Archive for A.E. van Vogt

Review: The Mixed Men

Posted in 1952, 4:Stellar!, Review with tags , on October 10, 2009 by Aaron

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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Close Up: The Mixed Men

Posted in 1952, Book Care, Close Up with tags , , on September 28, 2009 by Aaron

closeupA.E. van Vogt
1952

This was the second Gnome Press book I purchased after Iceworld.  It arrived back in November last year and I read it not long after.  I just love the cover.  As you probably know, I’m a huge Ric Binkley fan and this is period SF art at it’s best.  What a crazy setup for the bridge of a starship, and I just love it.
It’s a little tatty around all edges, especially at the head and tail of the spine there is some chipping.The spine is a bit loose, you can see in these pics that it’s standing on a slight angle.  With a tight spine it would stand nice and straight.

This is also the second Gnome Press book I read (or third? The Robot and the Man may have been second…), and is a victim of an early attempt at book care wisdom.  The staining you can see on the boards comes from my very own hands.  I thought in order to protect the dust jacket I should remove it to avoid undue wear because of all the handling that gets done while reading.  Big mistake.  I have read elsewhere on the Internet that removing the dust jacket is a good idea, but experience tells me otherwise, as you can see.  The staining comes from the oil on your hands – no matter how clean your hands are there is always a small amount of moisture and oil present.  Repeated handling like this rubs it into the boards.  The wisdom is, as far as I’m concerned and what I would strongly recommend: DO NOT remove the dust jacket for reading.  However, you MUST ensure that the jacket is in a Brodart or similar protective sleeve.  If not, don’t subject the book to any handling (or as little as possible) until you do get a sleeve on.  In my experience, having the jacket in a protective sleeve and on the book is excellent protection while reading.

So, lets move on and check out the rest of the book.
You can see the lean on the spine quite clearly.  I think this is the worst book I have for this particular defect.  Note the scuffing and wear on the bottom edge of the boards and the base of the spine especially.
A closer look at the head of the spine reveals that chipping I mentioned earlier.
Also present on the tail, and you can see very well that wear there.  The jacket also has a distinct crease on the front running the length of the hinge.
The front paste-down has a beautiful bookplate glued in.  Austin P. Haller, MD.  I wish I had some way of finding him, I’d love to ask him about the book.
That is one stylish bookplate.  The pages are fox-free.  Very little discoloration at all.
The back of the book exhibits a few chips and some wear.
Quite clean though.  I remember distinctly when I got this title, looking at the back and thinking, “Wow.. will I ever get these books?  They look so cool”.  Well, I have all of those four now.  Men Against the Stars, Journey to Infinity, Five Science Fiction Novels and Travelers of Space (which I haven’t read yet).

Year: 1952
Paid: $41
Art: Ric Binkley
Quantity: 5000
Binding: Navy boards with red lettering on the spine.
GP Edition Notes: 1st edition so stated.
Comments: The dust jacket is a little poor and I wish I was more aware when I was reading the thing.  Maybe a tad over-priced at $41.
Expand Upon: wikipedia.com, Internet Speculative Fiction Database

condition

I can now put my finger on it…

Posted in Comparisons, Review with tags , , , on September 25, 2009 by Aaron

Something was bugging me while reading Cosmic Engineers.  I couldn’t work out what it really was, but during the course of reading it and then doing the Review I felt there was something missing in the book.  Something lacking that I didn’t have the experience to identify and bring to the light of day.

I’m reading The Mixed Men at present.  While reading (I’m about half-way through) it suddenly occurred to me what that something was.  It was something that was present in The Mixed Men and shone out so distinctly when I thought about Cosmic Engineers.  In a word: Character.  Or rather Characters.  Real ones.

Author of The Mixed Men, A.E. van Vogt dwells a lot in the minds of the principle characters.  We learn what they are thinking and why, a little of their history as people and what makes them tick.  This is totally absent in Cosmic Engineers.  With the possible exception of the revived female character whom we do learn a little about, the other characters are cardboard cut-outs.  No back story, we never learn what they are really thinking and as a result, I at least didn’t really care about them, or the story.  And this, I think,  was also part of the reason I was so critical of it.  I imagine if the characters involved were more substantial, if we got some more insight into their personalities and thoughts, then some of the more outlandish stuff may not have mattered so much.