Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Mission to the Stars

A.E. van Vogt Mission to the Stars (1952)

Whilst one of the most fascinating aspects of van Vogt's writing is the process by which it was written - the numerous peculiar techniques by which he arrived at his distinctively surreal narratives - his reliance upon said techniques casts a certain samey quality over most of his oeuvre; although one might equally well term it consistency for the sake of balance. Of course, some novels work much better than others, although it's not always easy to identify just why this should be, and an additional problem - from my point of view - is that given the significance of process, after a while it is difficult to write about the books without becoming increasingly repetitive. Mission to the Stars being - so far as I am able to tell - the twenty-first van Vogt title I've read and chosen to review, I've probably beaten the random plot swerve every eight-hundred words angle into the ground, so by way of a change, let's focus briefly on his sentence construction.

Looking back, Alfie's narratives now appear to be of a predominantly pulpy, hard-boiled thrust, although this is as much to do with his choice of language as how he welded it all together, and changing aesthetics have left his phraseology beached high and dry upon a Gernsbackian reef alongside other proponents of silver rocket ships, so care should be taken to distinguish technique from simple incongruence with contemporary style. His sentences were carefully constructed in an almost architectural sense in service of particular effects achieved by how different words or concepts worked in contrast with each other. Additionally, van Vogt strove to include what he termed a hang up in each sentence, this being an action or object left partially undefined so as to seed a question within the mind of the reader; and I would suggest that this is why his prose can sometimes feel so dense, almost claustrophobic.

The naval yard spread before him. Maltby paused on the side-walk a hundred feet from the main officers' entrance, and casually lighted a cigarette. Smoking was primarily a non-Dellian habit; and he had never contracted it. But a man who wanted to get from planet IV of the Atmion sun, to Cassidor VII without going by regular ship needed a flexible pattern of small actions to cover such moments as this.

He lit the cigarette while his gaze took in the gate and the officer in charge of the guard. He walked forward finally with the easy stride of a person with clear conscience. He stood, puffing, while the man, a Dellian, examined his perfectly honest credentials. The casualness was a mask. He was thinking, in a mental sweat: It would be a Dellian. With such a man, hypnotism, except under certain conditions of surprise, would be impossible.

Taking these two paragraphs as an example, the level of focus here is peculiar, a couple of actions which could be conveyed in a single sentence, with even the most casually organic elements of the scene firmly pinned down with the precision of a strategy, namely the flexible pattern of small actions to cover such moments as this. The more one reads such prose, the effect becomes cumulative and transparently the work of a very precise design rather than bad writing, as at least a few critics have suggested, specifically a very precise and often highly disorientating design.

Mission to the Stars is another one of those novels van Vogt wrote by bolting a load of earlier short stories together, although for once the joins are not obvious, and it maintains a consistent thematic whole. Oddly, this actually makes for one of his less memorable books. Here we have the strange revelations, the dream-like atmosphere, and the sense of constant motion, none of which really goes anywhere by the end of the story, unlike, for example, Quest for the Future, which flies off in five different directions at the same time and somehow works better. Nevertheless, the detail of individual passages holds the attention for the duration, even if they're not always conducive to keeping one attuned to the broader narrative.

The story expands upon one of van Vogt's favourite themes, namely the underground society of telepathic mutant supermen, hunted and feared by the wider populace whilst holding the key to society's salvation. It's probably not so surprising that van Vogt knocked around with L. Ron Hubbard for a while, although as a creator of supermen, it's nice to see that he at least shunned the more unsavoury aspects of such pseudo-philosophies, and was happy to state as much:

'I heard your order just now, noble lady,' the woman psychologist said. 'I'm afraid, however, that we're dealing with the deepest instincts of the human animal—hatred or fear of the stranger, the alien. Excellency, we come from a long line of ancestors who, in their time, have felt superior to others because of some slight variation in the pigmentation of the skin. It is even recorded that the colour of the eyes has influenced the egoistic in historical decisions. We have sailed into very deep waters, and it will be the crowning achievement of our life if we sail out in a satisfactory fashion.'

On the subject of van Vogt's favourite themes, I also note this to be another novel to feature scenes in which spacecraft fly within subterranean tunnels which, added to the telepathy, mutation, and spy rays, suggests certain common factors with Amazing Stories contributing author Richard S. Shaver who was, to not beat about the bush, stark raving mad. Although if van Vogt's fiction was ultimately drawn from any equivalent mental idiosyncracy, the numerous techniques by which he nailed it down onto the page at least yielded more consistent results than Shaver. In fact, one is inclined to wonder if this might have been the purpose of the numerous writing disciplines van Vogt developed, specifically a means by which he could function as a writer without anything else getting in the way.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself here, at least in suggesting the guy may not have been the full ticket. Somebody really needs to put together a proper analytical biography of this man and his weird and wonderful work, and probably somebody other than me; and just in case I appear to have lost sight of the point, Mission to the Stars is engrossing in places, but far from his best.

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