Novel November

The Voyage of the Space Beagle

by A. E. van Vogt

Reading Review by Michael Channing

The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. van Vogt

One can make the argument that this book gave birth to modern science fiction, at least the popular kind that most people are familiar with. It's about a starship and its crew, exploring new life and new civilizations, boldly going where no… well, you know the rest. It also seems to have been the source for the movie Alien, though the the film’s producers deny any connection, and van Vogt wasn't given official credit. This book shaped how we think of deep space travel. In our fiction, who goes into space? Not individuals. Organizations. Governments, as in Star Trek, and corporations, as in Alien. The Space Beagle is a ship run by a thousand men--some of them scientists, some military--on a mission to find, catalog, and capture new specimens of creatures, exactly what Darwin set out to do in the original HMS Beagle, though the USS Enterprise had less obtrusive orders. So in designing the template for how space exploration is handled by a good majority of artists, this book is a definite piece of science fiction history. But is it a good read?

The Voyage of the Space Beagle is a novel stitched together from four novellas, each written and published separately. Van Vogt called that kind of novel a fix-up. Each section deals with the crew’s discovery and interaction with a different alien threat. The first is a cat-like being who feeds off the essence of living creatures. The crew believe it to be harmless and bring it onboard as per their mission statement. Turns out the cat was playing possum. It also has the ability to vibrate its molecules in such a way that it can pass through walls. It leaves its cage during sleep hours and begins to eat crewmembers one at a time. Sounds kind of like Alien don’t it? The third section is my favorite and involves another alien brought onboard for study that begins to attack the crew. (Didn’t these guys learn the first time?) They find this alien floating alive in the void of space. It can survive in a vacuum and withstand the punishing effects of cosmic radiation. Plus the damned thing is solid red, a satanic connotation the crew is quick to make. So they just bring into the ship and hope for the best. Instead, the worst happens, and Ixtl (that’s the alien’s name, which we learn by taking a POV peek into its brain) attempts to repopulate his lost species by implanting his eggs into the warm and nurturing body cavities of the crew it captures. This does sound a lot like Alien. How could the film not cop to that?

Though the stories were written as stand-alone tales, they are strung together by the plight of one scientist, Dr. Grosvenor, the only devotee of Nexialism on board the ship. While the other scientists on the Beagle are insulated by their narrow fields of study, Nexialism is a generalized approach to doing science that encompasses all branches of knowledge. It’s up to one determined maverick to make the others see the light. It’s obvious van Vogt loves the idea of a lone hero sticking it to the man. It’s also obvious that Grosvenor was not in the opening section when it was first published as a short story. He appears as an observer to the action, thinking about how he’d handle things differently than the others, but not actually participating in the plot. It feels weird reading it, like watching The Godfather, except the camera keeps cutting to an unknown bagman to get his take on how the Corleones really ought to invest in wool coats to keep comfortable during winter heists. Grosvenor quickly becomes the main character in the other stories, starting as an outsider, ignored and written off by the other scientists. But as he solves problem after problem with the power of Nexialism, the rest slowly start coming to his lectures and asking for his advice. He also reverts to hypnotizing them against their will and putting them to work in his lab, which makes him one of the creepiest protagonists I’ve ever seen. But he gets results.

You can’t help but compare this trail-blazer of pulp science fiction to more current fare. Especially Star Trek, since Trek really does seem to be its direct descendant. The most glaring difference is in the mixing of genders. The Beagle has folks of many nationalities working together, and they all seem to have equal standings, or at least equal opportunities, but the whole crew is a sausage fest. There is not a single female in the book, at least not a human one, anyway. Just a bunch of dudes traveling through the deep emptiness of space, separated for years at a time from any other humans, with nothing to expend their sexual frustrations on but each other. But don’t worry, they’ve all been chemically castrated. Yep, the book goes out of its way to point that out, so you won’t think there’s a big old daisy chain of male love flying through the galaxy and become disgusted or jealous. There’s a simple solution to that problem. Have women crew members. But that would raise all sorts of disturbing thoughts for us now and for the almost entirely male science fiction readership of the book’s original audience. To the readers of the 1950s, making women the equal of men was probably not thinkable. They can’t be scientists or military leaders, how would the vacuuming get done? Of course, if you leave out the chemical castration part, that would mean suggesting forbidden acts in children’s literature, and you couldn’t have that. You could spray everyone with a genital-numbing agent, but that would suggest that women also have sexual thoughts. If you continue the original course and neuter only the men, that sends the message that men just can’t control themselves and need to throw their junk at women out of primal, uncontrollable urges. Women would be reduced to mere sex dolls that also make tough decisions now and then, like how to redecorate the mess hall. Putting men and women on equal footing in science fiction simply would not happen for decades. Even Star Trek stumbles at this time and again. Sure we eventually get Captain Janeway, but Kirk routinely ogles his female crew and in one episode accepts sex from a literal slave as a bribe. Then there’s the super sexed up clothing Counselor Troi wears on The Next Generation. So it’s hard to expect more from this book, but it’s also hard to accept its assumption that women, even hundreds of years in the future, are just too dumb to understand math and science, or that men won't become grope monsters in the presence of breasts. For that alone, this book fails for me. I want my daughter to enjoy science fiction like I do, and I’d love for her to read my books one day, but there are some aspects of the genre I’d rather she not experience, at least until she has the education to understand the history of gender relations.

One quirky thing I wanted to mention was the fact that the book missed the invention of the laser by a decade. It's strange to read a space opera that doesn't have them. The crew is constantly pushing about huge heat rays that, based on the description, belch enormous flames. You'd think in a spaceship that would be a bad idea.

If you look past the cultural short-sightedness of the book, which, if we're being honest, we have to admit the author couldn't really escape, the book is actually not half bad. It's only one-fourth bad. The horror elements of the space cat and Ixtl stories are great. The two monsters are evil from our perspective, but are only trying to survive as the last of their species. That's the best kind of villain, the kind that see themselves as heroes. The second story involves the accidental discovery of a telepathic bird-like species. Their attempt to contact the crew drives the men insane, and they divide into factions and go to war with each other, taking up nearly half of the story. The rest of the story describes Grosvenor's attempt to figure a way to communicate with the aliens. We get a good look at the alien world, and it's a fascinating place. The final story is just plain terrible. Van Vogt creates the biggest, baddest, galaxy-sized monster of all, and then sort of forgets about it. It peters out like wet fireworks, but Grosvenor gets his comeuppance, which to me feels incredibly anticlimactic.

So this book leads to Star Trek, which does things a bit better, and other writers take the space exploration genre into new social realms, which is as it should be. Progress is a series of baby steps. Many journeys start with this book, and it's worth seeing those first steps, even if they are a bit wobbly.

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Chokes and Warbles
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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing

November 23, 2017