Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Secret Galactics

A.E. van Vogt The Secret Galactics (1974)
This starts off well in characteristically peculiar form with the main protagonist revealed to be a disembodied brain trundling around in a wheeled life support machine, even occasionally driving places with a showroom dummy propped up behind the wheel of his car so as to avoid attracting attention. Also, all sorts of alien races are invading Earth, infiltrating human society in human bodies, and it never seems quite clear what they want or why they're here. In fact I got the impression they're mainly looking to settle down and get on with it without too much fuss. The problems - at least for the reader - only really arise when a theme begins to emerge from this typically dreamlike scenario and we begin to notice what the book is about.

The aliens don't appear to be the traditional reds under the bed, or a metaphor for anything in particular so far as I can tell, because this is another van Vogt novel examining the supposedly irreconcilable differences between men and women, and it's anyone's guess what the aliens have to do with anything. I seem to recall a van Vogt novel in which human women turn out to be an alien species of some description, although I can't work out which one it was, or whether I just imagined that, but The Secret Galactics belongs to the same era as The Darkness on Diamondia which betrays a similarly odd view of women; so I guess Alfred was going through a thang when he hit sixty, or at least had decided he may as well write about it. The thang is expressed as a peculiar seam of oblique sexism running through the book.

'And then of course, somewhere about a month after our marriage, it developed she wasn't pregnant at all, but just a typical female of the good woman type, which I didn't know about at the time, going into her frigid state, and thereafter limiting sex to once a week, or even less.'

The good woman is a type described in a sociological tract catchily entitled Women Are Doomed, as written by our hero, the disembodied brain. He's quite the philosopher.

Carl was not actually surprised. It was an old theory of his that all human problems were female in origin.

Well-l-ll - modification: money and possessions were right in there. Money, and what it could buy. Property, the security it bought - and the women it attracted. Still, just about every male who wanted a woman could get some version of one. But not all men took the trouble, as he had done, to learn how to get money. So that was a vaguer impulse, except for some minimum eating and shelter requirements.

Not that the male of the species is entirely without flaws:

'He was unfortunate. Whatever was in the human embryo his Sleele genes were melded into, looks good physically. But the grown male body has a compulsion for young girls. Fourteen to sixteen drives him up a wall. He's been arrested three times for molesting teenagers. But Paul has promised him an unending supply of young girls for his help. So you see what a dilemma I've put our Metnov in.'

To be fair, it doesn't seem that van Vogt harboured any particularly sexist attitudes so much as that his views regarding women were somehow arrested, even juvenile, predicated on a notion of the sexes being so radically divided as to render even basic communication problematic. He seems to idolise women, placing them on a pedestal whilst simultaneously resenting that they're not all queueing up to powder his nuts, and additionally resenting that they seem unable to intuitively appreciate just how unfair this is. It reminds me of myself as an emotionally stunted teenager.

Then again, the problem isn't the subject so much as that it's anyone's guess what van Vogt is actually saying here, if he's even saying anything. I have an uncomfortable feeling that the point of the humanoid aliens was simply to show how strange those forever-frigid titty-women can be from a slightly different angle. So we have a great start with five or six chapters of Alfred Elton firing on all cylinders, then it all sort of slips into an undifferentiated slurry of dubious sexual politics and general muttering; which is a real shame.

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