A. E. van Vogt
Van Vogt about 1963
April 26, 1912
Edenburg, near Gretna, Manitoba, Canada
|Died||January 26, 2000 (aged 87)|
Los Angeles, California, US
|Period||1939–1986 (science fiction)|
|Literary movement||Golden Age of Science Fiction|
Alfred Elton van Vogt (/
Alfred Vogt (both "Elton" and "van" were added much later) was born on April 26, 1912 on his grandparents' farm in Edenburg, Manitoba, a tiny (and now defunct) Russian Mennonite community east of Gretna, Manitoba, Canada in the Mennonite West Reserve. He was the third of six children born to Heinrich "Henry" Vogt and Aganetha "Agnes" Vogt (née Buhr), both of whom were themselves born in Manitoba, but who grew up in heavily immigrant communities. Until age four, van Vogt and his family spoke only a dialect of Dutch at home.
For the first dozen or so years of his life, van Vogt's father, Henry Vogt, a lawyer, moved his family several times within western Canada, alighting successively in Neville, Saskatchewan; Morden, Manitoba; and finally Winnipeg, Manitoba. Alfred Vogt found these moves difficult, later remarking:
Childhood was a terrible period for me. I was like a ship without anchor being swept along through darkness in a storm. Again and again I sought shelter, only to be forced out of it by something new.
By the 1920s, living in Winnipeg, father Henry worked as an agent for a steamship company, but the stock market crash of 1929 proved financially disastrous, and the family could not afford to send Alfred to college. During his teen years, Alfred worked as a farmhand and a truck driver, and by the age of 19, he was working in Ottawa for the Canadian census bureau. He began his writing career with stories in the true confession style of pulp magazines such as True Story. Most of these stories were published anonymously, with the first-person narratives allegedly being written by people (often women) in extraordinary, emotional, and life-changing circumstances.
After a year in Ottawa, he moved back to Winnipeg, where he sold newspaper advertising space and continued to write. While continuing to pen melodramatic "true confessions" stories through 1937, he also began writing short radio dramas for local radio station CKY, as well as conducting interviews published in trade magazines. He added the middle name "Elton" at some point in the mid-1930s, and at least one confessional story (1937's "To Be His Keeper") was sold to the Toronto Star, who misspelled his name "Alfred Alton Bogt" in the byline. Shortly thereafter, he added the "van" to his surname, and from that point forward he used the name "A.E. van Vogt" both personally and professionally.
By 1938, van Vogt decided to switch to writing science fiction, a genre he enjoyed reading. He was inspired by the August 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which he picked up at a newsstand. John W. Campbell's novelette "Who Goes There?" (later adapted into The Thing from Another World and The Thing) inspired van Vogt to write "Vault of the Beast", which he submitted to that same magazine. Campbell, who edited Astounding (and had written the story under a pseudonym), sent van Vogt a rejection letter, but one which encouraged van Vogt to try again. Van Vogt sent another story, entitled "Black Destroyer," which was accepted. A revised version of "Vault of the Beast" would be published in 1940.
Van Vogt's first SF publication was inspired by The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. "The Black Destroyer" was published in July 1939 by John W. Campbell in Astounding Science Fiction, the centennial year of Darwin's journal. It featured a fierce, carnivorous alien, the coeurl, stalking the crew of an exploration spaceship, and served as the inspiration for multiple science fiction movies, including Alien (1979).[a]
Also in 1939, still living in Winnipeg, van Vogt married Edna Mayne Hull, a fellow Manitoban. Hull, who had previously worked as a private secretary, would act as van Vogt's typist, and be credited with writing several SF stories of her own throughout the early 1940s.
The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 caused a change in van Vogt's circumstances. Ineligible for military service due to his poor eyesight, van Vogt accepted a clerking job with the Canadian Department of National Defence. This necessitated a move back to Ottawa, where he and his wife would stay for the next year and a half.
Meanwhile, his writing career continued. "Discord in Scarlet" was van Vogt's second story to be published, also appearing as the cover story. It was accompanied by interior illustrations created by Frank Kramer[b] and Paul Orban. (Van Vogt and Kramer[b] thus debuted in the issue of Astounding that is sometimes identified as the start of the Golden Age of Science Fiction.)
Van Vogt's first completed novel, and one of his most famous, is Slan (Arkham House, 1946), which Campbell serialized in Astounding September to December 1940. Using what became one of van Vogt's recurring themes, it told the story of a nine-year-old superman living in a world in which his kind are slain by Homo sapiens.
Others saw van Vogt's talent from his first story, and in May 1941, van Vogt decided to become a full-time writer, quitting his job at the Canadian Department of National Defence. Freed from the necessity of living in Ottawa, he and his wife lived for a time in the Gatineau region of Quebec before moving to Toronto in the fall of 1941.
Prolific throughout this period, van Vogt wrote many of his more famous short stories and novels in the years from 1941 through 1944. The novels The Book of Ptath and The Weapon Makers both appeared in magazines in serial form during this era; they were later published in book form after World War II. As well, several (though not all) of the stories that were compiled to make up the novels The Weapon Shops of Isher, The Mixed Men and The War Against the Rull were also published during this time.
In November 1944, van Vogt and Hull moved to Hollywood; van Vogt would spend the rest of his life in California. He had been using the name "A.E. van Vogt" in his public life for several years, and as part of the process of obtaining American citizenship in 1945 he finally and formally changed his legal name from Alfred Vogt to Alfred Elton van Vogt. To his friends in the California science fiction community, he was known as "Van".
Van Vogt systematized his writing method, using scenes of 800 words or so where a new complication was added or something resolved. Several of his stories hinge on temporal conundra, a favorite theme. He stated that he acquired many of his writing techniques from three books: Narrative Technique by Thomas Uzzell, The Only Two Ways to Write a Story by John Gallishaw, and Twenty Problems of the Fiction Writer by Gallishaw. He also claimed many of his ideas came from dreams; throughout his writing life he arranged to be awakened every 90 minutes during his sleep period so he could write down his dreams.
Van Vogt was also always interested in the idea of all-encompassing systems of knowledge (akin to modern meta-systems) — the characters in his very first story used a system called "Nexialism" to analyze the alien's behavior. Around this time, he became particularly interested in the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski.
He subsequently wrote a novel merging these overarching themes, The World of Ā, originally serialized in Astounding in 1945. Ā (often rendered as Null-A), or non-Aristotelian logic, refers to the capacity for, and practice of, using intuitive, inductive reasoning (compare fuzzy logic), rather than reflexive, or conditioned, deductive reasoning. The novel recounts the adventures of an individual living in an apparent Utopia, where those with superior brainpower make up the ruling class... though all is not as it seems. A sequel, The Players of Ā (later re-titled The Pawns of Null-A) was serialized in 1948-49.
At the same time, in his fiction, van Vogt was consistently sympathetic to absolute monarchy as a form of government. This was the case, for instance, in the Weapon Shop series, the Mixed Men series, and in single stories such as "Heir Apparent" (1945), whose protagonist was described as a "benevolent dictator". These sympathies were the subject of much critical discussion during van Vogt's career, and afterwards.
Van Vogt published "Enchanted Village" in the July 1950 issue of Other Worlds Science Stories. It was reprinted in over 20 collections or anthologies, and appeared many times in translation.
In 1950, van Vogt was briefly appointed as head of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics operation in California. Van Vogt had first met Hubbard in 1945, and became interested in his Dianetics theories, which were published shortly thereafter. Dianetics was the secular precursor to Hubbard's Church of Scientology; van Vogt would have no association with Scientology, as he did not approve of its mysticism.
The California Dianetics operation went broke nine months later, but never went bankrupt, due to van Vogt's arrangements with creditors. Very shortly after that, van Vogt and his wife opened their own Dianetics center, partly financed by his writings, until he "signed off" around 1961. In practical terms, what this meant was that from 1951 through 1961, van Vogt's focus was on Dianetics, and no new story ideas flowed from his typewriter.
However, during the 1950s, van Vogt retrospectively patched together many of his previously published stories into novels, sometimes creating new interstitial material to help bridge gaps in the narrative. Van Vogt referred to the resulting books as "fix-ups", a term that entered the vocabulary of science-fiction criticism. When the original stories were closely related this was often successful — although some van Vogt fix-ups featured disparate stories thrown together that bore little relation to each other, generally making for a less coherent plot. One of his best-known (and well-regarded) novels, The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) was a fix-up of four short stories including "Discord in Scarlet"; it was published in at least five European languages by 1955.
Although Van Vogt averaged a new book title every ten months from 1951 to 1961, none of them were new stories. All of van Vogt's books from 1951 to 1961 were fix-ups, or collections of previously published stories, or expansions of previously published short stories to novel length, or republications of his books under new titles. All were based on story material written and originally published between 1939 and 1950. As well, one non-fiction work, The Hypnotism Handbook, appeared in 1956, though it had apparently been written much earlier.
Some of van Vogt's more well-known work was still produced using the fix-up method. In 1951, he published the fix-up The Weapon Shops of Isher. In the same decade, van Vogt also produced collections and fixups such as The Mixed Men (1952), The War Against the Rull (1959), and the two "Clane" novels, Empire of the Atom (1957) and The Wizard of Linn (1962), which were inspired (like Asimov's Foundation series) by Roman imperial history, specifically the reign of Claudius.
After more than a decade of running their Dianetics center, Hull and van Vogt closed it in 1961. Nevertheless, van Vogt maintained his association with the overall organization and was still president of the Californian Association of Dianetic Auditors into the 1980s.
Though the constant re-packaging of his older work meant that he had never really been away from the book publishing world, van Vogt had not published any wholly new fiction for almost 12 years when he decided to return to writing in 1962. He did not return immediately to science fiction, however, but instead wrote the only mainstream, non-sf novel of his career.
Van Vogt was profoundly affected by revelations of totalitarian police states that emerged after World War II. Accordingly, he wrote a mainstream novel that he set in Communist China, The Violent Man (1962); he said that to research this book he had read 100 books about China. Into this book he incorporated his view of "the violent male type", which he described as a "man who had to be right", a man who "instantly attracts women" and who he said were the men who "run the world". Contemporary reviews were lukewarm at best, and van Vogt thereafter returned to science fiction.
From 1963 through the mid-1980s, van Vogt once again published new material on a regular basis, though fix-ups and reworked material also appeared relatively often. His later novels included fix-ups such as The Beast (also known as Moonbeast) (1963), Rogue Ship (1965), Quest for the Future (1970) and Supermind (1977). He also wrote novels by expanding previously published short stories; works of this type include The Darkness on Diamondia (1972) and Future Glitter (also known as Tyranopolis; 1973).
Novels that were written simply as novels, and not serialized magazine pieces or fix-ups, were very rare in van Vogt's oeuvre, but began to appear regularly beginning in the 1970s. Van Vogt's original novels included Children of Tomorrow (1970), The Battle of Forever (1971) and The Anarchistic Colossus (1977). Over the years, many sequels to his classic works were promised, but only one appeared: Null-A Three (1984; originally published in French). Several later books were originally published in Europe, and at least one novel only ever appeared in foreign language editions and was never published in its original English.
When the 1979 film Alien appeared, it was noted that the plot closely matched the plot of van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle. Van Vogt sued the production company for plagiarism, and eventually collected an out-of-court settlement of $50,000 from 20th Century Fox.
In increasingly frail health, van Vogt's final short story appeared in 1986.
Van Vogt's first wife, Edna Mayne Hull, died in 1975. Van Vogt married Lydia Bereginsky in 1979; they remained together until his death.
Critical opinion about the quality of van Vogt's work is sharply divided. An early and articulate critic was Damon Knight. In a 1945 chapter-long essay reprinted in In Search of Wonder, entitled "Cosmic Jerrybuilder: A. E. van Vogt", Knight described van Vogt as "no giant; he is a pygmy who has learned to operate an overgrown typewriter". Knight described The World of Null-A as "one of the worst allegedly adult science fiction stories ever published". Concerning van Vogt's writing, Knight said:
In general van Vogt seems to me to fail consistently as a writer in these elementary ways: 1. His plots do not bear examination. 2. His choice of words and his sentence-structure are fumbling and insensitive. 3. He is unable either to visualize a scene or to make a character seem real.
About Empire of the Atom Knight wrote:
If you can only throw your reasoning powers out of gear — something many van Vogt fans find easy to do — you'll enjoy this one.
Knight also expressed misgivings about van Vogt's politics. He noted that van Vogt's stories almost invariably present absolute monarchy in a favorable light. In 1974, Knight retracted some of his criticism after finding out about Vogt's writing down his dreams as a part of his working methods:
This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.
Knight's criticism greatly damaged van Vogt's reputation. On the other hand, when science fiction author Philip K. Dick was asked  which science fiction writers had influenced his work the most, he replied:
I started reading sf when I was about twelve and I read all I could, so any author who was writing about that time, I read. But there's no doubt who got me off originally and that was A.E. van Vogt. There was in van Vogt's writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null-A. All the parts of that book did not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think that's sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else's writing inside or outside science fiction.
Dick also defended van Vogt against Damon Knight's criticisms:
Damon feels that it's bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor. It's like he's viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he's building your house. But reality really is a mess, and yet it's exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe which is not to be feared.
In a review of Transfinite: The Essential A. E. van Vogt, science fiction writer Paul Di Filippo said:
Van Vogt knew precisely what he was doing in all areas of his fiction writing. There's hardly a wasted word in his stories. ... His plots are marvels of interlocking pieces, often ending in real surprises and shocks, genuine paradigm shifts, which are among the hardest conceptions to depict. And the intellectual material of his fictions, the conceits and tossed-off observations on culture and human and alien behavior, reflect a probing mind. ... Each tale contains a new angle, a unique slant, that makes it stand out.
In The John W. Campbell Letters, Campbell says, "The son-of-a-gun gets hold of you in the first paragraph, ties a knot around you, and keeps it tied in every paragraph thereafter—including the ultimate last one".
Harlan Ellison (who had begun reading van Vogt as a teenager) wrote, "Van was the first writer to shine light on the restricted ways in which I had been taught to view the universe and the human condition".
No one has taken van Vogt seriously as a writer for a long time. Yet he has been read and still is. What no one seems to have noticed is that van Vogt, more than any other single SF writer, is the conduit through which the energy of Gernsbackian, primitive wonder stories have been transmitted through the Campbellian age, when earlier styles of SF were otherwise rejected, and on into SF of the present.
Van Vogt is a test case ... since an apology for or analysis of science fiction which fails to come to terms with his appeal and major importance, defends or defines the genre by falsifying it.
American literary critic Fredric Jameson says of van Vogt:
that van Vogt's work clearly prepares the way for that of the greatest of all Science Fiction writers, Philip K. Dick, whose extraordinary novels and stories are inconceivable without the opening onto that play of unconscious materials and fantasy dynamics released by van Vogt, and very different from the more hard-science aesthetic ideologies of his contemporaries (from Campbell to Heinlein).:315
Van Vogt still has his critics. For example, Darrell Schweitzer writing to The New York Review of Science Fiction in 1999 quoted a passage from the original van Vogt novelette "The Mixed Men", which he was then reading, and remarked:
This is the realism, and logic, of a small boy playing with toy soldiers in a sandbox. I'm tougher than you. I've got a billion spaceships! They're brand-new. They only took 800 years to develop.
And this is a story in which most of the cast either have two brains or are really robots ... and even the emotions of the human characters are programmed or deprogrammed as part of plots within counter plots. Next to this, Doc Smith was an icy realist. There is no intersection with adult reality at any point, for all van Vogt was able to write was that small boy's sandbox game with an adult level of intensity. This is, I think, the secret of van Vogt's bizarre fascination, as awful as his actual writing might be, and why he appealed so strongly to Philip K. Dick, who managed to put more adult characters and emotions into equally crazy situations. It's ultimately very strange to find this sort of writing so prominently sponsored by supposedly rational and scientifically minded John W. Campbell, when it seems to contravene everything the Golden Age stood for.
The Science Fiction Writers of America named him its 14th Grand Master in 1995 (presented 1996). Also in 1996, van Vogt received a Special Award from the World Science Fiction Convention "for six decades of golden age science fiction". That same year, he was inducted as an inaugural member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
The Science Fiction Writers of America named him its 14th Grand Master in 1995 (presented 1996). Great controversy within SFWA accompanied its long wait in bestowing its highest honor (limited to living writers, no more than one annually). Writing an obituary of van Vogt, Robert J. Sawyer, a fellow Canadian writer of science fiction, remarked:
There was no doubt that van Vogt should have received this honor much earlier — the injustice of him being overlooked, at least in part because of damnable SFWA politics, had so incensed Harlan Ellison, a man with an impeccable moral compass, that he'd lobbied hard on the Sci-Fi Channel and elsewhere on van Vogt's behalf.
It is generally held that the "damnable SFWA politics" concerns Damon Knight, the founder of the SFWA, who abhorred van Vogt's style and politics and thoroughly demolished his literary reputation in the 1950s.
Harlan Ellison was more explicit in 1999 introduction to Futures Past: The Best Short Fiction of A. E. van Vogt:
[A]t least I was able to make enough noise to get Van the Science Fiction Writers of America Grand Master Award, which was presented to him in full ceremony during one of the last moments when he was cogent and clearheaded enough to understand that finally, at last, dragged kicking and screaming to honor him, the generation that learned from what he did and what he had created had, at last, 'fessed up to his importance.
... were the same ones who assured me that Van would never get the Grand Master until Damon Knight had gotten it first, because Damon had loathed Van's work and had, in fact written the essay that ridiculed Van and held him up to opprobrium for decades thereafter, and Damon having founded SFWA it would be an affront to him if Van got it first. Well, I don't know if that's true or not, though it was common coin in the field for years; but Damon got the Grand Master award in 1994. And Van got it in 1995.[c] As they say during sweeps week on television: coincidence or conspiracy?
In 1996, van Vogt received a Special Award from the World Science Fiction Convention "for six decades of golden age science fiction". That same year, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inducted him in its inaugural class of two deceased and two living persons, along with writer Jack Williamson (also living) and editors Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell.
The works of van Vogt were translated into French by the surrealist Boris Vian (The World of Null-A as Le Monde des Å in 1958), and van Vogt's works were "viewed as great literature of the surrealist school". In addition, Slan was published in French, translated by Jean Rosenthal, under the title À la poursuite des Slans, as part of the paperback series 'Editions J'ai Lu: Romans-Texte Integral' in 1973, this edition also listing the following works by van Vogt as having been published in French as part of this series: Le Monde des Å, La faune de l'espace, Les joueurs du Å, L'empire de l'atome, Le sorcier de Linn, Les armureries d'Isher, Les fabricants d'armes, and Le livre de Ptath.
|1946||Slan||Originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction, September – December 1940.|
|1947||The Weapon Makers||Isher||Significantly revised version of a novel originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction, February – April 1943.
Revised again in 1952.
|One Against Eternity (1964)|
|1947||The Book of Ptath||Originally appeared (complete) in Unknown, October 1943.
||Two Hundred Million A.D. (1964)|
|1948||The World of Ā||Null-A||Revised and shortened version of a novel originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction, August – October 1945.
Revised again in 1970.
|The World of Null-A (all editions from 1953 forward)|
|1950||The House That Stood Still||The Mating Cry (1960, revised)|
The Undercover Aliens (1976)
|1950||The Voyage of the Space Beagle||Fix-up of four short stories, originally published 1939 – 1950.||Mission: Interplanetary (1952)|
|1951||The Weapon Shops of Isher||Isher||Fix-up of three short stories, originally published 1941 – 1949.|
|1952||The Mixed Men||Fix-up of three short stories, originally published 1943 – 1945.||Mission to the Stars (1955)|
|1953||The Universe Maker||Extensively rewritten and expanded version of the short story "The Shadow Men" (1950).|
|1954||The Pawns of Null-A||Null-A||Originally serialized (as The Players of Ā) in Astounding Science Fiction, October 1948 – January 1949.||The Players of Null-A (1966)|
|1957||The Mind Cage||Extensively rewritten and expanded version of the short story "The Great Judge" (1948].|
|1957||Empire of the Atom||Gods||Fix-up of five short stories, originally published 1946 – 1947.|
|1959||Siege of the Unseen||Originally serialized (as The Chronicler) in Astounding Science Fiction, October – November 1946.||The Three Eyes of Evil (1973)|
|1959||The War Against the Rull||Fix-up of six short stories, originally published 1940 – 1950.|
|1960||Earth's Last Fortress||Novella, originally appeared (complete, as "Recruiting Station") in Astounding Science Fiction, March 1942.||Anthologized as "Masters Of Time" in the van Vogt collection Masters Of Time (1950).|
|1962||The Wizard of Linn||Gods||Originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction, April – June 1950.|
|1962||The Violent Man||Non-sf; a political thriller.|
|1963||The Beast||Substantially revised fix-up of three short stories, originally published 1943 – 1944.||Moonbeast (1969)|
|1965||Rogue Ship||Fix-up of three short stories, originally published 1947 – 1963.|
|1966||The Winged Man (with E. Mayne Hull)||Originally serialized (and credited solely to E. Mayne Hull) in Astounding Science Fiction, May – June 1944. Greatly expanded (from 35,000 to 60,000 words) by van Vogt for book publication.|
|1967||The Changeling||Novella, originally appeared (complete) in Astounding Science Fiction, April 1944.
Previously anthologized in the van Vogt collection Masters Of Time (1950).
|1969||The Silkie||Fix-up of three short stories, originally published 1964 – 1967.|
|1970||Children of Tomorrow|
|1970||Quest for the Future||Fix-up of three short stories, originally published 1943 – 1946.|
|1971||The Battle of Forever|
|1972||The Darkness on Diamondia|
|1973||Future Glitter||Tyranopolis (1977)|
|1974||The Man with a Thousand Names|
|1974||The Secret Galactics||Earth Factor X (1976)|
|1977||Supermind||Fix-up of three short stories, originally published 1942 – 1968. The 1965 story "Research Alpha", minimally revised to form chapters 23-36 of this novel, was credited on original publication to van Vogt and James H. Schmitz.|
|1977||The Anarchistic Colossus|
|1983||Computerworld||Computer Eye (1985)|
|1985||To Conquer Kiber||Unpublished in English. Published in French as A la conquête de Kiber and in Romanian as Cucerirea Kiberului|
This [The voyage of the Space Beagle] is the classic 'bug-eyed monster' novel, the unacknowledged inspiration for the film Alien and scores of similar— David Pringle, (1990) "The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction", Grafton Books, page 346.
The stories collected in The Voyage of the Space Beagle were perhaps the first to chronicle the adventures of the crew of a large, military-style starship exploring the universe, and doubtless influenced Gene Roddenberry strongly when he created Star Trek. ... One of the Space Beagle stories purportedly inspired the movie Alien - the resemblance was great enough that van Vogt brought a lawsuit against the filmmakers, which reportedly settled for a $50,000 payment.— Aaron Hughes, "Neglected Masters Book Review" retrieved 2010-09-09
... The Voyage Of The Space Beagle (1950), later inspired the original Star Trek series and the movie Alien.— Trent Walters, "Oh, the Humanity of A.E. van Vogt's Monsters: Reorienting Critics and Readers to the van Vogt Method" retrieved 2010-09-09
'Black Destroyer' has been cited as the inspiration for the movie Alien and its many sequels and imitations— Gerald Jonas, (2000) "A. E. van Vogt, 87, Forceful Science-Fiction Voice", New York Times obituary, 2000-02-04
Alien is thus virtually a film version or translation of "Black Destroyer". (Van Vogt is not credited, and as it turns out he sued the film-makers for plagiarism; the latter settling out of court.— Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future. The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005, pp. 325)
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