Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Far-Out Worlds of A.E. Van Vogt

A.E. Van Vogt
Completed 5/25/2015, Reviewed 5/30/2015
3 stars

As I say at the beginning of all my short story collection readings, I don’t really know how to review them.  There’s usually stories I like, some I don’t, so I just give a summary of a few I liked and try to elaborate on them.  This collection is no different.  I’ve never read any Van Vogt before though he’s one of the Grand Masters of SF, as awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. It seems like the short story is the best medium for lot of the writers from the golden age of SF.  So when I found this collection at a used bookstore on the coast, I thought I’d give him a try.  And like most golden age writers, I found it pretty good. 

My favorite story was “The Purpose”.  Virginia is a journalist who happens upon the Futurian Scientific Laboratories:  Neurological and Organicological Research.  Finding that nobody seems to know anything about this storefront in her town, she decides to investigate.  Soon she disappears with a woman who walks through walls.  Upon realizing she’s missing, her distraught husband begins investigating the company himself, finding a horrific organ transplant conspiracy that’s intent on taking over the world.  When it was written, organ transplants were still science fiction, although they were probably on the horizon.  Van Vogt took the concept and ran in fascinating directions with it, bridging the fiction gap in a suspenseful way.  It’s like a variation on the college student spends spring break in a foreign country and after a night of raucous behavior, wakes to find himself missing a kidney.  I also liked the fact that though it was written in 1945, the journalist and her abductor are women.  Though they’re not exactly the main characters, they have a pretty large part in the story and aren’t simply stereotypically portrayed. 

“Ship of Darkness” is an odd time-travelling tale of a man who comes upon what seems to be the human race evolved to 3 million A.D.  At first he’s confounded by the people, but slowly works into trying to communicate with them.  Then there’s a great twist at the end.  The story was a little tough to read, but that was best part of it, seeing these people, trying to figure out who they were, what they were doing, and how to communicate with them.  The prose is not great, but where he goes with it is very interesting.  It read a little like Arthur C. Clarke: gazing in wonder at some scientific marvel and then trying to do something with it. 

Two other stories really stood out with their similar themes.  “The Replicators” is a wonderful exploration of xenophobia through an alien encounter.  It’s been done numerous times, but it grabbed me with the revelation of the purpose of the alien’s visit.  “The First Martian” explores racism in the workplace when the whites-dominated train and mining industry on Mars begins bringing in Andean natives to work without spacesuits in the thin Martian atmosphere.  So yeah, the science is dated, but the message is great and pretty well executed.

Though I liked these stories, none were really outstanding.  That’s been my experience with a lot of the golden age authors.  I think what makes them stand out is simply that they were writing about scientific wonders prolifically.  Some of the better ones like Van Vogt were commenting or at least reflecting on the problems of their times within the fantastical worlds they created.  Unfortunately, I think I’ll always compare these writers to Ray Bradbury, who will probably always be my favorite golden age short story writer.  I think it will almost always be difficult to read sixty to seventy year old SF work because the genre has evolved beyond the “Amazing Story”.  But I‘ll continue to read the classic authors to experience the foundation from which our current body of work evolved.  I give this three out of five stars, but I prefer to think of it as another good sojourn into the history of my favorite genre.  

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