Reviewed by Ted Gioia

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.  

Click on image to purchase
conceptual fiction
The Voyage of the Space Beagle
By A. E. van Vogt
Related article:
Fix-Up Artist: The Chaotic SF of A.E. van Vogt
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

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

Apuleius
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.
Crash

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
Ficciones

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.
Moderan

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.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

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.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

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
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

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
Light

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
Dune

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
Solaris

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

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

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
Gateway

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
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

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.
Slan

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

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

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

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
Slaughterhouse-Five

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
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

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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