Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

Man Beyond Man

 Part 6

    When John Campbell suggested that "The Weapon Shop" was a nice little park path walk, good without any detectable reason for being interesting, there was no rational answer that van Vogt could conceivably make to this left-handed compliment.  He couldn't explain to the editor what he was actually up to; it was all that he could do to do it.  The only effective response available to him was to write a story, "The Search," that was more of the same, send it to Campbell, and see what happened.

    And, no doubt, John Campbell did find "The Search" another strangely fashioned piece of work.  Like "The Weapon Shop," this new novelet was an access-of-knowledge story.  But, if anything, it had even less action to offer -- not even the implicit potential for purely defensive violence inherent in a weapon shop gun seated in a holster on the hip of a Fara Clark.  In "The Search," everything was accomplished with a glance, a word, at most a touch.

    In true van Vogtian style, the story began with a state of ignorance and limitation.  It shifted abruptly from one queer set of circumstances to another.  It climaxed with a conversation.  And it concluded with a striking final line in which the conventional ordering of the universe was stood on its head.  Along the way, it displayed haunting dream imagery and introduced a powerful new science fiction concept.

    "The Search" was one of van Vogt's more effective stories, and John Campbell was the first to recognize it.  Whatever the puzzlement and disquiet he might feel where van Vogt's fiction was concerned, he would buy this novelet with his usual promptness and publish it the month following "The Weapon Shop," in the January 1943 issue of Astounding.

    As "The Search" begins, Ralph Drake, the protagonist, is lying in a hospital bed with a case of amnesia.  This acute state of personal ignorance was a device that van Vogt would come to employ on a number of occasions in his fiction.

    It seems that Drake was found in a ditch with papers identifying him as a salesman for a writing supply company.  But the most recent events he can remember happened two weeks previously.  He had just been rejected by his draft board for an odd but harmless reason -- the location of his internal organs is reversed from the normal.  And as his next move, he had decided to apply for this job as a traveling salesman.

    There in the hospital, he is told that the territory he had been assigned to cover includes the area of farms and small towns around Piffer's Road -- the little community where he was born and spent his boyhood.  Drake determines that he will go back to the beginning of his route and retrace his steps in hopes of discovering the events he cannot remember.

    Along the way, he falls in with another traveling salesman, who informs him that the two of them had been sitting together on his previous trip when a girl, Selanie Johns, boarded their train at a local stop with her basket of souvenirs.  The girl's father is a buyer of old metal who makes a number of strange and wonderful gadgets -- among them fountain pens that offer a choice of different colored inks and never need refilling, and cups that provide a variety of refreshing liquids to drink.  Young Selanie sells these, one to a customer, for only a dollar.

    When the salesman had showed him the pen that he had bought from her, Drake had been astounded by it.  His company simply couldn't match its quality or value, let alone its marvelous nature.  But while Drake was examining the pen, a fine-looking old man seated across the aisle asked to see it, and when it was passed to him somehow it snapped in two.

    Selanie was told of this accident as she passed through the train with her basket.  Looking at the old man, she had gotten back such a powerful stare that she'd fled the train at the very next stop -- Piffer's Road.  Drake had followed after.  And that was the last the salesman had seen of either of them until now.

    Drake pursues the trail of his lost memory to Piffer's Road.  He hopes to find the Johnses there, but the trailer they live in has been moved somewhere else.  And when he makes inquiries at the house of a woman neighbor, he hears another strange story:

    Two weeks earlier, the neighbor's son had seen Drake come from the train and enter the Johnses' trailer.  And he'd spied on him as Drake found even more super-gadgets there -- glasses that serve as anything from a microscope to a telescope, and cameras that deliver developed pictures instantly.

    But when Selanie and her father had come to the trailer in a state of agitation, the boy had anticipated trouble and run away.  When he looked back, the trailer was gone -- not driven away, but suddenly vanished -- with Drake still aboard.

    Furthermore, it seems that very shortly after this, a fine-looking old gentleman had come around asking people about the gadgets they had bought from Mr. Johns.  And two days later, every one of these items was missing, with a dollar left behind as payment.

    Drake goes back to his hotel wondering what to make of all this, and there he sees a splendid-looking old man who has just broken another man's pen and is offering him a dollar in compensation.  Drake confronts him on the sidewalk outside the hotel.  But the old man suddenly seizes Drake's wrist with a grip impossible to resist and hustles him into a car, and there he loses consciousness.

    When Drake opens his eyes again, he is lying on his back under a high domed ceiling in some immense building.  A great marble corridor stretches farther than his eye can see in either direction.

    He follows the main corridor, ignoring all the many doors and side corridors and branch corridors he passes, until it seems to him that the building must be fully ten miles long.  At last he comes to a great final door that opens onto clouds of fog.  He descends a course of one hundred steps, and there he discovers that the building hangs unsupported in the mist.

    Back inside the building, he enters an office.  It contains journals, ledgers and reports concerning the affairs of "Possessor Kingston Craig."  This man is apparently capable of traveling nine hundred years into the future -- or twenty-five thousand -- in order to right wrongs, avert murders, or convince ruthless rulers to behave themselves, even though to do so means the creation of new "probability worlds."  On one occasion, Craig spent months quietly working to establish "the time of demarcation between the ninety-eighth and ninety-ninth centuries."  And whenever he has completed a job, this Possessor returns to "the Palace of Immortality."

    It would seem that we are privileged to have a peek into the intimate file cabinets of an organization that has undertaken a truly vast responsibility -- the care and direction of mankind through future time.  We may recall that the weapon shops only dedicated themselves to the righting of individual wrongs; they didn't presume to interfere with the main stream of human existence.  But these Possessors from the Palace of Immortality apparently have no such reservations.  They have both the ability and the moral confidence necessary to range ahead through time, altering, shaping and guiding the future development of man.

    When Drake is through examining the papers of Kingston Craig, he discovers a magnificently furnished apartment at the head of a flight of stairs off a side corridor.  He eats there and then goes to sleep.

    He wakes to find a handsome woman beside him in the bed and she speaks to him as though they know each other well.  And when he goes outside the apartment, he finds that the previously deserted building is now busy with people.

    A man approaches Drake, calling him by name.  And shortly they are joined by the handsome woman, who is introduced as Drake's wife -- the former Selanie Johns.

    It is explained that this place is the Palace of Immortality.  It was built in the only known reverse time eddy, so that whoever lives here grows younger instead of older.

    There are three thousand Possessors -- people gifted with the innate ability to travel through time.  All were born during a five hundred year period beginning in the Twentieth Century in the area around an infinitesimal rural American community called Piffer's Road.  These Possessors share a common physical characteristic -- the location of their internal organs is reversed from that of an ordinary person.

    Selanie's father, it seems, is a Possessor who does not believe that the work the Possessors are doing is right.  Through the influence of the gadgets he sells and the removal of metal from the area around Piffer's Road, he means to alter the conditions that originally caused the Possessors to be born.

    If Mr. Johns succeeds, he will bring into being a probability world in which the Palace of Immortality stands silent and empty -- just as Drake saw it yesterday.  The only way in which he can be thwarted is for an untrained Possessor -- specifically, Ralph Drake -- to approach him and seize him by the shoulder with a special glove.  Will Drake agree to do this?

    As an influence on Drake's decision, Selanie then recounts her memory of what was said and done while Drake was hiding in the trailer that disappeared from Piffer's Road:

    Her father was mightily upset by the appearance of the pen-breaking old man on the train.  As their trailer moved off through time to evade this Possessor, Mr. Johns exclaimed:  " 'When I think of the almighty sacrilege of that outfit, acting like God, daring to use their powers to change the natural course of existence instead of, as I suggested, making it a means of historical research--' "

    And that was the moment in which Drake stepped forth from hiding, seized Mr. Johns by the shoulder with a gloved hand, and destroyed forever his power to pass through time.

    Mr. Johns was completely downcast by this abrupt termination of all his efforts, but Selanie remembers her younger self being relieved and glad.  At last she was free to admit her true feelings about the Possessors to her father and to herself.

    She declared to him:  " 'They're in the right; you're wrong.  They're trying to do something about the terrible mistakes of Man and Nature.  They've made a marvelous science of their great gifts, and they use it like beneficent gods.' "

    When he has heard her account, Drake's mind is made up -- whether it be by the mutually consistent stories he has been told about himself by one witness or another, or by the fascinating prospect of marriage to this magnificent woman, or by the attraction and challenge of becoming a trained Possessor capable of roaming at will through time-to-come, using power like a beneficent god and never growing old.  He smiles at Selanie and he says that he doesn't think he will muff what he has to do.

    As the novelet comes to an end, Drake is walking down the great steps into the mist, toward Earth and the fulfillment of his destiny.  The concluding lines of the story are:

    "His memory search was over.  He was about to live the events he thought he'd forgotten."

    What a reversal of perspective!  What a powerful and alluring dream of human possibility!  What an Olympian park path walk!

    "The Search" was the first science fiction story to imagine that a continuing organization of human beings might stand apart from the flow of history and then dip back in wherever it seemed appropriate to positively affect the direction of human affairs.  Van Vogt's Possessors, ranging forth from their Palace of Immortality to play beneficent god with history and then returning to file reports on the subject, would stimulate the imaginations of many SF writers.  During the Forties and Fifties, there would be stories aplenty about Eternals and Time Patrols and Paratime Police and Change Wars, all of which would reflect the influence of this novelet.

    More immediately and specifically, however, "The Search" offered a heady promise of new possibility to the egalitarian children of the Atomic Age.  This story said that anyone at all might prove to be super.  The most apparently ordinary of contemporary guys -- even, say, a farm boy from Nowheresville, USA, a draft reject turned traveling salesman -- might discover a truer nature as a meta-man, a supra-man, a person capable of ignoring the normal constraints of society and time and matter, and of assuming a responsibility for the guidance and direction of humanity's future.

    What's more, this was a story that had a basis in truth.  "The Search" was nothing less than A.E. van Vogt's own life story cast in the form of science fiction:

    Van Vogt was an essentially ordinary guy who was born and raised in rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan in places even more unheard-of than Piffer's Road.  He had lived in boardinghouses, and hopped freight trains, and been turned down by his draft board for physical reasons.  And he'd worked at totally commonplace jobs like driving a truck, clerking for the government, writing true confession stories, and selling advertising space in the pages of Stationers Magazine and Canadian Paint and Varnish.

    But van Vogt had managed to step out of this background of ordinariness and obscurity and assume a new calling as a science fiction visionary.  He had discovered that he had the ability to disengage his imagination from the ongoingness of the present moment and allow it to wander freely through the time and space distances of the universe in search of wondrous glimpses of what humanity could aspire to become.  And it was his belief that the visions he put down on paper would have their influence on the future direction that mankind would elect to take.

    As van Vogt would say in regard to his intentions: "Science fiction, as I personally try to write it, glorifies man and his future."

    In this aim, we can see the answer to the riddle of how it was that John Campbell could manage to love van Vogt and even pay bonuses for his work despite everything his professional judgment had to tell him about the formal inadequacy of van Vogt's stories.  If Campbell had no other reason for putting aside all he thought he knew about the way that stories should be constructed in order to buy every single bit of fiction that A.E. van Vogt could produce, this purpose of van Vogt's would certainly have been reason enough.

    It was, after all, Campbell's passionate wish for modern Western man to overcome his paralyzing fears of the vast material universe, and of older, more powerful beings, and of the inevitable decline and fall guaranteed by cyclical history, and reach out to grasp the stars.  Toward the accomplishment of this end, he had armed the writers of Astounding with the power of universal operating principles, and filled them with faith in the ability of man to learn whatever he needed to know, and then he'd sent them forth to clear away every obstacle standing between humanity and its higher destiny.

    There is no doubt that Campbell's authors had labored diligently and often brilliantly at this task.  Yet none of them, not even the omni-competent Robert Heinlein, had been brave enough to take the crucial imaginative leap and portray human beings who actually possessed the necessary confidence and moral authority to successfully establish control over the wider universe.

    None of them, that is, but not quite plausible, not quite rational, not quite technically sound A.E. van Vogt, with his dream-visions of a glorious human future.

    As early as his first published SF story, van Vogt had suggested that one day the human race might be capable of ruling the entire galaxy.  And, as we have seen, when considered as a whole, the overall body of fiction that he had published in Astounding from "Black Destroyer" to "The Search" may be understood as a multi-faceted meditation on the subject of how man would have to alter and what he would have to become if human beings were ever to assume responsibility for themselves, for their fellows, for other beings, for time and for space, and for the entirety of existence.

    There was no way that John Campbell could possibly turn away from that.  It was too close to his own heart's dream.  And yet, there would be fundamental aspects of van Vogt's thinking that would continue to baffle and elude the editor.

    Campbell was a materialist, pragmatist and holist -- a person with an engineer's appreciation for things which work.  What was important to him was establishing human control over the universe, and anything  that served to bring this about was good enough for him.  We could fairly say of him that he still saw the nature of the universe in Twenties' terms, as a great machine -- but modified by his advanced Thirties' recognition of the synergetic power of whole systems.  It was Campbell's belief that if human beings could only get hold  of the handbook of rules by which the great cosmic machine-system was run, they could take command of its operation and direct existence as they wished.

    If van Vogt was also a holist, it was of a more subtle kind.  He was not just a materialist and a pragmatist.  To him the universe wasn't merely an assemblage of dead parts, a motiveless hunk of machinery that men could take over and operate in any way they pleased.  Rather he saw existence as an integrated, living Whole that must be dealt with carefully and respectfully -- according to its own terms, and not ours.

    It was a new moral order that van Vogt was offering in his stories, crucially different from the traditional moral order whose threatened collapse had been such a central issue in the great Technological Age contention between the embattled defenders of soul and spirit and the barbaric partisans of visible materiality.  The difference was that the inherited cosmic and social order had been based upon degrees of descent from God and spirit, but van Vogt's new morality was based upon the relative ability of beings to incorporate and exemplify the essential qualities of higher Wholeness.

    John Campbell was about as innocent of morality as a Twentieth Century scientific barbarian could be.  But he was able to travel a certain distance in company with van Vogt by electing to treat his new moral order as though it were a variant form of Campbell's own doctrine of universal operating principles.  That is, if the way in which the universe actually does function is what you mean by the word "right," then right behavior and effective use of universal operating principles would be one and the same thing.  Campbell could go along with that.

    Of course, this highly selective interpretation of van Vogt would be something like the old woman of fable who had never encountered a hawk, and when she did was unable to rest content until she had clipped its wings and beak and turned it into a proper bird.  Similarly, Campbell's reasoning would deprive van Vogt of nothing that was of any real importance -- merely his sense of the essential connection between matter and life, and his imperative conviction of the cosmic necessity of moral behavior.

    The truth was that if John Campbell was sometimes willing to do the right thing, it wasn't because he recognized it as the moral thing to do, but because it seemed the thing most likely to get the job done on a particular occasion.  Other times, other expedients.  But for van Vogt, doing the right thing was not just a means or an option.  It was the only thing.  It was mankind's road upward.

    The result of this underlying disparity in perception and aim was that Campbell could willingly accept van Vogt's stories with their potent images of human beings ruling the stars, defeating monsters, traveling between galaxies, creating the planets, besting supermen, standing off the power of empire, and policing time-to-come.  But the means by which van Vogt was able to arrive at these wonderful possibilities would always escape him.

    With our advantages of perspective, however, we can see that, taken as a whole, the first eight stories that van Vogt produced after he left the Canadian Department of National Defence to become a full-time SF writer were an outline of a program for human conduct and human advancement within a moral, purposeful, interconnected and organic universe.  These stories said that in such a cosmos the way for mankind to move forward was through responsibility, cooperation and altruistic behavior.  They said that one level of becoming after another was possible, each of which was defined by its own relative degree of integration.  And they said that a natural imperative attendant upon human progress from one level to the next must be for those who had managed to advance to reach back and lend assistance to those lagging behind and aid them in overcoming oppression and limitation, in widening their horizons, and in learning how to participate in higher patterns and systems of being.

    Of these eight stories, the one that indicated the farthest range of potential human integration and action, and the one that van Vogt himself considered his best piece of early fiction, was an extended novelet entitled "Asylum."  This story was published following "Recruiting Station" and "Co-operate -- or Else!" in the May 1942 issue of Astounding.

    In "Asylum," the human form is given as the standard for all intelligent life throughout the galaxy.  But within the framework of this basic form, it seems that many different levels of organization are possible.  We see six in this story, identified in terms of IQ scores.

    At the bottom of the scale comes ordinary Earth humanity, represented by a young reporter named William Leigh.  He is a normal guy with a slightly-above-average IQ of 112.

    In his future world, psychology machines invented by Professor Garret Ungarn, a noble but reclusive scientist who lives with his daughter in a "meteorite" home near Jupiter, had been thought to have eliminated all war and crime.  But Leigh is now covering a story about several bizarre and brutal murders -- "the first murders on the North American continent in twenty-seven years" -- which left the victims drained of blood and of static electricity, and with burnt and bruised lips.

    These killings are in fact the work of two space vampires called Dreeghs, a male named Jeel and a female named Merla.  This unsettling couple has super-swift reflexes, overwhelming psychological presence, and IQs of 400.  But if they are to sustain themselves, they must have constant supplies of blood and "life force" drained from other human beings.

    As Merla eventually explains to William Leigh, a million years ago, the Dreeghs were a party of interstellar holidayers who were caught in the grip of a deadly sun:

    "Its rays, immensely dangerous to human life, infected us all.  It was discovered that only continuous blood transfusions, and the life force of other human beings, could save us.  For a while we received donations; then the government decided to have us destroyed as hopeless incurables.
    "We were all young, terribly young and in love with life; some hundreds of us had been expecting the sentence, and we still had friends in the beginning.  We escaped, and we've been fighting ever since to stay alive."
    Jeel and Merla have come stumbling upon Earth while suffering an agony of need for blood and life force.  Beyond the borders of our solar system, their spaceship encountered an "ultra" information beacon which signaled to them that Earth is a Galactic colony just seven thousand years old:  " 'It is now in the third degree of development, having attained a limited form of space travel little more than a hundred years ago.' "  The beacon tells them that at such an early stage in its development, this culture isn't yet ready to cope with knowledge of the existence of the older, wider, ongoing Galactic world.  Galactic ships are warned to stay clear.

    Merla and Jeel are elated to hear this.  To them, an ignorant, isolated third degree planet like this represents a rich and easy source of blood and life energy for themselves and for the other members of the Dreegh tribe.

    The one obstacle between them and what they crave is the resident Galactic Observer in this solar system.  But Jeel and Merla do not anticipate any problem in identifying and then eliminating this man.  The job of being Galactic Observer in a primitive backwater like this is the kind of menial work assigned to Kluggs, a human type with an average IQ of just 240 or so -- and no match at all for the likes of a Dreegh.

    The only thing the Dreeghs actually do fear is the possible intervention of a vastly superior sort of human being, a "Great Galactic" with an IQ of 1200.  Thus far, however, in the course of a million years, these exalted beings have never taken personal action against them.

    Jeel and Merla make an appearance in William Leigh's hotel bedroom -- their spaceship somehow held coincident in space-time with what would otherwise be his bathroom -- and turn the reporter into their helpless tool.  Using his knowledge and resources, they identify Professor Garret Ungarn as the local Galactic Observer.  Then they hypnotize Leigh into fancying himself in love with the professor's daughter Patricia, and send him off to Jupiter to gain entry to the Ungarn meteorite and lower the defensive screens that protect it.

    Leigh accomplishes exactly what they desire of him -- but in the process something most peculiar happens.  While he is aboard the meteorite base, there is a sequence of events that plays itself through again and again:

    In the first version, Leigh is being taken to an interview with a highly suspicious Patricia Ungarn when he knocks out his escort and escapes.  He runs to an elevator.  This carries him to a room of utter blackness.  Here he encounters a something that flashes and sparkles and then seems to penetrate his head.

    Abruptly, Leigh finds himself back at the moment of his escape.  He is bidden to enter Patricia Ungarn's apartment, which he finds marvelous and magnificent.

    In a state of some confusion, he tells her of the elevator and the blackness room, but she denies that either one exists.  She even demonstrates to him that what he is certain is the elevator door is in fact the door to another corridor.

    When Leigh declares his love for her, Patricia becomes convinced that he must have been hypnotized.  She determines to put Leigh aboard a small spacecraft and send him off to take his chances with the Dreeghs outside.

    Abruptly, however, Leigh once more finds himself returned to the moment of his initial escape.  As he is bidden to enter Patricia Ungarn's apartment, it seems to him that Jeel must be dissatisfied with the way that things have gone and is somehow forcing them to repeat until they come out the way he wants them to.

    Leigh now begins to sense the presence of another mind within his head -- and then suddenly he sees things with a strange new clarity.  Patricia's apartment, which had seemed so fine to him before, now seems marked by flaws and disharmonies.  And when he studies Patricia herself, she appears very different to him than in the moment of his declaration of love:

    On all Earth, no woman had ever been so piercingly examined.  The structure of her body and her face, to Leigh so finely, proudly shaped, so gloriously patrician -- found low grade now.
    An excellent example of low-grade development in isolation.
    That was the thought, not contemptuous, not derogatory, simply an impression by an appallingly direct mind that saw -- overtones, realities behind realities, a thousand facts where one showed.
    This time, Leigh is able to effortlessly dominate the situation.  He overpowers Patricia and her father, and then he cuts the power supporting the screens that protect this Galactic outpost.

    Leigh has done exactly what he was bidden to do by the Dreeghs.  And when he is back in their hands once more, an exultant Jeel binds him and turns him over to a rapacious Merla.  The female Dreegh has been lusting after Leigh with a passion and greed that seem as much sexual as hunger for his life force.

    Merla begs Leigh to cooperate with her kiss of death.  However, when their lips meet, it is not from him but to him that energy flows.  There is a searing flash of blue and Merla collapses.

    As Jeel revives her with some of his own supply of life force, a terrified Merla confesses that she has been cheating.  She has secretly killed dozens of men on Earth for their energy and now Leigh has it all!

    We might remember that at the climax of Slan, Jommy's bonds dropped away, thereby identifying him to Kier Gray as the son of Peter Cross.  Now Leigh's bonds fall away from him.  The being who was William Leigh stands revealed as a Great Galactic!

    It seems that the Dreegh discovery of Earth was anticipated.  This Great Galactic has deliberately suppressed nine-tenths of his energy and mental power in order to take on the persona of an ordinary Earthman.  Now his normal level of energy has been restored, and he is prepared to collect the two hundred and twenty-seven Dreegh ships gathered here to fall upon Earth.

    This supremely confident and able being dismisses the now-docile Jeel and Merla, telling them, " 'Return to your normal existence. I have still to co-ordinate my two personalities completely, and that does not require your presence.' "

    To this point in "Asylum," we have seen five different levels of intelligence portrayed: William Leigh, Earth reporter, IQ 112; Professor Ungarn and his daughter Patricia, Kluggs, with IQs around 240; the Dreeghs, Merla and Jeel, with IQs of 400; the beginning-to-awaken Leigh, who is able to perceive the flaws and disharmonies evident in Patricia and her apartment; and the re-energized Galactic being who is able to dismiss the likes of Jeel and Merla with no more than a word.

    But another level now remains to be attained -- the fully reintegrated Great Galactic with an IQ of 1200.

    Whatever any such fabulous number as that might actually mean!

    A.E. van Vogt, more than most, had reason to be aware that real intelligence was a far deeper and more complex matter than just the conscious, rational ability to juggle facts and figures.  And so we shouldn't make the literal-minded error of interpreting the various IQ numbers given in "Asylum" as some exact index of relative skill at checking off the proper boxes in a cosmic pencil-and-paper test.  Instead, we would do better to take these numbers as a rough indication of the variety of effective levels possible in the integration of all the different aspects of which "intelligence" is comprised.

    If this wasn't specifically emphasized in "Asylum," it would be in a long-delayed but closely connected sequel, a short novel entitled "The Proxy Intelligence" (If, Oct 1968).  Here, Professor Ungarn would comment that standard Earth IQ tests omit a number of relevant intelligence factors, including mechanical ability and perception of spatial relations.  And Patricia Ungarn would look a Dreegh in the eye and say scathingly:  " 'If altruism is an I.Q. factor, you Dreeghs probably come in below idiot.' "

    What an awesome challenge it was for van Vogt to attempt to imagine the likes of a fully integrated Great Galactic!  As a gauge of how difficult it could be in 1941 to conceive of an encounter with a radically transcendent being, we might remember Slayton Ford returning a broken man from his interview with the gods of the Jockaira in Heinlein's Methuselah's Children, or the brief, unrecallable glimpse of a High One in Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps," which demoralizes Bob Wilson/Diktor, turns his hair gray overnight, and leaves him feeling like a bewildered collie who can't fathom how it is that dog food manages to get into cans.

    But it wasn't just a less traumatic meeting with radical superiority that van Vogt was proposing to imagine.  What van Vogt aimed to show was nothing less than a normal Earthman -- or something like one -- being transmuted and melded and assumed into the highest state of awareness and responsibility that the writer was capable of conceiving.

    Van Vogt says:

    The problem was to describe how a being with an I.Q. of 1200 would operate -- what he would see, feel and think.  I couldn't have him on the stage too long, because he'd become unreal.  I slept on it for several nights and I finally got it.  I think it was completely satisfactory; nonetheless, even the writing was kind of an anguished hurt.
    He also says, "That was the hardest scene I ever wrote."

    Here are the concluding paragraphs of "Asylum" with the frightened and resistant subsystem that still imagines itself to be merely William Leigh, Earth reporter, IQ 112 and proud of it, facing its moment of integration into the Great Galactic:

    Amazingly, then, he was staring into a mirror.  Where it had come from, he had no memory.  It was there in front of him, where, an instant before, had been a black porthole -- and there was an image in the mirror, shapeless at first to his blurred vision.
    Deliberately -- he felt the enormous deliberateness -- the vision was cleared for him.  He saw -- and then he didn't.
    His brain wouldn't look.  It twisted in a mad desperation, like a body buried alive, and briefly, horrendously conscious of its fate.  Insanely, it fought away from the blazing thing in the mirror.  So awful was the effort, so titanic the fear, that it began to gibber mentally, its consciousness to whirl dizzily, like a wheel spinning faster, faster--
    The wheel shattered into ten thousand aching fragments.  Darkness came, blacker than Galactic night.  And there was--
    There is a holistic ending for you!  No other modern science fiction story would ever manage to take a greater leap into the arms of transcendent mystery!

Art by Boris Artzybasheff


This essay is adapted from the chapter "A New Moral Order" in The World Beyond the Hill by Alexei and Cory Panshin, available in book form from us or as an ebook from ElectricStory

Like most classic science fiction, the bulk of van Vogt's work is out of print.  However, Slan and The Voyage of the Beagle are available as ebooks from RosettaBooks, while Transfinite: The Essential A.E. van Vogt (NESFA Press, February 2003) includes many of the stories discussed here. ("Vault of the Beast, " "Black Destroyer," "Discord in Scarlet," "Secret Unattainable," "The Search," "Asylum")

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