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A. E. van Vogt

[van vohkt]

Alfred Elton van Vogt (April 26, 1912 – January 26, 2000) was a Canadian-born science fiction author who was one of the most prolific and complex writers of the mid-twentieth century "Golden Age" of the genre.

Science Fiction's Golden Age

Born on a farm in Edenburg, a Russian Mennonite community east of Gretna, Manitoba, Canada, van Vogt is one of the most popular and highly esteemed writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. After starting his writing career by writing for 'true confession' style pulp magazines like True Story, van Vogt decided to switch to writing something he enjoyed, science fiction.

Van Vogt's first published SF story, "Black Destroyer" (Astounding Science Fiction, July 1939), was inspired by On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. The story depicted a fierce, carnivorous alien stalking the crew of an exploration spaceship. It was the cover story of this issue of Astounding, the issue often described as having ushered in the Golden Age of science fiction. The story became an instant classic and eventually served as the inspiration for a number of science fiction movies. In 1950 it was combined with "War of Nerves" (1950), "Discord in Scarlet" (1939) and "M33 in Andromeda" (1943) to form the novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950).

In 1941 van Vogt decided to become a full time writer, quitting his job at the Canadian Department of National Defence. Extremely prolific for a few years, van Vogt wrote a large number of short stories. In the 1950s, many of them were retrospectively patched together into novels, or "fixups" as he called them, a term which entered the vocabulary of science fiction criticism. Sometimes this was successful (The War against the Rull) while other times the disparate stories thrown together made for a less coherent plot (Quest for the Future).

One of van Vogt's best-known novels of this period is Slan, which was originally serialised in Astounding Science Fiction (September - December 1940). Using what became one of van Vogt's recurring themes, it told the story of a 9-year-old superman living in a world in which his kind are slain by Homo sapiens.

A sequel, Slan Hunter, was prepared by his widow, Lydia van Vogt, and Kevin J. Anderson, starting from an incomplete draft and outline left by the late van Vogt. It was released July 10, 2007 (ISBN 978-0765316752). Lydia van Vogt had already given permission to publish her introduction online.

Post-war philosophy

In 1944, van Vogt moved to Hollywood, California, where his writing took on new dimensions after World War II. Van Vogt was always interested in the idea of all-encompassing systems of knowledge (akin to modern meta-systems), the characters in his very first story used a system called 'Nexialism' to analyze the alien's behaviour, and he became interested in the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski.

He was also profoundly affected by revelations of totalitarian police states that emerged after World War II. He wrote a mainstream novel that was set in Communist China, The Violent Man (1962); he said that to research this book he had read 100 books about China. Into this book he incorporated his view of "the violent male type", which he described as a "man who had to be right", a man who "instantly attracts women" and who he said were the men who "run the world".

He subsequently wrote three novels merging these overarching themes, The World of Null-A and The Pawns of Null-A in the late 1940s, and Null-A Three in the early 1980s. Null-A, or non-Aristotelian logic, refers to the capacity for, and practice of, using intuitive, inductive reasoning (compare fuzzy logic), rather than reflexive, or conditioned, deductive logic.

Van Vogt systematized his writing method, using scenes of 800 words or so where a new complication was added or something resolved. Several of his stories hinge upon temporal conundra, a favorite theme. He stated that he acquired many of his writing techniques from three books, "Narrative Technique" by Thomas Uzzell, and "The Only Two Ways to Write a Story" plus "Twenty Problems of the Short-Story Writer", both by John Gallishaw.

He said many of his ideas came from dreams, and indeed his stories at times had the incoherence of dreams, but at their best, as in the science fantasy novel The Book of Ptath, his works had all the vision and power a dream can impart. Throughout his writing life he arranged to be awakened every 90 minutes during his sleep period so he could write down his dreams.

In the 1950s, van Vogt briefly became involved in L. Ron Hubbard's projects. Van Vogt operated a storefront for Dianetics, the secular precursor to Hubbard's Church of Scientology, in the Los Angeles area for a time, before winding up at odds with Hubbard and his methods. His writing more or less stopped for some years, a period in which he bitterly claimed to have been harassed and intimidated by Hubbard's followers. In this period he was limited to collecting old short stories to form notable fixups like: The Mixed Men (1952), The War Against the Rull (1959), The Beast (1963) and the two novels of the "Linn" cyle, which were inspired (like Asimov's Foundation series) by the fall of the Roman Empire. He resumed writing again in the 1960s, mainly at Frederik Pohl's invitation, while remaining in Hollywood with his second wife, Lydia Bereginsky, who cared for him through his declining years. In this later period, his novels were conceived and written as unitary works. On January 26, 2000, van Vogt died in Los Angeles, USA from Alzheimer's disease.

Recognition

In 1946, van Vogt and his first wife, Edna Mayne Hull, were co-Guests of Honor at the fourth World Science Fiction Convention.

In 1980, van Vogt received a "Casper Award" (precursor to the Canadian Aurora Awards) for Lifetime Achievement. In 1995 he was awarded the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America. In 1996, van Vogt was recognized on two occasions: the World Science Fiction Convention presented him with a Special Award for six decades of golden age science fiction, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame included him among its initial four inductees.

Critical praise

Fellow science fiction author Philip K. Dick has said that van Vogt's stories spurred his interest in science fiction with their strange sense of the unexplained, that something more was going on than the protagonists realized.

In a review of Transfinite: The Essential A.E. van Vogt, science fiction writer Paul Di Filippo said:

Van Vogt knew precisely what he was doing in all areas of his fiction writing. There's hardly a wasted word in his stories... His plots are marvels of interlocking pieces, often ending in real surprises and shocks, genuine paradigm shifts, which are among the hardest conceptions to depict. And the intellectual material of his fictions, the conceits and tossed-off observations on culture and human and alien behavior, reflect a probing mind...Each tale contains a new angle, a unique slant, that makes it stand out.
(DiFilippo, Paul, (2003) Off The Shelf, Retrieved January 9, 2003).

In The John W. Campbell Letters, Campbell says:

The son-of-a-gun gets hold of you in the first paragraph, ties a knot around you, and keeps it tied in every paragraph thereafter -- including the ultimate last one.

Harlan Ellison (who began reading van Vogt as a teenager) wrote:

Van was the first writer to shine light on the restricted ways in which I had been taught to view the universe and the human condition.

Criticism

Writer and critic Damon Knight wrote in 1945 that "van Vogt is not a giant as often maintained. He's only a pygmy using a giant typewriter".

Most science fiction/space opera authors in van Vogt's day did not strive to be absolutely flawless scientifically, preferring storytelling over accuracy. Despite this, van Vogt has been singled out by some critics for it. Examples:

  • In Cosmic Encounter, one result of the crash of an alien spaceship is the generation of a temperature of minus 50,000 degrees, well below absolute zero (although negative absolute temperatures -- which are hotter than positive absolute temperatures -- can exist in specialized circumstances).
  • The title of his story collection M33 in Andromeda is incorrect: M33 is in Triangulum; M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, is in Andromeda.
  • The popular short story Vault of the Beast hinges on the concept of the largest prime number; it was demonstrated as far back as ancient Greece that the series of primes is infinite and thus that there is no largest prime number.

Notable quotes

Concerning Theodore Sturgeon's death, van Vogt commented: "Sturgeon had accepted the idea of dying. I thought: 'Well, I presume that when my time comes, it will also happen to me.' Because, we recognize that there is an end to human life. Now, it is my intention to postpone this moment as long as possible. But, I have only modern science to help me and they're not that busy..."

Bibliography

Novels

(dates given are the dates of the first publication in book form)

Collections

  • Out of the Unknown (1948) (with Edna Mayne Hull)
  • Masters of Time (1950)
  • Away and Beyond (1952)
  • The Mixed Men (1952) also published as Mission to the Stars
  • Destination: Universe! (1952)
  • The Far-Out Worlds of A. E. van Vogt (1956)
  • Monsters (1965)
  • The Van Vogt Omnibus (omnibus - 1967)
  • The Sea Thing and Other Stories (1970)
  • M33 in Andromeda (1971)
  • The Proxy Intelligence and Other Mind Benders (1971) revised as The Gryb (1976) (with Edna Mayne Hull)
  • The Van Vogt Omnibus 2 (omnibus - 1971)
  • The Book of Van Vogt (1972) also published as Lost: Fifty Suns (1979)
  • Far Out Worlds of Van Vogt (1973)
  • The Three Eyes of Evil Including Earth's Last Fortress (1973)
  • The Best of A. E. van Vogt (1974)
  • ''The Worlds of A. E. van Vogt (1974)
  • Pendulum (1978)
  • Futures Past: The Best Short Fiction of A.E. Van Vogt (1999)
  • Essential A.E. van Vogt (2002)
  • Transgalactic (2006)

Non-fiction

  • The Hypnotism Handbook (1956, Griffin Publishing Company, with Charles Edward Cooke)
  • The Money Personality (1972, Parker Publishing Company Inc, West Nyack, NJ, ISBN 0-13-600676-0)
  • Reflections of A. E. Van Vogt: The Autobiography of a Science Fiction Giant (1979, Fictioneer Books Ltd, Lakemont, GA)
  • A Report on the Violent Male (1992, Paupers' Press, UK, ISBN 0-946650-40-3)

References

External links

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