When I was a child, several decades ago, A.E. van Vogt was one of my favorite writers, on the same podium with Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury. Later, I was intrigued of how people never seemed to remember him, while praising loudly the others. So I got hold of whatever I could find written by him and started reminiscing.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle is more of a short stories collection than a novel, even if it has the same characters spacing out on the same ship. It contains four stories:
- Black Destroyer - a large cat-like alien tries to get the better of the crew
- War of Nerves - an alien civilization makes contact telepathically, with unexpected results
- Discord in Scarlet - a red alien tries to get the better of the crew
- M33 in Andromeda - a galactic sized alien tries to get the better of the crew
- there are also some connective tissue paragraphs detailing a power struggle in the crew itself
I know why I liked him when I was a kid. The people are all science and knowledge and decisiveness. They are impressive and sure minded and solve every dire situation with their power of their cunning. They also casually discuss and sometimes enact acts of genocide "on principle alone" because some aliens are too ugly, dangerous or of a different morality. It's an all male crew, chemically castrated like in the military, with not the slightest thought women could contribute in any way. They fly between galaxies with the strong sense of their own intellectual and (if proven wrong) moral superiority. The author puts out there the idea that the universe is several million years old and it cyclically explodes to create another one. The distance between stars and galaxies, as well as their number are ridiculously underestimated. Other knowledge we now take for granted is absent completely from the book.
So it's a strange combination of strong people and ideas that look and feel ridiculous, insensitive, uneducated and even psychotic. The main reason is that the stories were not written at time of publication, but much earlier, sometimes in the '30s and then the author was constantly fixing them and mashing them together in fix-up novels. The scientific and social change in these 100 years is shocking. Hell, I was gleefully enjoying this 40 years ago! It has the effect of making me see our modern behavior through different eyes. We are as sure now as we were then that we are in the right and that we are a pinnacle of something and everything other is weird and to be changed or avoided. What will we think of present selves a century from now? How pathetic are the five minute dramas that occupy our awareness today.
Think of this book as a precursor of Star Trek: valiant humans exploring the universe. Only they are as far from Kirk as he was from Picard. Quite intriguing an experience which I recommend.
Van Vogt died in 2000, but his last short story was written in 1976. He was never considered a great writer even in his own time, despite my own childish preferences, yet he made an impact. I probably am going to read something by him again, maybe not immediately.