Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Rogue Ship

A.E. van Vogt Rogue Ship (1965)
Here's one of those fix-up novels van Vogt made by sewing a couple of short stories together. It's a practice you might suspect likely to yield mostly tripe depending on the consistency of themes shared by the component stories, but strangely I've found the most memorable hybrids to be the likes of Quest for the Future or The Beast wherein source material facing in completely different directions has been jammed together and obliged to make friends. Rogue Ship, on the other hand is only just a fix-up, comprising two closely related stories, one a sequel to the other, mixed in with a third, and all rewritten for the sake of elevation to novel status. So you might anticipate something which at least runs along in a straight line, which is what I anticipated, having given up on initial attempts to read The Pawns of Null-A and then Future Glitter because I just wasn't in the mood for that level of non-sequiteurial action.

Glancing at the shelf where they're all lined up from Slan through to Null-A Three, I can't help but form the impression of Alfred Elton having produced Rogue Ship during a brief phase of writing outside his comfort zone. There's The Violent Man, which I haven't read but which I'm told isn't science-fiction; and The Winged Man, seemingly co-written with his wife, Edna Mayne Hull; and Rogue Ship is dedicated to Ford McCormack, described by A.E. as a logician and technical expert and whom he credits as source of nearly all of what is scientifically exact in this fantastic story. Weird though it may seem, I think this was our boy having a go at hard science-fiction vaguely in the spirit of Asimov and the like. It's set on a generation ship travelling to a distant star system, just like in serious science-fiction, and there's an awful lot of talk of different kinds of proton and the laws of physics during the first third of the book.

A.E. van Vogt can usually be identified by random narrative swerves, dreamlike atmosphere, and impossible occurrences introduced for no immediately obvious reason, but he keeps it more or less under control for most of this one, which is in itself at least as odd as the bursts of explosive surrealism for which he is usually known. The first third of the book, peculiarly sober though it is, is actually quite absorbing as our ship arrives at its destination, many decades after leaving Earth, and fails to find anything habitable. Unfortunately this development inspires a series of mutinies, presumably as we encounter material from the second component story, and the narrative becomes convoluted and difficult to follow. By the time my attention span began to reconnect, it's clear that A.E. just couldn't keep a straight face after all and the ship is back on Earth, its crew frozen like statues, which is because they aren't back on Earth but are now travelling many times faster than the speed of light, and this is one of the weirder side effects; so as a novel, although it's not going to knock any of his biggies off the top spot, it finds its second wind and resumes something resembling pace towards the end.

The power struggles of the central passage may say something or other about government or society as a whole, although I found it difficult to tell what; and van Vogt's weird attitude to women comes to the fore in a couple of places. Here the ship's captain gets as many as four wives, women who seem content to be bartered as trophies as different factions seize power on board the Hope of Man. I have a feeling this may be one of those things which may have made evolutionary sense in the pre-Christian middle east, and thus is proposed as workable in outer space for the same reasons. The author himself doesn't seem to approve of his polygamous characters, but he's nevertheless the one moving those conveniently compliant gals from one bed to another like chess pieces.

On the other hand...

The universe was not a lie. It was what it was. There had been an apparency perceived by the highly evolved nervous systems of man and animals. Evidently—it was postulated—life had required a unique stability and had therefore created brain mechanisms that limited perception to the apparent stable condition. Within this solid frame, life lived its lulled existence, evolving painfully, constantly adjusting at some unconscious level to the real universe.

Rogue Ship goes deep in places, but tends to muddy its own arguments - whatever they may be - with the relentless constant motion which van Vogt tended to write, and which otherwise often works so well. It's not an amazing book, but it's mostly decent, and there's probably a lot more to be had from it than I managed if you have the patience.

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