A.E. van Vogt
The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950)
Undeniably this tale of cosmic adventure and exploration is one of the great classics of the genre, an inspiration to many later works. A fix-up of four novelettes, these are the voyages of the starship Space Beagle. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldy go where no man has gone before.
The Beagle's scientist crew has to face Coeurl, the black destroyer, a cat-like alien found on an ancient, deserted planet, an intelligent creature killing to satisfy its need for id; a hypnotic attack on the ship projected from a distance of lightyears by the Riim bird people, freeing the latent hatred among the crew; Ixtl, the scarlet monster, lone survivor of an incredibly advanced species in the void of intergalactic space, with a particular gruesome way to propagate its own kind (clearly the model for Alien); and the Anabis, a galaxy-spanning creature of interstellar gas, who feeds on life force harvested from the dying.
The main focus of the book is on Elliott Grosvenor, the ship's resident Nexialist and an incarnation of the archetypal Übermensch nearly omnipresent in van Vogt's writing. Nexialism is a murky superscience, presented as a holistic approach applying the insights gained from the different sciences, and allowing its practitioners through the use of advanced teaching techniques like hypnotic conditioning to make for the first time full use of their mental facilities. I guess it is not a coincidence that van Vogt was deeply involved with Dianetics. Nexialism and a vague theory of cyclic history are extensively used in defeating the various alien attackers.
Judging by today's standards, the book is obviously and often painfully dated. The four plot segments have all the complexity of a jump-and-run video game. Depending on the reader's attitude, the presented (pseudo-)science ranges from hilarious to simply ridiculous. Van Vogt conveniently ignores relativity and demonstrates an utter lack of understanding of the meaning of orders of magnitude. The recurring characters of the chemically castrated all-male crew with its atavistic predisposition to killing have no more depth than cardboard cutouts.
Despite these flaws the book is a surprisingly good read. There is a certain quality to it, the mark of a gifted storyteller, maybe comparable to that permeating the equally dated but still enjoyable work of Robert E. Howard. The constituent novelettes of the book were probably highly original at the time they were published and remain appreciably imaginative to this day.
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