Rogue Ship – AE van Vogt (1965)
‘A mighty space cruiser coasts through the dreadful emptiness of space on its voyage of human survival. Multimillionaire Averill Hewitt built her, crewed her with handpicked men and women, and had her launched on a one-way trip to the planets clustered around Centaurus.
But he had not counted on radical changes developing in the social hierarchy on board – on mutiny and revolution, on the madness of space – nor on the astounding scientific advances made in that awful isolation…
A tension-packed novel of interstellar adventure and intrigue’
Blurb from the 1975 Panther paperback edition.
Reading some of van Vogt’s work becomes increasingly surreal as the decades pass. In his day he was a major force in SF and a unique writer, painting his visions of space on huge Technicolor canvasses and peopling them with creative, stylish aliens, various forms of superhumans with improbable if quite believable bizarre philosophies, or intelligent machine life. Sadly, his extrapolations of the future were often a little slapdash and seldom extended to social change, particularly in relation to the status of women. In the first section, ‘Centaurus II’, there are no female characters at all, and any mention of women is in terms of subservient wives who have no say, it would appear, in any aspect of their lives. One could argue that the whole crew of ‘The Hope of Man’ is in the same position, the premise being that the ship is heading for the Centaurus system hoping to find a habitable planet after scientific predictions suggest that the solar system is about to be destroyed. Once into space it is discovered that the journey is going to take far longer than expected, something which causes increasing unrest among the crew. Although financed by a multimillionaire, the ship is technically under military rule. The Captain has therefore set up a hereditary hierarchical system, and foils at least two attempts at mutiny.
‘The Expendables’ is a section in which a later Captain attempts to abandon rebels on an alien planet, but only succeeds in allowing a machine-intelligence to infiltrate the ship. van Vogt here employs his trademark character of the logical rational scientist, in this case John Lesbee, the great-great grandson of the original Captain. By virtue of some fantastic gadgets, Lesbee outwits both the alien machines (who have in the meantime conveniently reconfigured the ship’s engines to achieve near light speed) and the usurping Captain.
In the ‘Rogue Ship’ section there is another onboard coup and Lesbee is deposed. The ship, heading back for Earth, is thrown beyond lightspeed and travels back in time to arrive six years after it left.
It is here that female characters briefly appear, the four subservient Captain’s wives. Hewitt, the multimillionaire, eventually finds himself on board his long lost ship and is shocked by the social system that has developed.
‘Ruth next indicated the sullen young brunette beauty at the table. ‘Marianne is Captain Gourdy’s first wife. Naturally, Ilsa and I will now be taken over by him.’
Hewitt was discreetly silent. But as he glanced from one to another of the women and saw their agreement with what Ruth had said, he felt an inner excitement of his own.
These women, he realized, amazed, were the male fantasy come alive. Throughout history, men periodically manoeuvred the State so skilfully that women were motivated to accept multiple wife roles, at least in connection with the top leaders. A percentage of men dreamed of having a harem of compliant females all in the same household, at peace with each other, free of that jealous madness which men normally found so painfully ever present in women outside of their own fantasies. The desire for so many women was probably some deep psychological need, which those who were possessed by it did not even want to have explained.
Hewitt had never had such needs as an adult. So he could look at these women as would a scientist confronted by a phenomenon of nature.‘
van Vogt seems to be trying to make a moral point (if a rather patronising one) about this polygamy, but what his point is in reality is harder to determine since other books such as ‘The War Against The Rull’ have portrayals of women as being naturally subordinate and inferior.
Again we see the recurrence of the rational, logical leader figure, in control of his emotions.
For a van Vogt novel it is interesting only in that we see this recurring archetype, a concept which van Vogt exploited brilliantly in ‘The World of Null-A’, less brilliantly in ‘The War Against the Rull’, and here very poorly indeed.
It’s also interesting from an academic point of view to see the progression of quality of the writing (none of it anywhere near van Vogt’s best) improve from the 1947 story, through to the 1950 section and on to the 1963 denouement.
Also published in Ace Double F-253 as ‘The Twisted Men’