Remembering AE van Vogt, pioneering SF author, perennial seeker, madcap weirdo

Ted sez, "The recent Charles Dickens bicentenary was widely celebrated, and the 100th anniversaries of the births of John Cage and Woody Guthrie promise to be major events in 2012. But last week, pioneering science fiction author A.E. van Vogt would have turned 100, and hardly anyone took notice. Yet van Vogt was a major figure in sci-fi's 'Golden Age' and his works anticipated many later hits, from Alien to Star Trek. Ted Gioia celebrates the van Vogt centenary with a series of essays on his career and major works."

Here's a synopsis of the first eight pages of A. E. van Vogt's novel Slan:

We learn that an ostracized race, known as Slans, lives in hiding from the police in a totalitarian society. Slans have telepathic powers, which allow them to detect enemies at a distance. Despite this skill, a Slan female cannot escape her pursuers when she is identified during a visit to the capital city. Before she is killed, she tells her nine- year-old son Jommy, that he must go into seclusion, complete his dead father's unfinished project, and then assassinate Kier Gray, dictator of the planet.

The police capture and kill Jommy's mother. He grieves for the duration of one sentence. Chased by police, the boy evades them by jumping on to the back of a passing car. But this automobile carries John Petty, sinister chief of police for the dictatorship. Passersby spot the youngster precariously balanced on the rear bumper of the car, and phone in reports to the authorities, who send out an all points bulletin to apprehend him.

Meanwhile Petty and his chauffeur also detect Jommy, and chase him on foot through a rundown residential area. Jommy is injured by a stray bullet, and seeks for a hiding place amidst a stack of old crates. Here he find—a heaven-sent miracle!—a hole in the wall, where he can escape from the police and citizens who are chasing him.

A ten thousand dollar reward is offered for the capture of the youngster. The military is called in to assist in the manhunt.

And we are only halfway through chapter one.

Van Vogt was an odd duck, even by sf standards. Secret Canadian, early Dianetics true believer... Living legend Fred Pohl recently wrote up some his vV recollections on his blog:

Indeed Van Vogt was not entirely unwilling to use actual science — that is, what he considered science — in his stories. He was deeply attached to many of the principles set forth by Alfred Korzybski, and even more so to the “scientific” work described as “the Bates eye cure,” a putatively revolutionary system for improving vision problems by — if I understood it aright — taking in as much light as possible by gazing at the sun. And there is no doubt that Van bought into L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics from the beginning, not only following its precepts for himself but setting up as a sort of mentor for converts who wished to attain the status of “clear.”

He would not, however, have anything to do with the changeover to the religion, Scientology, that Hubbard developed when Dianetics began to have problems with the government. He wouldn’t say why, either, though I asked him more than once.


  1. to van vogt !!!  a superb author !! hear hear !! imbibe in the intoxicant of your choice , and be sure to spill a drop ( or the equivalent ) upon bare ground  ( or the equivalent ) in honour of this literary talent  !!

  2. I always love these type of posts on BB, they cause me to dig deep into my shelves and pull out those forgotten treasures. I always loved van Vogt’s stuff. I can’t wait to reread The Weapon Shops of Isher and The World of Null-A.

  3. Really need to have some sort of Van Vogt game or something.  Take two of his sentences at random and make that the first and last line of a story… 

    Anyway hats off to the post, been trying to prosthelytise this man for years and still working on being a Van Vogt completionist. 

  4. As unscientific as his stories seem now (and did then, for all I know) Vogt’s stories are the strongest embodiment of the idea of “a sense of wonder”.  Yes, for me, even more than Bradbury.

    Plus, he compressed more ideas into a page than most SF writers manage in a paragraph.

    1. PKD says as much about the “numinous” quality of Vogt’s work in this interview:

  5. I’m reading “Voyage of the Space Beagle” now which was the inspiration for both the original “Alien” film and the displacer beast in D&D. Great stuff!!

    Cory, that first Amazon link in your post (A.E. van Vogt ) looks broken to me.

  6. The following was posted on the Canadian SF Convention Runners mailing list a week ago…and seems very relevant here.


    114 BROWNING, Winnipeg, MB, R3K 0L8
    Postal queries to: 114 Browning, Winnipeg, MB, R3K 0L8


    Thursday APR 26 2012

    Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada – The Winnipeg Science Fiction Association Inc (WINSFA) is delighted to announce the creation of the A.E. VAN VOGT Award (The A.E.V.V.A.).

    Exactly 100 years ago, on April 26, 1912, Alfred Elton Van Vogt was born on a farm in Edenburg, a Russian Mennonite community east of Gretna, Manitoba, Canada. By July 1939, he had written his first Science Fiction story and had it professionally published.. He continued to write in Winnipeg until 1944 and it was during this time that one of his major stories “SLAN” was written. By 1995 he was awarded the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) . He has been the ONLY Canadian Science Fiction Writer to be awarded this major title.

    The Winnipeg Science Fiction Association (WINSFA) has taken advantage of this moment in time to create an award to honor this Manitoba born writer and his unique position as Canada’s only Grand Master and we extend our sincere gratitude to Van Vogt’s family for granting permission to honor his name & works.

    This award will be called the A.E.Van Vogt Award or AEVVA.

    We believe that this award, based on spotlighting the best in Canadian Science Fiction Writing over the past years, will:

    Draw attention to Canadian Science Fiction

    Demonstrate that Canada has been producing World class writers for some time.

    Cause more people to talk about Science Fiction .

    Promote better writing.

    Discover more writers.

    The actual award will consist of a presentation piece and monetary prize.

    We will host the award ceremony here in Winnipeg in late Sept to continue our support of Canadian Science Fiction.

    1. However I find Giola’s snarky put-downs of Van Vogt under the guise of celebrating him to be just.too.much.

      1. Pardon me I feel in need of a Unicorn Chaser.

        Van Vogt’s books like The Weapon Shops of Isher, the Null-A series, Cosmic Encounter, Slan and Supermind are much more enjoyable and energizing than Giola suggests.

        For one thing Van Vogt often has characters who are both sub-average and find themselves able to become extraordinary by rising to the occasion. Elite space vampires and characters with high IQs show failings of personality that humble them. Reading his work can vault one’s thinking processes onto a galactic or nonlinear scale.

        It can be exhilirating fun and certainly doesn’t deserve what Giola did to him in this smirking back stabbing nasty website.

        I’d like to quote from the preface of one of Van Vogt’s books, The Mixed Men for my Chaser:

        The Golden Age of SF is universally dated from the July 1939, issue of Astounding because that’s when “Black Destroyer,” A. E. van Vogt’s first SF story, appeared. Isaac Asimov’s first story also appeared in the same month but nobody—as Asimov himself admits—noticed it.

        People noticed “Black Destroyer,” though, and they continued to notice the many other stories that van Vogt wrote over the following decade. With the encouragement and occasionally the direction of John W. Campbell, Heinlein, deCamp, Hubbard, Asimov, and van Vogt together created the Golden Age of SF.

        Each of those great writers was unique. What as much as anything set van Vogt off from other SF writers (of his day and later) was the ability to suggest vastness beyond comprehension. He worked with not only in space and time, but with the mind.

        Van Vogt knew that to describe the indescribable would have been to make it ludicrous, and that at best description turns the inconceivable into the pedestrian. More than any other SF writer, van Vogt succeeded in creating a sense of wonder in his readers by hinting at the shadowed immensities beyond the walls of human perception. What we’ve tried to do in our selections for Transgalactic is show some of van Vogt’s skill and range; but we too can only hint at the wonders of the unglimpsed whole.

        Eric Flint and Dave Drake 2005

  7. Van Vogt was one of the greats of the Golden Age of SF.  I discovered him when I bought The Weapon Shops of Isher through Scholastic Book Club when I was in junior high in the early 60s.  I immediately devoured every thing he wrote.  As others have noted above, he created a sense of the vastness of space and time beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend.  It inspired me and pushed me to learn as much as I could.   

  8. Alfred Korzybski read Van Vogt’s novel The World of Ā, when it came out in hardcover in 1948; it intrigued and bewildered him. Shortly afterwards he wrote to his wife Mira: “Do not buy it, because I am sending a copy to you. I read the damn thing three times, and I simply cannot make out what he is driving at; if you can, I would appreciate your opinion.” (Korzybski: A Biography, p. 584.)

    I opine that Van Vogt did a much better job of illustrating Korzybski’s general orientation in his subsequent book, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, which didn’t mention Korzybski or ‘general semantics’.

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