The Voyage of the Space Beagle
A.E. Van Vogt
We’re digging into a big name for Post #2 in the 2015 Vintage Sci-Fi Read-a-thon. I had heard of Van Vogt but not read him, and this year’s round of reading old stuff seems like a good time to get to know the man. Van Vogt has a checkered reputation now in terms of writing quality, though he was once a major voice in the genre and almost single-handedly put Canadian SF on the map. Most reviews now tend to agree that he is scattered and bordering on incomprehensible at times, though they concede that he nails the sense of wonder bit more often than not. My experience with The Voyage of the Space Beagle fits those reactions fairly well. It is a strange mix of nuttiness and cracking storytelling that defies simple categorization.
The basics: Space Beagle is four interconnected novellas about the titular ship cruising through space and meeting scary aliens. It is exceedingly Golden Age-y: puzzles encountered and solved by competent, rational scientists with a dash or two of action thrown in for good measure. I wouldn’t call this Hard SF, since the science bits aren’t front and center, but it clearly slants towards the problem solvers rather than the swashbucklers. The writing quality is uneven and Van Vogt’s focus is disjointed. At its best though, Space Beagle is tense and engaging. The third story, “Black Destroyer,” apparently served as the model for Ridley Scott’s Alien, and is the clear highlight of the book. Readers in a hurry would do well to check that one out, but probably skim the second and fourth stories.
Beyond questions of good and bad, Space Beagle is interesting for some of the things it has to say about the genre and the community at the time. It is also an unintentionally hilarious reminder of some of the crackpot science we have left behind. (I say that knowing full well that, fifty years from now, people are going to read our books and shake their heads in disbelief at the idiotic crap we’re predicting.) Van Vogt is utterly a man of his time, so readers have to take everything with a few grains of salt. Maybe best to use seasoned salt for good measure, possibly a Cajun mix.
One of the first things I noticed is that not everyone is a white man! Everyone is a man, of course, because who would send a space ship out into the stars for a multi-year voyage with a bunch of women on board? Think of the chaos. However! The historian Dr. Korita is Japanese, very surprising considering these stories were written between 1939 and 1950. Or maybe not so surprising, since at the time, only Japan had risen to challenge the Western European hegemony and were widely considered “honorary white people.” Still, odd to assign the gentle historian to a people that was then busily engaged in blowing the crap out of us in the Pacific. (The others are not described as white, but have names like Grosvenor and Morton.)
Of most interest to me is the message Van Vogt is sending in the book. Each of the four stories is a first contact, and each contact is a deadly threat to the crew. There are a few fallen civilizations, but no friendly aliens, no galactic commonwealth, and no interstellar trade. There is only the vast, dark abyss and some profoundly dangerous critters. It seems more fearsome than I am used to in SF of the era. Plucky humans naturally triumph with teamwork and ingenuity, but but it’s scary out there and most of these aliens are much stronger, smarter, and deadlier than we are.
Much of my amusement at the book came from the parade of pseudoscience nonsense, though Van Vogt would have done better to leave it in the background and focus on the aliens. At one time or another we get psionics (of a sort), hypnotism, something called “cyclic history,” and “Nexialism,” which seems to be VanVogt’s pet project. A major subplot of the book involves Grosvenor (the Nexialist) battling it out with Kent (the hard-nosed, dictatorial chemist) for scientific supremacy. Grosvenor is clearly superior, because Nexialism’s combination of whacko psychology, subliminal learning techniques, and hypnotism has given him holistic knowledge of everything in a way that simple PhD holders will never grasp. Hearing this, it may surprise nobody that Van Vogt was involved in L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics for a time. If nothing else, Space Beagle is a part of the next stage of human progression trope that people seemed to like back in the day.
Anyway, a typical portion of Space Beagle follows a set pattern. Scientists encounter some fearsome looking, clearly dangerous creature. “Let’s take it aboard for study!” Oddly, few if any offer reservations about this. Said creature goes on a rampage in the ship while scientists grimace and mutter. Dr. Korita, after a grueling and intense period of study lasting about five minutes, pronounces which stage of Cyclic History the alien is in. (“Clearly, he is a peasant and only cares about reproduction and territorial expansion.”) This gives Grosvenor, the super genius Nexialist, the clues needed to defeat the creature. His ideas are inevitably one step further than people want to take, so he has to use extraordinary measures to get his point across. (“Let’s fire atomic death rays and hope everyone ducks in time.”) Scientific Man triumphs, rinse and repeat.
At times it was hard to take this seriously. At one point, Grosvenor actually said something to the effect of, “Yes, I can use my superior intellect and powers to take over the entire ship. Fortunately, I have a strict code of ethics which prevents me from hypnotizing the entire crew to do my will, unless I really think it’s necessary.” GREAT, THANK YOU FOR YOUR MORALS, SUPER SCIENCE DUDE. Also, it was not distracting at all that everyone referred to one cat-like creature as “Pussy” and went around shooting guns called “vibrators” and ummm, errr, say, it’s lovely weather we’re having this week, wouldn’t you agree?
The further I get into this review, the sillier things become. I should say that, at the time, I was reading quite credulously and enjoying myself. “Black Destroyer” in particular is a well-crafted bit of SF scariness. On reflection though, I’m starting to see the strings holding up the cardboard planets and plastic rockets, so to speak. Warts aside, Space Beagle is a worthy piece of SF history and fun on its own terms. Probably best not to think too deeply about it though.