Thursday, October 19, 2017

A. E. van Vogt: The Voyage of the Space Beagle

A. E. van Vogt
The Voyage of the Space  Beagle

In 1831, a British warship was refitted for an exploratory mission. It's task was "to complete a survey of the South American coast and to carry out a chain of longitude measurements around the world." One of the crew was Charles Darwin, who had signed on as ship's naturalist. His task was "collecting, observing and noting anything worthy to be noted in natural history." The ship's name was the HMS Beagle.

What Darwin saw on this exploratory expedition led him to write The Origin of the Species in 1858 and thereby bring the issue of evolution, which had been lurking in the background, out in the open and initiate the debate that still rages in some places today. In 1859, Darwin then published an account of his almost four years on board the ship. The title was The Voyage of the Beagle.

Some 90 years after Darwin published The Voyage of the Beagle,  the SF writer, A. E. van Vogt published The Voyage of the Space Beagle in 1950. The novel depicted the adventures of a space ship whose mission was to explore uncharted areas of space--to go places where no humans had gone before. The book includes four encounters with alien species, with internal linking created by a basic cast of about ten characters with one or two crew members who hadn't appeared before in each of the four encounters. The encounters were all published separately in various SF magazines, prior to the book publication.

The novel begins with what is probably van Vogt's most famous short story, "The Black Destroyer," the first line of which has remained with me for many decades--"On and on Coeurl prowled." There have been some rumors floating about that Coeurl and the creature from the third episode were influential in the design of the Alien in the film series with Sigourney Weaver. Unfortunately I can't document this story.

In 1956, Jack Vance published To Live Forever, a novel set in a society that had conquered death. In the novel, one of the characters is described as the navigator of the galaxy-exploring "ship, Star Enterprise." It's just a coincidence, I suspect.

In 1966, Gene Roddenberry presented an SF series which depicted the adventures of the crew of the Starship Enterprise on a ten year voyage of exploration--"to boldly go where no man has gone before."  Roddenberry has given credit for his idea to van Vogt's novel, The Voyage of the Space Beagle.  Some have thought that he got the idea from another TV series, Wagon Train. However, Roddenberry explained that he used the Wagon Train concept when he tried to sell his idea to network executives. He feared that they wouldn't understand what he was talking about, so he used a more familiar concept, one that they could grasp--a western.

Prior to reading the novel, I had read in the short story version only the first alien encounter titled "The Black Destroyer."  In fact I hadn't even known the others existed until I did a little research on the novel.  One of the significant differences between the short story, The Black Destroyer, and its version in the novel is the presence of Elliott Grosvenor.  Grosvenor is a student of a new science van Vogt calls Nexialism.  Just where and why he named it so, I never did find out or I missed it.  But, it seems that the real issue in the novel is the collision between two points of view:  that of the specialist, one who knows more and more about less and less,  and the Nexialist or the generalist, jack-of-all-trades and master of none.

Grosvenor's Nexialist education has equipped him to at least be able to converse with the various specialists on board the Beagle, even if he isn't able to conduct a serious research into that science.  He therefore is able to draw upon the findings of the various sciences and interrelate them in ways the specialists are unable to.  It is this that allows him to solve the problems that arise aboard ship, either alien or human.

It vaguely reminds me of the debate going on when I entered college back in the late 50s:  the value of a liberal education versus the concentration on a specific course of study designed to lead to a career: in other words,  gaining a broad perspective on all human activities (science, social sciences, economics, philosophy, history, humanities, arts, etc.) versus concentrating on a narrow course of study designed for a profession  (pre-law, pre-business, pre-med) 

I suspect that the liberal arts philosophy lost out.  However, recent college graduates are better equipped to answer that question.   But I also hear occasionally about attempts to develop a "Nexialist" position--an attempt to close somewhat the gap that exists among the various sciences.

I did notice though that, in the novel,  Grosvenor had to go to Korita, the historian, for information regarding history.  I wonder if Nexialism also included the humanities and arts in its curriculum or restricted it to the hard sciences.  If limited to the hard sciences, I wonder what that suggests about van Vogt's POV.

Another point I found interesting was the political issue that ran throughout the novel.  Morton, the director at the beginning, seems to be more or less democratic in his actions and encourages free discussion of the problems facing them, while Kent, who takes over temporarily, seems far more authoritarian in his philosophy and is willing to use violence to get his way.  Kent seems especially disturbed by the Grosvenor's presence aboard ship.  I wonder if Kent sees him as some sort of threat to his program.  That these stories were written just before, during, and after WWII makes me wonder if van Vogt is making some sort of point here about problems facing these exploratory journeys that last for years. 

This seems to be the first time that I've encountered a political issue in stories of this type, or at least in which this issue stands out.

I have some questions about Elliott Grosvenor,  specifically in the last encounter with an alien.  He addresses the scientists regarding the fourth alien encounter, presents his conclusions based on his Nexialist training which, unfortunately no one without Nexialist training can grasp, and issues the following ultimatum when his plan is voted down:

"If by 1000 hours tomorrow my plan has not been accepted, I shall take over the ship.  Everybody aboard will find himself doing what I order whether he likes it or not.  Naturally, I expect that the scientists aboard will pool their knowledge in an attempt to prevent my carrying out such a stated purpose.  Resistance, however, will be useless."

Later in a discussion regarding the ethics of Grosvenor's actions, one of the scientists comments that the ethical position of Nexialism seems "pretty elastic" even though the Nexialists have been conditioned into following a code of ethics.  Grosvenor replies, "When I firmly believe, as I do now, that my actions are justified, there is no internal nervous or emotional problems."  In other words, the conditioning is useless in the face of the person's firm conviction that he or she is absolutely correct.  This seems a bit scary to me.

This position  presented in the novel seems to embody the end-justifies-the-means philosophy.   This is worrisome, to me anyway, for it can be and sadly has been used to justify the most inhumane actions taken for a good reason.

Overall, it's an interesting read on its own, and it also exemplifies some philosophical positions as they would be expressed in the real world, not just as some abstract concepts.


  1. This sounds great. I love the whole Star Trek concept of a ship going to strange new worlds and this story seems like a major precursor to that. I also like philosophical science fiction.

    The ends justifying the means often leads to great harm but I believe that it is, in some cases necessary. I think that it is a great subject for literature even if I disagree with the end conclusion.

    1. Brian--yes, that's one of the major attractions of this novel: it's indirect contribution to a very popular TV, book, and film phenomenon.

      I don't think there's a universal answer to the problem of means and ends. As a Catholic, I was taught that the end could only justify the means if the benefits far outweigh the negative aspects of the means.

      And, that judgement is subjective, isn't it?

  2. Wagon Train and Star Trek? Wow! What a sales pitch there! Fascinating stuff, Fred. Thanks for the posting. BTW, whatever happened to westerns on TV? Why do you think they have all trotted off into the sunset. (Note: I've just discovered some of my favorite old westerns on FETV -- including The Long Ranger!)

  3. R.T.--"whatever happened to westerns?" That came up in another book group several weeks ago. Nobody seemed to have a good answer. I wonder if westerns were replaced by SF because of the increasing use of technology in our lives.

    1. Hmmm. Some westerns were called "horse operas," and some S/F gets the label "space operas." Well, if some of the cable/satellite rerun TV channels are an indicator, there is still at least a small-niche viewing market for "horse operas." There are still loyal readers of westerns; at least the many books in my library are evidence of that loyalty.

    2. R.T.--I don't think the audience for Westerns has disappeared completely. The powers-that-be have just decided the audience is too small to draw advertisers, or so it seems to me.

      I wouldn't be surprised if Westerns weren't rediscovered some day.

    3. Mrs. M read almost all of Louis L'Amour's books this year... she said he's good on deserts... i like Zane Grey...
      i typed a comment re VV earlier, but i guess it got lost in the ether... probably some time in the distant future it will spontaneously appear on some alien's computer blog...

    4. Mudpuddle--I read a lot of Zane Grey many moons ago, but I really haven't looked at any westerns, aside from van Tilburg Clark's works, in a long time.

      Or one of the cyberspace monsters gobbled it up.