The Weirdness of A. E. van Vogt

By Spencer V. PriceNash.

I began reading van Vogt books as a lark. Now it's a serious endeavor.

Slan was the first van Vogt I read. It seemed to be a collection of chapters rather than a continuous novel. I eventually discovered it was precisely the former, written as a magazine serial. Nowadays it may seem to be a young adult's novel; I can see how van Vogt put it together to satisfy his sf fans of 1940.

In Slan, bizarre things happen. Then they get more strange. Characters appear and vanish and re-appear. Their prominence rises and falls unpredictably. Major characters are killed for no apparent reason, and just when one thinks they'll come back, it's confirmed they are absolutely dead.

The apparent jerkiness of the book shows an element of van Vogt's basic style -- keep the reader guessing, and thus entertained. Just when one thinks one has everything right, it all changes again! Serial writing gave him this ability -- plots smooth out and events become predictable; the style of the story keeps one reading. Then something bizarre occurs.

The man is (yes, he's still around, from what I've heard) a spellbinder. Yep, he writes science fiction, but so much of his fiction isn't hinged on science that it's easy to forget his genre. A number of the van Vogt books I've read are more primers on how to think differently. Some, I swear, are lessons in the workings of Karma.

Now we come to The Man with a Thousand Names. This isn't a special van Vogt book. All of his are special, in different ways. The Man With A Thousand Names is weird in that it begins with a character who descends to another planet and becomes angry about the way it happens. He doesn't calm down. There's no indication of why he is upset. He moves along. Then something bizarre and unexpected happens.

Eventually, it's revealed there is something odd about him. He has weird things happen, like being spoken to this way, by another character:

"What we want --" said Martell. He stopped. He looked up at the ceiling. He shrugged one shoulder. His eyes acquired a glazed expression. He made a twisting movement with one hand. "-- Want, is --" His mouth sagged open, and he stood there for ten seconds; then, seemingly unaware that he had paused, continued: "-- Put this thing --" He laughed uproariously as at some secret joke, or else the word "thing" had a humorous connotation for him. "-- On your head."

OK, what is this? When I read this, I figured if it was happening to me, I might run, screaming. Well, something else happened right around the above, er, exchange:

Stephanie had always tried to adjust, and fit in, and be pliable, willing. But now that was not -- Steven realized -- a sufficient recommendation. In his mind, her past history mingled with that of other blondes he had known. He seemed to recall that she had been married twice; and that the second time she had left her husband it was because she believed Steven was interested in her.

But, fact was -- he shrugged -- that might not be her at all. That could just as easily be ninety-three other blondes.

Steven stepped up to the bed, took hold of the covers, and flipped them off Stephanie. For quite a few seconds, then, he simply stood there and gazed down at her slim nude body. He broke the silence curtly: "Sit up!"

Not quite like a little puppy, but almost like, Stephanie raised herself. Steven knelt on the bed; and ignoring the perfect female body only inches away, grabbed up the pillows. The girl's purse was under one of them. He picked it up, and emptied the contents onto the bed. He was looking for concealed knives, and other weapons. The purse had nothing but feminine things. So he dropped it, and fumbled over the sheets, then felt and shook the pillows.

Satisfied that there was nothing, he threw the covers back over her. Frowning. he stood above the bed. "I ever do you any harm? he asked.

"You mean -- did Steven?"

The question was spoken tentatively, and it instantly aroused in Steven the frustration of the previous morning when he had got all that silence on the phone. "Who else, you stupe?" he blasted.

Pause. Then timidly: "You're doing me harm right now, calling me a stupe."

"Oh, that!" said Steven, dismissing it. "What I mean is, did I ever hit you?"

"You knocked me across the room a couple of times. It was not very nice of you." She spoke plaintively.

Steven stood there. For a man who had hit women whenever they got -- as he had always put it -- "bitchy," the impulse he had now had was not easy even to think about. He wanted desperately to make amends without losing his dominant role.

He parried, "That all? Just a couple of shoves?"

What kind of character is this? I thought, and kept thinking that through half the novel. Is this some kind of irredeemable, spoiled rotten jerk, wandering through life as if he has a license to use people for whatever ends he may randomly decide, or is he someone who is destined for something higher than most humans would ever achieve? Maybe there's just something wrong with his way of life. As one Usenetter has written: It doesn't take all kinds, we just have all kinds. Maybe Steven is one of those kinds.

As is written in the same chapter as the above conversation:

He despised scientists as much as he despised anybody -- which was everybody --

Yeah, he's that kind of guy. It makes him somewhat endearing at certain points. There's his way of -- well, here:

No modest winner, Steven. Having won, he grabbed for the spoils of victory -- and took it for granted that any penalties heading his way as a consequence of the methods he had used to win could be dealt with later.

Yeah, he's that kind of guy.

In Steven's first year of high school, when he was still trying, a teacher had said to him: "Steven, why don't you one of these days sit down and just think through all the trouble you've caused since coming into this class?"

It was an unfortunate suggestion. The instant those words were spoken, Steven, First, blanked out whatever else the stupe had to say; and, second, made a total decision never to think through things.

Ever since, when a problem or condition was presented to him, he solved it with an instant reaction, or else let it ride by on stream of consciousness association.

Was his reaction correct? That was not a question Steven asked himself. What he did: if there were repercussions, he handled each in turn in the same fashion. If that didn't work, or if he had no answer or association at all, he forgot it.

This is followed by an excellent example of Steven's method. The example was so well written, I had to laugh.

It gets better. A character who has tried to kill Steven a number of times makes a deal with him. The deal is one some large number of people would never agree to. They'd fight such a deal for a very, very long time, perhaps until death. Steven, however, readily agrees.

The other character tries to get Steven to understand what he's giving up. Steven doesn't seem to care. The other character doesn't realize that Steven has made up his mind; he doesn't want this fantastic opportunity, for some reason Steven probably cannot explain, except to note that Steven's time is now being wasted and he could be doing something more fun right now if the conversation could merely be done with:

Steven said, "Okay, no further comment. What now? Have we got a deal?"

"You're still not interested?"

"In what?" said Steven.

There was a pause...People on Earth often fell silent after they had talked to Steven for a while.

Heh heh...yeah, Steven is a fun guy.

Some years ago, someone wrote to Billy Graham's newspaper Q&A column, informing him "You wrote we should forgive everyone their sins, but you never met my ex-husband". That was probably Steven.

What a fantastic character. This paranoiac, creepy, suspicious, nearly inhumane jerk makes this book fascinating. Another triumph for van Vogt.

Mid-December, 1996: I just finished The Violent Man. It's 320 pages, 76 chapters, a surprising References section, four distinct parts. There's a dizzying array of major characters. As far as I know, there is no short story version of this book, which makes it somewhat unusual for Mr. van Vogt. The front has part of a New York Times review, to sell the book to the casual reader. Indeed, this isn't usual unusual van Vogt: this isn't science fiction.

That was more than enough to hold my interest, after I'd started reading it. No indication of other worlds (unless you count early 1960's China -- this book is 1962), no weird science, no incredible heroics, no mutations. There were relatively normal people shoved into an unusual situation.

If you don't like sf and are intersted in van Vogt, I'd recommend this novel. IMHO it's not one of his best, but it's got a number of elements of his better writing, and is yet devoid of sf.