A. E. van Vogt was one of the most prolific writers of the Golden Age of science fiction, which also saw writers such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon. In a career spanning six decades, he penned 39 novels and many short stories. His first novels were ‘Black Destroyer’ and ‘Discord in Scarlet’. ‘Slan’, his most popular novel is about a nine year old boy belonging to a super race called Slan. ‘The Voyage of the Space Beagle’, another successful novel has been credited with inspiring episodes of the Star Trek. After WWII, he shifted to Hollywood. He wrote three novels, ‘The World of Null-A’, ‘The Pawns of Null-A’, ‘Null-A Three’, which supported Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics (that decisions are made from subjective options based on an overall knowledge of a matter) as opposed to the Aristotelian logic of deductive reasoning. He was affected by the creation of totalitarian states like China, and depicted the all-powerful infallible violent male, in his book, ‘The Violent Man’. He organized his writing, describing scenes of 800 words, and his stories revolved around a temporal conundrum theme. Though he was held in high esteem by Isaac Asimov, he was criticized by Damon Knight for his inconsistent plots, and lack of imagination and reasoning.
Childhood & Early Life
Alfred Elton van Vogt was born in a rural Russian Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada. His father was a lawyer who, affected by the Great Depression, had to constantly move his family from place to place.
Alfred could not afford college, and worked as truck driver, farm-hand, and also took up freelance writing. His initial writings were love stories, radio plays, and trade articles.
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In 1939, van Vogt published his first science fiction story, ‘Black Destroyer,’ in the pulp magazine, ‘Astounding Science Fiction’. He describes a beast called Coeurl that feeds on the ‘id’ obtained from living bodies.
In 1939, he followed up with another space monster story, ‘Discord in Scarlet’ which introduces the readers to Ixtl, the last survivor of a once-great galactic civilization, floating alone in interstellar space.
‘The Weapon Makers’ and ‘The Book of Ptath’ were published in 1947. ‘The Weapon Makers’ was a prequel to ‘The Weapon Shops of Isher’, published four years later.
In the 1948 novel, ‘The World of Null-A’, the protagonist Gilbert Gosseyn discovers his memories are false, and seeks his real identity in a world where the mentally superior dominate over the rest.
’The ‘Black Destroyer’ and ‘Discord in Scarlet’ along with two other stories ‘War of Nerves’ and ‘M33 in Andromeda’ were integrated into his classic, ‘The Voyage of the Space Beagle’ published in 1950.
‘The House That Stood Still’, published in 1950 is about a California estate lawyer’s realization of a mansion being used by a cult of immortals. Reviewers criticized the book for being short on imagination.
‘The Weapon Shops of Isher’, a fix-up created from three previously published short stories, was published in 1951. The novel was praised by reviewers as “a fine excitingly involved melodrama”.
‘The Pawns of Null-A’, published in 1956, is a continuation of the Gosseyn saga. The writer popularized Alfred Korzybski’s ‘General semantics’, where subjective logical conclusions based on many values are arrived.
His other works in the 1950s were ‘The Mixed Men’, a collection of short stories, ‘The Universe Maker’, ‘The Mind Cage’ and ‘Empire of the Atom’. These works were poorly received by critics.
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In 1962, he published one of his few non sci-fi works called, ‘The Violent Man’. It is about an American prisoner-of-war in Communist China, who tries to escape by manipulating his captors.
Between 1962 and 1976, he wrote several sci-fi novels, which were unexciting – ‘The Wizard of Linn’, ‘The Silkie’, ‘Children of Tomorrow’, ‘The Man with a Thousand Names’, and ‘Supermind’.
‘Null-A Three’, published in 1985, is a continuation of the Gilbert Gosseyn saga that included ‘The World of Null-A’ and ‘The Pawns of Null-A’. It is regarded the weakest of the three works.
Apart from novels, he also published collections of short stories titled, ‘Out of the Unknown’, ‘Masters of Time’, ‘Destination: Universe!’, ‘Monsters’, ‘M33 in Andromeda’, and ‘More than Superhuman’.
Van Vogt’s best known work, ‘Slan’, was a serialized novel in ‘Astounding Science Fiction’, published in hardcover in 1946. In this truly riveting adventure story, Slans are super-intelligent humans with psychic abilities.
‘The Voyage of the Space Beagle’, the 1950 novel, is an intergalactic adventure involving encounters with hostile aliens and creatures. The book still attracts readers, and inspired the TV serial, ‘Star Trek’.
Awards & Achievements
In 1980, van Vogt won the ‘Casper Award’ for Lifetime Achievement. Later, the award was renamed ‘Prix Aurora Awards’, and is given for the best Canadian science fiction and fantasy literary works.
He was honored as the 14th Grand Master by the ‘Science Fiction Writers of America’ in 1995. Writer Harlan Jay Ellison was critical of the SFWA for the delay in bestowing the honor.
In 1996, he was honored with a ‘Special Award’ by the ‘World Science Fiction Convention’ for his contribution to sci-fi. That year, he was inducted to the ‘Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame’.
Personal Life & Legacy
He was married to Edna Mayne Hull from 1939 to 1975. She helped him by typing his stories, and later began to write herself, under the name E. Mayne Hull.
In 1979, he married his second wife Lydia Bereginsky, who had two children from an earlier marriage. She had been a model and a court interpreter who specialized in Russian.
He died on January 26, 2000, at the age of 87 from Alzheimer’s disease.