A minor fix-up novel from Heinlein, where he explores the theme of insurgency and revolution; a concept he was to return to again and again. In ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ the residents of Luna revolted and declared independence. ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ examined a subversive yet benign cultural revolution. Here, the rebellion is against a repressive Theocracy which has taken over the US in the year 2100.
A naïve young soldier in the private guard of The Prophet (the despotic leader of the Theocracy) is recruited into an Underground Resistance Movement and we follow his career until the moment of revolution.
An additional tale is set at a time when the new state has used psychological tools to create a mentally stable society.
Not all are happy in this tame paradise however and those who employ violence or seek to promote dissent are banished to a lawless community within a forcefield which is called Coventry. Another rash young man ends up here and finds himself attempting to escape, but only to warn the external society that the lawless misfits are about to break out and declare war.
The three stories employed here form part of Heinlein’s Future History series and comprise of ‘If This Goes On—‘ (1940), ‘Coventry’ (1949) and ‘Misfit’ (1939)
‘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’
‘It started in 1990…
Cheap atomic power was a reality.
Hydroponic farming ensured enough to eat.
So everywhere men left the cities, abandoning the ancient huddling places of the human race.
At last, man was free.
And left behind – in the dead and empty cities – man’s memories remained as symbols of the childhood of the race. The Golden Age had come at last after generations of war and toil.
And yet…IT WAS ALSO THE PRELUDE TO THE DAY WHEN MAN WOULD BE SUCCEEDED BY ANOTHER RACE’
Blurb from the 1965 Four Square edition
City is a fix-up novel culled from the pages of Astounding and comprising of eight related stories and additional linking text.
The first story, ‘City’, is a tale of men, a tale which is being analysed in the linking text by a group of sentient dogs who believe the tales told by Dogs of the race of Men to be merely fables and Man himself to be a myth.
Simak’s naïve and somewhat surreal view of the future is based very much on his love for small-town America and its communities and values, and is often tinged with nostalgia for a way of life which has passed. Simak often depicts an Earth which has been abandoned by man, where Nature has been allowed to grow back over the scars which Man created.
The City of the title story is represented by one of its residential areas, a place of suburban houses and lawns which, like the rest of the City, is almost abandoned. Centralised automated farming technology has made vast tracts of land free for habitation and this, combined with the bizarre concept of an atomic plane for every home has lured people away to private estates in the country.
The worthy officials of the City Council however, refuse to accept that their City is dead and are in the process of evicting the last remaining residents (who have been labelled criminals and vagrants) who are squatting in the empty houses, unwilling to abandon the community where they spent their lives.
It’s a strange and unreal tale reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, and is full of poetry and atmosphere.
‘Huddling Place’ take us further into the future, to where descendant of one of the City’s characters has become an agoraphobic recluse in his country house, where he lives with his robot butler Jenkins. Having abandoned the cities, humanity is now abandoning the Earth, either for Mars or the interiors of the their homes from where they can travel ‘virtually’ via a holographic projection network. His agoraphobia prevents him from flying to Mars to save Juwain, the ancient Martian philosopher who was on the verge of producing a practical philosophy for humanity which would occasion the transformation of the race.
‘Census’ takes us forward in time again to the same house where the Webster grandson has surgically (rather than genetically) altering dogs enabling them to speak. Mankind is now heading for the stars while isolated groups of mutated humans live quietly in the wilderness.
Simak is again enjoining a return to a mere pastoral existence in which technology is only employed as a means to that end.
Technological developments here have allowed those with pioneering spirit to leave, those who were restricted (physically and spiritually) by existence within the city have been freed, allowing others the space to breathe within and alongside Nature.
In this section, Richard Grant, seeking the final clue to complete Juwain’s philosophy for humanity, meets the mutant Joe, a man of extended longevity, high intelligence and yet exhibiting no empathy with his fellow sapients, but rather a shocking amorality.
And so it goes on… Humanity, partly as a result of Joe unleashing the Juwain philosophy across the earth, is transformed, and is converted into a near-immortal form of life of high intelligence which can live on or in the planet Jupiter, abandoning the Earth to a handful of humans, the Dogs, the mutants and the robots.
Simak was never a writer for technical details. Jupiter is described as having a surface, and the Jovian ‘conversion process’ is hastily drawn with little explanation as to the nature of the process, something which no doubt would be explained as ‘genetic engineering’ today.
James Blish used a similar premise in his collection of related tales ‘The Seedling Stars’ while Frederik Pohl’s ‘Man Plus’ employs a combination of surgical and mechanical techniques to convert a man into a creature capable of living unaided on the surface of Mars.
‘City’ is a novel which is ultimately flawed by internal confusion of identity. The linking text implies that the stories are fables from ancient Dog History, and their content supports this, but the style seems at odds with the somewhat fairytale nature of the later stories in which talking bears, wolves, racoons and squirrels bring a rather schmaltzy Disney-esque sentimentality to the narrative.
Having said that, Simak attempts to explore the issue of what it means to be human. The humans, en-masse, chose the path of enlightenment offered by the conversion to Jovian forms, a path rejected by the Webster family (whose genealogy links all these stories) and a handful of others.
The legacy of humanity lies with the robots who are dedicated to developing the race of Dogs, unpolluted by human values and failings. Man is seen to be a creature willing to kill for what he wants, as when one of the Websters considers killing the Jovian ‘prototype’ Fowler in order to prevent the human race’s mass exodus to Jupiter, or John Webster’s solution to the problem of Joe the mutant’s experimental ants (who eventually threaten the entire planet) which is to poison them.
This may be reading far too much into what is at the end of the day a rather patchwork construction which, though poetic and inventive, fails to provide a satisfactory denouement. Flawed though it may be however, it is still a strange masterpiece that holds its own against the mainstream SF novels of the time.
‘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.
This is a fix-up novel, centred around Dave Surgenor, one of the crew of the Sarafand, a vessel of the Cartographical division of the Space Navy. The Sarafand is a space-borne pyramid, and its mission is to help chart the stars and planets in the ever-expanding sphere of known space.
One could be forgiven, reading the first story, for thinking it remarkably similar to van Vogt’s ‘Voyage of The Space Beagle’ which begins with a re-edit of van Vogt’s 1939 story ‘Black Destroyer’.
In both tales, a highly intelligent alien predator attempts to gain access to the ship and is finally outwitted and destroyed.
In Shaw’s tale the creature is identified by Aesop, the artificial intelligence which runs the ship and plots its jumps through hyperspace.
Although this is not Shaw’s best work by any means, there are some interesting stylistic touches which again are reminiscent of van Vogt techniques. Cardan, the creature in the first tale is initially captured – along with its parents – with some tractor beam force by an unknown ship. The parents were dropped into the gravity field of a sun and Cardan abandoned on a hellish world orbiting one of a pair of binary suns.
Seven thousand years later we pick up the tale…
Later, one the crew, Targett, is sent to investigate potential alien artefacts which turns out to be a plain littered with semi-intelligent still functioning autonomous weapons which (as might have been expected) target Targett.
Shaw’s technique is to introduce tantalising mysteries which the reader is forced to think about. Who were the occupants of that first ship? Who created these weapons and why were they abandoned?
I am of the opinion that had Shaw supplied answers to these questions it would have been to the detriment of the book as a whole.
Less is more, as they say.
‘Some 10 million years in the future, a thousand trustworthy humans and their cloned offspring have been granted an incredible power. With it they can build worlds wherever they wish and terraform any wasteland. With it they preserved a peace that lasted for eons.
But the arrival of a woman as old as The Great Peace itself generates uncertainty and fear. For she brings with her a dire warning: the tale of an ancient crime that may yet tear the universe asunder.’
Blurb from the 2003 Orbit paperback edition.
This novel is a fix-up adapted from five stories originally published in ASIMOV’S SF magazine:-
Sister Alice (November 1993)
Brother Perfect (September 1995)
Mother Death (January 1998)
Baby’s Fire (July 1999)
Father to The Man (September 2000)
Ord is apparently the youngest child of the Chamberlain family, one of a thousand families whose members – augmented by near-immortality and quantum cyborg talents – maintain a peace within the galaxy which has lasted millions of years.
We discover early on that the Chamberlains are not a family in the normal sense. Ord is merely the latest model in a series of clones that now number more than 22,000. Rank is assigned by what number the clone is in the chain, so when the Chamberlains receive news that Alice, their number twelve (and hence only the eleventh clone to be created) is to visit after an absence of millions of years, the family begin to speculate on her motives.
Alice, shunning the rest of the family, befriends Ord, and confesses that she was the architect of an experiment which has gone tragically wrong, creating an explosion which is already causing devastation and which could potentially engulf the entire galaxy.
The consequences for the Chamberlains are personally devastating. Alice is imprisoned, stripped of her godlike powers and the rest of the family become hunted as The Great Peace collapses into chaos while frantic rescue efforts are made in an attempt to evacuate worlds near the core before they are destroyed.
Ord illegally receives some of Alice’s talents and sets off on a mission, the nature of which he does not fully understand.
Once more, Reed has produced a novel on a grand scale, its timespan covering millennia.
In some senses it can be described as a ‘Romantic’ novel since it eschews – and this was also a criticism aimed at ‘Marrow’ – the current Classical fashion for tortuous explanations of quantum mechanics and string theory. The augments of the older members of the family are powered by masses of dark matter although the exact scientific principles are avoided, in this case a refreshingly welcome change.
Reed can, I think, be described as a modern van Vogt. the transformation to ‘superman’ is common in his work and he employs the same vast land and time-scapes that van Vogt once played with, paying attention to, but not controlled by, the basic laws of the Universe.
The plot (again a strange vanVogt-ian trait) ends up being far more complex than one might initially suspect.
The premise is also a Romantic one, since one cannot imagine – in however enlightened a society – civilisation handing over its reins to a thousand carefully chosen beneficiaries and their cloned descendants.
This novel could very easily have descended into a triumph of style over content were it not for Reed’s complex strands of character motives and actions.
From one viewpoint it could be argued that this is an examination of what determines personality.
At one point Alice remembers herself as a child, with her ‘father’, Ian, the original Chamberlain. they are standing in a stairwell of their estate house and Ian has given Alice some cloned feathers. All are identical, he tells her, and asks her to drop the feathers one by one over the balcony.
Although identical in every respect, the feathers are subject to the changing forces around them and so no two fall exactly the same way. It is a device by which Ian explains to Alice why her brothers and sisters, although genetically identical, are shaped into individuals by the Universe around them.
There are questions raised as to which is the real personality when an augmented human becomes 99% computer memories and 1% flesh.
Later there are ethical questions raised about the morality of creating a universe in which Life can be cultivated if the price to be paid is the destruction of entire Star Systems teeming with sentient life.
This whole debate, however, is itself subverted when the reader realises that the entire sequence of events may have been part of a plan set in motion aeons before.
There are seldom any easy endings or answers in Reed’s work. There are merely consequences which directly affect the protagonists.
It is to Reed’s credit though, that the questions raised tends to linger in the mind and niggle away at us in the wee small hours.
‘In the far distant future the spaceship Star Cluster is searching for certain inhabited planets lost somewhere in the teeming wilderness of outer space. The inhabitants of these planets know the ship is searching for them but they refuse to reveal their location.
Why don’t these people want to be found?
What is their secret?
Discover the astounding answers as you read this gripping classic tale of interstellar adventure by AE van Vogt, one of the all time great names in adventurous science fiction.’
Blurb from the 1997 Sphere edition.
Another fix-up novel from van Vogt comprising of ‘Concealment’, ‘The Storm’ and ‘The Mixed Men’, published in Astounding between 1943 and 1945 and telling the tale of adapted ‘Dellian’ humans who left human civilisation fifteen thousand years before and settled (unbeknown to Earth) in the Greater Magellanic cloud.
Now, an Earth warship has stumbled upon one of the weather stations which monitors the interstellar storms which rage in the depths of the cloud. The ship’s captain is determined to bring the Fifty Suns under Earth control. However the Fifty Suns are scattered amongst the fifty million stars of the cloud and Lady Gloria Laurr, Grand Captain of the ‘Star Cluster’ is determined to find them.
The Cloud was settled by Dellians and Non-Dellians, but what Captain Laurr does not know is that a mating of Dellian and Non-Dellians has produced a third group, the Mixed Men, more powerful and intelligent than either of its parents and possessed of the power to control human minds.
The Mixed Men have developed their own culture and civilisation, but their nominal and hereditary leader is Maltby, brought up – after being captured as a child – in the Dellian/Non-Dellian society and now forced to lie to both communities in order to save his civilisation and his race.
There are echoes of ‘Slan’ in this although it lacks the rich texture and background. Like the Slans, the Mixed Men once attempted a coup in order to take over the reins of power, but failed.
We have humans, Dellians and Mixed men, compared to the humans, Slans and tendrilless Slans.
The Mixed men, like Slans, have hidden within human society.
One has to question whether van Vogt is consciously repeating a successful or familiar formula or exploring a variation on the same theme. What seems to interest van Vogt most is the rational scientist/leader whose intellect brings change to political systems without the use of violence. This does not however, preclude the ‘‘control’’ and manipulation of others which we might see today as a subtler form of violence. Maltby, at one point, takes mental control of Grand Captain Gloria and forces her to kiss him, which perhaps says more about the society of the Nineteen Forties when this was written than about van Vogt’s super-being.
Like Gilbert Gosseyn in ‘The World of Null-A’, Maltby has two brains, one of which is mostly dormant but can be brought into service to produce an IQ of 900 or more.
There are some interesting ‘nodes of consequence’ in this book such as the Fifty Suns deciding to attack just as the ‘Star Cluster’ was about to leave the galaxy for good. Later, if the chairman of the Kaider III government hadn’t mistrusted Maltby so much he would have told him that a supernova had now become an equation in the storm into which Maltby had sent the ‘Star Cluster’ in order to destroy it. Had he known he would have been forced to confess and would not have been shipwrecked on S Doradus. For van Vogt this is interesting and shows a more structured approach than some of his stream-of-consciousness pieces.
‘You didn’t make an Adapted Man with just a wave of the wand. It involved an elaborate constellation of techniques, known collectively as pantropy, that changed the human pattern in a man’s shape and chemistry before he was born. And the pantropists didn’t stop there. Education, thoughts, ancestors and the world itself were changed because the Adapted Men were produced to live and thrive in the alien environments found only in space. They were crucial to a daring plan to colonise the universe.
The four related stories which make up this prescient and ambitious book include ‘Surface Tension’, widely recognised as one of James Blish’s best, and explore just what it is to be human. Thought-provoking, skilfully crafted and crammed with ideas, drama and suspense, The Seedling Stars demonstrates that Blish was one of the most intelligent and visionary of all SF writers.’
Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz SF Collectors’ Edition
One has to admire Blish in that he produces a ‘fix-up’ novel, assembled from other previously published short pieces and thus creates one of the most notable works of SF of the 20th Century.
The central premise of ‘TSS’ is pantropy, a process which today we would describe as genetic engineering. Pantropy is so called because it is a combination of complex processes and can only be effected on those yet unborn.
Blish sets up a political situation in which a future Earth is dominated by the Capitalist policies of the Port Authority, a global concern which derives its income from taxing traffic of any sort. Port has invested much money in research into terraforming, since it will be able to recoup its investment from taxing traffic between worlds.
Meanwhile, another school of thought holds that it would be cheaper to modify Man in order that humanity could live on Non-Earth type planets.
In Book I (first published as ‘A Time to Survive’ – Fantasy and Science Fiction – 1955) Sweeney, an adapted human, brought up in isolation in conditions poisonous to the ‘basic form’ is dropped on Ganymede in order to infiltrate an illegal colony of adapted humans tailored to exist on Jupiter’s moon.
His mission is to capture the adapted man Dr Rullman, an expert in pantropy, for which service Sweeney will be transformed into a normal human.
He learns that all he has been taught is lies and that Port’s aim is to discredit and crush the pantropic movement. So, he helps the Ganymedeans to pretend that he has initiated a civil war, which is actually a cover for the launch of a rocket to one of the nearer suns, where humans, tailored for life on a different world, can continue the process.
In Book II (First published in IF Worlds of Science Fiction – 1954) we move to a jungle world where a group of monkey-like humans with prehensile tails have built a culture in the canopy of a rain-forest. Some of them are exiled to the surface of the world for preaching heresy, i.e., they refuse to believe that a race of ‘giants’ created them and placed them in the trees.
In Book III (Originally published in vastly different form as ‘Sunken Universe’ in Super Science Stories – 1942, and in part as ‘Surface Tension’ in Galaxy Science Fiction, 1952) the award-winning ‘Surface Tension’ a seeding ship is marooned on the only continent of a waterworld. the continent is flat and marshy, consisting of little more than a network of ponds. The seeding crew, realising that they are likely to die on the planet, decide to colonise the world with copies of themselves, transmuted into minute specimens of pond-life.
It’s one of the classic shorts of the Twentieth Century, rich with detail and texture, and forces us to challenge our own perceptions about the Universe, since the ‘humans’ think of their pool as a world , and eventually design and build a craft capable of travelling above the ‘sky’ and into the next world.
the point of the entire novel, which Blish underscores in the final piece, is that although appearances may differ from environment to environment, we are all essentially human.
In Book IV (Published originally as ‘Watershed’ – IF Worlds of Science Fiction – 1955) a seal-like ambassador is aboard a seeding-ship crewed by ‘basic forms’ who show a marked degree of racism toward him.
The ambassador points out to them however, that the barren planet they are about to re-seed is the birthplace of humanity, Earth, and that ‘basic forms’ (if indeed the Rigellian are still basic forms) are very much the minority among the diverse species of humans now occupying the galaxy.
Perhaps today we see Blish’s idealism as a little naïve. His premise was that adapted humans would retain human emotions and values and still be essentially human despite their shapes or sizes. The ambassador points out that they do not seed (for instance) gas giants since that would be too great a departure from the human mind-set and besides other life-forms which have evolved within gas giants may want to pantrify their own species and colonise such worlds.
One could argue that a vastly different environment (such as a pond or the surface of Ganymede) would automatically alter one’s perceptions and that evolution would, in any case, continue in humans who were living within primitive societies. natural selection would take over and the species may well take a different course.
One might also argue that Blish (despite his attack on xenophobia in the final piece) places such importance on the integrity of the human mind that he is, in his own way, being as xenophobic as the system of thought he is attacking.
Into the awesome depths of intergalactic space hurtled the Space Beagle, travelling on Man’s most ambitious expedition to the far reaches of the universe. From galaxy to galaxy the crew explored the remains of past races and civilizations on desolate planets and found weird life-forms floating in space itself.
But the explorers not only had to contend with danger from the outside: within their own ship they carried one of the deadliest menaces in all creation…
The Voyage of the Space Beagle, as the immense rocket leaps from galaxy to galaxy, vertiginously hurtling ever deeper into space, is one of the most enthralling ‘outward bound’ stories ever written.
On some planets they find traces of long vanished alien civilisations. On other worlds the aliens have by no means vanished!
And one terrifying race they come upon needs no planet: it exists and lives after its fashion in space itself.
But the final aliens that van Vogt brilliantly and disturbingly conjures up are discovered in the rocket – Man himself.’
Back cover and frontispiece blurbs from the 1975 Panther paperback edition
The novel is a compilation of four previously published SF stories:
• “Black Destroyer” (appeared in the July, 1939, issue of Astounding magazine—the first published SF by A. E. Van Vogt) (chapters 1 to 6)
• “War of Nerves” (May, 1950, Other Worlds magazine) (chapters 9 to 12)
• “Discord in Scarlet” (December, 1939, Astounding magazine—the second published SF by A. E. Van Vogt) (chapters 13 to 21)
• “M33 in Andromeda” (August, 1943, Astounding magazine, later published as a story in the book M33 in Andromeda (1971)) (chapters 22 to 28)
The book was republished in 1952 under the title Mission: Interplanetary.
One of van Vogt’s most successful Fix-ups. ‘The Voyage of The Space Beagle’ has been translated and reprinted across the world; sections have been reproduced in graphic novel format, ‘The Black Destroyer’ which comprises the first section of the narrative, is widely thought to be the inspiration for the movie ‘Alien’ and the third section ‘Discord in Scarlet’ the basis for the classic B/W movie ‘It! The Terror From Beyond Space.’
The ‘Space Beagle’ is a spherical scientific and exploratory vehicle, roaming the universe to, as a later TV series would famously say, seek out new life and new civilisations.
It has a crew combining both scientific and military personnel one of whom is van Vogt’s trademark logical hero, in this case Elliot Grosvenor, a student of the new science of Nexialism, a science the validity of which is held in scorn by both the scientific and military Heads of Department. Nexialism is a sort of holistic science, which seeks to combine the knowledge and techniques of various branches of science, rather than keeping them as separate disciplines.
Although there is much action, such as the hijack of the ship by the deadly Coeurl, a huge catlike creature with manipulative tendrils and a tendency to suck the potassium from the body of its prey, the most interesting sections – given the time that this was written – are Grosvenor’s discussions and political battles with both the scientific and military hierarchy.
At first, his only ally is the Japanese archaeologist and sociologist, who analyses the alien races they come across in terms of the cyclic theory of civilisations, having to judge at what point in civilisation’s development the races currently are.
It is to van Vogt’s credit that this character is presented as merely another member of the crew, neither patronised nor transformed into some comic racial stereotype. On the contrary, the fact that he is Japanese is played down to such an extent that one might think was deliberate in order to accentuate the fact that race is not an issue, either for van Vogt or for the members of this future civilisation.
Perhaps another deliberate ploy was the lack of any real reference to Earth, or what sort of society these explorers have left behind.
‘The Black Destroyer’ has been anthologised elsewhere, and is worth seeking out in its original version since the ending of the original story is significantly different in terms of the fate of the Coeurls.
‘War of Nerves’ which comprises of the chapters dealing with the avian aliens of Riim, sees the crew hypnotised by a telepathic gestalt, at which the ship is somehow set on a collision course with the planet’s sun and the crew polarise into opposing factions determined to kill each other.
Through his Nexialist training Grosvenor manages to resist the hypnotic effect and makes contact with the Riim who – it is then learned – meant no harm by their contact.
‘Discord in Scarlet’ shows that the crew learned little from their experience with the Coeurl and bring a creature on board which they find in intergalactic space, millions of light years from the nearest sun. It’s a bright red cylindrical beast with menacing eyes and six legs/arms. Very soon it has escaped from its cage and is capturing the crew to turn into ‘guuls’ which means that it is inserting its eggs into their bodies. Once again it falls to Grosvenor to devise, via his Nexialist thinking, a plan to deal with the creature.
‘M33 in Andromeda’ is perhaps the weakest original story and features a galaxy-wide intelligence which gains its energy from the life on life-bearing planets. The intelligence plans to follow the Beagle back to its home galaxy and enslave it as a source of food. Grosvenor uses this crisis to bring down Mr Kent, a scientist who has no time for Nexialism and who has assumed leadership following the death of Commander Morton.
The ending finishes with this episode and with Grosvenor running (now popular) classes in Nexialism. perhaps unintentionally by beginning and ending this book with the Beagle in flight van Vogt gives the impression that we have only seen part of a much longer voyage, as well as creating a tantalising mystery about Earth itself.