This sequel to ‘The Weapon Shops of Isher’ was originally serialised in Astounding Science Fiction in 1943 and revised for novel publication in 1952. It is set some seven years later where Robert Hedrock, immortal agent of the Weapon Shops, discovers that he is to be sentenced to death by The Empress Innelda Isher following his lunch with her and her advisors. However, he manages to talk his way out of this, but finds himself also under sentence of death by the weapon Shop Council who have discovered his immortality and suspect him of being an alien spy.
The main plotline hinges around the suspected invention of an interstellar drive, the disappearance and search for its inventor and attempts by all parties to get their hands on the technology for their own various agendas.
There is genuine excitement in this novel, and a semblance of plot, since Hedrock has to use his weird-science inventions and his ingenuity to get him out of a series of cliffhangers. Many of them are, to be honest, Deus ex Machina plot devices which do not bear close logical or scientific scrutiny, but with van Vogt, it hardly matters as it’s what he does best and it seems somehow to work.
At one point Hedrock, having escaped Innelda’s troops in a small ship powered by the revolutionary drive, is captured in interstellar space by an advanced race of telepathic spiders and for a time exists in a world of virtual reality while the aliens test and examine him.
It is revealed, somewhat obliquely, that Hedrock not only founded The Weapon Shops but has also been the husband of previous Isher Empresses and the father of their children, which brings a somewhat disturbing and incestuous flavour to the mix.
Again, in terms of regular van Vogt devices, we have the fifty-mile long spaceships, the great phallic building (within which is hidden the interstellar ship), powerful female aristocrats, the superman/logical hero and van Vogt’s annoying philosophy of masculine superiority.
Hereditary monarchies and aristocracies pepper van Vogt’s work. I have mentioned elsewhere that those writers who exhibit a fondness for monarchist systems tend to be those who live in countries without them, and don’t have to suffer the reality of it. This may not be true of van Vogt, being Canadian, although he did move to the US in 1944.
The Empress is the only female character in the novel. Her ‘court’ is exclusively male, as is the Weapon Shops Council and although this reflects the attitudes of the time and is related to the demographic of the readership, van Vogt regularly appears to emphasise the inferiority of women. It is not so evident here although not entirely absent. The Empress Innelda, ruler of Earth, Mars and Venus, is essentially a powerful dictator but in van Vogt’s view is not complete until she has found a man to sort her out. That man, as is suggested early on, is Hedrock, a man who is also some kind of ancestor several times over.
Putting aside the innate sexism and some rather complex incest issues, it is one of his better novels, remains highly engaging and hasn’t dated too badly.
What has made this novel in particular one of van Vogt’s most discussed works is the final line, uttered by the interstellar spider-beings. ‘Here is the race that shall rule the Sevagram’.
It’s a brilliant and original touch, as the Sevagram is never mentioned anywhere else and would have left readers of the time, and up to the present, somewhat open-mouthed at this lack of conclusion, this vast open question guaranteed to leave the book hanging in one’s mind. As John Clute points out in his overview of van Vogt in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia ‘this resonantly mysterious Slingshot Ending, which seems to open universes to the reader’s gaze, may well stand as the best working demonstration in the whole of genre sf of how to impart a Sense of Wonder.’
Morton Cargill, a veteran of the Korean War, is drinking in a bar and gets friendly with a young woman who is as drunk as he is. Driving her back home, they crash and she is killed. Morton escapes unscathed and flees the scene.
Later he receives a letter purportedly from the dead woman, arranging a meeting. When he turns up he is abducted and wakes up in a room divided by a glass partition on the other side of which is a woman resembling the dead woman.
Cargill has been transported to the future where he is to be killed as part of a therapeutic process to rid his victim’s descendant of her race-memory issues.
However, he is later awakened by a woman called Ann Reece who has a portable time-travel device and persuades him to escape further into the future with her as he is important to a future political faction.
van Vogt has a recurring motif of different ‘classes’ of humans interacting to a greater or lesser degree with each other. In ‘Slan’ we have the humans, the Slans and the tendril-less Slans. ‘Mission to The Stars’ features Dellians, non-Dellians and the rest of humanity.
Here, Humanity has divided into three groups, the Tweeners, who continue to live normal lives in the cities, Floaters, who live a gipsy/nomad existence in solar powered ships, and the Shadows, a race of supermen who can alter the physical structures of their own bodies and appear insubstantial to everyone else.
van Vogt brings in the Lamarckian concept of race memory, since the descendant of Chanette is suffering mental instability because of the inherited effects of her murder.
The time travelling psychologists believe that witnessing the murderer’s death will cure her and negate her of the possibility of passing on any further angst to her offspring. van Vogt manages to make this seem plausible although I am sure that even in Nineteen Fifty Three it didn’t bear very close scrutiny.
It would appear that the author was attempting one of those time paradox novels which were done far better by Charles L Harness, Clifford Simak and Harry Harrison. van Vogt was never very good on structure and to construct such a novel would depend very much on a cohesive structure and a strong sense of internal logic, neither of which is the case. As is well-known, he tended to employ a ‘make it up as you go along’ style of writing which usually doesn’t make for a balanced structure.
He also brings in the concept of the soul, a subject he employed later in ‘Computerworld’ although here the examination is muddy even by van Vogt’s standards and not explored or exploited to any great degree. This is linked to an examination of reality which has its interesting moments such as a very Dickian moment when Cargill is transposed to a future civilisation which only exists in potential until Cargill has carried out a specific action.
The author’s attitude to women is again here sadly prevalent. It is sad that compared to his peers who, although the sexism was evident, tended to ignore or marginalise female characters, he actively promotes the concept of female inferiority and subservience.
van Vogt’s women can never resist the power of a dominant male and here, the two major female characters fall in love with Cargill for no apparent reason. Women are there to be subdued and used, as is clear from Cargill’s willingness to seduce Anne Reece simply because he has been asked to in order to further a convoluted plan. He does not even seem to acknowledge the fact that she has saved his life twice.
Oddly Cargill is not your usual van Vogt intelligent and logical hero, since his actions from the outset appear to be quite stupid and ill-thought out.
The Shadows, a faction of human ‘Supermen’ who can make their bodies insubstantial but many times more efficient, are interested in Cargill because his future can not be determined.
Cargill later discovers he has the ability to affect the structure of reality and can if he wishes, restructure the Universe.
In essence, van Vogt struggles with too many concepts here and it all ends up being a bit of a mess. There are glimmers of brilliance here and there but this is way short of van Vogt at his best.
‘Volunteers for the tomorrow front
It looked like a perfectly innocent store front, a volunteer enrollment office for young idealists who wanted to help the desperate forces of a young democracy overseas win their civil war. The young girl who sat at the desk inside was attractive, sympathetic, and would see that you got your passage safely.
But it was all a trap. It was indeed a recruiting station, but the war for which it brainwashed its deluded cannon fodder was out of this world — remote in time, remote in space, and nobody would ever return alive. As for the girl — she was as much a slave of that monstrous future-world machine as if she were chained to the desk.
Except for one thing that even the inhuman super-science of EARTH’S LAST FORTRESS did not suspect — that Norma was the secret lever that could shatter their universe!’
Blurb from the 1960 D-431 Ace Doubles paperback edition
Norma Mathieson, a young woman planning to commit suicide by jumping into a river, is approached by a dark stranger and offered a job. She is to be a receptionist in a recruiting station where they are recruiting young men to fight for the ‘Calonian Cause’.
She is given a key to an apartment above the station and told that all she has to do is get the young men to fill out and sign a form, then send them through to a back room for a medical examination.
Norma soon realises that all is not what it seems as no one ever returns from beyond the door. The stranger who offered her the job, the mysterious Dr Lell, is recruiting men from all the ages of Earth and shipping them off to fight in a far future war.
Despite the fact that she has been mentally conditioned, Norma manages to write to an ex-lover, now a Professor, Jack Garson. Garson writes back to her, thinking her delusional, but then arrives in person and is pressganged by Dr Lell and sent off to join the frontline troops in the far future.
The plot is suitably vanVogtian and once again demonstrates the author’s slightly contradictory view of female psychology.
Norma is, after all, a weak and feeble woman who can not possibly stand up to the masculine dominance of Dr Lell, and yet she does.
Garson discovers that he needs to get a message to one of the Planetarians (who are battling The Glorious) to tell them that the time barrier which is being created to end the war has to be destroyed before it, in its turn, destroys the universe. Norma discovers that she is in mental rapport with Dr Lell’s giant (and sentient) machine and can manipulate its power to a certain extent.
Between them they can try and avert universal disaster.
Originally published in 1942 as ‘The Recruiting Station’ it is by no means one of van Vogt’s best works although it does have the usual oddly compelling narrative with fantastic twists and turns.
There are vast machines and their mobile appendages, the ‘tentacles’, and a far future Earth where vast armies are being slaughtered daily in a senseless war of ideologies. It’s interesting but perhaps fruitless to speculate what effect the progress of World War II was having on van Vogt when he originally wrote this in 1942. There is an interesting correlation between the young men going through a door for a medical examination but never returning, and the situation in Hitler’s concentration camps although this I suspect may be merely a chilling coincidence.
An interesting fix-up here which is loosely or partly based on Robert Graves’ ‘I, Claudius’, and has been assembled from five stories (“A Son Is Born” (May 1946), “Child of the Gods” (Aug 1946), “Hand of the Gods” (Dec 1946), “Home of the Gods” (April 1947) and “The Barbarian” (Dec 1947)), all originally published in Astounding.
On a far future Earth a child, ‘Clane’ is born to Tania, the daughter of the Lord Leader of Earth. The child is malformed as a result of his mother’s exposure to radiation.
Normally children such as this would be out to death but Jonquin, one of the scientist priests who maintain the temples of the God Metals, convinces the family to allow the child to live in order that he can study the development of such an unfortunate.
van Vogt here postulates a far future Earth where the automated production of power from nuclear materials continues in temples of scientist priests, although no one appears to understand the principles behind the science and attributes the power to Gods who control the God Metals. Following a war with an alien race known as The Riss, humanity has fallen into a stagnated society of ignorance. Nuclear powered ships travel from world to world despite the fact that the secrets of their construction have also been lost. It’s a bit of a hard pill to swallow, it has to be said.
The Lord Leader discovers Clane to be highly intelligent despite his nervous tics when in unfamiliar company, and takes his advice on military strategy when the Earth forces are under siege when trying to conquer the human population of Mars. As pointed out, it loosely follows events in at least Graves’ account of the life of Claudius. The Lord Leader’s exiled stepson, Tewes, for instance, is clearly Tiberius and the Lord Leader, the Emperor Augustus.
Clane fits in to the usual van Vogt ‘logical hero’ template and becomes adept at anticipating and deflecting assassination attempts and, when he finally assumes the position of Lord Leader, defeating invading barbarian armies from Jupiter. In retrospect it might have been far more interesting if van Vogt had kept to the Claudius template. Claudius avoided death because the schemers and plotters around him found him a harmless and somewhat ludicrous figure, which was far from the case. van Vogt has Clane control his nervous reactions very early on, and his physical abnormalities are concealed under voluminous clothing, and so may as well not be there.
Rather like the conclusion to ‘The Weapon Makers’ van Vogt throws in some surreal non-sequitors at the finale. Clane has been captured by the Barbarian leader Czinczar who brings in a package containing a deformed possibly alien body packed in ice. Clane proves that he has complete control of a ball of light which hovers within the room by killing the guards who try to harm him and then the Barbarian surrenders his entire forces to Clane. Is this body an alien threat from outside the Solar System, or one of the Riss?
A round-up of some of the best writing from the movers and shakers in the genre as of 1971.
James Tiptree Jr is featured, before she came out to the world (or at least the SF world) as Alice Sheldon. Interestingly, there are two stories which deal with environmental issues. There three tales of pilots being forced to man ships, two dealing with the Catholic Church and two dealing with lovers being separated by time, space or other factors.
The Sliced-Crosswise Only-On-Tuesday World – Philip Jose Farmer (New Dimensions 1, 1971)
Interesting idea of a world where the huge population share the planet by a seventh of them having one day each, while the rest remain in stasis in transparent tanks, but what happens when one is living on Tuesdays and falls in love with someone from the Wednesday world?
Good News From The Vatican – Robert Silverberg (Universe 1, 1971)
This story, of the first robot Pope, has subsequently won awards and been reprinted countless times.
I’ll Be Waiting For You When The Swimming Pool is Empty – James Tiptree Jr (Protostars, 1971)
A light-hearted tale by Tiptree.
A young man visits a primitive planet and brings them the gift of western-style democracy. One wonders whether there isn’t a tinge of savage irony at the heart of this story. One also wonders what the relevance of the title is.
The Power of The Sentence – David M Locke (F&SF, April 1971)
A cleverly structured tale in which a lecture on grammar becomes a battle fought in words between extra-dimensional entities.
The Wicked Flee – Harry Harrison (New Dimensions 1, 1971)
Harrison seldom disappoints and here provides a beautifully atmospheric piece in which a renegade from a Catholic dictatorship of the future escapes into the past, pursued by an agent of the Church.
An interesting take on alternate pasts and presents.
When You Hear The Tone – Thomas N Scortia (Galaxy, 1971)
A poetic love story about a man who gets to know a woman through some form of time communication. Although he remains in his time frame he manages to call a woman through various periods of her life until he is brought up to date, and they can meet.
Not as schmaltzy as one would imagine.
Occam’s Scalpel – Theodore Sturgeon (If, Aug 1971)
A kind of double bluff from Sturgeon in which an employee of a multinational is worried by the new boss, now that the old dictator has died. He arranges for the new boss to examine the dead man’s body, and to see that it is not human, but what is really going on, and who is fooling whom?
Hot Potato – Burt K Filer (The Many Worlds of Science Fiction, 1971)
One of those quasi-humourous wise-cracking fast-paced pieces in which the opposing sides in a nuclear conflict learn how to store their arsenal in hyperspace.
The Human Operators – Ellison/Van Vogt (F&SF, Jan 1971)
This tells of a group of rogue ships which have enslaved individual humans within them to take care of them and perform maintenance duties. It is quite a melancholy tale, and tinged with a certain claustrophobia, since there is no way of knowing (in common with the human slaves) what human society is like outside of this system.
Ultimately though, there is an odd yet beautifully poetic ending.
Autumntime – A Lentini (Galaxy, Nov 1971)
An environmental tone-piece about a trip to see a tree, which, in the future, is a rare sight.
A Little Knowledge – Poul Anderson (Analog, Aug 1971)
Aggressive humans underestimate a quiet and obsequious alien whom they kidnap as a pilot for a ship which they plan to use for unimportant nefarious purposes.
One of those ‘twist in the tail’ pieces. Best SF of the year? Probably not.
To Make a New Neanderthal – W Macfarlane (Analog, Sep 1971)
Turning environmentalism on his head, Macfarlane posits a situation where pollution has helped to increase Humanity’s intelligence.
The Man Underneath – RA Lafferty – (If, Jan 1971)
Lafferty here plays with words and text as easily as he plays with our imaginations. A tale, oddly reminiscent of ‘The Prestige’, in which a magician is haunted by an echo of himself.
Ornithanthropus – B Alan Burhoe (If, Nov 1971)
Nicely detailed view of a world where humans have been adapted to meet the conditions, rather than the other way around.
Rammer – Larry Niven (Galaxy, Nov 1971)
One of Niven’s corpsicle tales, in which a revived cryogenically frozen body is awakened, but only to be trained to pilot a seeder ship, travelling round the galaxy dropping biological packages on dead worlds in order to kick-start them into a biosphere.
‘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.
‘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’
‘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.
‘Man has conquered Space and spread throughout the galaxy. Many civilisations on several thousand planets are joined in a vast confederation whose very existence is now threatened by The Rull – a paranoid, murderous race from beyond the frontiers of human territory.
Equal to Man in intelligence, The Rull have a technology that may even be superior. Their spaceships have already captured several hundred planets. The final titanic showdown that will decide Man’s fate and the fate of the whole galaxy is imminent.’
This is one of Van Vogt’s more successful fix-up novels. Earlier published stories – Repetition (1940), Cooperate or Else (1942), The Second Solution (1942), The Rull (1948) and The Sound (1950) – have been re-edited and combined with fresh material into a novel-length narrative.
David Pringle, former editor of Interzone, describes Van Vogt as a ‘slapdash’ writer, and in some cases, one can’t argue with this. Van Vogt’s hastily-written work can be easily spotted and examples of it can be found here.
Van Vogt has other flaws also. The innate sexism in this novel in particular jars somewhat. The hero, Trevor Jamieson, when trapped (with a woman intent on killing him) on a moon teeming with predators, manages to overpower her. The woman accedes to his male superiority and Jamieson who ‘knows women’, is sure that she won’t try to kill him again, and indeed she doesn’t.
Later, Jamieson’s son is kidnapped by the alien Rull. He keeps the news to himself, sure that his ‘very feminine’ wife will not be strong enough to handle such news.
Of course, this is not a flaw exclusive to Van Vogt. Such misrepresentation of women was more or less the norm and in many cases was presumably endorsed or policed by editors with such views. Radical portrayals of women may well have been frowned upon.
Jamieson of course, is the hero, and despite the aforesaid flaws in the writing he is an unusual hero in that the solutions to his problems come from logic and reason.
It is logic and deduction which convinces him that the monstrous three eyed six-thousand pound six-limbed Ezwals of Carson’s Planet are not just dangerous beasts, but are highly intelligent and telepathic.
The human race is at war with The Rull, a shape-shifting insectoid race from another galaxy, and Carson’s Planet plays a key defensive role.
Jamieson’s character is very much in the mould of Gilbert Gosseyn (The Pawns of Null-A) in that he refuses to allow emotions to sway his judgement.
He moves from one adventure to another from the outset where he is stranded on a hostile planet with a hostile Ezwal – wanting to kill Jamieson to preserve the secret of Ezwal intelligence, but forced into an alliance with him in order to survive.
The best section is probably ‘The Sound’ set in The City of The Ship where for decades the people of the city – including Jamieson and his family – have been hard at work on a vast spaceship on which they will all eventually leave.
A rite-of-passage ritual has developed where once a year younger children are allowed to stay out all night to hunt for the source of the sound which permeates their lives.
This stands out from the rest of the novel for the attention paid to both the background and the detail.
The final section sadly, is the weakest and provides a far from satisfactory denouement, certainly not the ‘titanic showdown’ promised in the blurb.
The end depends far too much on unbelievable coincidence, a ‘Deus Ex Machina’ alien composed of electrical charges and little else.
Before you know it, the century long war is over, Jamieson has saved the galaxy and The Rull are pulling their forces back.
Having said that, this isn’t a bad novel. The disparate stories have been conflated cleverly into a single narrative, one of the bonuses of which is that we are given glimpses of various parts of Van Vogt’s huge Universe. They are tantalisingly brief and – particularly in the case of ‘The Sound’ – add an unexpected touch of realism to events.
The development of the Ezwal sub-plot is handled well but suffers from any conclusion in that we never get to discover how Jamieson’s Ezwal ally fares in negotiating with his own people.
Looking at this book from another perspective it does also show once more a view of diplomacy which is intrinsically American.
The Ezwals want the humans off their planet and so launch guerrilla attacks, killing many humans. Jamieson, after eventually befriending an orphaned Ezwal child, tells him that that if the Ezwals (who have a purely pastoral civilisation) develop a machine civilisation and can defend themselves from the Rull, then the humans will leave. No negotiation. No leeway. Essentially, the ‘American’ view is that if you develop your culture to be just like us, we’ll go away.