Monday, 20 April 2015

The Changeling

A.E. van Vogt The Changeling (1950)
Another oddity, and fuck - could they really not have come up with a better cover? Not only does this 1976 printing recycle the art of the New English Library's 1973 edition of The Weapon Makers, but messes it up by use of a reproduction with the quality of something taken on a phone, then adds insult to injury with that font one would purchase by the letter from 1970s hardware stores in order to spell out beware of the dog, please shut gate, or whatever name you had decided to bestow upon your newsagent or corner shop; and you can even see the registration marks on the front, between author and title; and the picture has nothing to do with the novel - although admittedly it was already a bit of a stretch linking it to the subject of The Weapon Makers; and the spine of the book is creeping around onto the front cover. The thing looks and feels like it came out of a Christmas cracker.

Never mind.

The overwhelming sense of familiarity I experienced as I began to read this turns out to result from The Changeling having been human-centipeded together with a few shorter stories to form The Beast, one of van Vogt's fix-up novels. The Beast, from what I can recall, featured Adolf Hitler somehow inhabiting the body of a caveman as leader of a breakaway group of Nazis who fled to the moon after the end of the war. It was better than fucking Iron Sky, but was otherwise something of a dog's dinner, you may be surprised to learn. Here in its pre-op state, The Changeling is a little more palatable, if not necessarily the sort of thing to get anyone running out into the street and jumping up and down with excitement. The story is one of those which screams Philip K. Dick read this, it being the tale of an immortal man who doesn't realise he's immortal because his brain cells completely replace themselves more or less every four years, along with his memory. The opening chapters represent van Vogt at his most arrestingly weird, narrating the tale of our man with that characteristically dreamlike sense of constant motion, and each passing moment examined as a distinct state of mind. The random narrative swerves seem to work well, building atmosphere without going too crazy - as tends to happen when van Vogt gets carried away and it feels like you're reading something that's been pulled out of an inverted top hat in random order.

Unfortunately over the brief course of The Changeling's 120 pages, it becomes a little too easy to forget what he's actually writing about, at least beyond a very general impression. Additionally there would seem to be what looks a lot like a horrendously sexist subtext, as typified by the arrival of the equalised women - women who have taken a special drug which renders them equal to men. The equalised women have become a disgruntled minority, shunned by those unequalised gals who would much rather visit the hairdresser, shop for pretty dresses, or perhaps read the latest issue of Woman's Hat Monthly, and shunned by the men who were quite frankly hoping to enter someone a bit more feminine. The book concludes with some sort of general plea for political equality between the sexes, without actually terming it as equality, so I don't think van Vogt's heart was in entirely the wrong place, but he really should have given the issue a little more thought and working out what he actually wanted to say in the first instance would have been a good start. That said, this aspect of The Changeling now reads somewhat like an old Harry Enfield sketch - Women: Know Your Limits, and the like, so there's probably not much point getting angry about any of it, at least not with recourse to anything stronger than a heavy sigh.

The Changeling is a little underwhelming, but is short and seems mostly comprehensible by van Vogt's standards, and the story definitely works better in this form than chopped into pieces and stirred into The Beast.

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