Voyage of the Space Beagle, by A.E. Van Vogt
Posted January 4, 2017on:
published in 1950
where I got it: purchased used
A sci-fantasy, the title of this fix-up novel is a direct reference to Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, an exploratory voyage that lasted longer than expected and that hoped to discover and research new and different species and learn more about our natural world. I call it a sci-fantasy, because while there is plenty of science in this story, and the solutions to all their challenges are science derived, there is also a lot of “hand-wavium” that functions as overly simplified technobabble.
The scientist who becomes the main character as the story progresses is Elliott Grosvenor, who is a nexialist scholar. Nexialism is akin to interdisciplinary applied sciences – Grosvenor doesn’t study only chemistry or engineering or physics, he studies all of them, often under hypnosis to learn faster. The use of hypnosis has added an element of the studies of how the human mind works, allowing Grosvenor to both induce and rebel hypnosis and psychic attacks. Nexialism is a new science, and the other scientists aren’t sure what to do with the young Grosvenor. Some of them ignore him, others are outright antagonistic and aim to sabotage his work. It’s neat how the scientific departments on the Space Beagle have the feel of a university, complete with different labs, work areas, and politics.
What makes this fix-up novel so famous is that one of the novellas, “The Black Destroyer” is considered an official inspiration for the movie Alien (the screenwriters of the movie never admitted to plagarism, but were happy to quickly settle out of court for a chunk of change), but it’s a little more complicated than that. “The Black Destroyer” was first published in 1939 and is considered the beginning of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. The premise of this novella is that The Space Beagle touches down on an abandoned planet, and among the ruins finds a cat-like creature called Coeurl. Assuming Coeurl to be harmless, they allow it access to the ship, where it slowly tries to kill the crew with the intention of taking over the ship and traveling to where more of its food can be found. Horrible things happen, people die, and the scientists have to come up with some method of tricking the beast which includes a life boat and an airlock.
Here’s where the “Alien” story gets more interesting. So, while “The Black Destroyer” was published in 1939, Voyage of the Space Beagle as a novel was published in 1950. So, a few chapters past Coeurl and his underestimated intelligence, we run into Ixtl, an ancient creature found in deep vacuum who hitches a ride on the Space Beagle. Although annoyed by getting electrocuted, Ixtl can move silently, travel through walls, and due to a need for survival of his race he slowly captures crewmembers to lay his eggs in their stomach. Said eggs will hatch and the babies will eat their way out. Sound familiar? So yeah, “Alien” is a sort of ultra modern mash-up of the Space Beagle’s interaction with both Coeurl and Ixtl. (or at least for 1979 values of ultra modern)
The biggest, and happiest surprise of Voyage of the Space Beagle is how much of the stories we get from the alien’s point of view. The first character we meet in the novel is a nearly starving Coeurl. Both Coeurl and Ixtl are near death when we meet them, nearly starved to death and abandoned. These are sympathetic creatures. Wouldn’t Alien (and the entire franchise) be different, if we got the xenomorph’s point of view, and that the xenomorph turned out to be a sympathetic character? Sure, Ripley would still torch that queen bitch and the freaky albino human looking monstrosity that I still have nightmares about, but still.
Ok, enough about alien cats and vacuum surviving critters, let’s get back to Grosvenor for a few minutes. When we first meet him, he’s quiet and meek. The only person in his scientific department, he’s a laughing stock to some of the scientific leaders on board. However, when backed into a corner, Grosvenor is happy to show how effective hypnosis can be. As the stories get more complicated, Grosvenor has more and more extreme solutions which always prove to be the correct one (or was it? Maybe he just hypnotized people to agree with him?). What started out as scholarly disagreements turn completely machiavellian, and as the novel came to completion I did a complete one eighty about my feelings towards Grosvenor. By the end, he’s quite the A-hole.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle adds itself to a very long list of older science fiction I’ve read where in the first few pages I had a gut reaction of “this is going to be pulp crap”, and within 25 pages was switched happily over to “this is awesome!”. I won’t go as far as to say every page of this novel is excellent (trust me, they aren’t), but overall it was a very satisfying read, and a perfect example of high quality Golden Age adventure science fiction.