A. E. van Vogt

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When a people lose the courage to resist encroachment on their rights, then they can't be saved by an outside force.

Alfred Elton van Vogt (/vænvoʊt/; 26 April 191226 January 2000) was a Canadian-born science fiction author regarded as one of the most popular and influential science fiction writers of the mid-twentieth century.


Give me a title and we'll start from there.
  • Give me a title and we'll start from there.
    • Response to Harlan Ellison, at a suggestion to work together on a story, as quoted by Ellison in his introduction to "The Human Operators" in Partners in Wonder (2014)

The Weapon Shops of Isher (1951)[edit]

The right to buy weapons is the right to be free.
This novel is a fix-up created from three previously published short stories:
"The Seesaw", Analog Science Fiction and Fact (July 1941)
"The Weapon Shop", Analog Science Fiction and Fact (December 1942)
"The Weapon Shops of Isher", Wonder Stories (February 1949)
  • The weapon shops were founded more than two thousand years ago by a man who decided that the incessant struggle for power of different groups was insane and the civil and other wars must stop forever. It was a time when the world had just emerged from a war in which more than a billion people had died and he found thousands of people who agreed to follow him. His idea was nothing less than that whatever government was in power should not be overthrown. But that an organization should be set up which would have one principal purpose — to ensure that no government ever again obtained complete power over its people. A man who felt himself wronged should be able to go somewhere to buy a defensive gun. You cannot imagine what a great forward step that was. Under the old tyrannical governments it was frequently a capital offense to be found in possession of a blaster or a gun. … What gave the founder the idea was the invention of an electronic and atomic system of control which made it possible to build indestructible weapon shops and to manufacture weapons that could only be used for defense. That last ended all possibility of weapon shop guns being used by gangsters and other criminals and morally justified the entire enterprise. For defensive purposes a weapon shop gun is superior to an ordinary or government weapon. It works on mind control and leaps to the hand when wanted. It provides a defensive screen against other blasters, though not against bullets but since it is so much faster, that isn't important.
    • Lucy Rail, to Cayle Clark, in Ch. 5
  • "You really don't understand. We don't worry about individuals. What counts is that many millions of people have the knowledge that they can go to a weapon shop if they want to protect themselves and their families. And, even more important, the forces that would normally try to enslave them are restrained by the conviction that it is dangerous to press people too far. And so a great balance has been struck between those who govern and those who are governed."
    Cayle stared at her in bitter disappointment. "You mean that a person has to save himself? Even when you get a gun you have to nerve yourself to resist? Nobody is there to help you?"
    It struck him with a pang that she must have told him this in order to show him why she couldn't help him.
    Lucy spoke again. "I can see that what I've told you is a great disappointment to you. But that's the way it is. And I think you'll realize that's the way it has to be. When a people lose the courage to resist encroachment on their rights, then they can't be saved by an outside force. Our belief is that people always have the kind of government they want and that individuals must bear the risks of freedom, even to the extent of giving their lives."
    • Lucy Rail, and Cayle Clark in Ch. 5

Quotes about van Vogt[edit]

  • At the end of June in 1939 I took a bus east to New York to attend the first World Science Fiction convention. On the bus with me I took the June of Astounding Science-Fiction in which the short story by A.E. van Vogt appeared. It was an astonishing encounter. In that same issue with him were C. L. Moore and Ross Rocklynne, a fantastic issue to take with me on that long journey, for I was still a poor unpublished writer selling newspapers on a street corner for ten dollars a week and hoping, someday, to be an established writer myself, but that was still two years off. On the way I drank in the words of A.E. Van Vogt and was stunned by what I saw there. He became a deep influence for the next year.
    As it turned out, I didn't become A.E. Van Vogt, no one else could, and when I finally met him was pleased to see that the man was as pleasant to be with as were his stories.
    I knew him over a long period of years and he was a kind and wonderful gentleman, a real asset to the Science Fantasy Society in L.A., where there are a lot of strange people. A.E. Van Vogt was not strange, he was kind. He gave me advice and helped me along the road to becoming what I wanted to become.
  • He originated many of the themes we now take for granted: how many monsters have infested spaceships — since "The Black Destroyer"? And although "Slan" — that wish-fulfillment dream of all S.F. fans (interesting resonance there!) was not the first superman story, it Is the one which has had the greatest impact.
  • 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. … 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.
  • Even the brightest star shines dimly when observed-from too far away. And human memory is notoriously unreliable. And we live in ugly times when all respect for that which has gone before suffers crib death beneath the weight of youthful arrogance and ignorance. But a great nobility has at last, been recognized and lauded. Someone less charitable than I might suggest the honor could have been better appreciated had it not been so tardy, naming its race with a foe that blots joy and destroys short-term memory. But I sing the Talent Electric, and like aft the dark smudges of history, everything but the honor and die achievement remains for the myth-makers.
    Alfred E. van Vogt has been awarded the Grand Master trophy of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He is not the to first person to receive this singular accolade…given only to those whose right to possess it is beyond argument or mitigation.
    Were we in 1946 or even 1956, van Vogt would have already been able to hold the award aloft. Had SFWA existed then and had the greatest living sf authors been polled as to who was the most fecund, the most intriguing, the mast innovative the most influential of their number, Isaac and Arthur and Cyril and Hank Kuttner and Ron Hubbard would all have pointed to the same man, and Bob Heinlein would've given him a thumbs-up. Van Vogt was the pinnacle, the source of power and ideas; the writer to beat. Because he embodied in his astonishing novels and assorted stories what we always say is of prime importance to us in this genre-the much vaunted Sense of Wonder.
    Van Vogt was the wellspring of wonder.
    … That's how important he was. … And then came the dark years during which the man was shamefully agented and overlooked; and even the brightest star loses its piercing light if observed through the thickening mists of time and flawed memory.
    Now it is lifetimes later, and the great award has, at last, been presented. To some, less charitable than I, something could be said about a day late and a dollar short, but not I. I am here to sing the Talent Electric, and it is better now than never. He is the Grand Master, A.E. can Vogt, weaver of a thousand ideas per plot-line, creator of alien thoughts and impossible dreams that rival the best ever built by our kind.
    This dear, gentlemanly writer whose stories can still kill you with a concept or warm you with a character, now joins the special pantheon.
  • Alfred E. van Vogt, since the appearance of his first two stories — "Black Destroyer" and "Discord in Scarlet" (Astounding Science Fiction, July and December 1939) the most memorable debut in the long history of the genre — has been a giant. The words seminal and germinal leap to mind. Sadly, at this juncture. the words tragedy and farewell also insinuate themselves. … Van is still with us, as I write this, in June of 1999, slightly less than fifty years since I first encountered van Vogt prose in a January 1950 issue of Startling Stories, but Van is gone. He is no longer with us. … Because the great and fecund mind of A.E. van Vogt has fallen into the clutches of that pulp thriller demon, Alzheimer's. Van is gone. … Anyone's demise or vanishment is in some small way tragic but the word "tragedy" requires greater measure for its use. … Van' s great mind now gone. Tragedy.
    The ultimate tragic impropriety visited on as good a man as ever lived. A gentle. soft spoken man who was filled with ideas and humor and courtesy and kindness. Not even those who were not aficionados of Van's writing could muster a harsh word about him as a human being. He was as he remains now, quietly and purposefully, a gentleman.
    But make no mistake about this: the last few decades for him were marred by the perfidious and even mean spirited and sometimes criminal acts of poltroons and self-aggrandizing mountebanks and piss-ants into whose clutches he fell just before the thug Alzheimer got him. … I came late to the friendship with Van and Lydia. Perhaps only twenty-five or so years. But the friendship continues, and at 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 on of the last moments when he was cogent and clearheaded enough understand that finally, as 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.
    Naturally, others took credit for his getting the award. They postured and spewed all the right platitudes. Some of them were the same ones who had said to me — during the five years it took to get them to act honorably — "we'd have given it to him sooner if you hadn't made such a fuss." Yeah. Sure. And pandas'll fly out of my ass.
  • One night, in a fever dream, I sit up and say to the walls, "Hey, how about A. E. Van Vogt?" When I heard myself say it, I realized I was feverish, and I lay back down again quickly. I'm malaise that can cause symptoms like that should not be fooled with.
    But the next day, the thought persisted.
    I argued with myself. I said, first of all, Van is in the middle of a bunch of new novels and won't have the time. Yeah, but what a weird story you two could turn out, I answered. Sure, sure I agreed, but why in the world would the man who wrote "Slan" and "The Weapon Shops of Isher" and "The World of Null-A" and books that were classics before I could hold a pencil properly, want to link up with me, ya snotnose. Yeah, but what a weird story you two would turn out, I answered. But we don't write anything alike, I argued. Van thinks in these blocks of concepts, and he's hip to all kinds of technology and stuff what I don't know a spanner from a toilet plunger; what are you trying to do, make me look like some kind of nitwit, approaching a man like Van Vogt? Yeah, but want a weird — 
    So I called Van and suggested it, thinking he would drop me down an airshaft somewhere but damned if he didn't dig the idea.
    • Harlan Ellison, in his introduction to "The Human Operators" in Partners in Wonder (2014)
  • The Golden Age of SF is universally dated from the July 1939, issue of Astounding because that's when "Black Destroyer," A. E. van Vogt's first SF story, appeared. Isaac Asimov's first story also appeared in the same month but nobody — as Asimov himself admits — noticed it.
    People noticed "Black Destroyer," though, and they continued to notice the many other stories that van Vogt wrote over the following decade.
    … What as much as anything set van Vogt off from other SF writers (of his day and later) was the ability to suggest vastness beyond comprehension. He worked with not only in space and time, but with the mind.
    Van Vogt knew that to describe the indescribable would have been to make it ludicrous, and that at best description turns the inconceivable into the pedestrian. More than any other SF writer, van Vogt succeeded in creating a sense of wonder in his readers by hinting at the shadowed immensities beyond the walls of human perception.
  • The truth of the matter seems to be that van Vogt's withdrawal into himself took place over a considerable period of time. The beginning of it may lie in the fact that young Alfred was a highly idealistic small town boy with a number of wide-eyed notions about right and truth and justice in his head. When the world failed to conform to his expectations, he found that a substantial shock.
    Beyond this, it was also true that Alfred was a boy who had something a little strange and left-footed about him. He didn't think or talk exactly like everyone else, and reaction to this may have had its effect on his developing personality.
  • Because he was a reader, a writer, and a thinker, van Vogt regarded himself as an intellectual. But if he was an intellectual, it was not of the usual sort.  He wasn't silver-tongued or swift-witted. He had very little ability to remember a precise fact or an exact niggle, and no talent at all for linear thought and logical analysis.  He was not a conventional man of reason.
    Rather, van Vogt's usual method was to fix on some question or subject in a highly single-minded way — to surround it and dwell upon it and absorb it.  He might get nowhere with a problem for the longest time, but then at last the penny would drop and some insight would pop into his mind.
    When van Vogt had enough insights accumulated on a topic, they would assemble themselves into what he would come to think of as a system — a methodology or mode of approach that had its own consistency, if only in the manner in which it was applied by him. In later days, van Vogt would even take pride in describing himself as "Mr. System."
    • Alexei Panshin, in "Man Beyond Man : The Early Stories of A.E. van Vogt" by Alexei Panshin in The Abyss of Wonder

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