Silverberg On Van Vogt

World renowned and award-winning author Robert Silverberg in the month’s issue of Asimov, pays his disrespects to WORLD OF NULL-A by A.E van Vogt. Mr. Silverberg (whose tastes, I suppose, do not agree with mine) pays A.E. van Vogt the most backhanded compliment on record. He agrees with Damon Knight that van Vogt’s masterpiece is nonsense, but says that nonsense is charming.

I think Mr. Silverberg underestimates the difficulty, as well as the merit, of crafting a wonder tale in van Vogt’s unique style, which we might call ‘Labyrinthing Baroque’, especially one that addresses deep philosophical issues, such as the nature of sanity and language, memory and identity, while maintaining a Hitchcock-like pace. The contrast with Mr. Knight’s bland attempt at a van Vogt pastiche (BEYOND THE BARRIER) is instructive. 

The only other story comparable that I have ever read is THE PARADOX MEN (aka Flight into Yesterday) by the great Charles L. Harness, and it was not equal to van Vogt’s best.

I wonder how much of Mr. Silverberg’s criticism of the novel is based in his not understanding it. He says he did not understand the book, and perhaps this is merely a modest way of saying the book was senseless. Or perhaps he actually did not grasp what was going on. Let me mention an example from Silverberg’se essay: he does not recollect what happened to the third Gosseyn body.

The Gosseyn Three body was found and destroyed by the Hardie gang while Gosseyn was preparing to commit hypnotically-assisted suicide in a hotel room. Meanwhile, the the Games Machine falls to a missle bombardment from space, and expends a last effort to contact Gosseyn by radio, telling him the suicide will not transmit his brain-information to the next body. But Gosseyn is too far under the influence of the hypnotic drug to respond: a rather dramatic scene, so it surprises me that Silverberg, having just reread the book, forgot this plot point. It is because the third body is destroyed that Gosseyn is brought to the secret Greatest Empire base on Venus to have his double brain trained by Dr. Kair, the Null-A psychiatrist.

On a completely different topic, Robert Silverberg does have the ability to pen a perfectly serviceable Jack Vance pastiche in SONGS OF THE DYING EARTH. His ‘True Vintage of of Erzuine Thale’ is the first story in the book, and forms a fine beginning.