I've been a great fan of science fiction in general as long as I can remember — mainly with TV shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek. As an young teenager I eventually discovered the joys of SF in book form with novels like Dune, Orphans of the Sky, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Ironically, the first van Vogt novel I tried to read was The House That Stood Still, which I found to be so hideously, monstrously dull that I never finished it — and to this very day I still haven't read it! So horrible was this experience that it took me a couple of years before I even considered trying another his books...
One summer day I was looking through my dad's small but interesting collection of SF novels, looking for something new to read, and the title Slan stood out. I read the blurb. Sufficiently interested, I read the first page. And then the second. And then the third — all before I really knew what I was doing. I dashed back to my room and read the whole novel in short order. Even now, after having read virtually all of van Vogt's other fiction, I can still say that it is without a doubt his single best novel, and I have had no bookish experience akin to the excitement of reading Slan for the first time.
(A funny story from my college days — I came back to my room one afternoon to find my roommate Daniel sitting in our single much-coveted comfy chair, more than halfway through reading my copy of Slan. I sat down at the desk and started to do some studying. I slowly realized that during that time of day he was usually in art class. So I casually inquired, wasn't he supposed to be in class right now? He said yes and went back to reading. I then asked if class was cancelled or something. He said no and went back to reading. I said, so you're sitting there reading one of my SF books when you should be in art class? Uh-huh, he said. And went back to reading. Knowing that Daniel was a laid-back sort of guy, easily distracted and a real lover of books, I just chuckled and shook my head and went back to studying. I then realized I had told him about the book only that morning, so I turned to him and expressed my amazement that he'd managed to read so much since I saw him before lunch. He then looked up and sheepishly admitted that, in fact, he had just taken the book off the shelf, read the blurb, opened it at random in the middle, and not been able to stop reading! That evening, after having reached the end of the book, without pause he turned back to page 1 to start reading the first half. That experience has become a running joke between the two of us, and illustrates what an incredibly gripping story Slan is.)
Anyway, back to my early teen years. After Slan I was hungry for more by the same author. He really caught my interest with his ceaseless flow of fascinating ideas, terse writing style, and his wide, confident sweeps of raw imagination — a potent combination I've never come across before or since. So I steadily collected his books over the years, foraging in used book stores here and there, thrilled by each new discovery. I soon discovered that he wrote quite a lot, and compiled my very first bibliography to try to keep all of his books straight. Well, I say "bibliography," but it was more of just a shopping list and checklist, really, gleaned from nothing more than the "other books by this author" lists found in the back of various novels. And I did this so I wouldn't accidentally spend some of my hard-earned teenage chore money on a book I already owned.
(Things have certainly changed a lot since then. That tiny shopping-checklist has, over the years, grown into a monstrous compendium that has transformed from a servant into a master — instead of enabling me to save money, I now pay outrageous sums of money for a rare edition of a novel that I already have 8 copies of... And now that I own all of his books, that appetite for discovery has transformed into a wish-fulfillment dream I sometimes have at night — I'm in some out-of-the-way bookstore and stumble upon an entire row full of his books, all of them being works I've never encountered during all of my years of intensive research. The first time I had this dream, I woke up briefly and actually scribbled down some of the nonsensical titles on a bedside notepad, my befuddled brain thinking I could find them for sale online in the morning!)
1994 Burbank Convention
Some time in 1993, I finally gathered up the nerve to write van Vogt a fan letter. It was the very first fan letter I ever wrote, and I was only 13 years old at the time. Unfortunately I can't even remember what I said to him.
Much to my astonishment, a couple of months later I received a reply from van Vogt. In it, he shared that he would be appearing to give autographs at an SF convention in Burbank (a city in Los Angeles) in April 1994. (At the time I gave no thought to which convention this was, it was just "the one where van Vogt was going to be." After recently doing some research online, I believe this may have been the one known as Phil and Ed's Excellent Convention.) Despite all being science fiction fans, nobody in my family — myself included — care much for conventions. Apart from a couple of Star Trek conventions we attended in the mid-'80s — when my brother was at the peak of his Star Trek mania — this was the only one we ever went to. Since we live just three hours from Burbank, my family and I decided that we would go down and meet him and get a few books signed. My father was also looking forward to meeting him, since he remembered reading The Weapon Shops of Isher and The Voyage of the Space Beagle from the school library when he was young.
We left early just to make sure we'd be there on time, since the traffic in L.A. can be monstrous. We arrived earlier than we intended, so wandered around the entryway of the convention center, hanging around the autograph table waiting for van Vogt to show up. Why just the entryway, you ask? Why didn't we go in further and take a look at all the goodies and whatnots? Well, tickets were required to go further than the lobby, and each ticket cost some astronomical sum of money. And since we were there just to see van Vogt, well... tickets would have just been a waste of money.
We had arrived so early, in fact, that after standing around conspicuously in the lobby for a while, we just returned to the car to wait. At one point my dad went back in to see if the van Vogts were at the autograph table yet. Although they weren't, there was an elderly couple, elegantly dressed, standing nearby, holding a few paperbacks. My dad and they noticed each other and got to talking. It turns out that was Mr. and Mrs. van Vogt, awaiting their turn at the table. My dad introduced himself, and they recognized our surname. Realizing this was the father of the kid who wrote "the very nice letter" (as Lydia put it), they presented my dad with the books they were holding — a gift for me, consisting of three autographed copies of his novels: The Beast, The Mind Cage, and The Players of Null-A.
My dad then returned to the car with the books in hand. I initially had no idea where on earth he could have got them. The nearest I could figure, he'd paid to go into the convention proper and idled away the time by buying a few books at the stalls... and then he explained where he actually got them. I was completely overwhelmed. I just sat there staring at them for what seemed like forever, as we waited 10 minutes or so until they were scheduled to be signing autographs. Sometimes I feel great sadness that I wasn't there to receive those books in person — and other times I realized that if I had been there in person, I probably would have been so overwhlmed that I would have made a complete and total fool of myself. You know, fainted or something.
Finally, with me in a sort of pleasant surreal daze, we made our way back into the convention center. Earlier, there had been groups of two or three sitting at the autograph table — I have no idea who they might have been — but apart from a couple of people now and then wanting whoever's autograph, there was no traffic in that area worth speaking of. But now that van Vogt was there, the entire lobby had transformed — there was now a huge line snaking its way across the room, with fans holding books for him to sign. Ironically, although I owned at least 20 of his books by then, I only brought 2 along to be autographed — the Carroll & Graf edition of The Universe Maker and the 1982 Timescape edition of The War Against the Rull. My thinking was that once a book was autographed, I would never be able to read it again, for fear of damaging such a priceless item! I also thought it would be presumptuous to have him sign a stack of books. I realized my mistake when I saw that some of the other people waiting in line were struggling to hold tottering huge piles of books for him to sign. I still regret not bringing my whole collection for him to sign...
While waiting our turn in line, I noticed that Forrest J. Ackerman — SF collector and enthusiast extraordinaire, who was van Vogt's agent for many years — was also sitting at the table. And in proper Forry form, he had some SF magazines there, and he was casually flipping through one of them. (Presumably a few more items to add to his collection.) I also overheard van Vogt talking to some of his fans as he was signing their books — things like how he and Lydia live in Hollywood, right below and to the left of the world-famous Hollywood sign on the hill. It was also at this time that I learned how to pronounce his name: he was telling someone that the "G" in "Vogt" was silent, making it sound identical to "vote." But by and large he did very little talking. He seemed very happy to be there, though, and when my turn came, shook my hand with a smile.
The picture above was taken by my father. I am standing just beyond the right edge of the photo; Lydia is chatting with me while Van signs my books. (Regrettably, neither my parents nor I had the wit to actually have my photo taken with him...) In the picture above, van Vogt is in the process of signing The Universe Maker.
I was only 13 at the time, and extremely shy, and had never met anyone even remotely famous before, and here I was face-to-face with my favorite author, and having been given such a precious, personal gift no less. I was so overwhelmed with the experience and their amazing generosity that I basically just stood there the whole time, smiling and staring. As a result, Lydia did most of the talking. She is an admirably charming and gracious lady, who well understood a boy's shyness and excitement.
It wasn't until five years later that I learned that van Vogt had Alzheimer's. I now realize that when I met him in '94, he was well into his mental decline. So when I think back to that day in April, it is with a strange mixture of joy and sadness.
This experience made quite an impression on me, and is certainly one of the reasons why I continue to remain interested in A.E. van Vogt when my interest in many other authors has fallen by the wayside.