Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Beast



A.E. van Vogt The Beast (1963)

I keep trying to give up the van Vogt but it's difficult. His stories range from incomprehensible and headachey to warped and surreal brilliance of a flavour that was almost unique to Alfred Elton himself. Each time I happen upon some hitherto undiscovered van Vogt title secreted amongst the ordinary science-fiction paperbacks, I think of the tower that is my present to-be-read pile, and how I should at least tackle Project Pope, Triplanetary, or The War of the Worlds before shelling out on another novel that will probably read like some guy having a fight with his own typewriter; but then I remember The Winged Man or The Voyage of the Space Beagle, the sheer what the fuck? factor of his best works, and suddenly I'm off the wagon again.

Just to recap with the customary generalisation, A.E. van Vogt wrote to a certain formula, something he cooked up himself entailing dream images, random plot swerves roughly every eight-hundred words, and sentences bolted together for maximum evocation by a method that seems as much modernist sculpture as literary technique. To suggest that the results were sometimes a little weird is an understatement, but when it works, it's amazing.

A
typical van Vogt narrative may go in almost any direction suddenly and without warning, and so it makes sense that his regular novels are not always easily distinguished from his fix-ups - the fix-up novel comprising three or more short stories welded together and relentlessly hammered into a single tale, roughly speaking, regardless of how thematically disparate the original components may have been. Some of these novel-length exquisite corpses work better than others - the bewildering and yet strangely fascinating Quest for the Future being a good example.

The Beast combines one of my favourite van Vogt shorts, The Great Engine, with some other stuff. The other stuff in question incorporates moon cowboys dominated by a despotic caveman - formerly a grunting Adolf Hitler substitute in the original war-era material according to the evidently knowledgeable Andrew May - and a drug which enhances women so as to render them equal to men, if you can imagine such a thing. It does it's best and tries hard, and almost gets there, but - never mind the usual patchwork of bits and unmatching pieces all sewn together - The Beast reads unfortunately like the author composed the latter third with a food mixer. There is van Vogt goodness here, but sadly not in the right order.

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