My life in outer space

The Undercover Aliens (vt. The House That Stood Still) – AE van Vogt (1950)

The Undercover Aliens


A scream of agony in a darkened office… an oddly constructed mansion high on a hill which had been there far longer than memory or history could reach… extraterrestrial intervention in the slow build-up of the last devastating war Mankind could suffer… murder… a young lawyer, Stephens, who finds himself inextricably involved in a brutal pre-Aztec cult, a group of people who origins are shrouded in mystery, and who have one thing in common – that ancient house on the hill….

These are the spell-binding ingredients in AE Van Vogt’s brilliant novel, combining the tension of a whodunnit and the tantalising mind-expansion of great science fiction.

Blurb from the 1976 Panther paperback edition

This oddly noir-ish piece features a young lawyer, Allison Stephens, engaged to assist a Mr Tannahill with the inheritance of his late uncle’s house and business affairs.
Tannahill however bears a more than suspicious resemblance to the uncle and confesses that he has memories of being buried alive and subsequently exhumed.
His uncle’s house is an old Aztec style construction which is apparently at least two thousand years old and which has the power to rejuvenate those who live within its walls.
Stephens slowly uncovers a conspiracy involving some fifty immortals and an alien robot trapped in a ship below the house, but not before he is rendered unconsciousness several times, on each occasion waking up in a different location.
Though readable enough, Van Vogt’s convoluted style of make-it-up-as-you-go-along plotting, combined with a lack of characterisation, creates a confusing denouement and one is left with a feeling of perplexity.
It lacks the colour and excitement of earlier work, and reads as if Van Vogt were attempting a sci-fi thriller, complete with secret organisations, femme-fatales and the unsolved murders of two men.
The major female protagonist, Mistra Lanett (once the secretary of the late Mr Tannahill) is discovered to be at least two thousand years old but, like many of Van Vogt’s female characters, succumbs to the superior masculine attractions of Stephens. After the many sexual conquests of her long life she wishes to be a mother and has chosen Stephens to be the father of her child.
Originally published as ‘The House That Stood Still’ it was reissued as ‘The Undercover Aliens’ despite the fact that no aliens – apart from the robot who only wished to extend human life in order that it could teach humans to repair his ship – appear anywhere in the novel.


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