Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Destination: Universe!

A.E. van Vogt Destination: Universe! (1952)

Possibly not a great choice - following Burroughs with the scrambled logic of an author who was notably hailed in France as a great surrealist. Time and again I tell myself I have all the van Vogt I'll ever need, but I keep finding titles I've never read whenever I go in Half-Price Books, titles which might just turn out to be up there with The Weapon Makers or The Winged Man; and each time I find one of these, I can't exactly not buy it; so here we are again - all very strange considering how my first encounter with the bizarre ramblings of this guy left with the impression of it being the most stupid thing I'd ever read.

Destination: Universe! turns out to be a collection of short stories, and as such seemed a safe bet given that Alfred Elton's strengths were best deployed in short sharp bursts of weird, angular sentences, notable examples being found in the likes of Black Destroyer, The Great Engine and The Weapon Shop each of which I'd happily number amongst my favourite science-fiction short stories of all time without too much deliberation. None of them feature in this collection, although The Enchanted Village which does is probably equally deserving of recognition as a masterpiece of the genre; and there's also Dear Pen Pal which takes the form of polite correspondence from a chromium based alien requiring a five-hundred degrees Fahrenheit environment - a literary precursor to Douglas Adams if ever there was. Then there's The Sound and The Search which I'm fairly certain van Vogt later transplanted into Children of Tomorrow and Quest for the Future respectively - two of those fix-up novels he forged from short stories precariously bolted together with occasionally debatable results. The Search doesn't actually make any more sense in unalloyed form than it did as part of the mystifying story into which it was blended, but the rampant surrealism is nonetheless engaging.

I'd rather avoid repeating myself with the umpteenth variation on that paragraph about the peculiar process by which van Vogt composed his fiction, but The Sound is in particular a good example of why he should be considered unique. It opens with parents awake in the middle of the night idly wondering where their nine-year old has got to. He's out there looking for the sound, we are told as though this explains everything, and it's perfectly normal for small boys to be off having adventures at three in the morning, coming and going like house cats. Diddy, the boy in question, has meanwhile encountered alien infiltrators, the telepathic Yevd, but luckily he remembers what the government has told him, that citizens are advised to co-operate with the enemy in acts of sabotage at all times.

What the fuck? might be deemed a legitimate reaction to much of van Vogt's writing, which is probably why I'm finding it so difficult to give up. Destination: Universe! isn't his greatest collection by some way, but there's enough surreal goodness here to justify purchase, and everyone should read The Enchanted Village and Dear Pen Pal at some point; and Godzilla fans should really take a look at 1949's Dormant which predates the first Ishiro Honda film by five years.

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