Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

Man Beyond Man

The Early Stories of A.E. van Vogt

    The most radical and visionary of the writers of the Golden Age of Astounding, Alfred Elton van Vogt, was born on his grandparents' farm in Manitoba, Canada on April 26, 1912.  At this time, van Vogt's father and three of his uncles were partners in a general store in the village of Neville, Saskatchewan and his father was studying by correspondence to earn a law degree.

    Like Isaac Asimov, who developed a case of double pneumonia at the end of his second year from which it was feared he wouldn't recover, van Vogt had an early brush with death.  When he was two, he fell from a second-floor window onto a wooden sidewalk, knocked himself unconscious, and remained in a coma for three days.

    Van Vogt was like Asimov in another regard -- the original language of this writer-to-be was not English.  Until his mother put her foot down on the matter when Alfred was four, it was a dialect of Dutch that was spoken in the van Vogt household.

    Young Alfred had something of a divided nature.  He was an insatiable reader who for many years devoured two books a day and knew early that he wanted to be a writer when he grew up.  But there were also moments when he was "an extrovert of extraordinary energy" -- as he put it in a 1981 memoir entitled "My Life Was My Best Science Fiction Story."

    Van Vogt was a horseback rider as a youth.  In summers during his teens, he worked as a separator man on a threshing outfit and drove a truck for a combine.  He was a good rifle shot, and even came close to going off on a trapping expedition to northern Canada.

    In later years, van Vogt would look back upon his younger self and try to determine just when it was that the more outgoing part of himself had gotten suppressed.  Did it stem from that traumatic fight with another boy that occurred when he was eight?  Was it the teacher who had caused him to doubt himself for reading fairytales at twelve?  Or was the crucial event when he was 17˝ and killed a snake, and then suffered a revulsion against doing harm to any wild creature?

    Though van Vogt might make guess after guess, he would never be able to pinpoint the exact moment when it happened.  And, in fact, even well into his twenties, when he was an advertising space salesman and writer of interviews for a string of trade papers, van Vogt could still call on some lingering residue of brashness in his character to gain the attention of businessmen and store owners -- as long as no one challenged him.

    The truth of the matter seems to be that van Vogt's withdrawal into himself took place over a considerable period of time.  The beginning of it may lie in the fact that young Alfred was a highly idealistic small town boy with a number of wide-eyed notions about right and truth and justice in his head.  When the world failed to conform to his expectations, he found that a substantial shock.

    Beyond this, it was also true that Alfred was a boy who had something a little strange and left-footed about him.  He didn't think or talk exactly like everyone else, and reaction to this may have had its effect on his developing personality.

    As the Twenties boomed, van Vogt's lawyer father moved his family once and then again, first to the larger town of Morden, Manitoba, and then to the city of Winnipeg, where he became the western Canadian agent of the Holland-American Shipping Lines.

    These moves were very difficult for van Vogt.  He would recall:  "Childhood was a terrible period for me.  I was like a ship without anchor being swept along through darkness in a storm.  Again and again I sought shelter, only to be forced out of it by something new."

    Morden was twice as large as Neville.  It was a conservative community with a predominantly English population, and here van Vogt was made aware that Canada was British but that he was not.

    Winnipeg was even more trying.  It was a city of 250,000 -- two hundred times the size of Morden -- and Alfred felt lost there.  He quickly fell behind in school "in the five subjects that you just can't catch up on easily: algebra, geometry, Latin grammar, Latin literature, and one other that I can't recall."  In consequence, he was asked to repeat the tenth grade.

    The broader horizons offered by science fiction -- still not yet called this -- were one answer he found to his difficulties.  He came across SF first in Morden at the age of eleven in a British boys' magazine called Chum, the yearly collected volume of which he contrived to borrow for a dime from another boy who soon became his best friend.

    Then, in Winnipeg, in his dark days of failure in school, he discovered the November 1926 issue of Amazing Stories on a newsstand and recognized it as what he was seeking.  During the next three years -- until Hugo Gernsback lost control of the magazine and it came under the more conservative editorial direction of ancient T. O'Conor Sloane -- van Vogt would read Amazing assiduously, seeking signs of another and higher order of being than that which was to be found in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the late 1920s.  As van Vogt would eventually come to express it:

    Reading science fiction lifted me out of the do-be-and-have world and gave me glimpses backward and forward into the time and space distances of the universe.  I may live only three seconds (so to speak), but I have had the pleasure and excitement of contemplating the beginning and end of existence.  Short of being immortal physically, I have vicariously experienced just about everything that man can conceive will happen by reading science fiction.
    If Amazing had defects and limitations, this wasn't apparent to young Alfred.  What he saw in the pioneer magazine of science fiction was the wonders of man's progress-to-come, and his imagination was fired by one grand new concept after another: "ESP; trans-light speeds; exploration of space; the infinitely small turning out to be another universe; new super-energy sources; instant education; the long journey; shape changing; vision at a distance; time travel; gravity minimization; taking over another body; etc."

    A considerable impression would be made on van Vogt by E.E. Smith's The Skylark of Space, of course.  But the writer in Amazing who had the most to say to him was A. Merritt.

    When Gernsback left the magazine, the youngster couldn't help but notice the change.  Amazing lost the magic it had held for him and became dull.  Consequently, in 1930, in one of the utterly abrupt transitions that were to become typical of his conduct of life, van Vogt put science fiction aside.

    He wouldn't look at SF again for more than eight years, until, just as abruptly, he was ready to begin to write it.  In the meantime, however, he had a great deal of self-preparation to do.

    Lack of spare cash was one reason for his ceasing to buy science fiction magazines.  The stock market crash of 1929 took place at the beginning of van Vogt's last year in high school.  Before that school year was over, van Vogt's father had lost his shipping-lines job and it was apparent there wouldn't be sufficient money available for Alfred to go to college.  Although in later life, van Vogt would sit in on college courses in many subjects from economics to acting, this was to be the end of his formal education.

    For the next six months, he hid out in his bedroom and wondered what to do with himself.  Mostly he continued to read.  He read hot pulp fiction -- historical romances, mysteries and Westerns.  He read serious turn-of-the-century British fiction and Nineteenth Century French novels.  He read history and psychology.  And he also read books of science.

    The science that interested van Vogt the most was not familiar Newtonian science.  It seems possible that the unrecallable essential subject he flunked in tenth grade, along with Latin and math, just might have been chemistry or physics.  Unlike his contemporaries, John Campbell and Robert Heinlein, van Vogt hadn't spent his youth building radios or carrying out a search for a better way to blow up the basement.  There was never much likelihood that he would grow up to become an aeronautical engineer like L. Sprague de Camp or a biochemist like Isaac Asimov.

    The science that van Vogt did care about was the new wider science of atoms and galaxies.  But even here, what interested him was not the details, but rather concepts and overviews -- the philosophy and meaning of science.  And so it was only natural that he would find his way to the writings of Arthur Eddington, James Jeans and J.B.S. Haldane.

    However, the book that had the greatest influence on the formation of his thinking may have been Alfred North Whitehead's Science and the Modern World (1925).  At one time or another, this pioneering work of post-materialistic philosophy passed through the hands of most of the youngsters who would grow up to become the science fiction writers of Campbell's Golden Age.  But it was van Vogt alone amongst them who would be able to take insights derived from this difficult little book and make them the basis for his SF writing.

    Until the year preceding the publication of Science and the Modern World, Alfred North Whitehead's career had been spent as a mathematician, first for twenty-five years at Trinity College, Cambridge, and then, from 1911, at the University of London.  Whitehead had been Bertrand Russell's teacher and then his collaborator on the Principia Mathematica (1910-13), a heroic three-volume attempt to reduce all mathematics to logic.

    In his brilliant 1931 metamathematical paper, "On Formally Undecidable Propositions," the German Kurt Gödel had demonstrated that it was impossible for either the Principia Mathematica or any like system to be self-consistent and complete.  Certain statements must necessarily be admitted as true that the system itself was incapable of either proving or disproving.

    Even before the publication of Gödel's paper, however, Alfred North Whitehead himself had already come to perceive the inadequacy of his and Russell's monumental effort.  In fact, Whitehead had been led by his understanding of mathematics, of the new quantum physics, and of physiology and psychology to doubt the sufficiency of the entire modern scientific philosophy.

    He would object:  "We are content with superficial orderings from diverse arbitrary starting points."  And, with disarming gentleness, he would further inquire: "Is it not possible that the standardized concepts of science are only valid within narrow limitations, perhaps too narrow for science itself?"

    So it was that in 1924, at the advanced age of 63, Whitehead traveled across the Atlantic to join the faculty of Harvard University as a professor of philosophy.  And the first fruit of this new career was Science and the Modern World, based in the main on eight Lowell Lectures that he delivered in 1925.

    Two complementary lines of argument were to be found intertwined in this remarkable book.  In one, Whitehead reviewed the entire history of Western objection and exception to scientific materialism:  The philosophical arguments that had been raised against it at the outset of the modern Western scientific adventure, during the Age of Reason.  The experiential objections -- often phrased in poetic terms -- of the Romantic Era.  And finally, the problems that had been recently raised for scientific materialism by the strange new science of the later Age of Technology.

    And meanwhile, in his other, concurrent line of argument, Whitehead sketched out a basis for an alternative post-materialistic philosophy -- "a system of thought basing nature upon the concept of organism and not upon the concept of matter."

    As Whitehead would draw the distinction:

    The materialistic starting point is from independently existing substances, matter and mind.  The matter suffers modifications of its external relations of locomotion, and the mind suffers modifications of its contemplated objects.  There are, in this materialistic theory, two sorts of independent substances, each qualified by their appropriate passions.
    The organic starting point is from the analysis of process as the realisation of events disposed in an interlocked community.  The event is the unit of things real.
    Following the arguments that Whitehead was setting forth in Science and the Modern World was not at all easy.  His presentation was intricate, wide-ranging, dense and elusive, as though Whitehead himself wasn't always completely sure just what it was he was attempting to say.

    In the course of his discussion, Whitehead would draw a contrast between thinkers who are clear, yet limited, and thinkers who are muddled, but fruitful.  Beyond question, he himself was a thinker of the second sort.  In consequence, following out the nuances and implications of Alfred North Whitehead's arguments and attempting to determine exactly what they meant would remain something of a challenge even for professional students of philosophy.

    It was little wonder, then, that van Vogt's contemporaries -- the other boys who would grow up to write the science fiction of the Golden Age -- should largely find Science and the Modern World unintelligible.  Or that in the places where these earnest young scientists of the basement could comprehend Whitehead -- as in his repudiation of scientific materialism -- they would not be prepared to accept and follow him.

    However, it would be quite otherwise with van Vogt, in large part precisely because he was not a professional student of philosophy, and neither did he have any special allegiance to the given assumptions of Western science.  He was just an out-of-step kid from farther Canada who above all things desired to broaden his mental horizons and was ready to take his ideas wherever he could find them.

    For van Vogt, reading Science and the Modern World provided him with exactly what he was seeking.  From out of the general murk of Whitehead's argumentation, certain key remarks leaped forth to speak directly to him.

    As one example, there was this:

    My theory involves the entire abandonment of the notion that simple location is the primary way in which things are involved in space-time.  In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times.  For every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location.  Thus every spatio-temporal standpoint mirrors the world.
    What a mind-boggling suggestion this was -- that everything is everywhere at all times, so that each and every standpoint to some extent mirrors all that exists!  Now that was food for thought.

    So was this:

    If organisms are to survive, they must work together.  Any physical object which by its influence deteriorates its environment, commits suicide.
    And this:
    Successful organisms modify their environment.  Those organisms are successful which modify their environments so as to assist each other.
    It mattered little to van Vogt that he might not be picking up every last detail of Whitehead's reasoning.  What did matter was that he grasped the whole:  In place of a universe of constantly competing particles effectively going nowhere, Whitehead was offering the alternative vision of an organic and interconnected universe evolving through creativeness and cooperation.

    Thinking such as this -- neither spiritual nor materialistic, but holistic, organic, environmental and evolutionary -- was a genuine rarity in the Twenties.  But the young Alfred van Vogt found it highly appealing and took to it eagerly.

    The extraordinary ideas that he stumbled upon in Science and the Modern World would linger in the back of his mind.  Eventually, after they had incubated long enough and become his own, they would emerge again as the philosophical basis for the science fiction van Vogt would write for John Campbell's Astounding.  And the fundamental difference distinguishing his stories from the Golden Age SF produced by all the writers who still remained card-carrying scientific materialists would be van Vogt's Whitehead-inspired post-materialistic sense of a universe of interconnected organisms evolving together.

    As the months that followed high school wore on, it became clear that there was a limit to the length of time that young Alfred could go on burying himself in his books and insisting to everyone that he was a writer even though he had never written anything.  Early in 1931, van Vogt took a Civil Service examination, was offered a temporary government job, and accepted it.  He traveled east to Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, where he would spend ten highly formative months as a clerk tabulating the Canadian census.

    Van Vogt's imagination was captured by the holistic quality of the census, with its populations of information to be examined first from this angle and then from that.  One result of this fascination would be that in years to come, when a Doc Smith was still describing the thinking machine of tomorrow as no more than a gigantic card sorter, and a Robert Heinlein had gotten no further than to conceive of a ponderous and unreliable "ballistic calculator" used for the single specialized purpose of working out spaceship rocket burn requirements, A.E. van Vogt would be envisioning the computer of the future as an information machine capable of containing a quadrillion facts all cross-referenced by names, dates and key words, and available to an inquirer at the touch of a button.

    Another thing that would stick in van Vogt's imagination from his sojourn in Ottawa -- and eventually find expression in his SF stories -- would be a powerful secret that he was let in on by his boardinghouse roommate, a young man who had recently been brought over to Canada from Scotland.  He informed Alfred that his flag-waving neighbors back in Morden, Manitoba had had it all wrong:  the English didn't rule the British Empire at all; they only thought they did.  The actual covert masters of empire were the Scotch, taking their revenge for the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden.  And just as soon as the roommate had earned his college degree, he expected to assume the place that was being held for him behind the scenes in the Canadian government.

    Since van Vogt enjoyed no comparable secret support from well-placed Dutch-Canadian cabalists, he had no alternative but to catch a freight train back to Winnipeg when the work of compiling the 1931 census was over.  But during his time in Ottawa, he'd made a serious start toward learning how to become the writer he was already claiming to be.  From the Palmer Institute of Authorship, he took a correspondence course in "English and Self-Expression."  The long-term consequence of this course would be to set him thinking about the possible subliminal effects of particular sounds and unorthodox word selections.

    Then, back home in Winnipeg, he took out of the library Thomas Uzzell's Narrative Technique and two highly useful books by John Gallishaw, The Only Two Ways to Write a Story and Twenty Problems of the Short-Story Writer -- precisely the manuals of instruction that a young Jack Williamson, newly dropped out of college to become a full-time writer, was choosing to study at about this same time.  From Gallishaw, van Vogt learned the necessity of writing sentences that conveyed either emotion, imagery or suspense, and how to break a story down into a series of short scenes, each with its own distinct purpose.  From Uzzell, he took the idea that a story should make a unified impact upon the reader.

    At last, after all this study, the 20-year-old van Vogt felt ready to try writing a story of his own.  But what kind of story should it be?

    He didn't read confession magazines himself, but van Vogt had noticed that True Story, the top such magazine, had a prize contest in every issue.  So he decided to be audacious and take a shot at that.  He went off to the library, and with Uzzell and Gallishaw backing him at either elbow, he managed to write the first scene of a story.

    What he was attempting seemed chancy to van Vogt.  All the time he was working, he kept waking in the night and going round and round about what was to come next.  But after turning out one scene each day for nine days, he managed to finish a story which he called "I Live in the Streets."  This was about a girl who had run into hard times in the Depression and been thrown out of her rooming house.  It didn't win any prizes, but True Story did buy and publish it.

    During the next three years, from 1932 to 1935, van Vogt had regular success selling simple, emotional, anonymous little stories to the confession magazines, and even won a thousand dollar prize with one.  But then -- as though his inner being had come to the sudden conclusion that if practice was what he had been after in writing these stories, he had had practice enough -- in the middle of another true confession he felt disgusted with himself, threw down his pen, and wrote no more of them.

    But if it was not sufficient to write whatever was easiest to sell, then what was his writing for?  Van Vogt wasn't altogether sure.  In the middle Thirties, he would write trade newspaper interviews, short radio plays, and an occasional short story for a newspaper supplement or a pulp magazine.  He learned from this work, but none of it was completely satisfying.  At the same time, he had been told that he had the ability to write for the slick magazines, but he felt a strong aversion to attempting this which he couldn't altogether explain.

    Because he was a reader, a writer, and a thinker, van Vogt regarded himself as an intellectual.  But if he was an intellectual, it was not of the usual sort.  He wasn't silver-tongued or swift-witted.  He had very little ability to remember a precise fact or an exact niggle, and no talent at all for linear thought and logical analysis.  He was not a conventional man of reason.

    Rather, van Vogt's usual method was to fix on some question or subject in a highly single-minded way -- to surround it and dwell upon it and absorb it.  He might get nowhere with a problem for the longest time, but then at last the penny would drop and some insight would pop into his mind.

    When van Vogt had enough insights accumulated on a topic, they would assemble themselves into what he would come to think of as a system -- a methodology or mode of approach that had its own consistency, if only in the manner in which it was applied by him.  In later days, van Vogt would even take pride in describing himself as "Mr. System."

    The insight that he might write science fiction, and that he should write science fiction, dawned on him in the summer of 1938.  It came with typical suddenness and indirection.  After eight years in which he had not read any science fiction, one day when he was in McKnight's Drug Store in Winnipeg, van Vogt casually picked up the latest issue of Astounding, a magazine he had never paid any attention to before.  He flipped on through to the middle pages, and began to read a story.

    But not just any story:  Amazingly. . . coincidentally. . . significantly. . . perhaps even inevitably. . . the story that he singled out in this apparently completely random fashion was "Who Goes There?" by Don A. Stuart -- the prototypical example of modern science fiction.

    Van Vogt was immediately hooked by the mood and the flavor of what he was reading.  And so he bought the magazine and hurried on home to finish the story he'd started -- to savor it, to linger over it, and to think about it.

    What struck van Vogt most forcibly about "Who Goes There?" wasn't exactly the same thing that would catch the attention of those readers who were still staunch scientific materialists.  All that they would see was the morally neutral message that even a shape-shifting otherworldly monster might be subject to the universal power of human scientific knowledge.  Isaac Asimov, for instance, responding to this very same story, would write his first attempt at modern science fiction -- "Stowaway," or "The Callistan Menace" -- about another threatening alien creature that human beings come to understand scientifically.

    But what van Vogt took from his reading of "Who Goes There?" was something quite a bit different from this.  What intrigued him about this story was its intimation of a cooperative ethic -- a new ordering of value appropriate to the post-materialistic universe he had been turning over and over in his mind since he first read Whitehead.

    That is, van Vogt noticed that those human beings in the Antarctic party of "Who Goes There?" who retained their sanity were able to work together to overcome a creature who on an individual basis was far more powerful than any of them.  And conversely, he saw that the horrific alien, even though it might be both telepathic and originally one being, was not able to join its various parts together to take concerted action.  Indeed, its selfishness and egoism were so complete as to affect even samples of its blood, so that at the threat of a hot wire these would scream and strive to escape, and thereby betray their non-human nature.

    And this all had a rightness for van Vogt.  It seemed to him that in an organic, interconnected universe, cooperation would be a fundamental value, a reflection of the purposes of the whole.  And selfishness would be a fatal ethical defect no matter how outwardly powerful the entity might appear to be.

    "Who Goes There?" altered van Vogt's life.  Just as surely as if someone had seized him by the shoulders and physically realigned him, reading this story turned van Vogt around and pointed him in a new direction.

    In the science fiction stories that he would come to write during the next half-dozen years, van Vogt would work out the answers to a cluster of questions that were first aroused by his reading of "Who Goes There?"

    In an organic universe, wherein does true superiority lie?

    Does might in and of itself make right?

    What connection exists between evolution and altruism?

    And -- his most persistent line of inquiry -- how would a genuinely superior creature behave?  What would it do?  How would it act?  And how would it be perceived by lesser beings?

    For us to say all this, however, is not only to anticipate the direction in which A.E. van Vogt would travel, but to state with some clarity what was not necessarily at all clear to him in the summer of 1938 when he put aside the August Astounding to reach for a sheet of letter paper and an envelope.  It is perfectly possible, perhaps even probable, that he had no explicit memory of Science and the Modern World, or thoughts of post-materialism, or formed convictions about the moral nature of transcendent being in his mind at all.  In the immediate moment, all that he may have known for certain was that he had an urgent idea for an SF story.

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