During the period in which A.E. van Vogt was writing this novel, electric pinball machines were showing up in drugstores, taverns and arcades throughout America, and the pinball flipper was introduced. Now players with fast flipper fingers could keep the action going, with lights blinking and bells ringing.
I like to think of van Vogt's stories as the literary equivalent of those postwar pinball machines. The science fiction writers of the Golden Age wrote for an audience of teenage males —or for those of older years who still retained an adolescent's fascination with the strange and fantastic. These readers weren't looking for psychological insights or Proustian prose. They wanted action and more action, and van Vogt was the kind of writer who delivered exactly that. In 1947, the same year the first flipper appeared on a pinball machine, readers polled by Gerry de la Ree picked van Vogt as their favorite science fiction author. No one who understood the tastes of the pulp fiction sci-fi audience could have been the least bit surprised.
Like so many of A.E. van Vogt's novels, The Mixed Men takes place in a time of political upheaval. Interest groups vie for power. Age-old tensions rise to the fore. The exploited minority aims to turn the tables and seize control of government. Alliances and counter-alliances tilt the balance, and—invariably with this author—advanced weapon systems eventually enter into the equation, and tilt it some more.
That said, van Vogt's own political allegiances usually come across as a helpless muddle, a mixture of populist demagoguery and elitist authoritarianism. In The Mixed Man, as in van Vogt's better known novel Slan, he wants to have it both ways. His heroes belong to an ostracized and downtrodden group of outsiders—who are also presented as a master race with grand ambitions of conquest and dominance of its own. When it comes to political ideology, most people either side with winners or the losers—but leave it to van Vogt to refuse to acknowledge that these two groups might be different. If forced to summarize his own allegiances, I would say that van Vogt sympathizes with the underdog who dreams of becoming the übermensch.
These superior outsiders, in this novel, are the so- called 'mixed men'—a group who are the offspring of normal humans and a group of robots constructed from organic materials (known respectively as non-Dellians and Dellians in van Vogt's typically grandiose terminology). The mixed men combine the best of these two species, incorporating the advanced physical and mental skills of the robots with the imagination and creativity of humans. Yet their failed attempt to seize power has led to reprisals, and the mixed men have gone into hiding—although their hereditary leader Peter Maltby leads a double life as a captain in the space navy of the ruling power, known as the government of the Fifty Suns.
The arrival of a huge spaceship from Earth heightens the conflict between these groups. The mixed men realize that they may gain some political advantage by siding with the visitors, while the Dellian and non-Dellian citizens hope to preserve the status quo. Maltby has torn allegiances, and his ties are further complicated when he falls in love with the female commander of the terrestrial mission, the imperious Lady Laurr.
As with so many of van Vogt's book, The Mixed Men was what the author called a 'fix-up'—a novel constructed from previously published shorter works. The opening section of The Mixed Men draws on "Concealment," a 1943 short story about a starship on an intergalactic exploratory mission. The next section of the book incorporates new material written for the novel, but also published separately as "Lost: Fifty Suns." The middle portion of the novel recycles "The Storm," a novelette from 1943, while the concluding section was originally published as the 1945 novelette "The Mixed Men" in Astounding Science Fiction.
These separate plot lines cohere, just barely. Along the way, readers encounter the recurring obsessions that are trademarks of van Vogt's work. He wrote a guide to hypnotism in 1956—but even if you didn't know that, you might guess his interest in the subject, based on the constant use of various techniques of mind control that figure in his stories. In The Mixed Men, Peter Maltby uses his skill in hypnotism to get himself out of several predicaments, but is, in turn, subjected to brainwashing. In these pages, you also run into van Vogt's obsession with weaponry and space combatants, which are invariably presented as the biggest and baddest in the universe. The Star Cluster, the earth starship, is reminiscent of the Space Beagle in van Vogt's The Voyage of the Space Beagle—both of them anticipating the U.S.S. Enterprise of the Star Trek television series.
In the final analysis, this book never rises above escapist literature. But with Van Vogt, it's always a great escape, and no one takes you farther—in this instance, to the ends of the universe. His characters may be hollow, and the dialogue straight out a Roy Lichenstein cartoon balloon ("The fools! They almost deserve death!"), but no author maintains more relentless pacing, with new conflicts and complications emerging every few paragraphs.
Yes, the pinball machine has been replaced by the video game and the flipper superseded by the mouse and the game controller. Even so, the zeal of young readers for action and adventure remains unsated in our own time, and the desire for fast- paced stories has, if anything, increased in the age of virtual entertainment. In such an environment, van Vogt’s "too-much-ain't-enough" approach to storytelling can hardly fall out of fashion, and I would hardly be surprised if this book, and its author, experience a revival at some point. Certainly this is one pinball wizard who deserves a replay.
Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.