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Transgalactic by A. E. Van Vogt

Edited by Eric Flint and David Drake

Cover art by Bob Eggleton

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

During the 1940's and 1950's one of the biggest names in science fiction was A. E. Van Vogt. Hardly a month went by without at least one of the major science fiction magazines running a story by him, and in many months a person could find stories in several different magazines. His stories could always be counted on for the sheer expanse of imagination they displayed, often dealing with vast empires in distant futures in which technology approached the magical, yet the characters always managed to still have understandable human motivations.

Half a century later, A. E. Van Vogt is hardly known by most science fiction readers, unless they've had the happy chance of being pointed to him by an older relative or mentor who first discovered him in those early pulps. Even people who know about him often find it difficult to find his works, having to resort to haunting used bookstores and online booksellers in hopes of finding old copies that aren't in too bad of shape.

The reasons are largely economic. In those days, the science fiction genre centered around the magazines, which primarily published short stories, with the occasional novel serialized. Even as the paperback novel market began to develop, most of the early novels were fix-ups, that is, a series of related short stories reworked to make a single story (generally by removing repetitive backfill from later stories and adding some suitable transitions here and there). Even original novels were rarely much more than 60,000 words.

Such small novels simply aren't commercially viable in the current market. Thus there's no real incentive to republish them, especially when one can make much more money with a new novel that's written more to current tastes, and is already the right size to fit current markets (or can be rewritten to make it so).

However, Eric Flint at Baen Books has been making it one of his major projects to bring back to modern audiences the classic science fiction that originally sparked his sense of wonder and made him want to not only read more of it, but to write his own as well. Think of it as a way of giving forward, since there's no way to give back to those authors, particularly when like Van Vogt they have completed their walk of life and passed from this mortal coil.

In this volume Eric Flint, with the help of David Drake, another Baen author of long standing, has gathered several of Van Vogt's writings, belonging to three basic groups. The first is the story of Clane of Linn, an early after-the-bomb world. However, unlike many of the unrelentingly grim post-apocalyptic novels of the 1960's and 1970's, in which the characters seem to do nothing but suffer in an anguished landscape, stumbling through ruins and struggling to survive, Van Vogt actually manages to infuse his future with a sense of wonder, even excitement, where thrilling discoveries are still possible. Of course it helps that some hundreds or thousands of years have passed since the catastrophic war, giving humanity and the ecosystem time to recover -- and that it is set in a pre-Space-Age cosmology in which Venus, Mars and even the Galilean moons of Jupiter have ecosystems hospitable for human life, rather than being the lifeless spheres they have since been proven to be.

Like many second-generation civilizations, the culture of Linn (which from internal evidence can be surmised to be a far-future Lincoln, Nebraska, its name worn down by generations of careless pronunciations in a society in which literacy is rare) is rather uneven, with phenomenal ignorance coexisting alongside extraordinary technologies. Slaves toil with wooden plows in fields over which fly atomic-powered spaceships, ships which are the only means by which to convey a message from city to city or world to world. The overall feel of the society is quasi-Roman, except with the powerful and somewhat abstract Atom Gods in place of the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods and goddesses with their follies and foibles. And of course those bits and fragments of technology far advanced beyond our own, evidence that the Atom Gods of course represent science that has been misremembered as magic.

Into this situation is born Clane, grandson of the head of the ruling house of Linn. When he is discovered to be a mutant, there is some thought of simply destroying him, but one of the temple priests urges that he be raised gently as befits his birth. After the cruelty of the other noble scions nearly destroys his mind, the intervention of the priests provides a refuge where his formidable intellect begins to develop. Training in the priesthood of the Atom Gods provides an opportunity to develop skills of public speaking, first presenting formal prayers in private before the altars of the Gods alone (probably reactors of some sort, given the hints that are supplied) and eventually in public rituals. Thus he is able to develop sufficient self-confidence to take his place in the public sphere, especially since the robes of a priest conceal the more disturbing differences in the conformation of his body.

As a result, in the course of the first book, Empire of the Atom, Clane is able to manipulate the often vicious infighting of the Linnean court to rise to a position of considerable power, particularly when the Europan barbarian Czinczar comes with a sizable army and a plan of conquest. And Clane is flexible enough in mind to heed Czinczar when the barbarian brings the preserved corpse of an alien packed in ice as evidence that humanity is not alone in the universe.

Although Empire of the Atom, was a fix-up, originally written as a sequence of short stories and subsequently put together as a novel, its sequel, The Wizard of Linn, was conceived and written as a single unit. In the first book, it was pretty much presupposed that the war which destroyed the original civilization of humanity was a human one, whether between the United States and the Soviet Union or some subsequent nations which also succeeded in colonizing Venus, Mars and the Galilean moons of Jupiter. But in this volume we discover that this assumption was wrong, and in fact the original civilization of humanity was destroyed in an interstellar war against an alien opponent. That war was so devastating that it nearly destroyed both their civilization, and as a result the alien Riss were not able to come back and finish the job.

However, humanity has not been the only ones to rediscover lost technologies and rebuild their civilization. The Riss are back, and they are just as violently xenophobic as they were the first time around. So far they have concealed their reconnaissance expeditions by the simple expedient of being willing to slaughter entire villages and cities to kill a single person who happened to see them. But one of their scoutships crashed, resulting in a dead pilot who was found by the barbarians of the Jovian moons and used as a bargaining chip by Czinczar.

Worse, the nature of the Linnean polity does not exactly lend itself to a concerted effort against an enemy. When humanity most desperately needs everybody to pull together, the Linnean noble houses and even Clane's royal kinsmen and -women are determinedly pulling in a dozen directions at once, each pursuing individual political gain even if it puts all humanity at risk of defeat and destruction by the Riss.

When Clane's forces are able to capture a Riss ship, he decides it's time to make a major gamble, taking a saving remnant of humanity to the stars in hope that he may be able to locate a secret weapon that will be useful against the Riss. However, although he may have to work with Czinczar in this endeavor, he does not trust the Europan barbarian, and thus prepares traps against potential treachery.

During this period he is also successfully stalked by the lovely Madelina Corgay, a Linnean noblewoman who is determined that he must make her his wife. Yet once he succumbs to her charms, all her spunk vanishes and she becomes completely absorbed in her domestic duties, focusing all her energy upon hearth and family, without any evidence that she takes further interest in politics or her husband's scientific investigations. And then Clane's nasty aunt Lillidel murders her as a way of getting at Clane.

Is Madelina merely a Woman in a Refrigerator, without agency of her own, a lever, an expendable pawn? It's frustrating, because Van Vogt can write strong, independent women with agency in their own right -- take for instance Empress Innelda Isher (flawed though she may be) in The Weapon Shops of Isher.

On the other hand, the secret of the twin planets Outland and Inland, and their modus vivendi with the Riss, do offer an interesting possibility of an alternative to a war to the knife with the Riss. One can only wonder what Van Vogt might have done had he decided to write a third Clane of Linn novel.

The next two stories deal with the Ezwal, a race of alien intelligences that superficially resemble a great shambling beast. The first takes place on their native world, Eristan II, while the second is on Earth itself. Both of them belong to the war against the Rull world, but the real focus is upon human prejudice against a race of intelligent beings whose bodies appear beastly to human sensibilities.

The final three stories comprise the Mission to the Stars, and focus upon the story of the Dellian and non-Dellian robots. However, it should be noted that the word "robot" is not used in quite the same sense that we would understand it today -- that is, they are not mechanical beings. Rather they seem to be a sort of artificial human, constructed with an organic matrix that can be blended together to create the Mixed Men, who partake of the best qualities of the Dellian and non-Dellian robots.

And in terms of the history of literature, Van Vogt's use of the term robot is actually closer to Karel Capek's original vision of robots, which were artificial people made in a factory to be rightless workers who would do all the jobs that real humans found distasteful. It is only as a result of the relatively slow and stepwise development of computer controls and cybernetics that robots in the Primary World emerged as purely mechanical devices without the human form, leading to the focus on programmability and the ability to do complex tasks as the determining factor in calling a device a robot.

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Clane of Linn
    • Part I: Empire of the Atom
      • A Son Is Born
      • Child of the Gods
      • Hand of the Gods
      • Home of the Gods
      • The Barbarian
    • Part II: The Wizard of Linn
  • The Ezwal
    • Co-operate -- Or Else!
    • The Second Solution
  • Mission to the Stars
    • Concealment
    • The Storm
    • The Mixed Men

Review posted March 30, 2010.

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