from WORLDS BEYOND, January 1951, Vol. 1 #2 pp. 101-102

"The Dissecting Table"

Criticism of current science-fantasy books   by Damon Knight

THE VOYAGE OF THE SPACE BEAGLE, by A. E. van Vogt; Simon & Schuster, $2.50.  MASTERS OF TIME, by A. E. van Vogt; Fantasy Press, $3.00.

As those who read last issue's review of THE HOUSE THAT STOOD STILL may have inferred, this department's thesis on van Vogt is (a) that the man has a very respectable talent as a writer, and (b) that he consistently misuses it. The present two volumes offer valuable supporting evidence , for VOYAGE OF THE SPACE BEAGLE consists largely of van Vogt's earliest work, two novelettes originally entitled BLACK DESTROYER and DISCORD IN SCARLET; while the two stories in MASTERS OF TIME, the title story, originally called RECRUITING STATION, and CHANGELING, represent his later period. Both BLACK DESTROYER and DISCORD IN SCARLET deal with extra-terrestrial beings encountered by an exploratory spaceship from Earth.  In each case, the beast concerned is highly intelligent and powerful, is the last of his race, and is motivated by the urgent necessity to capture the Earth ship and use it to reach a habitable planet where it can reproduce and eventually re-conquer the galaxy.  As menaces, the black cat-creature and the four-armed red humanoid are vivid and convincing; the stories of their attacks on the ship and its crew are straightforward, logical, intensely exciting.
In contrast, the third episode written to fill out the book (it deals with a race of avian, asexual fellaheen who hypnotize all the crew except the "Nexialist"-trained hero, making them fight among themselves) is disconnected and confused to such an extent that the reader will be lucky if he can follow the action from one step to the next, let alone organize them into a coherent whole.  The fourth, dealing with an
intelligent galaxy, is simply dull.
The contrast is even plainer in THE MASTERS OF TIME.  CHANGELING deals with van Vogt's favorite theme:  the superman who doesn't know he's a superman.  The plot is complex, involving two power groups, one of which is not identified until late in the story; the action expands wildly in all directions, and, as usual, is resolved abruptly in the last two pages by means of a rabbit previously contained in Mr. van Vogt's hat. RECRUITING STATION concerns two normal people caught up in the vast, cloudy machinations of two warring groups in the future; here again scenes shift abruptly, basic elements of the story are kept hidden till the end and then unsatisfactorily explained; and as an added attraction van Vogt has introduced a string of unresolved time paradoxes.
Van Vogt's method, according to himelf, is to work in 800-word "blocks",  EACH OF WHICH INTRODUCES A NEW IDEA.  This packing technique is undeniably a major contribution to science-fantasy writing; in the hands of at least one other writer, Charles L. Harness, it produces scripts of unparalleled brilliance and impact.  But in the innovator's own work the effect is simply that of a senseless bombardment, which might well be labeled "the Kitchen Sink Technique."  The essential difference is that a Harness story, in spite of its internal complexity, has an over-all shape which is coherent and symmetrical; the typical van Vogt product is formless.

from WORLDS BEYOND Vol. l #3, February 1959

"The Dissecting Table" by Damon Knight, pg. 94

THE WORLD OF NULL-A, by A. E. van Vogt; Grosset & Dunlap , $1.00.

This widely-read novel began its career as a pretentious, foolish, wildly complicated and self-contradictory magazine serial.  In the hard-cover version, a ruthless pruning and trimming job is evident: whole sections of irrelevant material have been lifted out in toto, motivations and relationships have been patched into some kind of coherent shape, and many of the objectionable features of van Vogt's magazine style--the inversions, repetitions, overemphasis and mangled grammar--have been smoothed out.  All of these were encumbrances to the story's one virtue, its powerful, exciting movement.
What emerges, then, is a fairly straightforward adventure story in a pseudoscientific background.  There is excitement in it, and if you do not examine the plot too carefully (a disadvantage of the present version is that this is now easier to do) you won't miss the vacant stages in the scaffolding.