Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder
In complete unawareness that Don A. Stuart, the nominal author of "Who Goes There?," and the editor of the magazine he'd been reading were one and the same, van Vogt drafted a letter of inquiry. As an indication of his serious intent, he summarized his past experience as a writer. Then, in a paragraph, he outlined his idea. Would Astounding be interested in taking a look at a story like this?
He mailed the letter off to New York, and then waited for some sort of answer to come. One moment he was rarin' to go -- ready to take over the whole universe and transform it with his imagination. He knew how to tell a story, after all. And from his teenage reading of Amazing, he knew his way around science fiction. So why shouldn't he write SF and do it well? In the next instant, however, he would start to feel all unsure of himself, like a shy kid new to the neighborhood who has to have an invitation before he can bring himself to come outside and play.
But if encouragement was what he had to have in order to begin writing SF, John Campbell did not let him down. Van Vogt would say later:I feel pretty sure that if he hadn't answered, that would have been the end of my science fiction career. I didn't know it at the time, but he answered all such letters.This was precisely the right thing to say to van Vogt. It had been that splendidly atmospheric opening sentence -- "The place stank" -- which had first hooked him into reading "Who Goes There?" And the creation of story mood was the very thing van Vogt felt he knew how to do best.
When he replied, he said, "In writing this story, be sure to concentrate on the mood and atmosphere. Don't just make it an action story."
So, feeling under some real obligation to follow through now that he had received this go-ahead from Campbell, he set to work on his story. He called upon the familiar methods he'd derived from the Palmer Institute, John Gallishaw and Thomas Uzzell: particular words and sounds used strangely for effect; sentences of constant suspense, imagery and emotion; one purposeful scene after another; all aiming toward a final unified impact.
The eventual title of the story would be "Vault of the Beast." It began:The creature crept. It whimpered from fear and pain. Shapeless, formless thing yet changing shape and form with each jerky movement, it crept along the corridor of the space freighter, fighting the terrible urge of its elements to take the shape of its surroundings. A gray blob of disintegrating stuff, it crept and cascaded, it rolled, flowed and dissolved, every movement an agony of struggle against the abnormal need to become a stable shape. Any shape!This creature bears an immediately apparent resemblance to the menace of "Who Goes There?" It, too, is a telepathic shapeshifter capable of assuming the form of any human it encounters. But it also has its differences from Campbell's monster. It isn't able to proliferate and take over other beings, and it isn't autonomous.
In fact, this half-hysterical, half-terrified, yet casually murderous thing -- which van Vogt called both a "robot" and an "android" and described both as organic and as a machine -- is a construct that has been made by "great and evil minds" from another and slower dimension than ours. It has been dispatched to Earth to find a mathematician capable of freeing one of their kind who millions of years ago fell into our space and while helpless was imprisoned in a vault by the Martians of that day, who sensed its underlying ill intent.
If this mighty prisoner should become free, it can show its fellows the way to transfer from one dimension to another. And that is what they yearn for. As they admit at the moment they think their designs have finally been achieved: " 'Our purpose is to control all spaces, all worlds -- particularly those which are inhabited. We intend to be absolute rulers of the entire Universe.' "
The malevolent aliens use their shape-changing robot creature to manipulate, delude and sweet-talk an Earthman into divining how the vault might be opened. But when this has been accomplished, they give their true nature away. They propose to use the android as the key to the lock, and take evident pleasure in the pain it suffers as they wrench it out of the human form it has assumed and twist it into the requisite shape.
Brender, the Earthman, cannot avoid the recognition that he has been tricked. At exactly the same moment, however, he also comes to the sudden realization that the act of opening the ancient sand-buried Martian prison is going to cause the destruction of its occupant and ruin the aliens' schemes for conquest.
The poor screaming robot can still read Brender's mind. It knows what he knows. Even yet it might warn its makers and possibly save its own life -- but it elects not to. It permits itself to be sacrificed. The vault is opened, and the evil alien within perishes -- and with it its knowledge of how to travel from one dimension to another.
As the now-dying robot struggles in vain to return to human form, it explains to Brender:
" 'I didn't tell them . . . I caught your thought . . . and kept it . . . from them. . . . Because they were hurting me. They were going to destroy me. Because . . . I liked . . . being human. I was . . . somebody!' " The aliens, it seems, have been undone by their own remoteness, deviousness and casual cruelty. And while Brender looks on in pity, the android dissolves into a puddle of gray, which then crumbles away into dust.
When he had finished this story, van Vogt mailed it off to Astounding. And just as van Vogt had managed to recognize "Who Goes There?" when he needed to, so John Campbell was able to reciprocate and to perceive from the outset that in this new Canadian storyteller he had discovered someone most unusual.
The very first thing that he noticed in reading "Vault of the Beast" was just how immediate and raw-nerved and intense it was. It didn't sit still for one minute, but moved ahead with the inexorable pace of a fevered dream. Writing as relentless as this had never been seen in the SF pulp magazines.
The story was also boldly, even extravagantly science-fictional. We may recall that only five years earlier, the venerable H.G. Wells had suggested that to include more than a single wonder in any SF story was to step over the line into irresponsible silliness. He had declared, somewhat testily, "Nothing remains interesting, where anything can happen."
But here was a rank beginner who seemed to have no compunctions at all against throwing a profusion of marvels into one brief novelet: a protean monster/robot/android; space travel; telepathy; malevolent higher aliens; a multiplicity of dimensions operating at different time rates; inter-dimensional transference; a long-vanished Martian civilization; antigravity; the " 'ultimate prime number' "; no less than two different kinds of " 'ultimate metal' "; and an irresistible universal force. What's more, van Vogt came very close to making this superabundance of wonders add up to a real and meaningful story.
But the most original and impressive aspect of "Vault of the Beast" was that a considerable portion of the story was told from the point of view of a whimpering, blobby, shape-altering thing. Not only this, but van Vogt even asked the reader to empathize with the creature and to regret its passing. This was completely unheard of. Nobody had ever dared before to write from inside the psyche of so different and monstrous a being.
As powerful, imaginative and unusual as van Vogt's story recognizably was, however, Campbell couldn't help feeling that it wasn't yet as sound and effective as it might be.
To begin with, it wasn't altogether plausible. If the headlong pace of the narrative should be interrupted for even an instant and exact questions be asked, there was much in this story that would not hold up under examination.
This would, in fact, always be van Vogt's weakest point. Like his mentor, Alfred North Whitehead, he would be muddled and fruitful, rather than limited but clear.
In later times, van Vogt would say of the writers of the Golden Age: "In a sense we were all One Great Big Author." And there would be considerable aptness to this observation. However, to the extent that the body of Campbellian modern science fiction did amount to a whole -- the synergetic product of many separate and partial individual contributions -- it would be writers other than A.E. van Vogt who would supply it with its detailed plausible arguments. Without the comparatively restrained and careful work of de Camp, Heinlein, Asimov and the others, van Vogt's flights of dreamlike imagination might very easily have seemed completely unfounded -- just as without his work, many of their stories might have seemed lacking in mystery.
There was a further difficulty with "Vault of the Beast" beyond its imperfect plausibility. Despite the sound advice of Thomas Uzzell, it wasn't unified in its effect.
The central questions raised by the story appeared to be how the android creature was to contrive to win the freedom of the long-imprisoned alien, and what this evil being and its kind might do if it were allowed to escape from the Martian vault. At the climax of the story, however, all this possibility and danger prove to be nothing more than illusion. At any time that the vault should be opened, it appears, the alien inside must inevitably perish.
So the main story problem was not a problem at all -- and never had been. At this point, the emotional weight of "Vault of the Beast" shifted over to the death of the shape-changing robot, and the flattering taste this wretched creature has acquired for the assumption of human form.
This alteration of emphasis did not work perfectly. At the very least, it appeared to Campbell that if the reader was to be hooked into identifying with this monster and looking upon it with pity, then more emphasis would have to be placed upon the emotions of the creature early in the story.
So Campbell returned the manuscript to van Vogt. He praised it highly, but suggested that it still needed some fine-tuning. The Earthman, Jim Brender, could use additional motivation. And the monster should be made more pitiable from the outset. Would van Vogt have a try at that?
Instead, however, his new would-be contributor overleaped Campbell's expectations entirely. By the time he heard from the editor, van Vogt was already at work on a second SF story that incorporated all he had learned in writing the first one. And it was going so well that he didn't want to set it aside.
It would be a good while before van Vogt got back to "Vault of the Beast" to rewrite it. In this form, arguably stronger, yet still not wholly satisfactory because of the central non-problem of the imprisoned alien, it would appear in the August 1940 issue of Astounding as his fifth published SF story. And this one extended delay for revision would be as close as he would ever come to having a story rejected by John Campbell until after the end of World War II.
It was the novelet "Black Destroyer," his second science fiction story, which convinced Campbell that this "Alfred Vogt" -- as he would address him at the outset -- wasn't just another highly promising beginner who required tutoring and guidance. On the basis of this singular story, it became evident to the editor that this 26-year-old from Winnipeg -- just two years younger than Campbell himself -- had already arrived as a wild imaginative talent unmatched in science fiction.
Van Vogt demonstrated in "Black Destroyer" that the apparent virtues of his first effort had been neither an illusion nor a fluke. His new story had the very same strengths: Once again, he started his story with a dynamic and gripping first line -- "On and on Coeurl prowled!" -- and then hurtled along from there. Once again, he asked the reader to identify with the drives and purposes of a powerful alien creature. And once again, he offhandedly mixed together a multiplicity of SF concepts, any one of which another writer might have thought more than sufficient to serve as the basis for a story.
But this time his plot was more integrated. Better than that -- unlike "Vault of the Beast" and its model, "Who Goes There?", which still retained overtones of the conventional Techno Age alien invasion story -- "Black Destroyer" had a situation that was completely new and different.
And still better yet was that this novelet was a brilliant anticipation of science fiction as John Campbell thought it ought to be and wished it to become.
The direction in which the great editor desired to move science fiction was toward human dominion over the future and outer space. And in "Black Destroyer" van Vogt imagined an exploration vessel from a future human civilization which spans the galaxy landing on a planet of a red sun that is separated from its nearest neighbor by nine hundred light years.
What a premise this was! An interstellar survey team from an Earth-derived human civilization that is as broad as the galaxy! Some fifteen years later, in the mid-Fifties, a story background of this kind would be commonplace in Astounding. But in 1939, nothing quite like it had ever been imagined before.
It was John Campbell's conviction that if it was going to be possible someday for men to travel to the planets and the stars and establish control over the wider universe, the necessary job for science fiction had to be to identify every possible problem or hindrance to this, and then imagine how each one might be dealt with. The real flaw in "Vault of the Beast" from the editor's point of view was that it didn't actually pose any problem of responsibility and control for men to resolve.
But "Black Destroyer" did.
In this story, the human scientists exploring the isolated world they have discovered set their spherical ship down near the remains of a long-destroyed city. And here they encounter the bizarre and powerful Coeurl, a catlike creature with fangs and massive forepaws, tentacles that grow from his shoulders, and tendrilled ears, whom they will eventually identify as a degenerate survivor of this ruined civilization.
As the Techno Age would reckon matters, Coeurl is a clearly superior being, more than a match for any one man. Not only is he immensely long-lived, but he is quick, strong and deadly. He is able to breathe chlorine or oxygen indifferently. Through his ear tendrils, he can hear sounds, pick up the vibrations given off by the precious life-substance id, and also detect, broadcast and control electromagnetic phenomena. And with his prehensile tentacles, he can instantly operate sophisticated machinery he has never encountered before, including the great globular human spaceship itself.
Coeurl is a living example of cosmic hostility. He is a ruthless and practiced killer. He and his kind have leveled their civilization, fought amongst themselves, and devoured all other living things in this world in a desperate death struggle to obtain "the all-necessary id" -- eventually identified by a human scientist as the element phosphorus.
Before the humans manage to recognize Coeurl's true nature and power, this utterly rapacious being has ripped one man to pieces to obtain his id, and then murdered another twelve men as they sleep. When he is found out at last -- his carnage discovered -- Coeurl escapes to the spaceship engine room, barricades himself there, and then launches himself and the human party into interstellar space.
However, if Coeurl is a representative of unrelenting Techno Age cosmic hostility, it is as perceived through revisionist Atomic Age eyes. And the Atomic Age would not only doubt that there can be such a thing as total difference or absolute superiority, but would boldly assert that men may scientifically investigate anything and everything that exists in search of the most convenient handle to grab it by.
We might compare this with the members of the Antarctic party in Campbell's "Who Goes There?" Though confronted by a shapeshifting alien monster, they are able to calmly say, " 'This isn't wildly beyond what we already know. It's just a modification we haven't seen before. It's as natural, as logical, as any other manifestation of life. It obeys exactly the same laws.' "
In highly similar fashion, even though the human scientists of "Black Destroyer" may find themselves up to their knees in corpses and gore as their spaceship screams toward the stars under the guidance of an id-crazed cat-creature endowed with powers like none they have ever encountered before, Commander Morton, the leader of the expedition, is able to overcome any impulses he might be feeling toward fear and panic and deal coolly with the situation. He declares: " 'We're going to find out right now if we're dealing with unlimited science, or a creature limited like the rest of us. I'll bet on the second possibility.' "
And that's a pretty good bet. Capable and dangerous Coeurl may be, but he is by no means either all-powerful or invulnerable. He has a number of weaknesses and limitations -- crippling defects of ability, knowledge, mentation and perspective.
Foremost among these is Coeurl's animalism. Ever since H.G. Wells's invading Martians, alien beings had displayed a taste for human blood and proved their own superiority by looking upon men as cattle. For van Vogt, however, Coeurl's insatiable appetite for id identifies him, and not his human victims, as the animal.
Coeurl is driven by lusts and hungers and lacks self-control. It doesn't take a lot to unbalance his psyche.
He can be thrown by his greed for phosphorus: "The sense of id was so overwhelming that his brain drifted to the ultimate verge of chaos."
Unexpectedness -- even so little as the closing of a door and the movement of an elevator -- can unsettle him: "He whirled with a savage snarl, his reason whirling into chaos. With one leap, he pounced at the door. The metal bent under his plunge, and the desperate pain maddened him. Now, he was all trapped animal."
And mayhem can make him manic and cause him to forget his purposes: "It was the seventh taste of murder that brought a sudden return of lust, a pure, unbounded desire to kill, return of a millennium-old habit of destroying everything containing the precious id."
Over and over, Coeurl gives himself away by these descents into animality. They cause him to act prematurely, to betray his intentions, and to reveal his awesome but combatable powers.
Moreover, when Coeurl isn't acting like a heedless beast, he is a blind egotist. All that he can see in the human scientific expedition is new inferiors to serve as a fresh supply of essential id. And beyond that, an opportunity for himself and the others of his kind who still survive to leap to the stars and seize even more id:For just a moment he felt contempt, a glow of superiority, as he thought of the stupid creatures who dared to match their wit against a coeurl. And in that moment, he suddenly thought of other coeurls. A queer, exultant sense of race pounded through his being; the driving hate of centuries of ruthless competition yielded reluctantly before pride of kinship with the future rulers of all space.At every turn Coeurl believes himself to be more powerful and able and in control than he actually is, and he automatically dismisses the human opposition he faces without ever pausing to think very deeply about its true nature.
But, in fact, there is a profound difference between the humans and him. Their galactic civilization has solved the problem of cyclical history, while Coeurl and his kind have not, so they know a great deal about him while he knows nothing about them.
The men can look at his historical context and his behavior and gauge Coeurl accurately as a degenerate and a criminal. As the archaeologist Korita observes: " 'In fact, his whole record is one of the low cunning of the primitive, egotistical mind which has little or no conception of the vast organization with which it is confronted.' "
It is wholly typical of Coeurl that he should take over the engine room of the spherical spaceship under the apparent assumption that being where the power is located will be sufficient to make him master of the situation -- and also typical that he should be mistaken. In fact, it is the humans who occupy the ship's control room who actually direct the ship and its machines.
What's more, they possess science that Coeurl does not, and dares not face. He may be able to blank out remote pictures of himself, to take a shot in the head from a vibration gun without suffering harm, to disrupt electric locks, and to harden the door to the engine room by increasing " 'the electronic tensions of the door to their ultimate.' " But he cannot redirect, ward off, or absorb atomic power. Consequently, once the humans do manage to break into the engine room, they have an effective weapon with which to attack him.
Coeurl must escape from this threat. So able is he, within his limits, that he can throw together an individual spaceship right then and there in the machine shop of the great ship. And in this little ship, he attempts to flee back to his own planet to gather his kind.
But alone in space is just where the humans would like to see Coeurl. They have vast experience there, while he has none. As Korita says: " 'We have, then, a primitive, and that primitive is now far out in space, completely outside of his natural habitat.' "
And, indeed, Coeurl does find space disconcerting. Given his tendency to lose his head, it isn't surprising that he should be thrown into confusion when all his usual expectations begin to be overturned. First, the human ship suddenly disappears from view. Then it seems that he is going backward, away from his planet, rather than toward it, as he should. And finally, the human ship -- which by Coeurl's reckoning should be far behind -- suddenly proves to be waiting in front of him.
It is all too much for Coeurl, and he becomes overwhelmed by panic. Fearing the flames of men wielding atomic disintegrators, he wills his own death:They found him lying dead in a little pool of phosphorus.And, in fact, with this brilliant novelet, van Vogt would turn all Techno Age perception upside-down. In previous science fiction, it had always been invading aliens who had the universe on their side and men who had to overcome a limited Earth-bound perspective. But in "Black Destroyer," these values were reversed. Despite their power as individuals, it is Coeurl and his kind who are the limited offspring of a small and isolated planet, and it is human beings who have the knowledge and resources of the galaxy behind them.
"Poor pussy," said Morton. "I wonder what he thought when he saw us appear ahead of him, after his own sun disappeared. Knowing nothing of anti-accelerators, he couldn't know that we could stop short in space, whereas it would take him more than three hours to decelerate; and in the meantime he'd be drawing farther and farther away from where he wanted to go. He couldn't know that by stopping, we flashed past him at millions of miles a second. Of course, he didn't have a chance once he left our ship. The whole world must have seemed topsy-turvy."
What a promise! When he saw this, John Campbell's heart had to leap.
The editor wrote to van Vogt, saying, "You've done a perfectly beautiful job on this yarn about the Black Destroyer." And he would place this new writer's first published SF story on the cover of the July 1939 Astounding, the issue which is generally considered to have marked the beginning of the Golden Age.
In his letter accepting "Black Destroyer," Campbell described Unknown, a fantasy magazine he was starting, at some length, and asked van Vogt to consider it a wide-open market. Campbell thought that writing fantasy would come naturally to van Vogt, with his gift for evoking mood and horror. The editor declared, "If this 'Black Destroyer' had not been interplanetary, had not involved atomic power, mechanism, etc., it would have been grand for the new magazine."
And van Vogt did his best to oblige Campbell by giving him what he was asking for. More or less immediately, he wrote a story about a Polynesian shark-god -- "The Sea Thing" (Unknown, Jan 1940) -- that was his attempt to do something like "Black Destroyer" in fantasy dress. And in 1942-43, he would contribute three more stories to the magazine, including a novel, The Book of Ptah (Unknown Worlds, Oct 1943), in the very last issue.
But even though van Vogt might not be a man for facts and exactitude, and had a certain talent for evoking moods, writing rational fantasy just wasn't his thing. Ultimately, stories like that hinged on providing material explanations for bits and pieces of remnant spiritualism, and playing that game wasn't what van Vogt had returned to SF to do. Consequently, he wrote stories he thought of as fantasy only with the utmost difficulty, and his work for Unknown was no match for his science fiction in either originality or effectiveness.
Van Vogt only caught fire when he was writing what he believed in, and his true beliefs were post-materialistic. His great aim in writing SF was to look deep into the time and space distances of an organic, interconnected, evolving universe and imagine man transcending himself.
Between the sale of "Black Destroyer" and its publication, van Vogt married Edna Hull, a woman seven years older than he. She was a former executive secretary, a freelance writer of newspaper features and short-short stories for church magazines whom he had met at the Winnipeg Writers Club. After their marriage, Mrs. van Vogt would transcribe her husband's handwritten drafts on the typewriter and in the process become sufficiently intrigued by SF that she would eventually write a dozen stories of her own for Astounding and Unknown under the name E. Mayne Hull.
The first story van Vogt completed after his marriage was a direct sequel to "Black Destroyer" entitled "Discord in Scarlet" (Astounding, Dec 1939). Here the same human survey ship, this time traveling from our own galaxy to another, comes upon Xtl, a red six-limbed alien being even older, more powerful and more frightening than Coeurl, floating there in the void where a cosmic explosion had hurled him eons ago.
Once he has been permitted inside the barriers that protect the human ship, Xtl proves to be able to rearrange his atomic structure so as to pass through floors and walls at will. Then he begins playing an elaborate game of hide-and-go-seek in which he suddenly appears out of nowhere, seizes and paralyzes a man, preferably a nice fat one, and carries him away to deposit one of his eggs in.
The humans are awestruck by the creature's ability to survive in space and to walk through walls. And one of them declares, " 'A race which has solved the final secrets of biology must be millions, even billions of years in advance of man.' "
Psychologically, however, Xtl is much less advanced. Despite the opportunity he has been granted for heavy meditation all alone there in the timeless quiet of the extra-galactic darkness, his thinking remains cycle-bound. And Korita the archaeologist is able to recognize that Xtl displays the blinkered vision typical of a peasant.
As a peasant, his first aim is to safeguard his posterity. It is his overriding concern to find hosts for the eggs he carries within his breast that gives men the time they need to organize themselves and to devise plans against him.
Furthermore, having a peasant's personal attachment to his own little territory, Xtl is unable to conceive until too late that the men might actually halt their ship in the middle of intergalactic space and then abandon it in order to trap him alone inside while they temporarily turn their ship into "a devastating, irresistible torrent of energy" to rid themselves of him.
After Xtl has fled into the intergalactic dark, one crew member suggests that they had a natural advantage over the creature: " 'After all, he did belong to another universe and there is a special rhythm to our present state of existence to which man is probably attuned.' " But another replies:"You assume far too readily that man is a paragon of justice, forgetting apparently that he lives on meat, enslaves his neighbors, murders his opponents, and obtains the most unholy sadistical joy from the agony of others. It is not impossible that we shall, in the course of our travels, meet other intelligent creatures far more worthy than man to rule the universe."In these first three science fiction stories by van Vogt -- "Vault of the Beast," "Black Destroyer," and "Discord in Scarlet" -- there were two common elements. The more readily apparent of these was monsters possessing more-than-human powers. Indeed, so obvious was this that it would begin to seem to some -- van Vogt himself among them -- that it was possible he was only a one-plot author.
A more complete and sympathetic assessment, however, would understand that van Vogt was yet another intuitional SF writer following his nose wherever it chose to lead him -- and, moreover, one who had rather less conscious awareness of where he was bound and what he was really up to than was usual even amongst this gang of creative sleepwalkers.
Van Vogt would begin writing a story when he had nothing more to work with than some faint glimmering -- an image, or a mood -- and then grope his way toward the end one scene at a time, working by feel and by inspiration. He would say frankly: "I have no endings for my stories when I start them -- just a thought and something that excites me. I get some picture that is very interesting and I write it. But I don't know where's it's going to go next."
He would throw in every single idea that he had during the time he was writing a story, holding back nothing. And when he got stuck, van Vogt found that the necessary new turn he needed would arrive in a dream that night or in a flash sometime the following morning:Generally, either in a dream or about ten o'clock the next morning -- bang! -- an idea comes and it will be something in a sense non-sequitur, yet a growth from the story. I've gotten my most original stories that way; these ideas made the story different every ten pages. In other words, I wouldn't have been able to reason them out, I feel.As we have had more than one occasion to notice, earlier writers of SF, in imagining their stories, had again and again taken their cue from some dream or sudden insight. But A.E. van Vogt was the first writer of science fiction to attempt to turn this into a system and rely upon non-rational processes to light his way through one story after another.
However, the truth of the matter may be that he simply couldn't help but do this. Writing out of mental imagery, lack of conscious foreknowledge of what was to come next, and dreamstuff was the only effective way that van Vogt knew to produce science fiction at all. He says, "I have tried to plot stories consciously, from beginning to end, and I never sell them. I know better, now, than to even attempt to write them that way."
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