Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review of The Best of A.E. van Vogt by A.E. van Vogt

Please note: this review is for the 1974 UK publishing, not the 1976 US publishing of the same name.  For the record, the UK version is van Vogt's own selection, the US the publisher's.

The Golden Age of science fiction was witness to a large number of names trying to cash in on market demand.  Many, many of these names since fading into history, there remain some that echo, albeit fainter and fainter through the decades.  One of the biggest names echoing is A.E. van Vogt.  Making that name for himself with dense, dynamic stories, he would continue writing in Golden Age mode decades beyond the era.  Accumulating a lengthy backlist of short fiction in the process, its best of—selected by van Vogt himself—was collected in 1974 and is the subject of this review.

Clute and Nichols calling it “shuffling upon re-shuffling”, I can’t think of a better term myself to describe van Vogt’s plotting.  And, “Vault of the Beast“, the first story in the collection (and earliest, as they are arranged chronologically) is a perfect example.  Starting simple but quickly escalating to galaxy-wide implications, more events are packed into the novelette than many writers today put into a novel.  Van Vogt stating that he limited himself to 800 word action scenes, the tactic never lets the plot slow, as immediately following upon some excitement is the transitory ‘clean up’ that sees the characters, aliens, et al shuffled into new positions, with new implications and tensions, requiring a new action scene, and so on goes the re-shuffling. 

The palette of sci-fi tropes always at hand, van Vogt is not adverse to throwing everything but the kitchen sink into these complexly plotted stories.  Time travel, tentacled aliens, interstellar wars, super prime numbers, time warps, ancient alien civilizations, super-special ray guns—seemingly anything goes to make story as dynamic as possible in The Best of A.E. van Vogt.  The simple premises upon which all the stories seem to begin end up a great distances away.  “The Weapon Shop”, for example, while starting innocuously enough by a conversation between two friends in a seemingly normal small town, escalates to galaxy-sized proportions by the end of its thirty-odd pages.  ‘Everything must be epic’ seeming a mantra, regardless of what one thinks of van Vogt, it’s impossible to say he didn’t try to push the boundaries of sci-fi as entertainment.

Despite that most of the stories in the collection were published after the Golden Era, the period’s influence remains the single driving force behind van Vogt’s stories.  With writers like James Blish, Arthur C. Clarke, Algis Budrys and others on the scene trying to draw more humanist elements into the fold, van Vogt thumbed his nose and continued trying to write the best space operas and ‘far out’ dramas he could.  “The Monster”, for example, creates for itself the opportunity for a profound encounter.  Tentacled aliens arrive on Earth thousands of years after humanity has destroyed itself and reconstruct a man from a skeleton (in a vividly described scene).  But what happens after all too quickly reverts into a “man outwits bumbling aliens” story.  Along with the paradox: how could mankind destroy itself yet be capable of outsmarting aliens who created technology far superior to anything humanity ever did?, there’s the larger question: where’s the relevancy?  “The Weapons Shop”, after opening on a nice bit of banter regarding the place of weapons in society, cranks up the pulp dial to 11, galaxy factions and secret government conspiracies soon arriving on-scene. 

Attacking prose with alacrity, the stories collected in The Best of have the hammer of Satan beating them into some sense of fascinating ugliness.  Adjectives and words hamfisted into sentences and phrases, they likewise possess a haunting darkness that can almost be felt.

    It was Lieutenant Morton who found it.  A tiny section of floor reared up, and then grew amazingly large as it tried to expand into human shape.  Parelli with distorted, crazy eyes scooped it up in a shovel.  It hissed; it nearly became a part of the metal shovel, but couldn’t because Parelli was so close.  Changing, fighting for shape, it slobbered and hissed as Parelli staggered with it behind his superior officer.  He was laughing hysterically. ‘I touched it,’ he kept saying, ‘I touched it.’

Though a high school English teacher would have fun with their red pen on that paragraph, and indeed the whole collection, there remains a certain dark dynamism to the wording (prose too strong a descriptor) that can be riveting.  Tiresome in large doses, taking a step back one catches a glimpse of a reason van Vogt is one of the last pulp writers still remembered today.

In the end, The Best of A.E. van Vogt is an ideal book for three types of readers: those looking to 1. read pulp sci-fi of yesteryear, 2. learn more about the history of science fiction, or 3. check out the short fiction of van Vogt after having been intrigued by his novel length work.  The prose flits between vivid and purple and the plotting is complex, dense, and can rock violently like a boat at the sea.  Van Vogt writes in the intro he was aiming to take the readers into the far reaches of their imaginations, and, entertain them there.  For this, he wildly succeeds.

The table of contents is:

“Vault of the Beast”
“The Weapon Shop”
“The Storm”
“Hand of the Gods”
“The Cataaaaa”
“The Monster”
“Dear Pen Pal”
“The Green Forest”
“War of Nerves”
“The Expendables”
“Silkies in Space”
“The Proxy Intelligence”

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