18 January 2012

Wasting Time on A. E. van Vogt

Masters of Time
A. E. van Vogt
New York: Macfadden-Bartell, 1967

Masters of Time opens with poor Norma Matheson scrambling up a slippery riverbank after a failed suicide attempt. Eleven years earlier she'd rejected college boyfriend Jack's marriage proposal to pursue a career in social service. How'd that go? The author won't say, though the publisher provides plenty in this pitch to prospective purchasers:

Front cover, back cover, front page – Macfadden-Bartell describes this novel three different ways, though not one is true to the plot.

The finest scene is the first. Norma rests on a park bench gathering herself for another run at the river when she's approached by Dr Lell, a gaunt man who offers a job recruiting mercenaries for "the Calonian cause". That she accepts might be an indication that things didn't go so well in the social service game. Norma soon discovers that her employer is not the country of Calonia, but aliens amassing soldiers for a war in the distant future. She runs to the local police station only to be temporarily transformed into a mute old woman by Dr Lell.

Norma next turns to the US Mail, penning a plea to former beau Jack, now a world-renowned physicist. The lengthy letter she receives in response is full of mixed messages. Jack questions her sanity, repeats each and every detail Norma has gleaned of the alien plot, provides scientific analyses of same, and encloses $200 so that she might pay for psychiatric help.

What began as a mildly interesting episode of Twilight Zone suddenly becomes awkward and disjointed. The novel stumbles forward, picking up and discarding characters, concepts and concerns while torturing the reader with pedestrian prose. Here are Jack's thoughts upon learning that he's aboard a spaceship bound for Venus:
Venus! He let the word roll around in his mind and it was exciting, intellectual food, immensely stimulating to a mind shaped and trained as was his. Venus? For ages, the dreams of men had reached into the skies, immeasurably fascinated by the mind-staggering fact of other worlds, as vast as their own continents, seas, rivers, treasure beyond estimate. And now for him there was to be reality.
This plain passage is atypical in that it is at least comprehensible. As in Bond parodies, van Vogt's villains reveal too much. Explanations are plentiful, advanced knowledge is imparted and secrets are spilled, but nothing the aliens say makes much sense:
"–the seventeenth x space and time manipulations... taking place sometime in the future... several years from now. Your spaceship either by accident or design caught up in the eddying current in the resulting time storm– Still no clue to the origin of the mighty powers being exercised."
While readers may feel that they have missed something, fault lies wholly with the author who in his Reflections of A. E. van Vogt reveals that the novel was but one cobbled together from unrelated stories. The effort was, as he put it, "fix-up work". I suggest that "hack work" is more appropriate. I'll add that that grafting lifeless things to other lifeless things brings animation only in science fiction... and not with science fiction.

Oh, one more thing: Nora and Jack get married in the end.

Trivia: The novel first appeared as "The Recruiting Station" in a 1942 issue of Astounding Science Ficton. It first appeared in book form coupled with a shorter pulp story, "The Changeling". It has also been published as Earth's Last Fortress.

Translations include L'ultima fortezza della terra (1976), La dernière fortresse (1978) and Beherrscher der Zeit (1978).

Object and Access: A mass market paperback, typical of its time, copies of the Macfadden-Bartell edition are plentiful and cheap. Good copies can be had for one dollar (double that for Very Good). The first edition, published in 1950 by Fantasy Press of Reading, Pennsylvania, is not nearly as rare as one might expect. Near Fine copies begin at the forty dollar range. In Canada, only the Toronto Public Library and a handful of universities have the novel in their collections.


  1. I have a copy of that eerie FANTASY PRESS edition. Van Vogt and SF writers of that era frequently used that "fix-up" technique to turn short stories into novels.

  2. van Vogt did a lot of "fix-up" works, turning short stories in novels, and most of them suffer this same problem: disjointed, confusing, in the end not very good. Try Voyage of the Space Beagle if you want a better van Vogt read.

  3. I will try more someday. As it is Masters of Time and The House that Stood Still (my only other van Vogt) have all but exhausted. Dare I hope I've begun with the worst?

  4. How can anyone resist a book which contains chapters that start like this:

    'He stood finally at the wall visiplate, staring out at the burnished immensity of Venus. The planet, already vast, was expanding visibly, like a balloon being blown up. Only it didn't stop expanding, and, unlike an overgrown balloon, it didn't burst.'

    Van Vogt - intentionally or not - wrote very funny books.