(A. E. van Vogt has a first name, which he dislikes intensely, and which must remain his secret and ours.)
Triad, "About the Author"
sauth's writeup mentions that
Van Vogt's greatest works are widely considered to have been written during his early years of writing. In the 1950s, his focus shifted from writing to working with L. Ron Hubbard on Dianetics. After this time, the quality and quantity of his writing declined, as did his health.
Reading some of van Vogt's earlier novels, I have been struck by a common thread that runs through them and seems to prefigure his involvement in the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation and its peculiar brand of recondite speculation about the human mind. (A full or even fair discussion of Dianetics is beyond the scope of this writeup and this writer, but see the Dianetics node for some attempts at elucidating the notions behind Dianetics and distinguishing it from the cult of Scientology that takes it as a starting point. From what I have read about the subject, Dianetics seems to offer the not particularly novel or surprising truth that traumatic experiences affect us subconsciously, plus a lot of unsupported assertions about the structure of the human mind, most of which are expressed in a form of bafflegab that makes it difficult or impossible to subject them to logical or empirical scrutiny.)
If we consider the three novels collected in Triad, namely The World of Null-A (1945), The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1939), and Slan (1940),1 we find that though they are set in quite different realities, they all feature main characters who have developed superior intellects through some combination of mutation, specialized training involving integration of the mind and conscious control of the emotions, and hypnosis.
- In The World of Null-A (or, if you've got the right Unicode character (an A with a macron over it), The World of Ā), the hero is Gilbert Gosseyn, a man who has undergone intensive "Null-A" (non-Aristotelian) training and who also happens to have a few extra neurons. Though van Vogt never fully explains what Null-A thinking is, or what makes it so antithetical to Aristotle, it supposedly involves conscious integration of the emotions of the thalamus and the logic of the cortex. People with null-A training, the best of whom are selected by a machine to form the ruling class of Earth and the entire population of an élite colony on Venus, are able to do whatever is necessary in any given situation, read minds to a limited extent, and adjust immediately to changing situations. This last attribute is perhaps the most chilling; Gosseyn is annoyingly unperturbed when he discovers that most of what he knows about his own identity is completely wrong. The pinnacle of null-A culture is represented by something called The Semantic Institute; I'm not sure what kind of semantics they do there, but it ain't Montague grammar.
- The hero of The Voyage of the Space Beagle is Elliott Grosvenor, who is morphologically an ordinary human being. He is, however, the only practitioner aboard the Space Beagle (think Darwin if the name is ringing an insufficiently clear bell) of a new science called Nexialism. Nexialism doesn't really have all that much content of its own, apart from some nifty techniques in hypnosis that make it possible for Nexialists to learn physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and just about everything else in their sleep. Oh, and also they can read minds, at least a little. Mostly, Nexialism consists of bringing information from other disciplines together and making sense of it in ways that physicists, chemists, biologists, and psychologists apparently can't. As a result, Grosvenor is the only person on the ship who can figure out how to deal with all the nasty aliens that keep menacing the bodies, minds, and equipment of the expedition. As you might expect, his colleagues hate him for it.
- Slan has two protagonists, Jommy Cross and Kathleen Layton, and they're both slans. This means that they're mostly like humans, only better: they're stronger and faster and smarter, and they've got tendrils on their heads that allow them to read minds. Jommy follows directions hypnotically implanted in his mind by his father; Kathleen spends much of her time trying to avoid getting murdered or raped by human beings, who don't seem to like slans very much. Both of them, of course, have learned a lot about thinking from reading minds, and so they're really good at it, except when the plot requires them not to be.
The main trouble with van Vogt's attempts to portray the superhuman reasoning of null-A's, Nexialists, and slans is that van Vogt himself was, after all, human. As a result, many of Grosvenor's brilliant analyses of hostile situations are of the "I could explain why I'm right, but it would take several weeks of patient instruction, during which time we'd all be eaten alive" variety. And many of the characters' stunning insights into what's going on seem to be correct simply because they've somehow managed to read van Vogt's mind (which would be, come to think of it, pretty damn impressive).
But even apart from the inherent impossibility of depicting a genuinely superior intellect, there are some weird bits of reasoning. For example, one of these eminently hyper-rational characters (I won't say who) decides, at one point, that the appropriate thing to do under the circumstances is to kill himself (okay, so it's not Kathleen Layton). Fair enough. But, somehow, he's just too darned well-adjusted to do the deed. So he makes himself a nice inspirational recording ("I'm nobody. I'm not worth anything. Everybody hates me. What's the good of being alive?" and so on), sets it to repeat indefinitely, and takes a hypnotic drug. I'm not sure whether this is supposed to be the funniest scene in the book, but it is.
In light of all this, it's pretty easy to see how someone like van Vogt got into something like Dianetics, with its promise of mental health through meta-cognition (even if you have to brainwash yourself to get there!). But if humanity is going to be supplanted by a race of our mental superiors, I think I'd prefer the gentle misfits of Theodore Sturgeon's More than Human to the grim determination and blithe self-hypnosis of van Vogt's characters.
1. The dates given here are the first copyright dates listed in Triad for each work. They are earlier than the publication dates for the individual novels listed by sauth because some chapters of these works preceded the wholes (as in the case of "The Black Destroyer," mentioned by sauth).