Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

Man Beyond Man

 Part 5

    Shortly after van Vogt finished this potent little story, the conditions under which he was attempting to live and to write finally became too much for him.  His wife Edna had needed operations in both 1939 and 1940.  His monthly expenses continued to exceed his monthly income.  The money the sale of Slan had brought in was all but gone.  And the Canadian Department of National Defence wanted still more hours of work from him.

    He says: "By April, 1941, they had me working my full day plus four evenings a week plus all day Saturday and every other Sunday, all without a raise in salary.  And so, since I could no longer support the job by part-time writing (no part-time being available), I resigned."

    However, as much as van Vogt may have been pushed toward this decision by his lack of income, we shouldn't underestimate the part that was played by the inner need he felt to write more science fiction.  Ultimately, that may have been his most compelling reason for resigning.

    As he would say about this inner drive:

    I write on the basis of uneasiness.  I should be working is my feeling, and so, when that reaches a certain level, I'm working.  If it doesn't, I'm not.  This has nothing to do with whether or not I am completely solvent right now.  I feel as if I should be working all the time, and if I've been wasting time in some way too much, then this feeling intensifies.  It's like a feedback system.  It reaches a certain point and I'm at work, and that's all.
    When this inner urgency was on him, van Vogt had to write stories, even if he didn't consciously know why:
    I was being swept along in an entirely compulsive situation -- fundamentally a compulsive situation.  I didn't know why I was doing it.  I didn't know why I was interested in it.  I was interested; I enjoyed it.  I got fun out of it.  I read my stories, when they were published, with interest: "Did I write that?"
    As long as he was still permitted to have a few minutes every now and then in which to write, van Vogt could continue to go on working at the Canadian Department of National Defence.  But when he saw his last precious moments of writing time about to be snatched away from him, he had to resign.

    And once again, he was served by his uncanny sense of timing.  If van Vogt had resolved to try to stick it out for even a few more months, he would have been frozen in place for the duration of the war.  His request to resign would have been denied, no matter how impossible his personal living circumstances.

    As it was, van Vogt was set free: Free from the demands of a grinding and unfulfilling job.  Free from the burden of somehow managing to pay each month for his over-expensive apartment.  Free from the close confines of the city of Ottawa.  Free to pause for a long moment and catch his breath.  Most of all, however, free once again to satisfy the compulsion he felt to write science fiction.

    Just as soon as it was possible, the van Vogts sublet their apartment and moved up the Gatineau River into Quebec, where they rented a summer cottage five miles beyond the end of the nearest paved road.  Van Vogt let Campbell know that he had quit his job and would now have more writing time available, and set to work on a short novel.

    Then, in September 1941, while van Vogt was still up on the Gatineau, he got a letter from Campbell saying that Robert Heinlein had it in mind to retire.  And even though the editor had not totally given up hope of seeing further stories from Heinlein, it was evident that he would be needing a high quality writer to take his place as a reliable regular supplier of material.  If van Vogt was willing to have a try at it, Campbell declared himself ready to accept what amounted to 20,000 to 25,000 words of material a month from him for the two magazines, Astounding and Unknown.

    What a splendid opportunity this was!  Van Vogt had never previously had the chance to be a full-time science fiction writer.  And after all the days he had spent trying to survive on $81 a month take-home pay, the prospect of an income of two or three hundred dollars every month was truly welcome.

    But also, what a challenge it was!  Over the space of three full years, van Vogt had only managed to contribute one novel and seven pieces of short fiction to Campbell -- a total of about 140,000 words.  But now he was being asked to deliver quite a bit more than this every year -- an average of a short story and a novelet, or a short novel, or an installment of a serial, each and every month.

    Van Vogt was still a painfully slow writer, but nonetheless he decided to accept Campbell's offer.  What others seemed to be able to do with speed and ease, he would attempt to accomplish by method and by diligent persistence.

    As he would come to say:  "In order to produce what I was producing, I worked from the time I got up until eleven o'clock at night, every day, seven days a week, for years."

    No wonder van Vogt could speak of having been in the grip of a compulsion!

    The first eight stories that van Vogt turned out after quitting his job would see publication in Astounding between March 1942 and January 1943.  Not only would several of these rank among his all-time best, but in this initial burst of work as a full-time science fiction writer, he would confirm, consolidate and extend the special lines of thought he had begun to set forth and explore in his earlier fiction.

    Taken as a whole, these stories would declare that we live in a responsive universe with different levels of being and consciousness.  They would assert again and again the necessity for cooperation among sentient creatures.  And they would suggest that the natural business of truly superior beings must be to serve as the guardians and protectors of lesser entities.

    The moral responsiveness of the universe can be seen most clearly stated in "Secret Unattainable" (Astounding, July 1942), a novelet that may in part have been van Vogt's self-justification for having given up on his war effort.  The story is in the form of a file of documents brought to the United States after World War II which charts the beginning and end of a secret German scientific project.

    It seems that in 1937 a scientist named Kenrube proposed the construction of a machine capable of bridging hyper-space and extracting limitless quantities of raw materials from distant planets to serve the purposes of the Fuehrer and the German Reich.

    Professor Kenrube is another holist.  He is reported as believing in "the singleness of organism that is a galactic system" and that "all the matter in the universe conjoins according to a rigid mathematical pattern."

    Kenrube's conclusions seem doubtful to more orthodox scientists.  And he is by no means trusted by the regime, his brother having been executed in 1934 for opposing the National Socialists.  But his machine is of such potential usefulness to Hitler's plans for world conquest that Kenrube's project is given official approval and funding.

    The Nazis take every precaution they can think of to guard against any treachery that Kenrube may have in mind.  And they are pleased and excited when the model machine that he builds works exactly as anticipated -- except for an eventual unfortunate accident in the professor's absence that destroys the test model and kills an assistant who has been set to spy on Kenrube.

    Indeed, so promising are the results of the project that the Nazis are encouraged to act upon their lust for power and launch World War II.  And just as soon as a full-scale machine is completed and successfully tested in the spring of 1941, Professor Kenrube is placed under arrest and thrown into prison under constant guard.

    However, at the formal demonstration of the hyper-space machine for the benefit of the assembled Nazi hierarchy, there is a great disaster.  The machine is completely destroyed, many notables are killed, and the Fuehrer himself only narrowly escapes death.

    More than this -- it seems that Kenrube himself mysteriously escaped from confinement on this very same day, managed somehow to appear hours earlier at the scene of the disaster even as it was unfolding, and then disappeared for good.  From statements he made to his guards just before he vanished, and from a further declaration made at the site of the demonstration, it becomes apparent that the entire project has been an elaborate plot of revenge by Kenrube for the death of his beloved brother.

    Kenrube has successfully turned the greed and power-hunger of the Nazis against them.  He has lured them into launching a war that they must inevitably come to lose by promising them a secret weapon that they are inherently incapable of putting to use.

    As he says to his guards just before his disappearance from his cell:  "My invention does not fit into our civilization.  It's the next, the coming age of man.  Just as modern science could not develop in ancient Egypt because the whole mental, emotional and physical attitude was wrong, so my machine cannot be used until the thought structure of man changes."'

    And to those assembled for the demonstration of the hyper-space machine, he says:

    "Here is your machine. It is all yours to use for any purpose -- provided you first change your mode of thinking to conform to the reality of the relationship between matter and life.
    "I have no doubt you can build a thousand duplicates, but beware -- every machine will be a Frankenstein monster.  Some of them will distort time, as seems to have happened in the time of my arrival here.  Others will feed you raw material that will vanish even as you reach forth to seize it.  Still others will pour obscene things into our green earth; and others will blaze with terrible energies, but you will never know what is coming, you will never satisfy a single desire. . . .
    "It is not that the machine has will.  It reacts to laws, which you must learn, and in the learning it will reshape your minds, your outlook on life.  It will change the world.  Long before that, of course, the Nazis will be destroyed.  They have taken irrevocable steps that will insure their destruction."
    Here, in "Secret Unattainable," is an assertion of the moral responsiveness of the universe in the most immediate and relevant terms that van Vogt could imagine.  The Nazis, his story declared, must inevitably lose World War II because of the deficiencies inherent in their fundamentally short-sighted, hostile, greedy, barbaric and paranoid mode of thought.

    When Professor Kenrube tells Hitler and his henchmen that their thinking fails to conform to the " 'reality of the relationship between matter and life,' " we might well be reminded that in Science and the Modern World Alfred North Whitehead had suggested that any being which by its influence deteriorates its environment commits suicide.  And that those organisms are successful which modify their environment so as to assist each other.

    We should remember, too, that in his 1940 story "Repetition," van Vogt had specifically declared that if our species was ever to leave the Solar System and reach the stars, both individual men and human governments would have to learn to actively work together.  Now, no less than three times over in his stories of 1942, van Vogt would assert the positive value of mutual assistance between mankind and alien beings.  The first of these stories would even bear the explicit title "Co-operate -- or Else!"

    In this short novelet published in the April 1942 Astounding, humans have managed to attain the stars.  There they have encountered a wide variety of sentient creatures.  And through their conviction of the essential desirability of cooperation, men have managed to unite no fewer than 4874 non-human races in one common alliance.

    "Co-operate -- or Else!," which concerns human relations with two lately encountered alien races, might be taken as a specific demonstration of how this was accomplished.

    One race, the ezwals, are huge, three-eyed telepathic creatures native to Carson's Planet, which men have recently colonized.  The ezwals, who live a life in nature, have no use for the artifice and constraints of human civilization.  They are doing their best to drive men from their world by violent attacks -- without giving away the fact that they are actually an intelligent species.

    The other race, the wormlike Rull, are advanced and able enough to have spread among the stars.  However, unlike humanity, they are so implacably vicious, intolerant and bellicose that they will not allow any other thinking beings to survive within their sphere of control.  Just as soon as they become aware of man's existence, they launch an interstellar war against him.

    One human, Trevor Jamieson, has discovered that the ezwals are sentient, which nobody else suspects.  He is in the process of taking one to Earth to demonstrate his case when a Rull attack on his spaceship causes him and the ezwal to crash-land on a primitive planet.  In order for the two of them to survive both the blind, unthinking hostility of the jungle world and the threat of the Rull, Jamieson must and does convince the ezwal that cooperation is a necessity.

    In a minor related short story, "The Second Solution" (Astounding, Oct 1942), a young ezwal gets loose in the wilds of northern Canada and is hunted as a dangerous animal.  If it isn't to be executed, it must demonstrate the ability to overcome its immaturity, discipline its prejudices, and develop trust in a human being, an assistant of Trevor Jamieson who has also figured out the truth about ezwals.

    At the same time, the man who has striven the hardest to kill the ezwal -- doubting its intelligence and fearing the savage physical power that has led to the death of thirty million humans on Carson's Planet -- must likewise learn to revise his own thinking and behavior.  And, indeed, it is he who will ultimately prove to be the narrator of this story.

    "Co-operate -- or Else!" and "The Second Solution," together with a radically revised "Repetition," would eventually be included in a van Vogt " 'fix-up' novel" on the subject of cooperation -- The War Against the Rull, published in 1959.

    Also forming part of the material of this book would be another novelet, "The Rull" (Astounding, May 1948).  In this story van Vogt would bring on stage one of the Rull -- who in the two 1942 stories are no more than an incentive for man and ezwal to make common cause -- and show that if they were only banged on the head hard enough to get their attention, they, too, might alter their behavior and be brought within the circle of cooperation

    The third van Vogt story in 1942 on the theme of mutual assistance between unlike beings would be "Not Only Dead Men," published in the November issue of Astounding.  In this short story, however, instead of mankind being the style-setter, teaching other races the value of cooperation, it would be humans who would be moral pupils learning from more advanced beings.

    In "Not Only Dead Men," a spaceship directed by reptilian aliens from a galaxy-wide civilization is attacked by a Blal, a fierce and mindless space-dwelling monster, while in the course of passing through our solar system.  The creature is wounded, but the spaceship is severely damaged, and both fall to Earth on the Alaskan coast.  There the scaly aliens manipulate an American whaling vessel into having no choice but to aid them in destroying the space creature.

    It is a firm galactic rule that low-level beings such as we are not to be allowed to know of the existence of interstellar civilization.  And we have been led to believe that when the usefulness of the whalers is past, they will be casually destroyed to keep the disturbing knowledge of galactic civilization from humanity in general.

    Instead, however, the aliens consider it a moral necessity to pay their debts, while still protecting Earth from an order of knowledge it isn't yet prepared to handle.  In consequence, as the story ends, the decision has been made to lift the crew of the whaling ship from our planet and transport them through space to the green and wonderful world from which Earth was originally colonized at some moment long past.

    In this reward for services rendered, and also in the rules that protect vulnerable and immature beings from premature awareness of the existence of galactic civilization, it is possible for us to catch a glimpse of van Vogt's most profound and original new theme -- the obligation of superior beings to look out for the welfare of those less advanced.

    The first half-indication of this emergent insight came in Kier Gray's dual leadership of the tendrilled slans and ordinary mankind in Slan.  And there would be a further hint of it in the first story van Vogt wrote after he resigned from his clerical job in the Department of National Defence, the highly provocative but overly complex short novel "Recruiting Station" (Astounding, Mar 1942).

    In this story, the Glorious, an arrogant Earth-centered future race of man, is shanghaiing contemporary men and turning them into automatons to fight in a war between Earth and the planets that mankind has settled.  But the very existence of the universe has become imperiled by their careless manipulations of time.  A race of the farther future, who will be the heirs and successors of the Planetarians -- that is, if they manage to win the war -- has become aware of the danger, but so tenuous has their past become that they are unable to travel back through time to correct the situation.

    However, with their assistance, Norma Matheson, a  young woman of the present day whom we have understood to be completely under the control of the ruthless Dr. Lell of the Glorious, develops superpowers far beyond his, and with her serving as a focal point, space and time can be manipulated to minimize damage to existence.  At the conclusion of "Recruiting Station," Norma has been returned to the moment in 1941 when we first met her, where she will work to cancel all of Dr. Lell's efforts in our era.

    The story ends with another of van Vogt's striking last lines: "Poor, unsuspecting superman!"

    "Recruiting Station" would be notable for its presentation of a future containing not just change upon change, but level upon level of possible human becoming.  And beyond any doubts superior humans do lend a hand to comparatively backward Twentieth Century people in a moment in which they are being victimized.  The single point about which we might have question, however, is whether these highly developed human beings are acting out of a sense of altruism or out of a desire for self-preservation.

    But there would be no doubt of this kind in three other van Vogt novelets -- "The Weapon Shop," "The Search," and "Asylum" -- that would easily be his best work of the year.  In each case, the altruism of those more gifted or insightful or intelligent would not only be established beyond any doubt, but in fact would be a central point of the story.

    "The Weapon Shop" (Astounding, Dec 1942) would be set against the same future background first glimpsed in "The Seesaw," with one (possibly careless) difference:  the time, which in the earlier story was given as five thousand years in our future, is here said to be seven thousand years from now.

    In this story, the central character, Fara Clark, is a very ordinary person, a motor repairman and totally loyal supporter of the empress -- "the glorious, the divine, the serenely gracious and lovely Innelda Isher, one thousand one hundred eightieth of her line."  When a weapon shop appears in his village, he is the local citizen who is most adamantly opposed to it.

    However, very shortly thereafter, an interplanetary bank and a giant corporation conspire to swindle him out of his life savings and force him out of business.  And there is no one who will give Clark any help.  Even his own family turns against him.

    With his life in ruins, and driven to the depths of despair, Clark enters the weapon shop with the intention of purchasing a gun and killing himself.  Instead, he finds himself transferred somewhere to a place called " 'Information Center.' "  Here, inside an immense building that is also a machine, the weapon shops keep constantly amended census data for all the settled planets of the Solar System -- and individual files on every living person.

    Fara Clark is directed to a particular room, and there, in a most mysterious and summary fashion, his case is reviewed.  He is informed that both the bank and the corporation that took advantage of him are among the many enterprises secretly owned by the empress.  And somehow fines are instantly levied and collected against the offending businesses, with Clark getting back all he has lost and a good deal more.

    He is also told a little about the history and nature of the weapon shops.  It seems that some four thousand years past, " 'the brilliant genius Walter S. DeLany invented the vibration process that made the weapon shops possible, and laid down the first principles of weapon shop political philosophy. . . .' "

    This philosophy is moral and idealistic:

    "It is important to understand that we do not interfere in the main stream of human existence.  We right wrongs; we act as a barrier between the people and their more ruthless exploiters.  . . .  As always we shall remain an incorruptible core -- and I mean that literally; we have a psycho­logical machine that never lies about a man's character -- I repeat, an incorruptible core of human idealism, devoted to relieving the ills that arise inevitably under any form of government."
    The practical instrument of this philosophy of protection and justice for the common man is the man himself -- armed with the guns that the weapon shops sell.  A weapon shop gun is attuned to its owner, and whenever it is needed it will leap instantly to his hand.  Not only does the gun present a complete defensive shield against energy weapons of the kind carried by the soldiers of the empress, but there is no material object that its beam cannot penetrate or destroy.  However, a weapon shop gun absolutely may not be used -- and perhaps cannot be used -- for either aggression or murder.

    Here is a weapon whose nature is not so much scientific as moral.  A gun of justice!  With a sidearm like this, it would seem that any oppressed man could look tyranny in the eye and never need to blink.

    And, indeed, back home in his village with a weapon shop gun on his hip and a new outlook on life, Fara Clark is able to stand up for his rights, re-establish his family, and regain his repair shop -- and in the process discover that others besides himself are in actuality supporters of the weapon makers.

    When van Vogt finished "The Weapon Shop" and sent it to John Campbell, the story proved to have a very strange effect on the editor.  As he was reading this novelet, he recognized that he was enjoying it thoroughly.  But when he attempted to analyze the story intellectually, he just couldn't see why it should be so effective.

    Campbell's head assured him that nothing of any real consequence happened in "The Weapon Shop."  A simple motor repairman loses his business, is given justice, and then gets his shop back again.  Was that the stuff out of which a proper science fiction story should be made?  The editor just couldn't think so.

    And yet, at the same time, Campbell was aware that whatever his head might be telling him, in his heart he liked this novelet so much that he intended to pay van Vogt a bonus for it and use it for a cover story.

    It was a highly intriguing puzzle -- all the more so since it seemed to Campbell that it was the business of any proper editor to know exactly why a given story did or didn't work.  He was even willing to share his perplexity with the author himself.  Along with the check for the story, he sent van Vogt a letter in which he said quite frankly:

    "Weapon Shop" was, like much of your material, good without any detectable reason for being interesting.  Technically it doesn't have plot, it starts nowhere in particular, wanders about, and comes out in another completely indeterminate place.  But, like a park path, it's a nice little walk.  I liked it, as you may have gathered from the 25% extra.
    To understand the problem that Campbell had in coming to terms with his affection for the Canadian's unorthodox but curiously effective science fiction, it is necessary to look at van Vogt's stories with the eyes of an early Forties pulp editor, a man expected to put a magazine on the newsstand each month that would grab a browser's attention and make him eager to buy and read.

    The first rule in science fiction as Campbell knew it -- and in pulp fiction in general -- was that things must happen.  There must be visible action.

    In the stories that the young Campbell had made his initial reputation with, for instance, there had been clashes between cosmic antagonists contending for dominance, climaxed as like as not by a titanic space battle with rays of various colors shooting off and whole planets exploding like rotten tomatoes.  Now there was visible action for you!

    And even in the more thoughtful modern science fiction that the editor was pioneering in Astounding, there would typically be some well-defined public problem -- a strike on the rolling roads, or a robot who can read human minds, or a disaster in an atomic plant -- which would then be resolved through a timely application of the proper universal operating principle.

    But van Vogt's fiction wasn't like that.  Despite all the powerful  forces, the overwhelming personalities, and the levels and levels of possible becoming that were represented in his stories, in most of them very little overtly happened.

    Van Vogt's stories were dreamlike -- made up as he went along, deliberately written in such a way as to elude the reader's conscious grasp, altering with each new intuitional flash, changing direction completely every ten pages.  And, like dreams, they didn't seem to observe ordinary daylight standards of cause and effect.  Instead, the reader would find himself in the midst of some ongoingness, and then, after an abrupt transition, find himself dealing with some other given state -- and then another, and then another.  In a van Vogt story things didn't seem to happen so much as they just were.

    In van Vogt's work there was also very little in the way of public problem-solving, and almost no direct physical conflict.  A typical van Vogt story would be far more likely to climax with a conversation than with a fight.

    Even when we look for outright physical contention where we might most expect to see it, in van Vogt's earliest human vs. monster stories, we simply don't find it.  Rather, those powerful, hostile creatures would ultimately fall victim to their own flawed natures, or panic and commit suicide, or turn tail and flee whimpering into the intergalactic darkness.

    The true plane of action in van Vogt's fiction would not be physical, but mental and moral.  The classic van Vogt story would start with the presentation of some limited attitude or level of understanding and, after all the changes were done, conclude with another that was more sane and inclusive -- which might well be the complete opposite of the original point of view

    At the outset of Slan, for instance, Kier Gray is taken to be the principal persecutor of the tendrilled slans, the archenemy whom Jommy must someday seek out and kill.  But at the climax of the story -- which is not the scene of violent contention we have been led to expect, but rather a moment of recognition -- Jommy sees Kier Gray in a new light, as a caretaker of mankind in all forms with whom he must henceforth ally himself.

    In similar fashion, the powerful yet still less than self-sufficient ezwal in "Co-operate -- or Else!" learns from the harsh reality of the jungle planet that it is necessary for him to alter his attitudes, surrender his prejudices, and learn to cooperate with whoever is there to be cooperated with.  He must give up being a special partisan of his own kind and become a citizen of a galactic federation of unlike beings.

    And in "The Weapon Shop," Fara Clark must cease to be a slavish idolizer of the empress -- and a helpless victim of her exploitations -- and become a self-responsible member of an alternate society of free and just men.  At the conclusion of the story, Clark marvels that his sleepy native village can look so unchanged to his outward eye -- the ordering of the universe within his mind is now so utterly different.

    It was just this kind of rearrangement that van Vogt aimed to bring about in the minds of his readers.  If at the outset they presumed, in conventional mid-Twentieth Century fashion, that the nature of the universe must be inherently amoral, accidental, competitive and fragmented, van Vogt would cast doubt on these assumptions with his sudden unveilings of the new organic reality, and perhaps even succeed in transforming them completely with the impact of his brilliant revelatory flashes.

    Again and again, the bold ringing lines that concluded so many of van Vogt's stories would zap home a startling new apprehension of the way things are.  In a single lightning phrase like "Poor, unsuspecting superman!" or "He would not witness, but he would cause, the formation of the planets," the order of the universe would be wholly remade.

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