The Changeling – AE van Vogt (1944)
‘THE WORLD WAS COMING TO AN END…. but only the toti-potents knew it. They were the instruments of the alien invaders.
Once they had been ordinary men. But when the invaders from space took possession of their bodies, they became immortal and perpetually young; able to read minds and predict and change the future; possessors of weapons infinitely more powerful than any Earth had known. And they began to hate men.
But because, outwardly, they still looked and acted like everybody else, there was no way to tell who they were – until they attacked!’
Blurb from the 1969 Macfadden books paperback edition.
This is a piece originally published in Astounding in 1944 which features a future world in which, for one thing, the sexual divide has become polarised. Many women have a drug that makes them the equal of men (although what exactly that entails, apart from increased strength is kept a little vague). The consequence of this is that no one will employ them and no man will marry them. To solve the problem President Jefferson Dayles has recruited them all as a personal Amazon Army.
The novel begins however with Lesley Craig, a man who is questioning his own memory. He has the conviction that he has been working at his current job for longer than seems to be the case, and when he decides to go home to question his wife on the matter he eavesdrops on her discussing him with a group of men.
He has also been kidnapped by a team of Amazons and taken to see Jefferson Dayles who questions him obliquely before Craig is returned home.
This would appear to be typical ‘stream of consciousness’ work from van Vogt, who presumably had no idea where the story was going when he started out. It would appear, however, that the story – then called ‘The Wonderful Man’ – was rejected by JW Campbell twice. Campbell noted ‘”I think you’ve been straining for something new and strange and different in this ‘Wonderful Man’ yarn. But my gut reaction is that while you’ve achieved that in part, you’ll do better without these particular strangeness.” [The John W. Campbell Letters, Vol. 2]
The basic premise is a little odd; that humans under extreme stress become ‘toti-potents’, gaining initially extended longevity and the ability to regrow limbs. When they enter the final toti-potent phase however, the brain begins regenerating all its cells, which means that all previous memory is lost. They gain however powerful mental prowess and the ability to absorb the contents of others’ minds.
It’s a minor van Vogt piece but nonetheless interesting for its sheer oddness and van Vogt’s singular and long-maintained attitude to the difference between the sexes. His depictions of women have always been somewhat disappointing. Indeed, more than most authors of his generation, van Vogt seems to go out of his way to emphasise how inferior women are in both intelligence and physical strength. Women here, with the possible exception of Craig’s wife, can not take on roles traditionally carried out by men unless they have been treated with drugs. Perversely, van Vogt seems quite fond of the dominant female here and elsewhere. Here, Craig is kidnapped by the Amazons and held hostage by them for a while, until Craig’s superior logical male mind manages to outwit them and escape.
Having said that, it has the usual surreal charm and ‘particular strangeness’ that marks van Vogt’s work, along with the recurring theme of the pacifist logical hero.