Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Here's a synopsis of the first eight pages of A. E.
van Vogt's novel

We learn that an ostracized race, known as Slans,
lives in hiding from the police in a totalitarian
society.  Slans have telepathic powers, which allow
them to detect enemies at a
distance.   Despite this skill,
a Slan female cannot escape
her pursuers when she is
identified during a visit to
the capital city.  Before she
is killed, she tells her nine-
year-old son Jommy, that
he must go into seclusion,
complete his dead father's
unfinished project, and
then assassinate Kier Gray,
dictator of the planet.

The police capture and kill Jommy's mother.  He
grieves for the duration of one sentence.  Chased by
police, the boy evades them by jumping on to the
back of a passing car.  But this automobile carries
John Petty, sinister chief of police for the
dictatorship.  Passersby spot the youngster
precariously balanced on the rear bumper of the car,
and phone in reports to the authorities, who send
out an all points bulletin to apprehend him.  

Meanwhile Petty and his chauffeur also detect
Jommy, and chase him on foot through a rundown
residential area.  Jommy is injured by a stray bullet,
and seeks for a hiding place amidst a stack of old
crates. Here he find—a heaven-sent miracle!—a
hole in the wall, where he can escape from the
police and citizens who are chasing him.  

A ten thousand dollar reward is offered for the
capture of the youngster. The military is called in to
assist in the manhunt.

And we are only halfway through chapter one.  

No, the pace does not slow down.  Over the course
of the next twenty pages, you will encounter a
kidnapping, an attempted murder, a failed
government takeover, a secret midnight council of
leaders, a rapidly assembled firing squad…and on
and on and on.  

Welcome to the world of A.E. van Vogt, the
madcap storyteller who goes through plots faster
than an otolaryngologist uses up tongue
depressers.   If writing fiction were simply a matter
of setting up conflicts and resolutions, which lead
to more conflicts and resolutions…well, van Vogt
would have won the Nobel Prize in literature.  As
it stands, his books are more slapdash than sublime,
yet captivating in their sheer manic energy.  

If I had to sum up van Vogt's oeuvre in a single
phrase, I would opt for:  "never a dull moment."  
This might even have been his personal mantra.  No
author had less faith in his readers' attention span
than A.E. van Vogt.  He refuses to give them a
chance to get bored, inserting some death-defying
stunt or crazy galactic escapade every few
paragraphs.  Sometimes he must abandon other
lesser (on van Vogt's scale, if not yours) virtues—
coherence, character development, plausible
motivations, stylish prose—in the process.  But he
never, ever lets his story lag.   

At the time van Vogt came of age as a writer, the
serial film was at the height of its popularity. These
were adventure movies, broken into around a dozen
or so individual episodes.  Each week, one of the
installments would be shown at movie theaters
around the US as an interlude between the feature
films.  This chapter in an on-going story would last
roughly fifteen minutes, and invariably end with a
cliffhanger—some unresolved plot twist that would
entice the audience to return the following week to
see the next episode.  

Of all the science fiction authors of the Golden
Age, van Vogt came closest to transferring the
roller-coaster pacing of the movie serial on to the
printed page.  Before
Slan reaches its surprise
conclusion—and, yes, it’s fitting, given the
tendencies of this author, that he tosses out another
unexpected plot twist in the final sentence—van
Vogt has gone through more generations of
weaponry than a decade of Department of Defense
expenditures.  His story has taken us underwater,
underground, inside mountains, and off to outer
space.  Various love interests arrive on the scene,
but rarely last for more than few paragraphs.  Just
as a marathon runner can't afford to linger and
enjoy the scenery, van Vogt refuses to slacken his
pace.  No, he won’t even look over his shoulder to
gauge the competition. Onward the story rushes, in
a breathless race to the finish line.

What is the most outlandish plot twist here? I must
admit a fondness for the moment when Jommy
arrives at a top security space launch site just
twelve minutes before takeoff, with no specific plan
of attack, but with confidence that he will find a
way of hijacking the spaceship.  Of course, he
succeeds.  But even better is when Jommy shows up
at the highly fortified presidential palace stark naked
and ready to take on 10,000 opposing troops.   Yes,
he wins that encounter too. And if you like fight
scenes, you must savor the moment Jommy matches
up single-handedly against a fleet of spaceships
equipped with nuclear weapons, including a ten-
million ton behemoth of a mothership a half-mile
in diameter and chuck full of the latest assault
technology.  Hint:  bet on Jommy.

I would like to give van Vogt credit for the socio-
historical resonance of his work.  Published in
magazine form during the interlude between the
start of World War II in Europe and the attack on
Pearl Harbor,
Slan can be read as a cautionary tale
about the racialist demonizing that made the
Holocaust possible.  But I fear I may be giving our
author too much credit, and if anything the mutant
Slans who are the heroes of his book have more in
common with the Arayan self-proclaimed master
race than the Jewish diaspora.  Here, as elsewhere
in van Vogt's oeuvre, he shows an unhealthy
fascination with forceful political leaders who
trample on democratic institutions.  Yet if one peers
deeply enough into this novel, a theme of tolerance
and non-violence can be dimly detected—often
hidden behind scenes filled with intolerance and
gratuitous violence.  Let's hope that a few of the
many teenagers who have read this book over the
decades paused at least long enough to notice.  

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
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Conceptual Fiction:
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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

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Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
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Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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