Okay, here's your tip sheet. If you like whales, read Moby Dick. If you prefer dogs, try The Call of the Wild. If you like horses for your literary courses, go for Black Beauty.
But if you're looking for creepy monsters from outer space, this is your book.
Contrary to what you may have heard elsewhere, A.E. van Vogt doesn't actually use the term "bug-eyed monster" at any point of The Voyage of the Space Beagle, but whenever sci-fi scholars (no, that is not an oxymoron) refer to BEMs (yes, that is the accepted acronym), this is frequently the first literary work they mention, the granddaddy of them all.
After the film Alien generated more than $100 million at the box office for its own cinematic treatment of an endoparasitoid extraterrestrial species (no, there’s no acronym for that one), the producers of the hit flick had to kick back a courtesy payment to A.E. van Vogt for their alleged borrowings from The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Gene Rodenberry, the mastermind behind Star Trek, never actually sent a check to van Vogt, but the similarities between the Space Beagle and the U.S.S. Enterprise cannot be denied. When Rodenberry gave the name Bem to an episode of his Saturday morning animated version of Star Trek and later inserted a character named Bem into his Andromeda TV series…well, indulge me if I take these gestures as indirect acknowledgement of Mr. van Vogt, the BEM-master.
Like many of van Vogt's 'novels', The Voyage of the Space Beagle is pieced together from previously published shorter works of fiction—in this instance, four separate novellas, each with its own particular ugly extraterrestrial. The opening of the book originated as "Black Destroyer," van Vogt's first published science fiction tale from 1939. Here a imposing cat-like creature meets up with the visiting astronauts, and decides to feed on their 'id'; but pussy is a finicky eater and only likes to suck out the 'id' of living creatures. The next section of the novel, drawn from van Vogt’s 1950 work "War of Nerves," involves an assault on the spaceship by bird-like extraterrestrials who practice an unhealthy kind of hypnotism on the unsuspecting crew. They really just want to be friends, but their way of expressing brotherhood involves sending the Space Beagle on a collision course with a bright white star. In the next interlude, drawn from van Vogt's "Discord in Scarlet" (1939), the Space Beagle runs into Ixtl, the last survivor of a once-great galactic civilization who is floating lonely as a cloud in interstellar space. Ixtl hitches a ride on the spacecraft, and proceeds to use crew members as a live hatchery for baby Ixtl eggs.
How do you top these BEMs? In the final section of the novel, taken from "M33 in Andromeda" (1943), van Vogt pulls out all the stops. Here he introduces us to a devouring alien life force as large as a galaxy, and aiming to get even bigger. After defeating this supersized extraterrestrial, the account of the Space Beagle wisely draws to a close—van Vogt obviously realizing that has no bigger imaginary monster can be summoned for an encore.
Puerile? Perhaps. But what makes van Vogt so endearing is his dogged determination to infuse everything he writes with a philosophical system. Readers nowadays probably don’t immediately grasp the connection between science fiction and the meaning of life, but remember that van Vogt was closely associated with L. Ron Hubbard, the man who made the leap from writing for Astounding Stories and Thrilling Adventure to founding his own religion. Van Vogt even ran the Southern California operation for Dianetics, the precursor for Scientology (although he never accepted the latter's mystical and theological trappings). In a similar spirit, van Vogt often gave the protagonists of his stories a powerful conceptual system to guide their actions. In The World of Null-A, Gilbert Gosseyn embraces an alternative to Aristotelian logic inspired by the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski. In The Silkie, readers are sold on the benefits of the "logic of levels," and in The Darkness on Diamondia, they are introduced to "finite logic." In The Voyage of the Space Beagle, the system du jour is called Nexialism, which is presented as a holistic science that integrates the findings of more specialized disciplines into a powerful over-arching problem-solving methodology.
Van Vogt's hero Dr. Eliott Grosvenor is the odd man out on Space Beagle. As the only practitioner of Nexialism on board the spaceship, he is scorned by other scientists, who doubt the practical value of his system. But by the end of the novel, he has earned his stripes, proving the superiority of his worldview—at least when confronted by bug-eyed (or other kinds of) monsters. In the early stages of the novel, Grosvenor's insertion into the text is awkward, and it is obvious to readers that his role was beefed up considerably when van Vogt stitched together his shorter works into a makeshift novel. But as the book progresses, Grosvenor emerges as a compelling character—reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, in some regards. He solves problems too intractable for others and, in his finest moments, displays some impressive second- and third-order thinking. Other van Vogt heroes talk the talk, bragging about the brilliance of their mental machinations, but Grosvenor comes closest to walking the walk. I don’t give much credit to Nexialism, but I do congratulate van Vogt, who shows, for a change, that he has put some thought into the logic and rigor of his plot—at least in comparison to the more slapdash approach evident in so many of his other works.
The end result is a book that rises above its origins as a hodge-podge of shorter works. Strange to say, this work possesses more coherence than the serial novels Slan and The World of Null-A, which were conceived by van Vogt from the start as unified stories. But you should never expect too much lucidity from this author. He allegedly picked up many of his plot twists from dreams, and even had a habit of waking up regularly during the night to tap into the creative juices of his unconscious. You can see the impact of this practice in his stories, which often have an unreal, dreamlike quality, at times veering into the territory of the nightmarish.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle is an example of that darker side of van Vogt. Although the book is firmly rooted in the space opera traditions of pulp science fiction, this novel often crosses over into the horror genre. Around the time that van Vogt was writing the earliest parts of the book, monster movies were a hot commercial property, and Universal was churning out a series of films featuring Frankenstein, Dracula and other cinematic scaremongers. Van Vogt captures much of the sensibility of those movies in his monstrous aliens.
Looking back on what I've written, I see that I've compared The Voyage of the Space Beagle to Star Trek and Alien, to the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, to the pop psychology of Dianetics, and to the horror films of the pre-World War years. Could this mash-up of pulp fiction narratives really have such a complicated lineage? In the case of A.E. van Vogt the answer is an unambiguous affirmative. The core virtue of his fiction resides in its restlessness and constant changeability, in its willingness to push the envelope, push it again, and then tear it into little pieces if necessary—whatever it takes to keep the action lively and readers engaged. You feel that, if you keep reading long enough, every possible genre formula will appear. If this book had an extra hundred pages, I wouldn't be surprised to see cowboys and time machines, gladiators and knights errant show up in its pages.
Give van Vogt his due. I am willing to admit that no college writing teacher will ever present this book as a role model for aspiring authors. But those who work in various commercial forms of storytelling—from video games to screenplays— will continue to steal from van Vogt’s tales. It's like robbing from the rich. His novels have so many extra plots, even if you pilfered a few, there are still plenty left over. And, yes, you may deride this book, as many have done. You can point out its gaps and inconsistencies, poke fun at its implausible elements. But our nightmares are also implausible, and that doesn't prevent them from having a hold on us, sometimes a stronger hold than we care to admit. Van Vogt's stories work on the reader in a similar fashion, perhaps a carryover from his dream- driven writing techniques. If A.E. van Vogt had been more organized and sensible as an author, his works might very well have lost that phantasmagorical quality that has kept readers turning his pages, and later storytellers borrowing from them.