Under The Influence: A.E. Van Vogt



    Alfred Elton Van Vogt is much less well known today than he was in my youth, let alone in his heyday in the 40s-50s. However, he had an immense influence on my writing, or at least my writing design process, because he knew, perhaps better than anyone, how to create a sense of wonder and build it into an adventure – perhaps with only the most tenuous logic holding it together.


     Van Vogt was the quintessential writer of, for lack of a better word, spectacle-based adventures. His characters were often fairly narrow in dimension; he might use one real scientific concept and then throw in a thousand things that sounded scientific (in some ways he's the father of technobabble); but he knew how to take the elements he worked with and make them shine, make them blaze with spectacle. He would create a world and describe it just enough to make it feel that there were a thousand other details just offscreen, even if he himself hadn't the faintest idea what those details were.


     I can't be sure exactly which of Van Vogt's stories I first encountered; my father's little library of SF had several Van Vogt novels and collections – for Van Vogt was just as skilled, if not more so, at writing short, "punchy" stories for the magazines as he was at writing novel-length serials. In fact, several of his "novels" are fix-ups of multiple shorts into a single unit. All of them, though, had an impact that I remember.


     Slan is perhaps his most famous work, and deservedly so; it tells the story of a future in which mankind has either evolved (or some say, created) a new subspecies, the "slan", which possesses unique telepathic powers and other partially or fully superhuman traits of intelligence, strength, and toughness. Normal humans reacted in a panic (perhaps deliberately orchestrated) and nearly wiped out the slans; the few left are hiding out. Our main character, Jommy Cross, is a slan child, only eight years old or so, who barely escapes being killed along with his family, only to end up in the hands of a very nasty old woman who has some very specific plans for what she can do with a slan mind-reader under her control. From this beginning, Jommy must find a way to recover the technological inheritance his engineer father left him, escape from "Granny's" control, discover what happened to his people, and find a way, somehow, to keep another war from enveloping the world.


     Slan appeals to young, isolated readers on an instinctual level; here's the superhuman child, misunderstood and feared by his intellectual inferiors, seeking some escape and a refuge for himself and others like him. "Fans are Slans" is the expression for this feeling in the community of SF fandom. But it's not so simple a book; in Slan Van Vogt explores issues of differences and prejudice, of the implications of telepathy on things ranging from security to romance, and at the same time tells a rip-roaring adventure story complete with ludicrous super-science, space battles, devious plots and strategies layered four deep.


     The Silkie, originally a few short stories eventually turned into a single novel-length work, also presents us with a variant of humanity – a theme Van Vogt revisited often. The titular Silkie is a being who has three forms – human, an aquatic form that shares human, fish, and frog features, and one more massive and very inhuman shape for deep space travel. The Silkie introduced a special "way of thinking", which was called the Logic of Levels, and which formed the basis for the main character, Nat Cemp, solving most of his problems. Van Vogt did this kind of thing often – introducing a character who was more rational or who had some specialized philosophical or intellectual tools that allowed him to do specific types of tricks. In this book, Van Vogt also demonstrated that he could play the power inflation game as well as Doc Smith, eventually surpassing the power even of the Skylark series at the end of The Silkie when Nat Cemp combines all the tricks and powers he's gained and realizes he can literally rewrite all of reality.


     The special "way of thinking", while important indeed to The Silkie, was the central and key premise of his Null-A books – The World of Null-A and The Players of Null-A, with Gilbert Gosseyn (pronounced "Go-Sane"), a master of the mind-sharpening discipline of Null-A and possessed of a unique, additional portion of his brain that allowed him to teleport (or "Similarize") himself to any location he had memorized with sufficient accuracy. Gosseyn begins – like Corwin of Amber – devoid of memory of who he really is or what his purpose is, and slowly learns, while he dances between multiple factions who want to use him or steal whatever unique secrets he may have.


     His Isher novels – The Weapon Makers and The Weapon Shops of Isher – present one of the most compelling characters he ever created: Robert Hedrock, the immortal man who is a secret balancing factor between the power of the Empire and the Weapon Shops.


     I could go on for quite a while noting books and short stories of Van Vogt's which were interesting and influential – his seminal work Black Destroyer, the energy-vampire story Asylum, The Monster (aka Resurrection) – but more important is what Van Vogt taught me – and didn't teach me.


     What he didn't teach was rigorous worldbuilding and logical story structure. Van Vogt's stories do not survive careful, critical reading for coherency. They're filled with coincidences, deus-ex-machina, events that just happen because the story demands it. This isn't terribly surprising when you realize that Van Vogt literally wrote from his dreams – he was awakened regularly every night to be sure to write them down. Thus, the result isn't coherent; in fact, he violates many of the most basic rules of story writing and by all rights the result should be unreadable, nothing but dreck.


     But it's not. Van Vogt is, at least for those with the right mindset, compulsively readable. Because what he does – and what he teaches – is that specific events and techniques have power over our imagination. He was, in some ways, a distillation of TVTropes before any computer existed to become the Internet. He knew the images, the turns of events, the fears and hopes that grab us, that resonate with us in very basic ways, and he used those techniques shamelessly. In many ways, he was the Stephen Spielberg of text; Spielberg does the same thing with his careful building of shots and script events to bring you to a sense of wonder or terror, a completely mechanical and predictable thing that still WORKS.


     Van Vogt taught me that timing is everything. You need to look at the sequence of events you're telling, orchestrate the emotional moments just as much as you might analyze the world (for Van Vogt, far more, in fact, but I'm a worldbuilder first), and realize that you have to provide a payoff for reading to the reader. It was often said that he wrote to a structure – a set number of words and then some twist, some climax, an event to keep the reader interested and reading. I don't do that precisely, but the feel of a Van Vogt novel – the sense of inevitable progression toward a goal in a dangerous universe, which only the human (or superhuman) mind can tame, this is something I like and try to achieve in various ways.


     He also taught me horror; "The Sea Thing", "Vault of the Beast", "A Can of Paint", and others, while usually ending well, contained truly frightening imagery and events that showed me how one can sketch fear into words, infuse a sentence with danger and trepidation, and thus create a tension whose release makes the hero or heroine's victory vastly more exciting and rewarding for the reader.


     A. E. Van Vogt remains one of my great inspirations. His worlds made little sense. His plots were convoluted, dreamlike, shaky in most cases. But he knew the power of writing and the sense of wonder as few others ever have. I salute him, take a cortico-thalamic pause, and contemplate the Logic of Levels in his honor.


  1. It would be foolishness on my part to deny being influenced by van Vogt. But I don’t remember reading half the titles you mention, and you don’t mention Space Beagle or War Against the Rull, two of those novels that grew from short stories and my own favorite van Vogts. I’ve heard it said (read it written?) that he was a terrible author but a fantastic storyteller.

    • John Cowan says:

      “Black Destroyer” is the first story (“coeurl!”) in Space Beagle, a series I still think is readable, as are the Weapon Shops stories. Slan, on the other hand, when I reread it a few years ago, struck me as pretty uniformly awful: leaden prose, wooden characters.

  2. I’ve read almost everything you mentioned, and the books Gary mentioned, and thoroughly enjoyed them.

    One thing worth mentioning about Van Vogt was his structures: he’d write a “unit” of a certain number of words, and in that unit he concentrated on getting one thing across. In that, he invariably succeeded. That helped readers to follow his convoluted plots.

    And while many of the ideas were simple and small (the hero of THE BEAST is incredibly strong), others were big and important. But Van Vogt’s highly structured approach to writing kept it all very clear.

  3. I remember reading that Van Voght used to record his own voice on a tape by his bedside connected to a timer that would turn the tape on every couple hours – after he’d entered REM sleep.

    On the tape he’d record himself saying “wake up, wake up” followed by a description of a story he was working on, often up to a point he’d not quite worked out. I wish I could remember where I read this, my apologies for not having the source.

    It just goes to show, A.E. wasn’t just a technobabble guy, he was curious and liked to experiment. I wish I knew more about him biographically, I think I’ll make a not to research him, you’ve got my curiosity re-ignited…

    PS, the method actually works really well; I’d use it more if my spouse didn’t snore.

Your comments or questions welcomed!