Thursday, June 26, 2008

V is for van Vogt

Or more accurately, V is for Voyage of the Space Beagle.

I have never managed to get through much of anything else written by A. E. van Vogt, but Voyage of the Space Beagle is one of those books that changed my life.

It was one of the first science fiction books I read- along with Decision at Doona by Anne McAffrey- and so every standard sci-fi trope hit me as something new and fresh.

My copy seems to have crumbled away- at least, I can’t find it anywhere, and it was looking pretty shabby last time I saw it. It had a picture of the coeurl on the cover. What this means is that I won't be checking any of my facts in what follows. Or putting any quotes in.

One appealing thing about Voyage of the Space Beagle is that the direction of the narrative is quintessentially Clamly - outwards, outwards, ever outward, on, on, on, into the unexplored intergalactic vastness, onwards and outwards! I can think of few more fitting ends to a story than to an endless journey through empty space in order to lead a planet-killing black cloud to its doom in the void.

I mentioned before how Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle provided one fine role-model for my professional life. Voyage of the Space Beagle provided two more: the smart-arse nexialist who makes it his business to know more than everybody else does in their particular specialty, and the empire-building chemist who takes over said nexialist’s lab space. I see my subsequent career* as an attempt to harmonise these two competing visions of the scientist.

I immediately went off and started writing a story with a similar spaceship on a similar expedition. As you do, I crewed it with all the people I knew. This was partly so I could kill off all the people I didn’t like in gruesome ways on alien planets. As you do.

I didn’t make myself the nexialist- I made my know-it-all friend Steven Mathiesen the nexialist. I gave myself a role that I made up, which I think I called ‘environmental engineer’. Or ‘ecosystem engineer’. Something like that. As these stories work out, I think we got halfway through our first planet before I moved on to another project.

Sometime around then I was hanging around school after school because my Mum, who was a volunteer teacher person, had to do some after school thing. I think I was boooooooored. I can’t remember. But I do remember my english teacher pointing to one of these seedpods and saying: ‘That looks like an alien creature. Why don’t you write about that?’

So I did. They are about twice as high a person (I think) and live in endless sand deserts, where they filter tiny things out of the sand to eat- sort of funneling them towards their maws with those long arms of theirs. They were intelligent. I think only one of them had ever been brought back to Earth, and it did not survive long because of our high gravity.

The only other thing I remember writing about them was a list of the emotions they could experience. Something like Type 2 Joy, Type 1a Despair, and an emotion with no common English name, characterised by parameters X = 2.3 and Y = 7.0 on the Pfitzer-Gloschburg scale. Something like that.

My English teacher was horrified. ‘You can’t do that,’ I remember her saying.


‘Here- this is all scientific, about what they eat and such, and then here you’re talking about emotions. You can’t talk about emotions scientifically like that.’


I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but I’m sure we ended up staring at each other in mutual incomprehension.

*: Collins Essential English Dictionary: verb. to rush in an uncontrolled way.

The picture of the Devil's Claw seedpod is lifted from I don't know anything about that website except it had this picture sitting there for me to nick, so can't recommend you go there.

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