AE Van Vogt's most popular works appeared in the forties and fifties (after which he was sidetracked). They varied widely and imaginatively in terms of setting, but most typically followed a protagonist of superhuman abilities, or extra-ordinary competence, as he came into his powers. The focus was on the plot and on the plot devices, rather than on the growth of the protagonist: Van Vogt wrote stories that were weak in characterization and character development, for an audience didn't much value them. His best books include
Slan (***). An early superior-mutants-in-hiding novel. Slans are the next evolutionary step -- super-intelligent, telepathic, and possessing betraying (but concealable) antennae. Ordinary humans tend to kill them when they find them -- as Jommy Cross's parents are killed when he is a child Cross himself escapes, and spends his next years hiding, growing in power (and developing superscientific gizmos), cautiously seeking other Slans.
The Weapon Shops of Isher (***). The Earth of the future is one that could be a high-tech dystopia, with an unsentimental Imperial government and largely-unfettered corporations. The weapons shops provide a mitigating, somewhat anarchic counterbalance: They sell weapons which represent better technology than the government can muster, can only be used defensively, and make it very difficult to coerce their users. The story -- involving a conflict between the Imperium and the weapon shops, some involuntary time travel, and an extremely *lucky* young man who goes to the big city -- serves primarily as a vehicle for a tour of this future world. A sequel, "The Weapon Makers" (**), focuses upon the secret immortal who works behind the scenes to maintain the balance between the Imperium and the weapon shops, and who only makes a brief appearance in the first book.
Empire of the Atom (***-). An early sword-and-spaceship novel. In this post-holocaust world, humanity is struggling back up. Soldiers fight with swords, and spaceships (simple-to-use handicraft whose principles are no longer understood) carry them between planets which were terraformed during the lost golden age. Clane Linn is a slightly radiation-damaged mutant -- brilliant, physically frail -- born to Earth's ruling family. This book follows his survival of family intrigues, his rise from obscurity, and the start of his accession to power. A sequel, "The Wizard of Linn" (**), adds an interstellar scope to the story, as Clane discovers the secrets behind the collapse of the earlier golden age.
World of Null-A (**+). The world of null-A is a future Earth that has developed a non-Aristotelian (hence the name) discipline of thought. (Since Van Vogt never developed such a discipline in reality, his descriptions are necessarily evocative, rather than informative, but for plot purposes it amounts to Clear Thinking.) Clear thinking is not as wide-spread as it might be, so there is still scope for intrigues and political machinations. Into the midst of these intrigues is thrust Gosseyn, a man with unusual abilities, memories which turn out to be false, and a peculiar serial immortality. The book ends with his discovery of a key secret about himself. The story is continued, on a broader galactic stage in "Players of Null-A", also published as "Pawns of Null-A" (**+). A further sequel, "Null-A 3", was published decades later, and isn't very good.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle (**+). This book is an early link in the chain of development and inspiration that led to "Star Trek" (and "Alien"). It is made up of linked stories about a space-going 'Beagle' and its long-term mission of exploration. The spaceship keeps meeting monsters that want to (and can) kill everybody on board the ship, and having to overcome them though clever gimmicks. The stories are weakened by a couple of intellectual plot devices that serve more as straight jackets: Understanding monsters through Toynbean historical analysis, and Nexialism. (Nexialism is an imaginary discipline which comes from the same stable as General Systems Theory. What it amounts to in practice is that the ship's Nexialist is the one who comes up with the clever gimmick to defeat the monster.)
If these books appeal, you might also try "The War Against the Rull" (**), "The Mind Cage" (**), "The Beast" (**), "Rogue Ship" (**), The Silkie (**), and (with E. Mayne Hull) "Planets for Sale" (**).
Books covered in these reviews tend to be frequently reprinted. Many of them are out of print, but may be found in used bookstores under numerous imprints. This makes the standard bibliographic data less than useful, so except in cases where it seems valuable to do otherwise, I'll be providing sketchier information than normal for those titles I specifically discuss. In this case, just titles:
%A Van Vogt, A. E.
%T The Weapon Shops of Isher
%T The Weapon Makers
%T Empire of the Atom
%T The Wizard of Linn
%T World of Null-A
%T Players of Null-A
%T Null-A 3
%T The Voyage of the Space Beagle
Dani Zweig email@example.com
The surface of the strange, forbidden planet was roughly textured and green, much like cottage cheese gets way after the date on the lid says it is all right to buy it.--Scott Jones