Birthday Reviews: Niven, van Vogt, Williamson

This week’s birthdays include some especially high-magnitude stars in the SF firmament and bring us one pretty hard SF story and two that are very much not. Twice we go to Mars where non-Martian aliens have set up amazing superscience gizmos and once we take a trip to the Lesser Magellanic to try to find fifty lost suns.

Larry Niven (1938-04-30)

“The Hole Man” (Analog, January 1974)

Captain Childrey is a neat freak who is leading the expedition of the Percival Lowell to Mars. Astrophysicist Andrew Lear is a slob who discovers an abandoned base put on Mars by interstellar visitors ages ago. Lear believes it’s powered by a quantum black hole. Childrey does not and mockingly calls Lear “the hole man” in the sense of having a hole between his ears. The expedition does not go well.

This is a hard SF story with a strong human interest. The science fictional parts are engaging and well done but the problem with the story is that it’s deadly serious, but has a flippant tone which never really changes. That tone makes for enjoyable reading in the course of the story, but seems like a weakness in retrospect. Still, the ideas and execution of the tale are otherwise excellent from its great opening hook (“One day Mars will be gone.”) on to its personal and celestial conclusions.

A. E. van Vogt (1912-04-26–2000-01-26)

“Concealment” (Astounding, September 1943)

It’s kind of funny that van Vogt is known for his fixups (novels built up out of previously published stories) and that SF frequently suffers from infodumps when this reads like it went the opposite direction, seeming like an excerpt from a novel, and generally has the opposite of infodumps, being very cryptically in media res. It does go on to form the prologue to one of my favorite overlooked van Vogt books: The Mixed Men aka Mission to the Stars.

In it, the Imperial Earth battleship Star Cluster blazes past a “meteorite” weather station (for detecting and charting space storms of vast dimensions and durations) in the Lesser Magellanic where Gisser Watcher immediately destroys himself and his station to keep the knowledge of the locations of the Fifty Suns hidden from Earth. Mere atomic annihilation is not enough, of course, as Earth has matter transmission technology and the crew of the ship uses something akin to that to simply reconstitute him and his station after they’ve reversed course. What follows is a battle between Watcher and Grand Captain Laurr (Gloria Cecily) and her crew to hide or find the Fifty Suns that were established outside Earth’s control 15,000 years ago. Mental technology is brought to bear on Watcher, which initially has some effect but not much, as the Chief Psychologist says he’s resisted her attempt with mental power like one with an IQ of 800 despite initially having an “average” IQ of 167. As if that weren’t enough, his Dellian training gives him techniques to achieve heightened super-strength in the same way he can achieve heightened super-intelligence, which comes into play when things get physical at the end.

Basically, it’s all here: if you don’t like van Vogt, then you probably won’t like this; if you do, you probably will. In about fifteen pages, you get a concrete and literal milieu of fifteen millennia, multiple galaxies, multiple star systems (including one with ninety-four planets), and you get super-minds and super-strength, with cryptic openings (Lady Laurr is introduced as “she” and only given a plethora of names after a couple of pages) and abrupt, numinous endings. And this is just one story, and just the start of the book. Bigger, better, faster, more! Preposterous? Yes. Fun? Yes!

Jack Williamson (1908-04-29–2006-11-10)

“Nonstop to Mars” (Argosy, February 14, 1939)

When I saw it was time to celebrate Jack Williamson’s birthday, I thought I should really review one of his serious classics such as “With Folded Hands” but I kind of knew I wouldn’t be able to resist re-reading “Nonstop to Mars,” especially after the van Vogt.

Now that the cathion rockets have begun to take over, a guy like Carter “Lucky” Leigh is a bit outmoded, along with his career of flying planes nonstop from place to place for publicity and sponsorships. Things got even worse last time, as he was circumnavigating the Earth from Pole to Pole but got pushed out of the news by the “Stellar Shell” or the strange object that came into the system from Beyond and threatened to hit Earth, but actually landed on Mars. And they get worse still on his current flight from Capetown to Honolulu as weird atmospheric conditions and some strange sort of tornado damages his plane and forces him to make an emergency landing on a South Pacific islet. He’s surprised to get an answer to his distress call from a scientist on the islet and is even more surprised when the scientist turns out to be a woman. Not only that, but the woman is Dr. Elene Gayle, the very one who discovered the Stellar Shell and she has a dislike of publicity hounds – her boyfriend is a noble altruistic rocket pilot.

Some time goes by as they uncomfortably help one another and argue. Atmospheric conditions worsen and Gayle becomes convinced that her worst fears are true: the Stellar Shell was an alien ship and the aliens are using the tornado tunnel between planets to siphon Earth’s atmosphere to Mars. The Earth is likely doomed. Then Gayle’s boyfriend and another scientist arrive to take Gayle back to the mainland, leaving Leigh to take care of himself. He sets upon a plan that is bold, to say the least. In the final third of the novelette, he repairs his plane and, when the islet rotates under the siphoning vortex again, he takes it into the maelstrom for an unforgettable voyage which is only the first of his great challenges.

The history of science fiction is a bit askew in that “the 30s” really run from about 1926-1938 and “the 40s” run from about 1939-1949 but, despite this tale’s 1939 date, it really is “a 30s story.” The characterization of Leigh and the depiction of his life and skills are very good but the relationship of Leigh and Gayle is much like that of Hammond and Burlingame in Weinbaum’s recently reviewed “Parasite Planet” (1935) and the science obviously, um, strains belief. What’s remarkable is how Williamson manages to introduce even an atom of plausibility to it and how it’s so breathtakingly audacious that it’s all worth it, regardless. Preposterous? Yes. Fun? Yes!

9 thoughts on “Birthday Reviews: Niven, van Vogt, Williamson

  1. THE MIXED MEN/MISSION TO THE STARS is my favorite Van Vogt novel, I think.

    I confess I’ve never had the heart to plow through any 1930s-era E.E. Smith or John W. Campbell ‘super-science stories where Wade, Arcot, and Morey invent an intergalactic FTL drive on Monday, go off to the Andromeda galaxy on Tuesday, and invent a super-weapon to settle a war between two groups of space folks in favor of the caucasian, blonde ones on Wednesday. So I don’t know for sure.

    But while Van Vogt’s THE VOYAGE OF THE SPACE BEAGLE stories are arguably the antecedent of STAR TREK, as I cast my mind around I think this particular Van Vogt is possibly the first appearance of full-blown ‘modern’ space opera, with features like transporters, tractor beams, galactic federations and empires, and so on.

    Also, while it’s wildly imaginative, its plot is not so shambolic and doesn’t fall apart upon consideration like other Van Vogts (That is, if anybody reads Van Vogt for plots that make linear sense; as P.K. Dick noted, a lot of the attraction of Van Vogt is the jerry-rigged, dreamlike nature of his universes.)

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    • The 30s SF definitely had what you might call a full space opera between Campbell, Hamilton, Smith, and Williamson. Most of those works (and works in general) have some kind of “us vs. them” but, in Campbell, Wade was originally a “them” who became an “us” and that’s not the only instance of such a change in the stories, including entire alien species and, with Hamilton, if you’re not a destructive alien snake from another galaxy but are part of the galaxy-spanning Federated Suns full of “dissimilar beings,” you’re an “us.” You bring up a good point about van Vogt, which I was kind of thinking about as I was characterizing Williamson’s as a “30s” story but not van Vogt’s. There is something different about it, which it seems to share with C. L. Moore’s Judgment Night and others. (I think hers came out the same year.) There is a sort of amplification to some of the internal things and a kind of more intense color palette or something – 30s space opera had big broad strokes – kind of schematic. 40s space opera was still a lot like that, of course, but more painted-in. I dunno – maybe you have more ideas on it or could put it better, but it seems that it’s something like that.

      And, yep, I don’t read van Vogt for water-tight plots. 🙂 But the plot of the whole Mixed Men does work pretty well, if I recall. The only others whose plots really seem to stick out in that way are, oddly, The House That Stood Still and (I think – I need to read it again) The Mind Cage though – probably no coincidence – the bulk of those are less cosmic than some van Vogt.

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    • I’m not a big van of Van Vogt. But I read The Mixed Men in the beginning of my site and enjoyed it — mostly… I didn’t love how the female character Lady Gloria Laurr, Grand Captain of the Earth Space was a strong heroic figure whom Van Vogt repeated described as “needing a husband.” It was the 50s so it’s hardly surprising.

      I remember few other details.

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      • Yep – the number and prominence of female writers of, and female characters in, early SF is not always fully perceived by current readers but both male and female authors had different attitudes about gender then so that there are almost always those discordant notes. Most authors had their hearts in the right places and tried very hard to be “enlightened” and succeeded in being forward-thinking for their time but even current writers sometimes can’t get it “right” in terms of today’s complicated and rapidly shifting standards, so it’s not surprising that writers decades ago usually can’t either.

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  2. Hi

    I just discovered your blog via the comments section of Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations and I am looking forward to reading your older posts. Your current post on Van Vogt, Niven and Williamson is covering some of my favourite authors and I am sure I will be pulling some books off the shelf as I read further. All the best.

    Guy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment! I went to check out your blog and it looks very interesting – I didn’t see how to “follow” it like a WordPress blog, but I did subscribe to your RSS feed.

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  3. Huh. I had a feeling that Moore’s ‘Judgment Night’ was 1946. But you’re right — serialized in 1943, and the second part of it in the same September issue of ASTOUNDING as Van Vogt’s ‘Concealment.’

    I’m a big admirer of the Kuttners — stories that people don’t remember these days like ‘The Code’ and ‘The Children’s Hour.’ And ‘Vintage Season’ is to my mind the first really adult piece of American magazine SF.

    Whereas much other 1940s Campbellian SF looks good primarily in comparison to the pulp American SF that preceded it and once you go back to the British ‘scientific romance’ writers — H.G. Wells, Kipling in stories like ‘As Easy As ABC,’ E.M. Forster in ‘The Machine Stops,’ Stapledon — a writer like Heinlein ‘looks like pretty small beans by comparison, the Kuttners point the way forward to 1950-era SF — there’s no Philip K. Dick without them, for instance — and make modern SF possible.

    Pity Kuttner died and Moore quit. Well, pity Kornbluth died for that matter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow. I was thinking they came out near the same time, but that’s beyond “near.” 🙂

      I wouldn’t go so far as that regarding Heinlein, myself, but I do like the Kuttners (and Kornbluth), too, and agree that it’s a shame they aren’t remembered as much and for as many things as they should be.

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