A.E. Van Vogt and the Craft of Consciousness
Despite the decline of reputation his works have suffered in the past two decades and the continued disdain of many of sci fi’s luminaries and power brokers, the works of A. E. Van Vogt continue to exercise a strong, if ghostly, influence on the development of the genre. He was always somewhat of an outsider to part of the sci fi community, being not only Canadian, but a prairie-sprung, particularly rootless Canadian at that. His short stories have long enjoyed admiration, sometimes grudging, from most of the sci fi community. His novel-length works have not enjoyed this privilege. Widely slammed as episodic, wandering, stylistically indefinite, and poor in character development, the longer works (still brief by contemporary standards) are easily overlooked by too many readers and writers. The fact that several were pieced together from previously published stories without much of a linking apparatus does not help matters. Nor does Van Vogt’s fleeting association with the preliminaries to Scientology.
How can we overlook, on the other hand, works that have had a major impact on sci fi television and films? It is impossible not to concede that the series of works on the War Against the Rull, the Space Beagle journeys, the Weapons Makers, and the Worlds of Null-A have been echoed in Star Trek, Enemy Mine, and Alien, among other iconic developments. Also noteworthy is the homage of Philip K. Dick, who found a liberating freedom of imagination in Van Vogt’s writings.
Ironically, a closer look at Van Vogt’s stylistic “shortcomings” can provide a clue to why they may not be shortcomings at all. First, consider that Van Vogt’s stories have always had a more enduring level of acclaim in Europe than they have had in North America. His novels continue to fascinate the public in France, for instance. French readers are explicit about their attraction for him: they class him as a surrealist. The movement of Surrealism was born in France just after World War I, an heir to the tradition of Dada that had grown in neutral Switzerland during the conflict. Tristan Tzara passed the baton for the movement, willingly or not, to André Breton. Many artists, including Hans Arp and Man Ray, joined the Parisian group that sprang up and soon became a dominant force in the creative world, the main non-fascist inheritor of Modernism. Chronicled in Breton’s text Nadja, the early surrealists strove to achieve psychic effects that gave birth to artistic impulses. One of their favorite techniques during the époque des sommeils was to provoke and record dream visions. Van Vogt stubbornly carried forth a similar method, having himself awakened throughout the night so that he could jot down impressions from his dreams. Many of these dream impressions are said to form the basis for his writings.
Furthermore, surrealists sought to create art forms that rejected all prevailing forms of logical continuity. They considered logical predictability and verisimilitude to be anathema to the process of authentic creation. The ideal surrealistic image was supposed to involve an intuitive, instant, and powerful linkage between two logically discontinuous elements, as in Paul Éluard’s famous line “The Earth is blue like an orange.” Van Vogt’s essential component of “Nextian” thinking, which indeed owes a debt to some theories of verbal semantics, also appears to be even more closely bound to the practices and objectives of Surrealism.
It is no accident that the successful translator of Van Vogt into French was none other than Boris Vian. Vian’s own influential novels, L’Arrache-cœur and L’Écume des jours are prime examples of the same literary aesthetic. The first involves a devastating critique of the materialistic logic of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and the second develops an approach to human values that is daringly intuitive and dismissive of rational explanations. No one could understand Van Vogt more perfectly than Vian, who captivated the minds of French youth in the 70’s. It is these very discontinuous elements that have motivated most negative opinions of Van Vogt in America. Our North American prejudices are completely understandable, since our literary consciousness has been shaped mainly in the mold of Hemingway’s prose. Faulkner and Fitzgerald occasionally “strayed” into discontinuous styles, but these instances were glibly explained away in various ways by North American critics in such a way as to preserve the notion of their absolute claim to logic and verisimilitude. Our authors who eventually incorporated surrealistic elements into prose fiction, such as Kurt Vonnegut and John Barth, were either marginalized or squeezed somehow into a race/class/gender paradigm. When, in the wake of the Hispanic movement of Magical Realism, certain surrealistic effects actually became “legitimized” in authors like John Irving, Michael Chabon, and even Philip Roth, their heritage was essentially occulted.
As usual, it is the unusually associative mind of Philip K. Dick that can bring us back to a more complete view of Van Vogt’s importance. Dick’s own obsession with “paranoia” is intimately connected to a rejection of the rationalistic construction of both story and history. The symbolism of the I-ching in The Man in the High Tower, much more than a touch of the orient, embodies his proximity to Surrealism and to Van Vogt’s Nextianism. “No man is a king in his own land” says an old French adage. This definitely applies to Van Vogt. As political borders continue to shift and blur, let us hope that he may regain a North American reputation at least equal to that which the rest of the globe confers on him.