards the Germans. Ned Hoskins, who was captured by the Germans during the war and tortured, has no sympathy for the people campaigning for mercy for the defeated enemy.
Back on the moon, Pendrake is captured, but not by Nazis. Instead, he finds a colony of Americans from the 19th century, a bunch of cowboys and Indians from the Wild West living in an abandoned subterranean alien city that provides its own oxygen and light. As if that wasn't crazy enough, they are ruled by a Neanderthal! Van really pours on the descriptions of how ugly and animal-like the Neanderthal is, with his "pig eyes" and over-sized teeth and "enormous thick lips;" the description concludes with the assertion that he looks "like some nightmare out of hell." But the Neanderthal, who has taken the title of Big Oaf, has a keen mind. Big Oaf is a million or so years old; he, at the dawn of man, was teleported from Terra when he stumbled on the focus point of an alien teleporter device here on the moon in this alien city; the Indians and cowboys got here the same way in the Victorian era. The city somehow gradually increases resident people's intelligence, and any living thing, including animals, doesn't age in the city, there is a saber-toothed tiger here on the moon that Big Oaf keeps down in a pit; periodically he throws somebody into the pit to be mauled and devoured by the big cat as punishment and entertainment. The tiger is the stick, but the cunning and tyrannical Big Oaf has recently acquired some carrots with which to manipulate the five hundred or so men who have been teleported into his kingdom over the years--when the Nazis founded their colony nearby he began raiding them to steal German women, whom he offers to his followers as wives. (This reminded me of that story about JFK making the intern he was having sex with provide oral sex to his friend and adviser David Powers. Ahh, Camelot!) Big Oaf takes four or five wives of his own at a time, but the pressure of being married to the monstrous Big Oaf is severe--two of his wives have already committed suicide!
(One of van Vogt's interests, over the long course of his career, was the psychology of what he called "the violent man" or "the violent male"--he even wrote a novel called The Violent Man--who dominates men and uses women, is obsessed with avoiding death and with being proven right, and Big Oaf is an early example of such a character in van Vogt's body of work.)
As we saw on Earth, with the talk of the Shaposhenko punishments and Christian opposition to them, one of the themes of "The Beast" is mercy, primarily the risks, even foolishness, of mercy. Because Pendrake is so strong and smart, both Big Oaf and a group of conspirators seeking to overthrow the ruthless Neanderthal want him to join their ranks. Pendrake, in talks with the leader of the would-be rebels, advocates total ruthlessness, arguing that everyone who supports Big Oaf will have to be exterminated. Pendrake has no compunctions about lying, stabbing people in the back, and killing people who are (temporarily) helpless to achieve the goal of victory over Big Oaf or the Nazis. This mercilessness is what Pendrake (and maybe van Vogt himself) learned from World War II: "If there was one thing the years of fighting had taught every sane human being on Earth, it was that death came easily to those who fought fair against those who didn't." The utility of this sort of ruthlessness is pressed home when the leader of the anti-Big Oaf conspirators expresses worries over the fact that the rebel force is small; Pendrake offers examples of "successful" revolutionaries that made me cringe:
"The world is run by small groups of men. Two hundred thousand determined men overthrew the Czarist regime in a Russia of a hundred and fifty million people. Hitler took control of Germany with a comparatively small body of active followers."(This is the grim reality behind that Margaret Mead quote starry-eyed liberals love to paste to the back of their automobiles, the mailed fist inside the velvet glove that so many advocates of revolutionary change and interventionist government try to hide from you--our man Van is the kind of elitist who isn't afraid to let you see that mailed fist.)
The influence of the Second World War, raging at the time the story was written and published, on the tale is one of the interesting things about it. Another example: There are three "beasts" in the story: Big Oaf and the sabre-toothed cat, of course, but also Hitler and the members of his political party. Pendrake directly compares Big Oaf to Hitler, even mockingly calls him "Hitler" after he has, in the story's action climax, thrown Big Oaf down into the pit to be eaten by the prehistoric tiger. Hinting at a belief on van Vogt's part in psychological determinism, Pendrake's cry down the pit of, "Hitler, how does it feel?" rises involuntarily from Pendrake's subconscious, such that he is surprised at his own words. "Pendrake thought: 'Did I shout that?'" But he has no regrets or shame about taunting the tyrant; he follows the taunt with a quote from the preamble of the law governing the ruthless Shaposhenko punishment:
--he who evokes the Beast in Man, and feeds the Beast with cunning purpose, let him suffer from the Beast according to his measure.The basic plot of "The Beast" is much like an Edgar Rice Burroughs story: a strong guy ends up in a queer alien environment where he has to confront monsters and lead a band of people against a tyrant and rescue the love interest, with van Vogt using this adventure story form to present a bunch of philosophical and psychological stuff. The plot is resolved when one of Big Oaf's raiding parties captures Eleanor from the Nazis; he doesn't want his wife used by some cowboy or the monstrous Big Oaf, so Jim precipitously launches the uprising, which ultimately succeeds. Soon after, U. S. government forces--Ned Hoskins with the help of others having figured out what is going on--land on the moon and defeat the Nazis. The Venus colony is now public knowledge, but is strong enough to be recognized as a sovereign state. In the same way that Venus was kept a secret from the people, now the alien city of immortality is kept a secret--the Pendrakes will live there for eternity, figure out how to use the various alien machines, and educate a small cadre of people, I guess to guide humanity or something.
"The Beast" is a good story, with action/adventure elements, many SF devices and ideas, and van Vogt's perhaps distressing psychological and philosophical theories, which are cold and anti-romantic and throw Christian mercy and forgiveness right out the window.
"The Changeling" (1944)
scan of the original magazine story at the internet archive, almost sixty pages of squinty little print (fortunately it is easy to zoom.) Flipping through the 1976 book, I found some minor changes here and there to punctuation and how the paragraph breaks and a few revised phrases.
"The Changeling" is set in a time period and a milieu entirely different from the two Pendrake stories. It is 1972, and business executive and World War II vet Lesley Craig is having a crazy day. He has been employed at the same firm, with an interruption for war service, since the 1930s, working his way up from the bottom of the ladder to his position today as general manager. At least that is how he remembers it--but today somebody casually lets drop that he has worked at the company only four years, and when Craig checks out the personnel files his name doesn't appear until 1968!
While he is trying to figure out this mind-boggling conundrum, Craig is kidnapped by a bunch of women armed with pistols. The 1972 of the story is a world in which "complete female emancipation" has been achieved, but, for some women, mere legal and social equality is not enough. Thousands of these feminists have taken a drug that gives them the strength and aggressiveness of a man. But these "new" women are shunned by society--men won't date them, ordinary women won't be their friends, and employers won't hire them--their ambition has stunted their lives! The President of the United States, Jefferson Dayles, has hired all of these "amazons" to be his bodyguard and a squad of them drag Craig to the Prez, who has a bewildering conversation with Craig and then just lets him go.
Over the next few days one inexplicable event happens to Craig after another. Craig comes upon clues that suggest his memories of working at the company all his life are fake data forced into his mind. He discovers that his wife Anrella and his work colleagues are having secret meetings at his estate, talking about him behind his back, vaguely hinting that a "change" of great import is imminent. His car stalls out and when he looks under the hood he is confronted by a new type of engine he has never seen before. A commando squad of those amazons takes over his estate, and holds him prisoner in his own home!
In the process of escaping his estate he severely injures his arm, and when he crawls into a doctor's office he learns it must be amputated; to the amazement of the hospital staff, and Craig himself, a new arm starts growing from the stump! At the same time Craig begins losing his memories, even such basic information as his own name and what an automobile is! Luckily, Craig has not forgotten how to escape...unluckily, once he is out of the hospital on the night streets he is so intrigued by the sight of a car that he steps out in the road to investigate and gets run over! The drunk who was at the wheel hides the body in a ditch a hundred miles away; after lying there healing for a week our hero rises up to disappear in the vast countryside of these United States, his mind a total blank! He can't even talk! It seems that his quick healing ability is the result of his cells being replaced, but when your brain cells get replaced the memory each cell held is lost! Doh!
|In 1950 "The Changeling" was printed in the|
hardcover book Masters of Time along with
"Recruiting Station," which I blogged about
"Actually, a benevolent dictatorship is the best form of government," opines Dayles, adding that the problem with a benevolent dictator is that when he dies a warmongering monster is likely to take his place. If the benevolent dictator is immortal, problem solved, right?
Dayles is in a race against time as American democracy falls apart. The American voters have become so neurotic as to start voting for women! People are not psychologically ready for women participating in politics at a high level: women are not strong enough to take the stresses of politics, and men can't handle the idea of being told what to do by women and revolt. (Van Vogt in this story comes across as a hardcore psychological determinist--people react to stimuli and you can't hold them morally responsible for their actions.) Demonstrations and riots shake the foundation of our republic! Dayles's agents are searching everywhere for Craig, but they are in competition with the secret group of which Craig's wife Anrella is the leader--they also have a scheme for using Craig to rule the world. Both Dayles and Anrella, of course, want to rule the world dictatorially out of the most selfless of motives!
A complicated series of events concludes with Anrella's group getting their hands on Craig, and we and Craig finally learn what the hell is going on. Anrella and Craig, and the thirty-three top people of her organization, are people with "toti-potential." Such people have special powers that manifest themselves in phases--phase one only begins when a toti-potent suffers a horrific trauma, when he or she is at the brink of death. For example, Anrella was a nurse in World War I and her toti-powers were activated when an explosion blasted off her arm and buried her in mud, where she lay alone for days. Craig's abilities blossomed when he was severely injured in World War II. Craig is the utmost, maximum specimen of toti-potentiality, and Anrella and co have been putting him under stress in hopes he will metamorphose to a phase of power no one has before achieved. His memory problem is solved when he gains the power to instantly absorb the content of other men's brains (he can't read the minds of women.) When Anrella's cabal of super people sits Craig down in proximity to a bunch of scientists and engineers (followers they have enlisted to their cause by giving them transfusions of super blood that provides these non-toti-potents with great health and longevity) Craig knows everything all these eggheads knows, and is able to synthesize all that knowledge so he can effortlessly design super weapons and other high tech devices. (We recognize van Vogt's interest in synthesizing intellectual disciples from the book version of Voyage of the Space Beagle, which features a science of Nexialism that synthesizes all other sciences.)
Anrella cunningly engineers a showdown in the California desert between the U. S. Army--led by President Dayles--and her group of super people, now led by her husband. Anrella expects Craig to design a super weapon to defeat Dayles, but Craig instead resolves the conflict without bloodshed, making peace between the two factions by employing a new power of his Anrella couldn't predict was coming, the power to bend people's will in such a way that they don't even know they are being manipulated like puppets. Craig is now ruler of the world, and plans to increase technological progress and, through education, ease women gradually into equality with men in the political sphere in a way that won't cause social disruption.
"The Changeling" lacks some of the action/adventure stuff you see in the Pendrake stories, but it has its fair share of against-the-grain political and psychological theories, as well as the kind of secret-elite-conspiracies-at-war and guy-with-increasing-mental-powers content we so often see in van Vogt stories. I also thought the scenes of injuries were surprisingly effective--when Craig's arm was penetrated by the sharp finial of the fence around his estate and he put a tourniquet on it, and then the doctor told him he would have to amputate, I felt like I was reading some pretty disturbing splatter punk!
The Beast (1963)
|My copy of The Beast|
The Beast has 31 chapters (and an epilogue.) Chapters 1 through 4 replicate most of "The Great Engine." The first difference we notice is that Jim Pendrake finds the atomic engine in 1972, not 1948. The war he and Ned Hoskins fought in was not World War II, but a war with China that raged from 1965 to '68.
In the magazine stories the Pendrakes' marriage collapsed because they couldn't handle the tragedy of the loss of Jim's arm while serving in the Air Force in China, but here in the book version of the Pendrake marital saga Jim cheated on Eleanor with multiple women while in the Far East. Ned Hoskins, who was with Jim those three years in China, says that was really no big deal--after all, while they were in China Ned cheated on his wife with a dozen different women! A dozen! When did he find time to fight the commies?
One of the biggest changes is that Jim's arm begins growing back--in the magazine stories Pendrake's arm never grew back. Also, in end of "The Great Engine," the Pendrakes were kidnapped by the people who made the engine and put aboard a spaceship bound for Venus. But here in the novel The Beast, the Pendrakes' captors send Eleanor to the Venus, where she lives for like two years as the only single person in the colony of married couples, but keep Jim here on Earth so they can exploit his toti-potent cells, which, here in the book, were activated by radiation from the engine. In this book version, which stitches together parts of the Pendrake stories and "The Changeling," James Pendrake and Leslie Craig are conflated or combined, as are the Venus organization from the Pendrake stories and Anrella's group of superpeople and associated scientists from "The Changeling."
Anrella's people hypnotize Pendrake into thinking he is a business executive with a wife named Anrella and has worked at the same firm all his life, slotting him into the Craig role in "The Changeling," and chapters 5 through 10 of The Beast proceed much like the beginning of that story. After working at the firm two years, Pendrake becomes suspicious of his fake memories, is captured by President Dayles's amazons, learns that his "wife" Anrella is part of some conspiracy organization that is waiting for him to change, and then escapes both factions, in the process losing his arm, which grows back in a hospital where he loses his memory.
|The Kelly Freas cover of the DAW edition|
of The Beast forefronts the role of
women in the novel
This new chapter, 11, also includes an interesting scene in which Pendrake, taking some psychological tests, is shown to have gained an amazing ability to instantly comprehend the working of machines and complex systems.
Starting in chapter 12 (and continuing through Chapter 19) we get the plot of "The Beast," though the reason Pendrake goes to the HQ of the Venus group is pretty vague--there is no desire to emigrate to Venus because Eleanor lost their baby as there is in the magazine version--and the Germans in this version who have murdered many members of the Venus/Anrella group and bring Jim and Eleanor Pendrake (separately) to the moon are not described as Nazis, but East Germans. Anrella's organization believes that they are agents of the Warsaw Pact establishment, working at the direction of the Soviets, but later the U. S. intelligence community tells Ned Hoskins (in chapter 23) that the Germans who have stolen the engines and colonized the moon are a dissident nationalist group dedicated to German reunification and independence, many of them former members of Nazi party who had gained positions of authority in Communist East Germany but were still loyal to National Socialist principles and had a racist contempt for Slavs.
More significant changes to the story are those related to the native lunar civilization and the devices it left behind. In the original Pendrake stories the fantastic engine was invented by an American scientist shortly after WWII, but in the novel here (Chapter 17) it is revealed that the engine was found in the moon city by one of the 19th century men who found himself teleported to the moon--this guy tricked Big Oaf into letting him look over the alien machines and used the engine to escape back to Earth, where he hid the engine. The scientist who in the short stories built the engine in this novel just figured out how out it works and how to duplicate it.
|My copy of Moonbeast|
In Chapter 20 Pendrake actually meets the lunar people, the people who, hundreds of thousands of years ago, built the subterranean lunar town and the teleporter and (in this book version) the great engine. They have evolved into pure energy, and Pendrake is able to detect them and speaks to them. Pendrake begs them for help when Big Oaf is about to throw him to the sabre-tooth cat, and they suggest he join them, live a life with no passion and no pin, but Pendrake recoils at the idea of abandoning his wife and giving up his humanity. In the same chapter he has the opportunity to use the teleporter to transmit himself back to Earth; unfortunately, he arrives on Earth right in front of a massive "road-roller machine," I guess what I would call a steamroller, that is flattening the terrain to build a road, and is severely injured.
In Chapter 21 we find that van Vogt has switched us back onto the "Changeling" track, to the junction where Craig had been hit by a drunken driver--Pendrake has no memory and ambitious President Jefferson Dayles is hunting for him because he wants transfusions of his toti-potential blood, which will enable his immortal benevolent dictatorship.
As in the 1944 short story, Anrella gets a hold of the toti-potent man (in this novel Pendrake) and engineers a confrontation in the California desert between her organization, with the protagonist at its head, and the United States military led in person by President Dayles, and the toti-potent man makes peace between the two conspiracies by using his new hypnotic power.
In this novel, van Vogt tones down to a considerable extent the anti-democratic rhetoric and advocacy of ruthlessness we find in the source material. For example, after Pendrake uses his new hypnotic powers on Anrella and Dayles to end the confrontation peacefully and set the world on the course of peace and gender equity, Anrella whips out a device that takes this power away from Pendrake, so he can't just run the world unilaterally. (I did not find this deus ex machina addition to the novel very welcome.) All the stuff about Shaposhenko punishments and the risk of treating postwar Germany too leniently has been jettisoned. Pendrake talks up democracy and fair treatment of women to both Dayles and Big Oaf much more in the novel than in the stories, and succeeds in convincing Dayles and Anrella to act in a much more democratic and less elitist fashion--amazingly, he even gets Big Oaf to embrace democracy and monogamy!
Chapter 31 resolves the issue of the Germans on the moon; in the epilogue, as in "The Beast," the sabre tooth is caged and put in a zoo on Earth, a metaphor for man's primitive nature being put under control.
Combining the two Pendrake stories with the Craig story diminished the power and entertainment value of all of them; as I discovered when I read the stories that were combined to make The War Against the Rull, the original source material is superior to the later fix-up novel. One of the, perhaps minor, issues with The Beast is that a theme of the Pendrake stories was of economic and technological growth after World War II, and a theme of "The Changeling" was postwar stagnation, and van Vogt doesn't really smooth out this discrepancy; lines from "The Great Engine" about how prosperous America is and references to an "electron camera" which can detect images from the past left on subatomic particles are retained in the novel, alongside Dayles's bellyaching from "The Changeling" about there being no new technological developments after the end of the Second World War. Oops.
I did enjoy some of the new material van Vogt came up with for The Beast, though; the intelligence test scene in the all-new Chapter 11 is good, and I also liked that, here in the book version, Pendrake actually meets the lunar people.
An interesting project. No doubt there is more van Vogt in this blog's future. But in our next episode we'll read a novel by a science fiction Grandmaster which I expect will put forward more conventional ideas than those expressed by van Vogt in 1943 and '44 issues of Astounding, ideas a run-of-the-mill college professor or columnist at the New York Times would be comfortable voicing, but I suppose there is a chance I will be surprised!