A. E. van Vogt: The Passion Behind the Man

by Tim England

van vogtIt is a world of suspense. It is a world of beauty. It is a world of pain. It is the world of A. E. van Vogt. An author consumed with a desire to understand the deepest concerns of the human mind. An author who cannot write outside of strict confines that his system dictates. An author who can take us on an absurd trip through space and time and bring us back for more.

Van Vogt was born in a small Canadian town in 1912. He began his career in the early thirties writing confession stories for women’s magazines. Despite success, van Vogt realized that this was not a very fulfilling medium, so he moved on to writing radio plays. After about two years of this, van Vogt began to be interested in the field of science fiction. He sold his first story in the late thirties or early forties to Astounding Science Fiction. He continued writing science fiction throughout the forties. He published such books as Slan (1946), The Weapon Makers (1946), The World of Null-A (1948), The Changeling (1950), The House That Stood Still (1950), Masters of Time (1950), and The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950). In the fifties, van Vogt began to notice that after ten years that his writing would no longer be interesting if he did not make a serious study of human behavior. Therefore he curbed his writing career and began working in the field of dianetics. He did still manage to publish nine books including: The Universe Maker (1953), The Pawns of Null-A (1956), and The Mind Cage (1957). These were written as compilations of van Vogt’s previous short stories and novelettes with the exception of the original work of The Mind Cage. After his dianetic period passed in 1961, van Vogt did not go back to full-time writing until 1966. He wrote several new novels from 1966-1980: The Winged Man, The Silkie, Children of Tomorrow, The Battle of Forever, The Anarchistic Colossus, Cosmic Encounter and several others.

The work of A. E. van Vogt addresses psychological issues. Even before van Vogt’s dianetic auditing career, he was interested in the field of psychology. He was always attempting to answer questions that many people would not even think about. In an autobiographical essay, "My Life Was My Best Science Fiction Story", van Vogt relates a trip that he took in order to see if it was fatal for one to return to one’s childhood home. He visited many relatives and towns that he had lived in to see if he could find the answer to immortality. His novels raised equally odd questions. The World of Null-A, one of van Vogt’s earlier novels which greatly influenced Philip Dick(Platt 151), is about a man who is immortal. When he dies, his mind is transferred to another body. This idea of implanted memories is one that Philip Dick took to heart and addressed similar questions of his own.(Platt 151)

Other issues raised by van Vogt would be types of governments and systems for choosing a leader. In The World of Null-A, there is an omniscient machine that chooses the leaders of the nation for them. Null-A stands for non-Aristotelian, or multivalue. In The World of Null-A, van Vogt tells us that Aristotle caused the scientific community to close its eyes. People were not allowed to change the system for more than two thousand years.(Vogt 13) His novels also address concerns commonly seen in the genre. Some of his novels were about utopias, others were coming of age stories, others still, such as Slan, were about beings that are more highly evolved than humans.

The writing style of van Vogt was similar to the pulpy conventions of the earlier writers of periodical science fiction. He writes, according to Groff Conklin, "stories of the Impossible clutching the Rational by the throat and astonishing it to death."(Bainbridge 83) Van Vogt did everything according to a system. He read John W. Gallishaw’s The Only Two Ways to Write a Story, and from this formed a system in which he would construct science fiction novels in segments of nearly eight-hundred words. While writing confession stories for women’s magazines, van Vogt discovered that for each different kind of story, there was a different type of fictional sentence. For confession stories the sentence just had to be a bit more flowery than common, "’You don’t say, "I lived at 323 Grand Street." You say something like "Tears came to my eyes as I thought of my little room at 323 Grand Street."(Platt 135) In science fiction, the sentences van Vogt crafted were laden with "hang-ups".(Platt 135) This meant that each sentence led into the next. For example one might write, "He hears a sound over there. And something comes in. It looks like a man wearing a cloak."(Platt 135) The reader is forced to move on to the next sentence at the end of each sentence. Some examples of his writings from The World of Null-A would be, "For years he had wanted to come, but it had taken her death to make it possible. Everything, Gosseyn thought bleakly, had its price. In all his dreams of this day, he had never suspected that she would not be there beside him,"(Vogt 8) He is considered a ‘pataphysicist. This is a way of writing that does not use foreign words and settings. Instead of reading a novel of the future, his novels are about the future.

Of course when one falls back on the pulp conventions of writing, one is bound to have many shortcomings. Van Vogt is far from an exception, criticized by many as authoring stories that are not logical.(Lundwall 54) Many American readers feel that his stories are absurd and incomprehensible. He draws his largest readership from the French.(Lundwall 54) Many, if not all of his protagonists possess superhuman characteristics. Some characters have super mental faculties while others have the strength of ten people. One of his strengths is that he is the kind of author that one just cannot stop reading once you start. Van Vogt always leaves one wondering what is going to happen next. Another strength of his writing lies within his system. The use of short segments of approximately eight hundred words makes the books seem more fast pace. Also, he makes extensive use of the "hang-ups" previously mentioned causing him to carefully plan each sentence.

A. E. van Vogt currently resides in California. His first wife Mayne died of cancer after slipping into a coma in 1975. It is interesting to note that van Vogt and his wife made another trip back to their Canadian homeland during a period of remission. Van Vogt did remarry to Lydia Brayman, a former model, in 1979. She has two grown children from a previous marriage. Lydia works as an interpreter of five languages in the United States court system primarily for the Russian language.(Greenberg 213-14)


  1. Platt, Charles, Dream Makers. Published in 1980 by

Berkley Publishing Corporation, New York.

  1. Bainbridge, William Simms, Dimensions of Science

Fiction. Published in 1986 by Harvard University

Press, Massachusetts.

  1. Greenberg, Martin H., Fantastic Lives. Published in

1980 by Southern Illinois University Press.

  1. van Vogt, A. E., Triad. Published in 195- by Simon and

Schuster, New York.

  1. Lundwall, Sam J., Science Fiction. Published in 1977

by Grosset and Dunlap, New York.