Tuesday, 11 July 2017

The Silkie

A.E. van Vogt The Silkie (1969)
Including a couple of short story collections, this is my twenty-seventh van Vogt, and the one in which I finally understood what he was trying to do, or possibly what I think he was trying to do; by which I mean that I believe he was trying to do more than simply tell a natty tale or predict futuristic things.

As you may or may not be aware, Alfred Elton wrote some pretty strange stuff, so strange in fact that first impressions can often be massively unfavourable, as was mine. Initially he reads like a man drunk in charge of a typewriter with his weird, ugly sentences full of jarring images. The stories never quite add up, and are spattered with preposterous occurrences which don't always make sense or even go anywhere. In chapter two of The Silkie we learn that Cemp, an example of the species for which the novel is named, enjoys more than the usual five human senses, meaning that he has not merely a sixth sense, but an additional 184 senses; and if it were anyone other than van Vogt I probably would have thrown the book across the room. He pulls a similar stunt in chapter twenty-two during an episode in which the solar system is spontaneously gifted with a number of new planets, specifically 1,823 new planets.

I've witnessed a few van Vogt first-timers protesting that the guy can't write, or that he writes like a twelve-year old, or that he's making it up as he goes along. The last one is arguably true, and whilst the first two are understandable, I'd suggest that such criticisms are unsupportable given how much he wrote over how many years. If he really couldn't write, he would surely have improved at least a little during those four decades, therefore the reason that his books read as they do must surely be deliberate. That's how they're supposed to be. I've read plenty by authors who can't write, and it all tends to blend into one undifferentiated body of inept crap with the same mistakes repeated over and over, none of which resembles the writing of A.E. van Vogt.

So the previously mentioned Cemp is a Silkie, a shape-shifting creature which can take one of three forms - something close to human, an aquatic body with gills, and a presumably insectoid living spaceship with the ability to negate gravity. Cemp seems to be something like a secret agent in so much as that he has superiors and he works to counter the actions of those against whom he is in opposition, so on one level this is James Bond as one of the stranger Residents albums. As is often the case with van Vogt, the peculiar suggestion of constant motion combined with bizarre images and dramatic random narrative swerves made it very difficult for me to keep track of what was actually happening; but as is additionally at least sometimes the case with van Vogt, it didn't seem to matter because I was getting something from it, even if I can't quite describe what that was.

Except this time I think I've cracked it, and the understanding somehow presented itself during Cemp's speech in chapter eight:

'Entirely apart from my feelings of loyalty to Earth, I do not believe the future of life forms will be helped or advanced by any rigid adherence to the idea that I am a lion, or I am a bear. Intelligent life is, or should be, moving toward a common civilisation.'

A.E. van Vogt liked to keep his readers on their toes. He wrote using a narrative technique by which he purposefully introduced some new element or seemingly random change of direction to the story every eight-hundred words, and he wrote using images from his own dreams, communicating with sentences specifically tailored so as to leave a question in the mind of the reader. For the sake of argument, this might be termed a form of divination and as good a means of predicting the future as any. Where Asimov thought really hard about science and came up with rocket ships and space stations, van Vogt was essentially drawing random images from a top hat, composing the narrative equivalent of the automatic poetry of the Surrealists, or even William Burroughs if you like; and I believe he did this because the future is essentially impossible to predict, and all we can say for sure is that it will contain elements of something we don't immediately recognise.

However, there's more than mere prediction going on here. Given his interest in Korzybski's General Semantics, I suspect van Vogt saw the path to the future as necessarily psychologically distinct from human history up to the twentieth century; in other words that we would require new ways of thinking, just as Cemp believes we need to leave behind rigid adherence to certain ideas. So just as that which lays ahead is by definition unknowable beyond our capacity for prediction or preparation, and hence chaotic, we need to adjust the methodology by which we go forward, because black-white, on-off, up-down, beginning-middle-end thinking will be useless. Therefore van Vogt writes as he did because he's toughening us up, hoping we might learn to think in terms more ambitious than just building a few robots which make the same mistakes we've made; and I suspect he was hoping that in achieving a more flexible understanding of language and reality, we might begin to understand how the two could be related:

As Cemp remembered his universe, it began to interact with him, to become in essence what he knew it to be. And there it suddenly was, a dot of golden brightness.

Of course, this could simply be my imagination, my perception of a pattern which may not be present in the novel, or in the other novels; but it works for me, and it helped me get something out of The Silkie which might otherwise have seemed a complete dog's dinner. So that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

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