On and on Coeurl prowled. The black, moonless, almost starless night yielded reluctantly before a grim reddish dawn that crept up from his left. It was a vague light that gave no sense of approaching warmth. It slowly revealed a nightmare landscape.
Jagged black rock and a black, lifeless plain took form around him. A pale red sun peered above the grotesque horizon. Fingers of light probed among the shadows. And still there was no sign of the family of id creatures that he had been trailing now for nearly a hundred days.
A.E. van Vogt is one of the more underrated authors of the Golden Age of science fiction, despite being, as the cover bills him, “to Canadian SF what H.G. Wells is to the British… or Jules Verne to the French.” Certainly, van Vogt has had a major impact on the science fiction and fantasy genres—their popular culture progeny at least—which rivals and even exceeds some of his fellow Golden Age legends. Yet his is not a name which pops up with as much frequency as Asimov or Heinlein or Clarke.
As part of my space opera binge, I picked up and read through his 1950 classic The Voyage of the Space Beagle. This is a tale of enterprising scientists who explore outwards, far from earth, and the strange and menacing entities they bump into. In truth, Voyage is less of a novel and more a mash-up of four of van Vogt’s pulp-era tales, marginally edited to fit together to make a collective whole. As such, I’ll go over them individually.
First comes “Black Destroyer,” the cover story of the July 1939 issue of Astounding, which makes up chapters 1 through 6. The Space Beagle lands on a dead, remote planet, and stumbles upon a massive tentacled cat-creature in the ruins, the lurking Coeurl, who feeds off the Id of the living and wishes to escape this wasted world. We’re also introduced to our protagonist, Elliot Grosvenor, the ship’s only Nexial scientist, and the poor sucker/supergenius whose task is to save the ship from all the alien encounters.
So, what exactly is this new science of Nexialism? Chapter 7 goes into more detail. Nexialism is basically a liberal arts version of science in a world where all scientists narrow-mindedly hold to their area of expertise and that focus only. Chemists only think in terms of chemistry, but with Nexialism, they can also apply principles from mathematics and geology and all the other sciences! Woah. Apparently scientists in the future are a dumb, egotistical lot, because the ship is wracked with infighting and politicking between the scientific disciplines, during all the alien incursions. Note that Vogt doesn’t delve too deeply into what Nexialism is or can do, probably because van Vogt didn’t know; it’s casually referred to as the science of the future, and involves hypnosis and various “techniques” and that’s about it.
Chapters 9 through 12 are made up of “War of Nerves,” the May 1950 issue of Other Worlds magazine. In this section, the ship is beset upon by extraterrestrial bird people, who send psychic waves/telepathy at the ship. The political infighting which had previously remained just beneath the surface breaks out into open war as the various factions struggle for dominance; needless to say, Grosvenor’s hypnosis training saves him from this telepathic confusion, allowing him to save the ship.
The third section brings us “Discord in Scarlet” (chapters 13 through 21), the cover story from the December 1939 issue of Astounding. Here, the ship stumbles across the creature Ixtl floating in space; wishing to study a being capable of living in vacuum, they accidentally allow it onto the ship, where it struggles to take control and lay its eggs… in the chests of the crew. Each successive threat is not only more dangerous, but more interesting; Ixtl is my favorite for its truly overpowering abilities, and the realization of horror in the surviving crew.
The fourth and last section is a modified “M33 in Andromeda,” from the August 1943 issue of Astounding. (As Astounding was the premier SF magazine of the era, it says a lot that van Vogt appeared in it so often.) The ship runs into a galaxy-size consciousness, a malevolent force which feeds off the living and has devoured entire systems. This is all well and good, except that most of the story breaks down into Grosvenor struggling to prevent the being from finding Earth’s location, which involves the unpopular decision to stay around another five years in order to trick the intelligence. So while there’s a planet-destroying consciousness out there, the chapters focus more on the internal power struggles, and Grosvenor using his Nexialist training to overcome the political infighting.
To be honest, van Vogt isn’t a terribly good writer; there’s a good reason why he isn’t a household name, and why he had so many critics—including Damon Knight, Golden Age short story master and founder of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Vogt is much better at creating strange and wondrous situations than he is at writing them, and the solutions are always reliant on Grosvenor and his MacGuffin science. His writing is erratic and points, and his sentence structure and pacing could both bear a lot of improvement. He also likes to skip over the “dull exposition” parts to get to the action, and so the solution is always a surprise, which wears thin very quickly; expect to see a lot like the following:
[...]Korita was leaving as he came up, and Grosvenor fell in beside him. Without preamble, he outlined his problem.
Korita did not reply immediately.
The generalization with old SF is that the authors were either scientists who could write (at least competently), or writers who knew science (or had wild imaginations to make up for it). Vogt twists this analogy: he can write wonderfully fanciful stuff, but has a limited writing scope and lacked a true hand at the craft.
It is actually pretty neat to watch Grosvenor develop as a character, and progress from the ship’s nobody to being recognized as an important figure. Hell, he doesn’t even say anything the first few chapters; every time he is about to speak up, someone else does it for him. At the end, however, he’s forcing the ship to follow his wishes in order to save the human race, because of scientific rivalry and the fact nobody knows what the hell Nexialism is.
Voyage has had is influence on many major science fiction and fantasy works, and many of its elements crop up in popular culture. The main idea, scientists exploring the galaxy and bumping into strange situations they have to overcome every week, may sound familiar because that’s pretty much how the original Star Trek went. Its portrayal of Korita, a Japanese scientist, is noteworthy because the U.S. and Japan were knee-deep in war during most of the years Vogt was writing; this reflects in Roddenberry’s vision, which included a Russian in the midst of the Cold War. In the ’80s anime Dirty Pair, the titular troubleshooters have a pet coeurl, though its portrayal is a lot different. Dungeons & Dragons came much closer with its obviously coeurl-inspired Displacer Beast, something which crops up on the first page of Voyage image googles:
It’s also worth noting that his creature Ixtl is very similar to the Xenomorph from Alien. (In that it terrorizes a starship crew, and implants offspring in people’s chests.) So similar, in fact, that van Vogt sued 20th Century Fox over it, and settled out of court. When Voyage (well, “Discord in Scarlet”) was made into an Eerie comic, the artists made Ixtl into a carbon-copy Xenomorph.
Never mind that the original Ixtl looked a lot like the Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tubeman in front of your local used car dealer:
Van Vogt is a hard author to peg. His writing is seriously flawed; intriguing at his best, tepid at his worst, competent for the most part. He is both an anachronism of the pulp era, as the launch of Sputnik and the Space Race proved his overly fanciful ideas false, but also a product of the changing style of SF, as the focus of Voyage is lock-step in line with Golden Age SF’s dreams of scientific spaceflight. (Possibly why Astounding editor John Campbell bought so much of Vogt’s work, since it deviated quite a ways from Campbellian Golden Age SF.) Even as I condemn his writing, I have to give the man props: his ideas and settings are fascinating, and his influence on the genre is well deserved. It’s a worthy and underrated classic, and a flawed classic, but a classic it remains.
For pulp-era SF, Voyage is not the worst thing I’ve read. The writing isn’t glamorous, but the creativity is top-notch. I’d give it a hesitant recommendation, though probably not to the newcomer: this is a very raw book, and while I’d say it’s worth reading, you should be aware of its failings going in. (Hey, worst-case, you’ll love it and get a pleasant surprise.) It has the pulp thrill and a certain gee-whiz charm, but it can be an agonizing read at points.