Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Universe Maker

A.E. van Vogt The Universe Maker (1953)

I suspect there may be a sort of physics of second hand books if A.E. van Vogt is anything to go by. Of the twenty or so van Vogt titles I now have on my shelves - all picked up from second hand places - the most memorable titles all seem to have appeared amongst the first ten or so that I came across. It could be that I've simply grown tired of his weird, inscrutable exercises in rambling surrealism, I suppose, although I prefer the theory that his better works are the ones which tended to sell well, and so eventually found their way to branches of Oxfam, Half Price or wherever in the greatest numbers; so when I now encounter a van Vogt title I've not read, the likelihood is that it will be one of the lesser works. That's my theory anyway.

The Universe Maker begins with the sort of dynamic thrust that promises something at least as good as The Mind Cage or The Weapon Makers, and our man is clearly on top form with his characteristically dense and hypnotically angular prose:

Peering out through the glass, Cargill had the initial impression that he was looking onto a well-kept park. The impression changed. For through the lattice work of the shrubbery he could see a street. It was the kind of street men dream about in moments of magical imagination. It wound through tall trees, among palms and fruit trees. It had shop windows fronting oddly shaped buildings that nestled among the greenery. Hidden lights spread a mellow brightness into the curves and corners. The afternoon had become quite dark and every window glowed as from some inner warmth. He had a tantalising vision of interiors that were different from anything he had ever seen.

All this came from only a glimpse as viewed through the lattice work of a rose arbour. Cargill drew back, trembling. He had had his first look at a city of hundreds of years in the future. It was an exhilarating experience.

Unfortunately it develops into a fairly bewildering experience as once again van Vogt spins a peculiar yarn which veers off in random directions, concentrating all the while on the direct subjective experience of the main character and so leaving certain crucial developments open to the reader's interpretation. It's a story told as though through just one half of a conversation, which unfortunately suffers from van Vogt's typically oblique narrative. Although given the subject, there probably wasn't any other way of telling it.

The story takes Morton Cargill, a war veteran, into his own remote future to be executed so as to heal a sort of inherited psychic wound inhabiting the descendent of a girl he accidentally killed in a car accident back during his lifetime, except he didn't actually kill her after all, and he himself becomes the future Shadow leader demanding his own execution; or something like that. The narrative also takes in a civil war between the ground and those who have chosen to live in the sky, and the Shadows from an even more distant future. Fuck knows what's going on.

Curiously, the theme of the novel would appear to relate to what I suspect may be van Vogt's own peculiar cosmology, a universe in which matter is a minor property of energy, and we can inherit  psychological damage suffered by our ancestors. I say van Vogt's own, but I suppose some of it may come from Korzybski's general semantics, or from Dianetics with which he was very much involved at the time, and certainly the descendants of Marie Chanette suffering from the trauma of the accident which killed her seems reminiscent of Hubbard's engrams. There appears to be a lot more to it than can be summarised in a single paragraph, and unfortunately with van Vogt being van Vogt, it's quite difficult to pick out a succinct quotation to illustrate what I think he's talking about. There's also the further difficulty of atmospheric effect being pretty much indivisible from meaning in the van Vogtian narrative.

What this amounts to is a novel which feels quite profound, potentially A.E. van Vogt's own VALIS or similar, but which is quite difficult to follow; although on the positive side, it's also very short so the confusion doesn't have time to become annoying.

I think this means that The Universe Maker is good, and it certainly suggests it may be worth my taking another shot at it once my brain has recovered.

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