Children of Tomorrow – AE van Vogt (1970)
‘After a year of travel to through unmapped space, Space Commander Lane returns to earth. Reaching Spaceport he finds everything changed beyond recognition.
The adult males have deserted the cities in search of battle and exploration and the children have seized power….’
Blurb from the 1972 NEL paperback edition
Spaceport is a city containing the families of those men who have been away in space ten years on exploratory missions. In the interim, a new social phenomenon has evolved. The teenagers, having to grow up in a society without fathers, have developed a new system of ‘outfit’ regime. An outfit is a gang in which the members engage in honest group discussion and have rules and rigid moral codes. Their power has grown to the point where adults have to conform to their principles and outfits can take legitimate action against parents who are not bringing their children up properly.
Commander John Lane has now returned to Earth and is instantly branded a ‘booter’ (one who is opposed to the outfits) since he does not realise that the outfit system is a far better way of developing teenagers’ minds that his own reactionary and somewhat misogynist ideas.
Van Vogt is here I think exploring his own dianetic ideas but sadly fails to realise that his ingrained sexism is at odds with the liberal views he is seeking to espouse from the point of view of the ‘outfits’.
Van Vogt’s women – in this novel we can cite the characters of John Lane’s daughter Susan and his wife Estelle – have seldom been strong individuals. Van Vogt here is at last attempting to portray women with minds of their own, but ultimately he falls back into his cliched ideas. Susan Lane is sixteen years old and her father’s idea of getting her to leave the outfits is to set her up on a date with Captain Sennes, a twenty-eight year old serial love-rat. Rather than see through this bizarre plan, Susan is overwhelmed by the Captain’s hypermasculinity. Susan’s mother does little to prevent her husband other than whine a little and lie awake in bed fretting.
Meanwhile, an alien race has followed Captain Lane back from the far reaches of the galaxy and Bud Jaeger, an alien child – disguised as human – has infiltrated Susan’s outfit, The Red Cats. Bud’s alien father is present in a disembodied form and communicates with the boy telepathically, their mission being to assess the capability of Earth to present a danger to their race.
For a late Van Vogt novel it is surprisingly enjoyable, but lacks much of the wow factor which characterised his earlier work. It is interesting that Van Vogt has attempted to impose some sort of structure on this work (albeit a simplistic one) since we have contrasts of Susan’s relationship with her father and the relationship of the alien Bud Jaeger with his father. This however, seems only a plot device by which the humans and aliens can be reconciled, since Bud’s experiences in the outfits have proved that the aliens could benefit from the outfit system within their own race.
Obviously Van Vogt felt that this would be a great novel for teenage readers, since teenagers have always felt that they understood far more than their parents, and would empathise with a society in which they had a real voice within groups of their peers and could, if necessary, impose penalties on their parents. It was a little late in the day to make this an allegory of the rise of youth culture which began in the 1950s, and the book also suffers from the strange jive-talk which the outfits employ. Van Vogt’s dialogue has often seemed stilted but here, the future setting combined with the ersatz sixties slang gives the impression of surreal juxtaposition.
…A moment later he asked, ‘What’s the push, Mike?’
Once more, Mike hesitated, then: ‘No push.’
Lee replied instantly, ‘There’s a doubt pushing out of you. Jack it out so we can scan it.’
Mike’s expression was clearing. He removed his hand from the grip it had on Bud’s coat collar. ‘All unpacked, Lee,’ he said. A warm, friendly smile creased his face. ‘All sack.’
Lee said, ‘Sack.’ He turned to the others, made a dispersal gesture. ‘Sack,’ he said once again. he turned and walked quickly over to Susan. ‘Let’s go moocher,’ he said.
Susan caught his arm. ‘Sack, everybody,’ she said.
All except Bud answered, ‘Sack.’
Some of Van Vogt’s ideas, crazy though they are, have a certain merit. He suggests for example, that teenagers of both sexes should be given real roles and responsibilities in their teenage years, since this is the time when their potential can be best expanded, and although the settings and some of the characters seem more rooted in the future of the 1950s than the 1970s, occasional sections shine with a surreal profundity.