Monday, 5 March 2018

Future Glitter

A.E. van Vogt Future Glitter (1973)
Future Glitter kicks off in spectacularly weird form with a scientist named Higenroth who, as we learn, has developed something called Pervasive Theory, which will allow unlimited instantaneous communication across improbable distances, apparently without the need for specialised receiving apparatus. It reads somewhat like a prediction of the internet - although Murray Leinster beat him to that particular prophecy back in 1946 - but the point is the free availability of the sort of information which would theoretically destabilise a totalitarian state. Higenroth's world is just such a state, and one most likely extrapolated from communist China going by what van Vogt describes in his introduction. Higenroth is due to be beheaded in recognition of his breakthrough, because this is a state in which beheading has somehow become a great Accolade, and the deed is therefore titled and capitalised as such; and as we join our narrative, Higenroth is besieged by students, fans and admirers who wish to lay claim to the knowledge they will somehow posthumously and presumably psychically acquire from specific parts of his brain.

At this point I couldn't actually tell if I'd read the book before, perhaps as a short story or under a variant title. I decided that the impression may have derived from my having started the book on previous occasions, then given it up as impenetrable; or, so it seemed to me, it could be that A.E. van Vogt is actually his own discreet dimension with laws variant to those of our reality, and his books are simply portals to the same. Reading his novels places one in a different and yet familiar space, much like the Mexican idea about how our dreams are actually things we experience in the Land of the Dead as we sleep. As the man himself said, a fair bit of his imagery came from dreams, which is very much evident here.

The totalitarian state of Future Glitter is experienced mainly through a small cast of characters obliged to deal with Higenroth's legacy, so it is mostly implied, and nowhere near so well realised as in the usual books which might come to mind - Orwell, Huxley, and so on. Nevertheless, van Vogt's focus is keen as ever, even if he's not looking in quite the same direction as other authors, and the following passage struck a particular chord:

Like so many others, he could see that remorseless logic had its place. Could see that lies seemed to work better than truth with certain groups of people. Therefore they were a peculiar truth of their own.

If a man will not be swayed to a good action by the simple truth of, for example, that it was a need, but responds, instead, to a falsehood, then that falsehood is where he is. There is something deep inside him that can be motivated only by very specific symbols.

Accordingly, you must present him with those exact symbols even though, at first, second, third and so on glance, they appeared to be contrary to the outward appearance of fact; so reasoned Crother Williams, as others had done before him.

I must, he thought, realise that the good end is what counts. The means would have to be whatever they needed to be.

What it amounted to was adjusting hour by hour to the reality of the reign of Lilgin.

Unfortunately, once past the promising initial chapters, Future Glitter somewhat lost me. Its focus blurs and the book seems to be talking to itself. There's a sensation of progress, but not much indication of where it's heading. Additionally, the author's bewildering attitude to women begins to get in the way.
Her husband, Dr. Glucken, made no comment as this outright falsehood was perpetrated upon him. In his two marriages he had already learned—it seemed to him—that a woman's reality operated more smoothly, if, like a river in sand, it was allowed to seek its natural channels, however they might meander from a straight course.

It's not that he believes women to be necessarily useless so much as that it's hard to tell just what he believes, or by what degree was van Vogt a man of his time, as the euphemism would have it. Here we meet more of those frustrated dolly birds, usually not much older than twenty, keen to have sex with senior men as some sort of reaction to the constraints of society. A.E. van Vogt's females, such as they are, seem to represent the liberation of an oppressed group - at least as he saw it - but it's impossible to tell whether he regards their oppression as an injustice or as an inevitable result of their being inherently useless, good for only two things if you count cooking the dinner...

And they were men only. Not a single woman in view. The vaunted equalising of male and female, so forcefully promoted in all the lower reaches of society, had no place in this room.

See, I can't even tell if that condemns the hypocrisy of Higenroth's world, or if it foreshadows contemporary arseholes whining about political correctness run riot; and then we come to:
His eyes narrowed. It wasn't too often that girls as pretty as Sheeda passed his way; not these days. So he was one of the three top men in his organisation who had raped her.

This, by the way, is Orlo, our main guy, heir to Higenroth's legacy and Future Glitter's Winston Smith, roughly speaking.

The author of the excellent MPorcius Fiction Log seemed to get a lot more from Future Glitter than I managed, not least discerning narrative undercurrents which didn't even register with me, and which inspired the following conclusion:
Here and in the Weapon Shop books Van Vogt argues that firm rule is preferable to anarchy and war, though he also advocates for checks on that rule - not necessarily Democratic or Republican checks, mind you, like elections or referenda, but the moderating power of an additional, confrontational, elite. (To be fair, there are sections of The Weapon Makers which stress the importance of constitutionalism, portraying the fact that the Weapon Shop council is not, or should not be, above its own laws.) I have already pointed out how in Earth Factor X Van Vogt suggests that ordinary people crave authority and want to be told what to do, and he does that in Future Glitter as well.

I probably should have read that before I read this, but never mind. Alfred Elton was regrettably wrong about the destabilising power of information, as we've seen this past year with even the foulest of proven indiscretions failing to impact the politics of brute force and personal loyalties. The book nevertheless felt like a worthwhile - if occasionally muddled - reading experience, keeping in mind that (a) you'd probably have to be an idiot to expect anything of worth in a van Vogt novel when it comes to the subject of gender, and (b) it's not unreasonable to enjoy the work of authors writing from a different point on the political spectrum.

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