Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder
Of the thousand questions that might be asked about the novel, van Vogt himself would attempt to address perhaps fifty or a hundred in the revised second hardcover edition of Slan -- but with mixed results. Some matters for doubt, like that anomalous Studebaker, could be tidied up easily enough with the help of an eraser. But the effect of some of the other changes that van Vogt made would just be to swap one question for another.
The truth is that the essence of Slan did not lie in logic and reason, and no amount of tidying could ever be enough to make this story add up neatly and consistently. It might even be argued that the unintended result of those 1951 revisions aiming to make Slan more reasonable was actually to diminish some of the irrational power of the original serial novel.
In either version, however, the fundamental non-rationality of this story can't be emphasized strongly enough. In fact, if there is any obvious defect in our brief account of Slan, it is that by the very act of compressing and summarizing the story line, we have necessarily made the novel appear a good deal more transparent and coherent than the unsuspecting reader is likely to find it.
In Slan, things operate according to the dictates of dream logic. Characters gifted with unaccountable knowledge, and equally unaccountable ignorance, suddenly loom into view, only to disappear again just as abruptly. Anything that seems fixed -- like a date, or an attitude, or an identity -- may alter without warning and become something other than it was before. In this story, coincidences, unlikelihoods and radical transitions abound -- but as within a dream, this just seems the way that things naturally ought to happen.
Far more even than we've managed to indicate, van Vogt's future world is filled with secret passageways, underground hideouts, caves, catacombs and tunnels. Here it seems perfectly normal for a spaceship to be parked within a building or underneath a flowing river, or for someone to leap down a rabbit hole two miles deep, and then rise again. The world of tomorrow and the labyrinths of the mind become one and the same place in Slan.
The Golden Age Astounding had plenty of writers who were prepared to be rational, plausible and responsible in what they imagined. But it had only one A.E. van Vogt, a writer convinced that he could be most true to the real underlying actualities of existence if he gave control of what he wrote to his non-rational mind and allowed it to go wherever it wished to go and say whatever it pleased to say.
In placing his unconscious in charge of his storytelling this way, van Vogt took the risk that it might blurt out something outrageous or paranoid or sexual or stupid. And, indeed, his stories were capable of being any or all of these things. However, there was one great redeeming virtue to his method, and this was that again and again van Vogt was able to evoke vistas of transcendent possibility and human becoming in his stories such as no other SF writer of his era could begin to equal.
To be sure, among the readers of the Campbell Astounding there would be some who were too rational-minded to swallow van Vogt. They couldn't bring themselves to cast aside all logic and common sense to read him in the uncritical fashion in which he had to be read in order to be effective. Not only would the cheering that greeted Slan be baffling and annoying to these logicians, but the exasperation they felt would only increase as time passed and van Vogt just continued to persist in his perversely left-handed approach to science fiction writing.
When Slan was serialized in the fall of 1940, however, most of the readers of Astounding found themselves swept up by the hurtling power of van Vogt's narrative. And so exhilarating would they find the breathless motion of the story and the constant changes they were given to experience that they wouldn't be able to bring themselves to stop and worry about whether or not it all happened to be making strict logical sense.
After the roller coaster ride was over and the concluding emotional glow of Jommy and Kathleen rediscovering each other had faded, these wide-eyed readers might not be able to say where they had been, or how it was that van Vogt had worked his special magic. But they would be certain that Slan had somehow managed to reach right into their minds and stir their imagination in ways they couldn't begin to utter or explain.
We might recall that John Campbell had told van Vogt at the outset that it would take a superman to write a story from the viewpoint of a superman. And, of course, A.E. van Vogt himself was no superman -- at least, not in the old absolute Techno Age sense of the word. But then, it wasn't actually necessary that he should be a perfected being. It was enough that he had a grasp of emerging post-materialistic thinking at a time when others did not.
In something of the same way in which Jommy Cross was a relatively superior human being, able to do what the ordinary person could not do, so may we see van Vogt as a relatively superior SF writer, able to imagine what the ordinary science fiction writer of 1940 could not imagine.
SF writers throughout the modern scientific era, starting with Jules Verne, had always divided existence into two parts -- an area of securely known things and another area of unknownness. But van Vogt no longer observed this distinction between here and out there, between the Village and the World Beyond the Hill. To his way of thinking, knowledge and mystery were inextricably intertwined in all times and places.
As van Vogt saw it, so great was the imperfection of our perception and thought that even the here-and-now was all but a total mystery to us. At the same time, however, the farthest star and the most remote moment were part of the same ultimate Unity as we, and consequently in some sense might be knowable by us.
This new construction of things allowed van Vogt to operate freely and easily in mental and physical territory that was too far out for his more conventional colleagues. And it also allowed him to imagine utter strangeness close at hand where ordinary perception would never expect to find it.
To an audience that was still struggling to come to terms with materialism and the apparently accidental and meaningless nature of existence, van Vogt's new perspective seemed mysterious and elusive. It permitted him to come at his readers from impossible directions and to show them marvels completely beyond their ability to anticipate.
Even John Campbell was captivated, charmed and awed by the sheer inexplicability of A. E. van Vogt. Shaking his head in wonder, Campbell would say, "That son of a gun is about one-half mystic, and like many another mystic, hits on ideas that are sound, without having any rational method of arriving at them or defending them."
However, nearly fifty years after the original serialization of Slan, with the advantages lent to us by hindsight, by the changes that have taken place in thinking patterns during the intervening time, and by van Vogt's own self-explanations, we don't need to be quite as baffled or as hypnotized by the story as readers were in 1940. We can see that what was present in Slan to be taken away by a reader -- whether consciously or not -- was precisely those elements that van Vogt had labored so long and so hard to put into his story in the first place: Names of significance. A sense of the mutability of things. Sudden emotional and intellectual recognitions. Patterns and relationships. Awareness of the whole.
In Slan, far more explicitly than in van Vogt's subsequent stories, the names chosen for key characters were emblematic of their roles. The slan-hating secret police chief was Petty. The ambiguously regarded dictator of Earth was Gray. And the name of the young protagonist -- J.C./Cross -- was a sign to the reader that this particular superman, at least, was no cold, ruthless amoralist, but someone striving to be decent and noble and good.
As we've seen, a sense that things move and change was central to Slan. Perhaps as much as Robert Heinlein, another SF writer who had been brought in childhood from a small town to the big city, van Vogt was convinced that things must change and do change. But van Vogt's mode of expression of this crucial insight was completely different from Heinlein's, and, in its way, was far more subtle.
Heinlein, the engineer, student of math, and compulsive keeper of clipping files, envisioned change in terms of permutations and combinations of existing and potential factors. Through his keen powers of analysis, his encyclopedic knowledge, and his ability to combine and permute elements in an almost algebraic way, Heinlein was able to imagine modes of thinking and states of social possibility that were not the same as our own: future societies variously organized around a charismatic religious dictator, or moving roadways, or even the laws of magic.
But A.E. van Vogt, the systematic intuitionist, had little or none of Heinlein's special gift for observing change, considering it intellectually, and then portraying it in objectified terms. Instead, he sensed change as a kind of kinetic force, and that would be the way in which he would represent it.
By making his stories up as he went along, by constructing them as a series of individual scenes, each of which had its own purpose, and by allowing dream flashes to constantly alter the direction of his narrative, van Vogt wove change into the very fabric of what he wrote. A story like Slan didn't discuss the dynamics of change. It didn't depict the effects of change. It just kept changing and changing.
The result of this variance in expression was that from Heinlein's 1940 stories like " 'If This Goes On--' " and "The Roads Must Roll," a reader could anticipate the intellectual convictions that Heinlein would express directly in his 1941 guest-of-honor speech, "The Discovery of the Future." Heinlein's stories said quite clearly that the society of tomorrow would necessarily be different from the society of today, and that consequently the man of knowledge and competence would be well-advised to make himself ready for change to come.
But the reader of van Vogt wouldn't be invited to think about change so much as to experience it. And he would put Slan down not just intellectually convinced that change was a potential of the future, but with a gut feeling that change was an immanent aspect of existence, something that might occur within the context of any given instant.
Likewise embedded in the structure of van Vogt's novel would be his conviction -- based upon his own experience -- that understanding comes as the result of sudden accesses of insight. Not only would there be recognition scene upon recognition scene in Slan, but also instance after instance where Jommy suddenly arrives at some answer or conclusion on the basis of what would seem to be insufficient evidence or no evidence at all, but then proves to be correct.
There would be no discussion of this in the novel, and no lingering upon it when it occurs. Rather, Jommy just knows something, the story moves on, and yes, indeed, what Jommy thinks he knows is actually the way things turn out to be.
We can, of course, recognize this as exactly the same ability that van Vogt himself had for hitting upon sound ideas without having any rational method of arriving at them or defending them. To Campbell, this talent in van Vogt would appear half-mystical -- but that would not be the way the writer would see it. For him, as for many others in his generation, "mystic" was something of a dirty word, an epithet indicating spiritualistic woolly-mindedness. And, most definitely, van Vogt was not a spiritualist of any kind.
A more acceptable explanation would be that van Vogt was an organic holist, a pattern-perceiver, and so was his character, Jommy Cross. And it was their respective abilities to read patterns as wholes that would allow each of them to arrive at sound conclusions that could not be logically demonstrated or defended.
Here is van Vogt on his own thinking processes:For years I may mentally stare at something that has aroused my interest, and, in a manner of speaking shake my head the entire time. This means that, for me, the pieces do not seem to be falling into a coherent shape. Years later, I'm still looking, still patiently waiting for the insight that will bring it into focus. Suddenly -- and I do mean suddenly -- the pattern flashes into view.Similarly, within Slan, the achievement of holistic perception would be Jommy's most important mental attainment during the seven years from age 19 to age 26. In this new state, he is able to be aware of his surroundings as a whole. Nothing significant escapes him. As van Vogt-the-narrator describes Jommy's new condition of mind: "Details penetrated, a hard, bright pattern formed where a few years before there would have been, even for himself, a blur."
One example of such a pattern falling into place in Slan might be Jommy's sudden realization that Kier Gray, leader of the humans of Earth and the archenemy of all tendrilled slans, is in actuality himself a true slan. Here, to be sure, is an unusual relationship: what at first seem to be separate contending parties, which ultimately prove to have common leadership.
What is more, variations upon this situation would appear in one early van Vogt novel after another. What ever should we make of that?
Van Vogt's first serious critic -- a young fan named Damon Knight, who in time would himself become an SF writer and editor of note -- would single out this recurrent relationship as a major flaw in van Vogt's work. He would characterize the situation as "the leader of the Left is also the leader of the Right" and condemn it as a plot device of "utter and imbecilic pointlessness."
And, admittedly, so it might very well seem to a sober, rational, rule-abiding person of democratic convictions, certain that in any contention between parties the apparent issues must in fact be the real issues and one side more correct than the other.
As we cannot help being aware, however, Twentieth Century history has not been altogether devoid of examples of political parties which were infiltrated and subverted by their rivals, or of revolutionary leaders who turned out to be secret police agents as well. To a person of this cast of mind -- authoritarian and conspiratorial, contemptuous of rules and hungry for the exercise of power -- the situation presented by van Vogt might not appear quite so stupid or pointless as it did to young Damon Knight writing his criticism in 1945.
And certainly there are some grounds for thinking that Kier Gray might be just this kind of man. He is a dictator over ordinary human beings. His arrival to power came via devious means, and to retain his grip he shows himself perfectly ready to plot, conspire, misrepresent, threaten and even kill. And there is no doubt that he does anticipate a coming day when ordinary men are gone from the face of the Earth and true slans are all that exist. Given a person this ruthless and cunning, it seems possible that he might not care particularly about nominal distinctions like Left and Right, or trouble himself overly about the illusory issues pursued by people who know less than he does. To someone like Kier Gray, it might very well be the separate contending parties that seem stupid and pointless, and not his ultimate power over both.
Now, admittedly, a Kier Gray who was this kind of man would be a megalomaniac, fully as crazy, suspicious and dangerous as the Adolf Hitler with whom van Vogt's country was currently at war. Nonetheless, there would be sufficient basis for this kind of reading of van Vogt's stories that the writer himself would develop his own measure of concern with the question. He would wonder about the compulsion he felt to write again and again about the emergent superman, and say, "I had become aware of all the things I'd done that were somewhat on the paranoid, the schizophrenic side."
To make completely certain that he had a clear grasp of the difference between a genuinely superior man and the kind of unbalanced, self-justifying, and violent human male who becomes a Hitler or Stalin, van Vogt would undertake a systematic study of this aberrated type of person and eventually write a realistic contemporary novel, The Violent Man (1962), on the subject.
However, it isn't necessary for us to take Kier Gray as a player of pointless games. And neither do we have to interpret him as a power-seeker with a twisted psyche. A third and better reading of him and his dual leadership of man and slan is possible. And this is that Kier Gray is a genuine caretaker with a concern for things as a whole.
There is no doubt that Kier Gray can be coolly pragmatic and even sometimes outright ruthless. In the interest of making the transition from man to slan as untraumatic as possible, Gray shows himself ready to pamper and soothe failing mankind, to intimidate and bamboozle tendrilless slans, and to treat true slans coldly and roughly. He is even capable of raising his own daughter Kathleen as a kind of zoo exhibit in order to test contemporary reaction to the presence of a revealed tendrilled slan.
Nonetheless, Kier Gray -- as van Vogt suggests in describing him -- is a noble man. Despite the unique degree of power he wields, we never see him being greedy, lustful, vicious, vengeful or self-aggrandizing. When Jommy suddenly appears in his private study bearing the gifts of controlled atomic energy, ten-point steel, and hypnotism crystals, Gray doesn't pause for an instant to consider how these might be used for his own personal advantage. Instead, he immediately begins to plan how they may be applied to the problems of the ongoing transition.
If Kier Gray really does aim to be a dispassionate universal caretaker with a concern for the welfare of all, then it might not be altogether pointless or crazy for him to be the leader of more than one party. Especially if the various sides aren't actually as separate and opposed as they believe themselves to be.
We might consider that what at first seem to be ordinary human beings prove instead to be communities of tendrilless slans living unnoticed amidst the general population. And further that what are initially identified as tendrilless slans eventually turn out to be all-unknowing true slans. And finally, that what are at first suggested to be the unnatural and inhuman product of a monster-making machine -- the tendrilled slans -- are ultimately revealed to be not only a completely natural mutation, but the next stage in the evolutionary development of man.
The truth is that behind the appearance of difference and the assumption of difference, man, tendrilless slan, and true slan are one.
This is the pattern that suddenly flashes into view in the climactic scene of Slan at the moment in which it is revealed that Kier Gray, the great human antagonist of the slans, is in actuality the most powerful and visionary of true slans, and that the slans are the mutation-after-man. Even more than Jommy Cross's intelligible character and good intentions, it is the unifying nature of Kier Gray that demonstrates the continuity of man and slan to the reader.
Slan isn't really a story of politics or power relations at all. It's a story about a difficult species-wide transition of man to a new and higher state of body and mind.
The audience that received Slan had lately been reading stories about the passage from Neanderthal man to Cro-Magnon, like Lester del Rey's "The Day Is Done." And they had found themselves able not only to look back upon poor vanished Neanderthal and pity him for his grossness and imperfection, but also to feel a genuine human kinship with him.
Van Vogt asked his readers to make a corresponding leap of imagination and empathy, but this time in the opposite direction, and to perceive the beauty and desirability of becoming man-beyond-man. He offered the opportunity and challenge of identifying with the tendrilled slans, and of seeing them not as intolerably Other but rather as the manifestation of the transcendent potential waiting within us.
If the underlying message of van Vogt's novel was that the possibility of transcendence exists even within our present moment and condition, this communicated itself to John Campbell. One year after Slan began serialization -- in the same September 1941 issue of Astounding containing Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" -- Campbell would publish an article entitled "We're Not All Human." Here he would suggest that superior human beings already exist among us without fully appreciating their own specialness. And he would name Slan as the initial stimulus for this line of speculation.
There would be readers of Astounding who not only got this message from Slan, but who were prepared to take it personally. Some fans, for instance, would give their boardinghouses or communal living places joking names like "Slan Shack" or "Tendril Towers."
Another, much more earnest about his identification with the idea of imminent human self-transcendence, would declare in the first issue of his amateur magazine, Cosmic Digest:Man is still evolving toward a higher form of life. A new figure is climbing upon the stage. Homo Cosmen, the cosmic men, will appear. We believe that we are mutations of that species. We are convinced that there are a considerable number of people like ourselves on this planet, if only we could locate and get in touch with them. Someday we will find most of them, and then we will do great things together.This youngster would announce a new organization called "the Cosmic Circle" and attempt to rally his fellow SF readers to its banner with the slogan "Fans are slans!" And even though his efforts would be greeted with more amused tolerance than visible success, nonetheless it is clear that van Vogt had done his work in making slanhood seem a desirable condition to aspire to.
A.E. van Vogt became the first superstar of Campbell's Golden Age on the strength of two special stories -- "Black Destroyer" and Slan. But then, with the serialization of Slan complete and van Vogt at a peak of popularity as an SF writer, he all but disappeared from the pages of Astounding.
During the fourteen months that followed Slan, through all of 1941 and into 1942, while Robert Heinlein was dominating the magazine with a great burst of stories, van Vogt would only manage to contribute two short stories to Astounding. And after the second of these, "The Seesaw" in July 1941, he would be completely absent for the next eight months.
The reason for this difference was that Heinlein was waiting for the war to catch up with the United States, and while he waited he filled his time by writing science fiction stories. Van Vogt, however, was already caught up in World War II and scarcely had time in which to take a deep breath.
There had been months of inaction following the original declaration of war in September 1939. But just about the time that van Vogt was finishing Slan in the late spring of 1940, Hitler launched a lightning flank attack that swept across the Netherlands, Belgium and France and pushed the remnant Allied armies into the sea at Dunkirk. Then, in the summer and fall of 1940, the Germans sent wave after wave of aircraft across the English Channel to bomb Britain, their last surviving opposition in Western Europe.
The worse that things went for the mother country, the more hours the Canadian Department of National Defence required of van Vogt. He was fortunate to find enough time in the space of the next year even to write two short stories.
Brief and rare as "The Seesaw" was, however, it would manage to be one of the most remarkable of all Golden Age science fiction stories. The line of thought that culminated in "The Seesaw" was set in motion when van Vogt read John Campbell's editorial note in the February 1941 Astounding officially announcing that all of Heinlein's stories of the future fit together in one common historical framework. Seeing that note got van Vogt to thinking about the unity of his own fiction.
He says:Being a system thinker and a system writer, I realized at once that in the area of overall purpose I had no system, except, yes, hey, wait a minute; yes, I had already started one but not called it anything.Once his own continuing concern with identity and organic wholeness had become apparent to van Vogt, he set out to express this in the structure of his next story. "The Seesaw," more explicitly than any other van Vogt story, would be a representation in narrative form of his Whiteheadean sense of the holistic interconnection of all things. No writer who was working from a rational, linear, materialistic Village-centered point of view could possibly have conceived it.
The underlying premise was: In every rock, in every grain of sand, in every cell, there is a "memory" of ancient origins, and of the history of that cell going back to the beginning of things. If we could but read the signals that these bits of matter are showing us, we would have the answers we seek.
"The Seesaw" begins with a newspaper story dated as recently as the middle of last week -- that is, the week before the on-sale date of this very issue of Astounding. The clipping tells of the materialization of a strange building in the space on a city street normally occupied by a lunch counter and a tailor shop, and the eventual disappearance of this anomalous store. The entire episode is presumed to have been the work of some unknown master illusionist.
It seems that across the front of the strange building, but directly readable from every angle, there was a large sign that said: "FINE WEAPONS. THE RIGHT TO BUY WEAPONS IS THE RIGHT TO BE FREE." And in the window of the store, along with a display of curiously shaped guns, another sign read: "THE FINEST ENERGY WEAPONS IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE."
The newspaper clipping says that the door of the shop would not open when a police inspector made an attempt to gain admittance. But that it did open for a reporter, C.J. McAllister, who thereupon entered the building.
The story proper then proceeds to relate what happened to McAllister after he went into the gun shop -- and saw the handle of the door swinging shut behind him writhe to avoid the grasp of the policeman trying to follow him inside.
Within the store, the reporter discovers that here it isn't June 1941 at all. Instead, the girl and her father who run this weapon shop inform him that it is " 'eighty-four of the four thousand seven hundredth year of the Imperial House of Isher.' "
This weapon shop and other similar shops, connected in a network by matter transmitters, serve as an independent force that counterbalances the power of this long-enduring empire. And the temporal displacement of McAllister is a sign to the gunmakers that something is seriously awry. Very quickly they determine that he has been jerked into this present moment as an accidental by-product of an invisible attack that has been launched against all of the weapon shops by the forces of the empress.
McAllister is informed that in his passage through time he has accumulated a charge of " 'trillions and trillions of time-energy units.' " If he should step outside the confines of the weapon shop or even be touched by another person, he would cause a monumental explosion. However, if he can be returned through time to 1941, this would have a significant effect on the great machine behind the Isher attack.
As one representative of the weapon shops explains to him:"You are to be a 'weight' at the long end of a kind of energy 'crowbar,' which lifts the greater 'weight' at the short end. You will go back five thousand years in time; the machine in the great building to which your body is tuned, and which has caused all this trouble, will move ahead in time about two weeks."This maneuver will give the gunmaking guild the opportunity it must have to counter the threat of the Isher Empire and maintain its independent existence.
However, when McAllister is sent back through time, something completely unforeseen happens. He arrives where he started from in 1941 -- but he doesn't stay there long. Instead, he begins careening back and forth through time in a great series of pendulum swings that takes him ever further into the future and into the past.
If the great Isher machine is on the other end of this wild seesaw ride, then it seems certain that the attack by the empress on the weapon shops has been successfully disrupted. But even if someone were aware of what is happening to poor McAllister, there is nothing to be done for him.
The story concludes with a burst of van Vogtian music as a calm and contemplative McAllister comes to a recognition of what the eventual conclusion of his bizarre adventure must be:Quite suddenly it came to him that he knew where the seesaw would stop. It would end in the very remote past, with the release of the stupendous temporal energy he had been accumulating with each of those monstrous swings.What an altogether unusual story! Taken in terms of characterization or social observation or simple plausibility, there was nothing at all to it. The central character, McAllister, has no specific personal nature whatever; he is more a function than an individual. The world of five thousand years hence is not a complete, complex, ongoing society. All that we ever see of it is the eternal naked polarity -- weapon shops vs. Isher Empire -- and not a single thing more. And the explanations and interpretations that are offered in the course of this story are at best simple images or metaphorical indications like "crowbars" and "seesaws," but nothing more consistently reasoned or fully imagined than this.
He would not witness, but he would cause, the formation of the planets.
However, if we agree to leave aside the questions of plausible argument and fullness of detail and take this little story instead as a kind of pattern or general statement, there is a great deal more to be found in it. In fact, we can get the most from "The Seesaw" if we elect to look on it as an active meditation on the nature of the cosmos and our place within it.
Casting about for precedents and antecedents, we might say that it has a kinship with the "prehistoric daydream" in Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth in which Axel the narrator travels back in his imagination through past evolutionary ages to the fiery creation of things. And it also has a relationship to all those tales of time travelers brooding over red and chilly suns and the fate of man, from Wells's The Time Machine to Don A. Stuart's "Twilight" and "Night."
But there was a crucial difference between "The Seesaw" and these older cosmological meditations. In the Age of Technology, a narrative overview of existence would be sure to present a story of birth in primal gas and fire, which in good time would necessarily be followed by entropic death in darkness, cold and rubble.
However, that wasn't the story that van Vogt had to tell. Instead, he wrote of a Yin-and-Yang universe of reciprocal maintenance. In the cosmos as presented in "The Seesaw," there is no such thing as strict linear cause-and-effect. Rather, the whole universe is seen as existing through the mutual collaboration and support of its subordinate aspects, and the aspects as existing through the overallness of the whole. At least four obvious examples of fundamental interdependency can be seen in van Vogt's short story:
First, there is the title and central metaphor -- the seesaw. A teeter-totter in action is an instance familiar to everyone of a dynamic equilibrium that requires the active participation of two different parties.
Second, there is the interpenetration of 1941 A.D. and the year 4700 of the Isher Empire. Here we have a cross-connection of elements from very different eras, so that McAllister becomes a pivotal factor in the doings of time-to-come, and the slogan that the right to buy weapons is the right to be free -- a message that most assuredly had a point for a democratic yet still nominally neutral United States in early 1941 -- becomes impressed upon the here-and-now.
Third, there is the symbiotic nature of the weapon shops and the Isher Empire. Though one party can be seen as standing for the force of determinism, authority and control, and the other for the power of free will, free thought and free action, the two appear to be absolutely necessary to each other.
And fourth, there is the chicken-and-egg question of which comes first, the universe that will produce McAllister, or the McAllister who will not witness but will cause the formation of the planets?
With all the intertwining, mutual dependence and reversal of temporal sequence here, how are we to say what is really a cause and what is an effect?
It is because of the Isher Empire's attack on the weapon shops five thousand years from now that McAllister is snatched out of the year 1941 A.D. And it is for the purpose of defending themselves against the forces of the empress that the weapon shops send McAllister back through time again. And it is because of this joint effort by the Isher Empire and the weapon shops, and because of McAllister's movements back and forth through time that a primal explosion will result which in due course will produce the conditions for McAllister, and subsequently the weapon shops and the Isher Empire, to come into existence. Somehow, through their own mutual yearning to be, 1941 A.D. and 4700 I.E. work together to call themselves into being.
But even this can't be the whole story. It fails to take into account the counterweight on the other end of the seesaw. In order for McAllister to do his stuff, it seems essential for the great Isher machine to serve as a balancing force. And even though van Vogt may say nothing about the fate of the machine, imagination suggests to us that at the moment that McAllister is going bang at one end of existence, the great machine must necessarily be going ka-boom at the other.
By this reading, the various collaborations between the future and the present, the weapon shops and the Isher Empire, and McAllister and the Isher machine all add up to one crucial action-event that begins creation and also brings it to an end.
And were our perspective even broader, we might be able to see this as nothing exceptional. Perhaps as a result of collaborations just like these, the universe is created and destroyed at every instant.
Just this would be the case in van Vogt's very next story, "Recruiting Station" (Astounding, Mar 1942). Here it is said, "Every unfolding instant the Earth and its life, the universe and all its galaxies are re-created by the titanic energy that is time. . . . The rate of reproduction is approximately ten billion a second."
In any case, it is clear that van Vogt had accomplished something quite significant in "The Seesaw." In place of the old Village-centered orientation held for so long by the Western world, with its arrogant assumptions of self-importance alternating with tremulous fears of cosmic insignificance, van Vogt offered a universe in which man and the present moment were completely essential -- but were not sufficient.
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Background by Eos Development