Review: The Mixed Men

A.E. van Vogt
1952

What are the Mixed Men??  It’s a question I had when I started into this book.  It turns out that the ‘Mixed Men’ are a product of the union between men and robots.  A union under normal circumstances impossible, but made feasible with the ‘cold fusion’ process.  Sound interesting??  Intriguing??  It did to me.  Actually, the story isn’t about how the Mixed Men came to be, or the specifics of their biology, it’s about how events unfold when the giant space battleship Star Cluster uncovers a civilization of ‘humans’ collectively called The Fifty Suns in the Greater Magellanic Cloud – a culture lost for fifteen thousand years.  Before we look into it a little further, what about the author??

Check out wikipedia for some more in-depth info, but notable about van Vogt is the extent of his influence, with huge names such as Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison crediting Mr van Vogt for inspiration.  This is the only novel-length story of van Vogt’s in the Gnome Press stable, though he does have several short stories in the various GP anthologies.  The book was apparently put together as a ‘fix-up’ of some short works published in Astounding Science Fiction pulp magazine in the mid-40s.  As we have seen with at least one other fix-up, thing don’t always hang together, but here they do.  Almost as seamless as a proper novel, it’s a great job.  However, here and there I found large passages of time – weeks or months – to have passed also seamlessly, fortunately they didn’t affect the flow of the story at all.

I really enjoyed this the first time I read it almost a year ago, and I think I enjoyed it even more this time.  I mentioned the Mixed Men being the product of robots and men.  This is a little misleading.  In the context of this book, the robots concerned are actually the products of some super-genetic engineering.  A mass panic and genocide against these ‘robots’ led them and their natural human rescuers to flee to the Greater Magellanic Cloud and subsequently over the course of thousands of years passed from our Galactic history.  But this is all back-story, basically at the start of the tale, a mapping expedition from Imperial Earth stumbles upon a ‘weather station’ outpost, thereby discovering the existence of the Fifty Sun society, and this is where we pick it up.

The story has two principle characters.  Peter Maltby is a Mixed Man…

Wait.  Perhaps I should describe what a Mixed Man really is before continuing.  There are three types of human resident in the Fifty Suns – normal (non-Dellian), robots (Dellian, don’t worry about the term, it’s explained in the book) and Mixed Men (Dellian and non-Dellian hybrid).  Mixed Men embody the best of both worlds – with a robot’s physical and mental prowess and normal human’s creativity and adaptability.  They effectively have two parallel minds with exceptional mental powers which puts them at a distinct advantage over both originating human strains.  However, their numbers are relatively few and they have been marginalized because of a failed uprising and have to live in super-secret underground cities.  They have no active participation in society.  Maltby is a captain in the Fifty Suns Navy and, unbeknown to society in general, the hereditary leader of the Mixed Men.

…and Lady Gloria Laurr is Grand Captain of the Star Cluster.  Ms Laurr is seeking to root out the Fifty Suns to bring them under Imperial Earth’s dominion, and Peter Maltby is trying to satisfactorily mitigate their discovery in a way that will temper Imperial Earth’s inevitable domination and reassert the Mixed Men as a functioning sub-group of the Fifty Suns’ government.

I’m getting a bit carried away here, I don’t want to describe what happens in the story but hopefully I’ve given you plenty to pique your interest in this tale, so lets move on and I’ll address a couple of cool things in the book.  First, as I alluded to in this comparison between Cosmic Engineers and The Mixed Men, the characterization here is good.  We really get a handle on our principle actors – their thoughts and feelings, their motivations.  Maltby is a talented leader, careful, considered and able to look at the long-term welfare of the entire Fifty Suns civilization.  Laurr is driven, ambitious but just sensitive enough to recognize when her single-mindedness needs curbing.  Usually.  You can see we are heading for a confrontation here, and we get it, although by the end of the book things between these two have turned out a little unexpectedly.

The second cool thing is the Star Cluster itself.  At about a mile long and with a crew of 30 000 it’s a very impressive vehicle.  Capable of rendering multiple planets uninhabitable and engaging the entire Fifty Suns’ Navy simultaneously, you don’t mess with it.  Unless you’re a Mixed Man.  One neat concept was that under physical stress the ship can split into thousands of self-sustained mini-ships, and reassemble itself later once the danger has passed.  This design feature is employed at one point in the book because Maltby navigates the behemoth into a storm.  Which brings me to another cool thing…

The ‘storms’ are an integral plot element.  I forget their mechanics and they’re described a little vaguely anyway, but they are born out of nova events and like terrestrial stormy weather, can be tracked and mapped.  Similar to their analog here on Earth, keeping tabs on them is vital for safe transit – an uncharted storm can prove disastrous for the unsuspecting spacecraft.  Several points of the tale hinge on these events.  The Star Cluster discovers a Fifty Sun weather station at the beginning of the story, not having local storm location information hampers the location of Fifty Sun worlds by the Earth men and Maltby attempts to destroy the giant battleship by plotting a course into a giant storm.

It’s been in print in various forms up until 1980 (mostly under the title Mission to the Stars – see the ISFDB here) so you could pick up a cheap copy off the Internet without too much hassle.  Do so.  A superb example of Golden Age space opera, I enjoyed The Mixed Men a lot, and compared to similar fare I have read recently such as Pattern for Conquest and Cosmic Engineers, there is nothing mixed up about this tale.

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3 Responses to “Review: The Mixed Men”

  1. Mark McSherry Says:

    Thanks Aaron for a very well-written and informative review. I am a great admirer of THE MIXED MEN and am happy that you enjoyed the book too.

    And we’re not the only two. Isaac Asimov wrote this (THE GREAT SF STORIES 5 (1943)) in his introduction to van Vogt’s “The Storm”, which is the longest, and central, story of the three ASTOUNDING tales that are “fixed-up” into the novel THE MIXED MEN—

    “No one captured the (John W.) Campbell aura as well as van Vogt did. No, not even I. I caught what Campbell was driving at, I thought. I understood the general outlook of the man in the matter of reason, logic, and pragmatism, but I interpreted it in my own way. I had no way of imitating the florid gashes or primary color that filled Campbell’s writing. Van Vogt did, though, and in this story particularly it is almost as though I am listening to Campbell.— Except, of course, that van Vogt, when he was really rolling, did it better.”

  2. >>> so I hope people actually read the comments. <<<

    Just did.

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