Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Anarchistic Colossus

A.E. van Vogt The Anarchistic Colossus (1977)

That's it, I told myself for the umpteenth time, no more van Vogt for me. The guy had his moments - Slan, Voyage of the Space Beagle, The Winged Man and others - and whilst he's great when he's great, his books are never what you would call a light read, and when you've made your way through to the end of one with all the ease of a piece of string pushed up a hill and it turns out to be a dud, the disappointment is comparable to unexpected bills for dental work; not crushing exactly, but something you could live without.

Then I recalled one of those online conversations, some guy praising The Anarchistic Colossus as a great title for a novel, as indeed it is; and I knew I had to return just one more time.

I get the impression that Alfred Elton developed an interest in alternate political systems in later years, judging by 1970's Children of Tomorrow and 1983's marginally superior Computerworld. Here human society is ordered according to an interpretation of anarchist principles, with criminal or otherwise aberrant behaviour policed by technological means. Chip, our main guy, thus somehow finds himself working on an Antarctic fishing boat as punishment for something or other, even as alien intelligences from somewhere out there monitor his performance as part of a game which will almost certainly result in their destroying the Earth. There are also a few commendable nods towards racial inclusivity with the introduction of Mike, a black character - although it backfires a little with such a frequency of references to his colour, he waved a black dismissing, hand, and so on, but at least he doesn't call anyone baby.

Beyond this, I have no fucking clue what happened in this novel. A.E. van Vogt writes very specifically odd sentences, highly descriptive and with characters seemingly in constant forward motion but with very little to account for motive. This can make for a distinctive and often surreal narrative, as it does in his better efforts, or it can end up reading like this:

A thought: Basic man has his roots in the belief that everybody is everybody, that everybody owns everything, all women and all men are married to each other—and, deep inside, he has a strong impulse to be, and act, this way. But, of course, that basic is no longer a truth; since he is separate, and belongs only to himself. Thus he has to rationalise his impulse, when it manifests, over the dead bodies, so to speak, of those who resist his "rationality".

I had my wife read that passage, but she had no idea what it actually said either; and most of the novel seems to be cut from the same cloth. I appreciate that if you squeeze the words hard enough some sense drips out, but it seems little reward for a lot of work when even the grammar doesn't quite join up in the right way.

Clarity arrives on the last page as we at last learn the import of the title and the purpose of the entire narrative:

Leslie had gone on. Chip followed her into the warm, brightly lighted main cabin, where he was one of three male passengers among nearly eight hundred women and girls, all of whom, including Chip, were living evidence that the colossal anarchistic complexity known as the human brain, can adjust to any system, and in the long run survive anywhere.

It's a nice idea, but ten pages would have been plenty.

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