Back in the mid-1940s, if science fiction readers were asked to name the top writers in the genre, four names would definitely come up: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, E.E. (Doc) Smith, Ph.D., and A. E. van Vogt.
Back in the early 1970s, I took the first-ever science fiction course at Union College. When setting it up, the professor asked various people he knew with an interest in the field to suggest books for the course. One particular list, though, left him unimpressed at the critical judgment of the person who he had asked. I can still remember the professor saying, "He recommended Van Vogt," the last two words dripping with scorn, as though the recommender was out of his mind.
So what happened?
Alfred Elton van Vogt was born in Manitoba, Canada and grew up writing. In the 1930s, his work started appearing in American pulp magazines, usually true confession magazines,* until he switched to writing in a genre he loved: science fiction. His first story, "Black Destroyer," was the cover story in Astounding and it sometimes considered the starting point for the Golden Age of (pulp) Science Fiction.** He continued selling short stories and published his first novel in 1946.
The book was Slan. It was an instant classic of the time, the story of the next step in evolution: superhumans with psychic powers. The book was considered one of the major works of the field for 20 years. For years, the slogan "Fans are slans" showed up at science fiction conventions.
He went to work on his Null-A series, adventures stories with characters based on non-Aristotelian logic, and the Weapon Shops of Isher series. His book Empire of the Atom was about the intrigue and plotting among the aristocracy of a galactic empire. Voyage of the Space Beagle took "Black Destroyer" and several other stories he had written about the same ship and turned it into a "fix-up" novel -- one of the first to use that term.
But, despite his popularity, van Vogt's critical reputation was eroding. The first shot was fired by Damon Knight. Knight was a one of the field's first great critics, someone who started taking science fiction seriously as literature.*** And one of his first important essays was a critique of The World of Null-A in an SF fanzine. He later rewrote and reprinted the essay with a new title: "Cosmic Jerrybuilder: A. E. van Vogt."
Knight ripped into the book, pointing out that it made no sense, that the plotting was all over the map, that the characters got involved in overly convoluted actions when a simple solution was obvious, and much more. It was, in many ways, unprecedented: fanzine reviews of the time tended to be people raving about books they loved, not critiquing popular books.
And people started looking at van Vogt differently.
The review didn't cause immediate harm to his reputation; it came out in 1945, and was rewritten in 1950 after van Vogt rewrote the book to try to answer many of Knight's criticisms. Van Vogt remained popular during the 50s.
But his reputation started to fade. It wasn't just the review, it was a change in how people looked at science fiction. Because Knight was right: van Vogt was a cosmic jerrybuilder, slapping together plots out of whatever pieces that were available. His science was shaky and often nonsensical. He often resolved plots by pulling a deus ex machina out of a hat.
When I first came across van Vogt, it was in a collection called Destination: Universe. I must admit many of the stories left me cold. Then I happened upon a comment from van Vogt to the effect that his stories were dreams, that they followed their own dream logic and not necessarily a realistic step-by-step plot. And then it all clicked.
Van Vogt's stories are dreams. They aren't meant to make logical sense (the use of Null-A clearly indicates that van Vogt isn't interested in standard logic). They have a sort of internal logic, but questioning them verses reality is like questioning why you dream about taking a test even though you've been out of school for years.
In addition, there is a dollop wish fulfillment in his work -- Slan shows how an ordinary boy is really a superman, for instance.
On story I liked a lot was something called "A Can of Paint." Knight took issue with the story, since it starts out with a scientific absurdity that sounds clever but makes no sense (and is forgotten by the end). The story is about an astronaut who pilots his own homemade ship to Venus only to be doused in a can of Venusian paint. He can't remove it, and discovers this is supposed to be an intelligence test: if he can remove the paint -- which is like liquid mercury and flows over him as he tries to remove it -- humans will be allowed to visit.
Knight ridicules the ending because it comes out of nowhere. In a sense, he is right -- the reader has no idea what the solution really is, as it introduces something that has barely been mentioned. At the same time, it doesn't matter. The astronaut works out the solution; it's just that van Vogt chooses something super-scientific sounding instead of more mundane possibilities. But, for me, the story works despite all its flaws because the dream logic behind it all makes sense.
Van Vogt's lack of logic worked against him, and the "Cosmic Jerrybuilder" label stuck. He also was briefly connected to L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics movement, which hurt his credibility (plus he claimed that Hubbard's followers harassed him once he left the movement).
Van Vogt continued to publish into the mid-80s, though he never regained his early stature. He seemed stuck in his space opera mode, and space opera was passe (though Doc Smith still remained in print). Toward the end, he suffered from Alzheimer's; he published nothing for the last 15 years of his life.
There are signs of some revival of appreciation. No one would ever accuse van Vogt of being a great stylist, and sometimes not even all that original (Empire of the Atom is almost a direct rewrite of Robert Graves's I, Claudius). And I think that the wish fulfillment fantasy of Slan is a bit dated, especially since psychic powers are no longer considered science fiction. But those with a libertarian bent tend to like the Weapon Shop stories, whose motto is "The right to buy weapons is the right to be free."****
Maybe van Vogt wasn't a great writer, but he doesn't deserve to be a forgotten one.
*Which, despite their name, never published nonfiction.
**The story -- about a monster terrorizing a spaceship -- was highly influential. Van Vogt got a settlement from the producers of Alien after he sued them for stealing his story (whether they did or not was not determined; they may have just paid to make him go away). The table of contents for the issue is notable for stories by Isaac Asimov and C.L. Moore.
***His In Search of Wonder is still a fascinating volume that I recommend to any aspiring SF writer out there (worth reading if only for the line "'This eloquent novel,' says the jacket of Taylor Caldwell's The Devil's Advocate, making two errors in three words.") And Knight also was a fine fiction writer and something of a father figure to science fiction, since he founded the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
****Van Vogt is stacking the deck a bit here. His weapons are designed so that they only work in self-defense. I think if that were possible, there would be no real call or need for gun control.