A.E. van Vogt is surely the most famous literary figure in the English science fiction world to come out of the tiny community of Gretna, Manitoba, populated primarily by German-speaking Mennonites during his childhood. Of course this is a comical understatement for a writer spoken of in the same breath as the Big Three of Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov, and sometimes wedged, retroactively into the number one or number two spot.
Van Vogt read John W. Campbell’s great novella, “Who Goes There?” (later, in film, The Thing, three separate times). It was van Vogt’s first time grabbing a science fiction magazine off the newsstand, and he could hardly have picked a better issue. It was 1938; Campbell was at the helm of Astounding, which some mark as the precipitating event of science fiction’s Golden Age. But others disagree, saying the Golden Age really started in July of 1939, when “Black Destroyer,” van Vogt’s first published science fiction story, came out in that same magazine.
Van Vogt is also known for his Isher stories, most famously “The Weapon Shop,” which earned him a place in the 1970-1973 SFWA-juried Science Fiction Hall of Fame volumes, alongside Campbell. SFWA also acknowledged him as a Grandmaster two decades after that, though not without some political battles behind the scenes.
But what I’ve been reading recently are the stories featuring Clane of Linn. The original stories were eventually rewritten into a fix-up novel called Empire of the Atom, but first he wrote a sequel, a novel serialized as The Wizard of Linn. The edition I picked up (published as Transgalactic by Baen, and containing two other novels/series besides) went with the text of the original magazine editions, all published in Astounding between 1946 and 1950, including the Wizard serial. It’s taken me this long to read a novel of van Vogt’s, or near enough to one, but I’m glad to have read the original text.
The obvious question in the back of my mind as I sat down with this was, what makes this writer so special that every science fiction writer you’ve ever heard of has something to say about him, a professional science fiction magazine is named after him, and his name still pops up on personal and professional lists of the all-time greats?
I’ll circle back to this. First, Clane of Linn.
Clane is born some centuries in the future, where human civilization has burnt itself to ashes and begun to rebuild. This future society is feudal, with various ruling families constantly jockeying for position and vying for the throne. One religion on Earth survives, and it worships and controls the gods of the atoms (including Uranium, Plutonium, and others). Knowledge of atomic technology is couched in religious terms and shrouded in superstition and ceremony.
This is also a space-faring civilization, and interplanetary war between Earth and Mars is a major ongoing subplot throughout the stories that would eventually become Empire of the Atom. But while all this is going on in the background, the story is really about Clane. Clane is the grandson of the ruling monarch, the Lord Leader Linn. But he’s a mutant, cursed by the atomic gods. Atypically, he is spared, but kept hidden from public view.
Ignored by his family, but taken under the wing of the chief scientist, Clane is a sponge, breathing in palace intrigue, politics, science, and military strategy all from his isolated classroom. What started as an experiment to determine whether the widely held assumption of the subhuman intelligence of mutants would hold up under testing turns into a loving mentor/protégé relationship and a true underdog story.
Clane’s actual physical disabilities are manageable, but the extreme prejudice of his society seems an almost insurmountable barrier. But the young man is also brilliant and tenacious. Even his grandfather, who was prepared to have him killed at birth like any other imperfect child by their societal customs, is intrigued by Clane’s unique point of view and quick mind.
We’ve heard this story before. Lois McMaster Bujold built her career on the ongoing Vorkosigan Saga, whose best-known protagonist survived a poison gas attack in utero and was born with stunted limbs and porcelain bones. We first meet Miles Vorkosigan in The Warrior’s Apprentice, handing off his crutches to run an obstacle course and complete his basic military training, almost immediately shattering his legs on a wall vault. This series, too, is set in a futuristic interplanetary feudal society, and it’s a romping good read, smartly written.
But if Bujold took her premise and hero from van Vogt (I don’t know that she did), van Vogt may have lifted his from I, Claudius, a novel by Robert Graves based on the real-life Roman Emperor, long overlooked as a harmless idiot, but, at least in the novel, anything but.
Good artists copy and great artists steal. I contend that van Vogt is, indeed, great. The pulp era overlapped with the Golden Age; it didn’t strictly precede it. Campbell’s raised editorial standards aside, low-quality writing did not disappear by 1938, or even by 1978 (to pick a somewhat arbitrary date). Not everyone was writing well, but van Vogt, even by today’s standards, did. His prose was simple and spare, his plotting engrossing, and his characters interesting and layered.
The Clane stories were written at almost the exact same time as Asimov’s Foundation stories, also based on a future, interplanetary equivalent of the Roman Empire. I enjoy Foundation, but van Vogt has a more mature quality to his writing: It’s grittier, more focused on character motivation and politics, and minus the MacGuffin/deus ex machina, a whole lot closer to the real Roman Empire.
It’s also simply fantastic to have a hero with a disability in fiction. Asimov made his mutant (the Mule) a villain. I’ve long felt that, entirely separate from the social good it does to present positive role models from different backgrounds, it’s good for art in eneral to present different perspectives and experiences, so we don’t keep churning out the same stories over and over and over. And such is the case here. Van Vogt presents a regressive social view on disability and dismantles it, which is notable for the 1940s.
Not everyone feels the same way about van Vogt. For one reason or another, he has been extremely polarizing for science fiction writers, fans, and critics. You can present a weighty quote to defend just about any opinion you might have about the author, and I’ll do so here, from critic par excellence Paul Di Fillipo: “There’s hardly a wasted word … His plots are marvels of interlocking pieces, often ending in real surprises and shocks, genuine paradigm shifts, which are among the hardest conceptions to depict.” It doesn’t prove anything, but this is nearest to my own experience reading A.E. van Vogt.
I can’t convince everyone to share my opinion, nor would I wish to. There are certainly authors I acknowledge as being great who don’t happen to be to my taste. Van Vogt, as it happens, is. But he doesn’t need my approval.