Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Earth's Last Fortress

A.E. van Vogt Earth's Last Fortress (1960)
I assumed this was the original printing of Children of Tomorrow under a different name, but picked it up anyway. It turns out to be the novel I've already read as Masters of Time. In fact I vaguely recall having read Masters of Time with the feeling I'd already read it under another name, yet I can find nothing to support this on the internet beyond that it was originally a short story called Recruiting Station which doesn't ring any bells at all. So I've a feeling I've read this one three times now, but I don't know, although the confusion seems par for the course with van Vogt. It could just be the stark impact of the opening paragraph leaving me with an impression of more familiarity than is actually the case.

She didn't dare! Suddenly, the night was a cold, enveloping thing. The edge of the broad, black river gurgled evilly at her feet as if, now that she had changed her mind, it hungered for her.

Her foot slipped on the wet, sloping ground; and her thoughts grew blurred with the terrible senseless fear that things were reaching out of the night, trying to drown her now against her will. She fought up the bank, and slumped breathless onto the nearest park bench, coldly furious with her fear. Dully, she watched the gaunt man come along the pathway past the light standard. So sluggish was her mind that she was not aware of surprise when she realised he was coming straight toward her.

Of course, it would be thrown out of a writing class for crimes against literature, which really says more about writing classes and literary conventions than it does about Alfred Elton.

Earth's Last Fortress is about a war fought across all of time and space wherein the all-powerful forces of the Glorious recruit combatants from each era of human history, and if you want to pretend this was a prequel to Faction Paradox, it actually sort of works. Beyond that, I couldn't really tell what it was about the last time I read it, or possibly the last two times, not with much conviction; but on this occasion I believe I've found the key.

The words scarcely penetrated, though all the sense strained through, somehow. His mind was like an enormous weight, dragging at one thought, one hope. He said, fighting for calmness now, 'Commander, by your manner to this tentacle and its master, I can see that you have long ago ceased to follow its conclusions literally. Why? Because it's inhuman. The Observer is a great reservoir of facts that can be coordinated on any subject, but it is limited by the facts it knows. It's a machine, and, while it may be logical to destroy me before you leave the ship, you know and I know that it is neither necessary nor just, and what is overwhelmingly more important, it can do no harm to hold me prisoner, and make arrangements for a Planetarian to examine the origin of the message that came to me.'

He finished in a quiet, confident tone. 'Captain, from what one of the men told me, you're from the 2000s AD. I'll wager they still had horse races in your day. I'll wager, furthermore, that no machine could ever understand a man getting a hunch and betting his bottom dollar on a dark horse. You've already been illogical in not shooting me at sight, as you threatened on the communicator; in not leaving the ship as the Observer advised; in letting me talk here even as the attack on your enemies is beginning—for there is an attack of some kind, and it's got the best brain on this ship behind it. But that's unimportant because you're going to abandon ship. What is important is this: You must carry your illogic to its logical conclusion. Retrieve your prestige, depend for once in this barren life here on luck and luck alone.'

Last time I tried to read this I didn't come away with much more than a basic anti-authoritarian message, but now I recognise a variation on one of van Vogt's most common themes, namely the opposition of conventional linear logic to the non-Aristotelian ideas he seems to have picked up from Korzybski's general semantics. Actually, I'm half inclined to wonder if this story, or at least this version of the story might not have been informed by van Vogt's falling out with L. Ron Hubbard's increasingly authoritarian promotion of Dianetics through the newly inaugurated Church of Scientology. I'm not entirely sure the dates add up, unless van Vogt undertook any rewriting when this one came to be published under this new title, and similarly I don't know much about van Vogt's involvement with Dianetics or his reasons for severing ties with Hubbard in the early sixties; but nevertheless I found myself wondering whether the Glorious might not serve as allegory to where Hubbard took what van Vogt saw as a useful psychological methodology. They seem to represent inhuman systems imposed upon human thought, eugenics, and the negation of individual will, although these things are of course similarly associated with aspirant utopian political systems arisen in the wake of the second world war, to which van Vogt also had a stated objection.

I probably got more from this reading than on previous occasions, but still found it became somewhat knotted up in its own convoluted narrative by about a third of the way through; and yet it remains enjoyable because baffling van Vogt is often more rewarding, or at least more thought provoking, than the more lucid tales of a lesser author.

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