Fix-up Artist: The Chaotic SF of A.E. van Vogt

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A.E. van Vogt




Fix-up Artist: The Chaotic SF of A.E. van Vogt by Ted Gioia

"The disjointed novel is more in vogue today than at any previous point in history."

April 30th, 2012 reset - +

SCIENCE FICTION WRITER A.E. van Vogt, who would have celebrated his hundredth birthday on April 26, introduced a new term into the literary vocabulary: the fix-up. A fix-up is a novel constructed out of shorter works of fiction, a kind of Frankenstein's monster of narrative, stitched together with hopes that the seams don't show.


Although van Vogt originated the term, he didn't invent the concept. Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and William Faulkner's Go Down, Moses are fix-ups, and one might even assign that label to The Canterbury TalesLe Morte d'Arthur or The Decameron. But few writers embraced the technique with more zeal than van Vogt, who built much of his reputation on fix-ups such as The Voyage of the Space BeagleThe Mixed Men, and Empire of the Atom. "Let's put it very simply: a novel would sell whereas the individual stories seldom did," van Vogt explained to interviewer Robert Weinberg. "Hence, the great thought came; and the fix-up novels began.... It was only later that I learned the fix-ups had their critics. I could only shake my head over these people; to me, they were obviously dilettantes who didn't understand the economics of writing science fiction."


Van Vogt's life was also something of a fix-up. The storylines are squeezed together, and sometimes the seams show. When van Vogt died in Los Angeles in January 2000, at age 87, the New York Times obituary discreetly passed over his close relationship with L. Ron Hubbard and van Vogt's role running the West Coast base for Dianetics — the precursor to Scientology. A strange omission, no? Not many people participate in the birth of a religion, and van Vogt was proselytizing for Hubbard in Hollywood, out of an office on Sunset Boulevard, even before Tom Cruise and John Travolta were born.


But this mainstay of science fiction's "Golden Age" had no shortage of other achievements to his credit. His stories anticipated — and may well have inspired — various hit movies, television shows, and games. The producers of the Oscar-winning film Alien had to pay off van Vogt for their alleged borrowing from his 1950 novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. The TV series Star Trek also boldly went where van Vogt had gone before, although no cash payments validated its apparent borrowings. The displacer beast in the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons was inspired by van Vogt's coeurl, also from The Voyage of the Space Beagle.


Others see van Vogt's main claim to fame residing in the later writers who followed in his footsteps. Literary critic Fredric Jameson has asserted that "[v]an Vogt's work clearly prepares the way for that of the greatest of all science fiction writers, Philip K. Dick, whose extraordinary novels and stories are inconceivable without the opening onto that play of unconscious materials and fantasy dynamics released by van Vogt." Dick frequently gave credit to van Vogt, as did Harlan Ellison, and his acknowledged or apparent influence shows up in other odd places — the socio-psychological speculations of Colin Wilson, for example, or Stan Lee's X-Men.


But I am also fascinated by van Vogt's nonfiction works. I have a copy of a little-known book of his from 1972 entitled The Money Personality. Among the secrets included in this volume, as promised by the jacket copy: "How to make $2 plus $2 equal $100 million"; "How to force other people to work for you for practically nothing"; "How to make others say 'yes' instead of 'no' when you ask them for money"; "How to use the art of selfishness to get rich beyond your wildest dreams." In the author bio, we are told that A.E. van Vogt "has made several fortunes for himself and others, in the fields of publishing, real estate, radio, television and other communication media."


It's easy to dismiss a book like this as an amusing sideline — or perhaps an example of the author's touted skill in making a quick buck. But this same obsession with psychological manipulation and beating the system is a recurring theme in both van Vogt's life and his literary works. He wrote a guide to hypnotism, published in 1956, and his fiction frequently features characters who use forms of mind control to exert their will on others. I suspect that this incessant quest for a superior system led van Vogt to join forces with L. Ron Hubbard. When Hubbard's Dianetics, a memory auditing technique with pretensions to scientific rigor, evolved into the Church of Scientology, van Vogt refused to participate in the new venture, unhappy with its mysticism and religious trappings. Yet he continued to operate a Dianetics Center until 1961.


Van Vogt's heroes usually have some superior philosophical system or mental framework that gives them an edge in their dealings with others. In 1948's The World of Null-A, Gilbert Gosseyn (read: "go sane") renounces Aristotelian logic in favor of Alfred Korzybski's theory of general semantics. In The Voyage of the Space Beagle, Dr. Eliott Grosvenor repeatedly outwits his fellow astronauts by applying the science of Nexialism, a method for integrating different disciplines into a holistic view. Nat Cemp, in the 1969 fix-up The Silkie, relies on the similarly arcane "Logic of Levels." At times, van Vogt seems to forget he is telling a story, and adopts the shrill tone of a huckster delivering a recruitment pitch. But the fervor of his delivery, and van Vogt's skill — no doubt tested in his non-literary endeavors — for hinting at dazzling revelations known only to initiates, impart a unique flavor to his stories. Reading them, you feel like you've been handed some inside information, akin to a hot stock tip or sure-fire bet at the racetrack.


Like many of his characters, A.E. van Vogt started out as an outsider, unassimilated and distant from the mainstream currents of his day. He was born on a farm in Edenburg, a rural community in southern Manitoba, just north of Canada's border with the United States. In the midst of a Russian Mennonite community, van Vogt's family spoke a Low German dialect at home during the boy's early years. The family moved frequently, and struggled during the Great Depression. Van Vogt was unable to go to college and held jobs as a truck driver, farm hand, and clerk. In time, he learned how to supplement his wages with freelance writing projects, initially focusing on love stories, trade articles, and radio plays.


In 1939, van Vogt published his first science fiction story, "Black Destroyer," in the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction. This gruesome tale of a monstrous creature who feeds on the "id" of living bodies and attempts to take over a spacecraft was later incorporated into van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Like the U.S.S. Enterprise, the Space Beagle is on a five-year mission to explore distant worlds and seek out new life forms — although, more often than not, these new life forms actually seek out the crew of the Beagle. (Another van Vogt work, The Mixed Men, includes a description of a space teleportation machine similar to the famous Star Trek transporter.)


Five months later, van Vogt followed up with another space monster story, "Discord in Scarlet" — also incorporated into The Voyage of the Space Beagle — and in 1940 he returned to the theme in "Vault of the Beast." Even before his thirtieth birthday, van Vogt appeared to have played out his talent, mastering a single type of story but incapable of moving beyond it. "I was in a very dangerous position for a writer," he later recalled. "I had to break into a new type of story or go down into oblivion as so many other science fiction writers have done."


The result was Slan, first published in serialized form in Astounding during the closing months of 1940 (and released in book form in 1946). If van Vogt had previously been guilty of relying on just one plot, he now jumped to the other extreme: in Slan, he adopted the frenetic pacing and obsession with cliffhangers and action sequences that would become the trademarks of his mature style — if one dares use the word "mature" to describe an author whose mindset seems trapped in perpetual adolescence. His "is the realism, and logic, of a small boy playing with toy soldiers in a sandbox," SF writer and critic Darrell Schweitzer has opined. "There is no intersection with adult reality at any point."


Slan starts as an account of a mutant race that is hunted and killed by a repressive government — a theme with potential to rise above its pulp fiction origins given the historical context. The Nazi regime in Germany was constructing its first death camp in Auschwitz at the same time van Vogt was writing Slan. Indeed, I would like to interpret this novel as a plea for tolerance and non-violence — and certainly there are sufficient clues in the text to justify such a reading. On the other hand, we must balance van Vogt's clear obsession, both in Slan and his other works, with master races and his obvious fondness for authoritarian, manipulative leaders. If van Vogt had written 1984, Big Brother would have been presented as a dashing hero with movie-star looks, and "newspeak" lauded as a purified conceptual framework for advanced thinkers.


There is heavy irony in the mismatch between van Vogt's ideology, so hung up on pseudo-philosophical systems, and his plots, which invariably sacrifice logic and coherence in favor of thrills and chills. He followed a strategy of introducing a new twist or complication every 800 words — a method SF author and critic James Blish calledrecomplication, and which Damon Knight derided as the "Kitchen Sink Technique." This approach is both exhilarating and frustrating, and has contributed to the sharply polarized critical response to van Vogt. In the words of Brian W. Aldiss, he was a "genuinely inspired madman." Philip K. Dick, who ardently defended van Vogt against his critics, asserted that he "influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe which is not to be feared." At the other extreme, we encounter Knight, the leader of the anti-van Vogt faction, who — in an infamous fanzine article entitled "Cosmic Jerrybuilder" — almost singlehandedly torpedoed van Vogt's reputation by famously proclaiming: "Van Vogt is not a giant as often maintained. He's only a pygmy using a giant typewriter."


Critic Leslie Fiedler took up a position on both sides of the fence, offering in the process one of the fairest assessments of van Vogt's work. "Any bright high school sophomore can identify all the things that are wrong about van Vogt," he admitted, while going on to praise the author's "mythpoeic power, his ability to evoke primordial images, his gift for redeeming the marvelous in a world in which technology has preempted the province of magic and God is dead."


If Slan showed van Vogt's mastery of this spectacle-driven style of SF, he upped the ante with The World of Null-A, the most controversial, and perhaps most characteristic, of his works. Not only does the main protagonist, Gilbert Gosseyn, brag about having transcended the constraints of traditional logic, but van Vogt does the same, moving from cliffhanger to cliffhanger without stopping to provide plausible motivation, explanation, or context for this theme-park ride masquerading as a novel.


Even so, the wealth of invention packed into this work demands our respect. Van Vogt starts by describing a month-long competition in which contestants try to outwit the Machine, a massive computer that controls human destiny. It's an intriguing plot — anticipating a slew of later SF novels built on the adolescent fantasy of games morphing into real-life adventures (e.g., Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, Iain M. Banks's The Player of Games, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, etc.). But van Vogt never takes us beyond day one of the contest, and soon he is pursuing a different storyline about false memories and mistaken identity. When Gosseyn is killed at the end of chapter five, and is mysteriously resurrected on the planet Venus at the start of chapter six (for no apparent rhyme or reason), you may think that you've stumbled into a completely different novel, but this sudden narrative displacement is emblematic of the work as a whole. Before long, van Vogt has embarked on a new plot dealing with intergalactic war and earth-shattering weapons. Other abandoned storylines include an account of a political leader's daughter pretending to be a bag lady, and a Hobbesian fantasy about a temporary cessation from all laws during which society reverts to total anarchy. As with Slan, van Vogt adds one more surprise in the final sentence — but leaves behind more unresolved themes than an Alban Berg tribute concert.


One can only marvel at Philip Dick's defense of The World of Null-A: "All the parts of that book did not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think that's sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else's writing inside or outside science fiction." Huh? I can enumerate many virtues of van Vogt's wacky novel, but resemblance to reality would not make the list. Then again, I've never died on planet Earth and awakened on Venus or (like Dick) received secret messages from outer space, so perhaps I'm not the best judge of the matter. In any event, I have a better appreciation of the attitude of Boris Vian, the Surrealist author and jazz musician who translated The World of Null-A into French. As an exponent of the culture of the absurd, and an obsessive fan of trendy populist art from the U.S., Vian had found an ideal role model in van Vogt.


We may be better able nowadays to appreciate the merits of van Vogt's fiction. The disjointed novel is more in vogue today than at any previous point in history, with fractured tales such as David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists, Hari Kunzru's Gods Without Men, and Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Good Squadwinning prizes and teaching us that a collage of plots is sometimes more effective than a dominant storyline. Also a couple of generations of postmodern fiction have increased our tolerance for discontinuity and juxtaposition as valid techniques for constructing a novel.


But, above all, van Vogt fits in nicely with the popular culture of our day, in which loose narratives or anti-narratives — in computer games, music videos, reality TV, etc. — have replaced the tightly scripted tales of an earlier era. Face it, we live in an era in which content almost always wins out over form, in which bound volumes of theEncyclopedia Britannica are replaced by messy search engine results, in which the personal memoir is superseded by the tweet and the status update. In that kind of world — call it the world of Null-A, if you wish — van Vogt is hardly old-fashioned, and his ultra-fast-paced fiction might even be the right role model for our times. 



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