Saturday, May 18, 2013

Empire of the Atom - A. E. van Vogt

I absolutely love old-school pulp Sci-Fi. Sometimes cynical, sometimes optimistic, frequently trite and juvenile; it almost always had a sense of wonder that was contagious. For me, that mostly went missing somewhere back in the sci-fi books of the 70s and later. Probably around the time the sci-fi section in Walden's got invaded by elves, dragons and wizards. I’m sure there are lots of great science fiction novels from the 70s that I’m completely unaware of, just like a lot of things under many subjects. But I do remember that the pickings in Walden’s and B. Daltons were pretty lame at the time. Lots of elves and swords, like I said, and I pretty much hated that stuff outside of Tolkien, and even then I wasn’t completely jazzed over it. So, it was mostly from the library that my adolescent taste in Science Fiction commenced.
My first introduction to A. E. van Vogt was in the old paperback collection by Asimov and Greenberg called The Great SF Stories 1 (1939) which contained "Black Destroyer" from July 1939 Astounding. It’s been years since I read “Black Destroyer” but it’s a terrific story that is no doubt the inspiration for movies like It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Alien. I know that it was re-written for the first part of the novel Voyage of the Space Beagle. I've got a tattered paperback of that novel hiding in my bookshelves somewhere, with its cover of an astronaut that looks strikingly like Major Matt Mason, if any of you remember him. I've yet to read Space Beagle, though I've started it a number of times. One of these days, right?
Cover by Malcolm Smith, Shasta Publishers 1957 

Anyway, back to A.E. van Vogt. I once read in an essay by Isaac Asimov that van Vogt "lost" many productive writing years to promoting Dianetics in California. Perhaps Asimov was referring to this period in which Empire of the Atom was produced. Pieced together from a series of stories published in the late 40s and early 50s this novel comes across as somewhat clumsy and stiff. Narrative summary often substitutes for the vim and vigor that A. E. van Vogt built his rep on. 

Empire of the Atom is the loose biography of the mutant Clane, and his rise within the Linn Dynasty somewhere around 14,000 AD. This is long after an atomic war decimated the earth's population. You’d think this seems like the right ingredients for a pretty high adventure sort of read. Instead this novel is surprisingly removed and dull. It was, all-in-all, sort of a let-down. 

Still, it wasn't a total waste of time. Here and there were still a few sparks of the old pulp magic that fans like me live for in these old stories. There is, for example, a pretty cool scene when Clane descends into an ancient atomic pit on the surface of Venus. Why exactly he was in Venus, well…I’m not sure. My memory is lost, dazed or confused about some of the plot points and I’m not sure that’s entirely my fault alone. Also there is another cool scene when frozen cadavers of an alien warrior race are discovered on the moons of Jupiter, but not a heck of a lot is made of them afterward. Still the novel had its moments that still make an old fan like me smile and turn the page to see what happens next.

There is a sequel to Empire called The Wizard of Linn. I picked it up the same time I got this book, knowing they were a set. I’m just not in much of a hurry to read it. Maybe it’s that word “wizard” in the title that’s preventing me…

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