The Silkie – AE van Vogt (1969)
‘The Silkie – a living spaceship, impervious to heat and cold, virtually indestructible and capable of travelling at supersonic speeds.
The Silkie – similar to a human being, but not the same. Highly intelligent.
The Silkie – able to live under the oceans with the ease of a dolphin and the speed of a shark.
The Silkie – a modern angel or a computerised demon?
The Silkie – a friend of Earth, or a pitiless, alien destroyer?’
Blurb from the 1973 NEL paperback edition
It at first appears that as part of a longevity experiment, Earth scientists created a new sort of human, a Silkie; a being that can change form to live in sea or on land or in space. It is mentioned early on that the word ‘Silkie’ is taken from an old song, by which was meant the Orkneys folk song ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’.
This is the story of a woman, unhappy (and no doubt ostracised) because she does not know her son’s father. A man rises up from the sea to tell her that he is the father, and that he is a silkie: a man only on the land, a seal in the water.
By the time we get to the main narrative Humanity is comprised of ordinary humans, Special people (who communicate telepathically with Silkies), Silkies themselves and ‘Variants’. As the Silkies are all males, they mate with women of the Special People. Some children are not true Silkies and are classed as Variants.
The Silkies have appointed themselves policemen of the Solar System and beyond, reporting to the Silkie Authority and a governing body composed mainly of humans and Special People.
Nat Cemp is a Silkie who finds himself at the forefront of the action.
Cemp encounters three hostile alien races and has to deal with each one either alone or with the help of other Silkies and Special People.
This is, as can probably be guessed, a fix-up novel, comprised of three stories originally published in Galaxy, along with some introductory material that van Vogt wrote for the novel.
There are some echoes of ‘Slan’ here in that human women are giving birth to ‘evolved’ humans and, as with ‘Slan’ the origins of the Silkies are not what humans believe them to be.
In Cemp’s first encounter he is intercepted in space by a shipful of Variants. Their ship is basically a mile-long space-going ocean with its own internal biosphere. Cemp is confronted here by a powerful alien, one of the Kibmadine, who tries to convince Cemp that he is his son.
There are several instances in this book, in fact, where people (mostly) in authority have convinced others of things that were completely untrue, which is both ironic and fascinating given that, for several years prior to this, van Vogt had been heavily involved in L Ron Hubbard’s Scientology programme.
It’s an interesting coincidence, but whether the matter is worth investigating further is for someone with greater insight into these things to determine.
In the next section, it is discovered that an unknown group of Silkies is already living within the Solar System unbeknown to anyone else, and some of them are women. They are the servants of an ancient alien creature called the Glis who has been traveling the galaxy for millennia in the hollow of a large asteroid, finding inhabited planets and compressing them to form part of a collection. Here again there is deception. The Space Silkies have had their memories tampered with while humans were hypnotised into believing that Silkies were created on Earth.
Earth Silkies have developed a mental defence technique called ‘The Logic of Levels’ which, when applied correctly, sets up a feedback loop in the opponent’s mind and basically buggers up their heads. This was used in the first section to defeat the alien threat.
van Vogt, who is well used to writing in widescreen, attempts to increase the spectacle with each section. Cemp manages to defeat the ancient Glis with his ‘logic of levels’ techniques. In death, however, the Glis is not an inanimate corpse. For reasons that are both unclear and scientifically implausible, the Glis expands to become a supermassive star, incidentally releasing all the habitable planets that it had captured and compressed, Earth among them.
Thus Earth, seemingly unharmed, becomes one of around eighteen hundred habitable worlds, orbiting the starcorpse of The Glis. It is a ludicrous and unfeasible concept. Anyone with any common sense could tear any number of holes in the idea, and yet it somehow works and is one of the great romantic images of Space opera.
In the final section, the Silkies are pitted against an ancient enemy, the Nijjan. This is the weakest section of the novel, it has to be said, since van Vogt gets so carried away with his esoteric pseudosciences that some of the explanations for what happens, or is happening, make little sense.
Suffice it to say Nat Cemp finds a way to defeat the aliens with his ‘logic of levels’ jedi mind tricks and fully expects to die in the process. The trouble is, the Nijjan seem to be somehow psychically bonded to the structure of the universe. The universe therefore begins to collapse swiftly in on itself dragging Cemp with it.
The denouement though sees Cemp able to analyse the structure of the universe and to reconstruct it as he wishes it to be. The troublesome Kibmadine, the Glis and the Nijjan do not exist now and the Earth is back where it belongs.
It is a slightly ‘Deus ex Machina’ finale where all the loose ends are not just tied up, but wiped from memory and from existence.
We have some van Vogt hallmarks here such as the logical superman/scientist/leader and the mile-long space ship. We have the emergence of a super-race from Humanity that humans will fear and distrust, which we have seen in both ‘Slan’ and ‘The Mixed Men’ previously.
There is also the author’s casual sexism, not as pronounced here as in some earlier works, but still evident. The Silkies for instance are exclusively male until the arrival of the Space Silkies, where females are clearly represented. It is pointed out however that the female Silkies are somewhat bulky, unattractive and no match for the blonde curvy femme-fatales of the Special People. They also hardly play any further roles in the narrative.
In comparison with his later work, it’s a decent read, and arguably the last good novel he published.