Monday, 5 December 2011

Review: The Voyage of the Space Beagle

The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) by A E Van Vogt

In July 1939, Van Vogt's first short story, "Black Destroyer" was published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine.  By 1950, it, along with three other stories, were collected and rewritten to form his novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle.

The plot is familiar to anyone who's seen an episode of Star Trek, which isn't surprising because Beagle set the format for all the later space voyaging series.  In the  distant future, the giant starship Space Beagle is on a mission of exploration.  Exactly what this mission is and why they're out there is never made clear.  Apparently, pop off and have a butcher's was regarded as a sufficient brief to hurl a thousand men on a multi-year trek between galaxies.  While bouncing about space, the crew of the Space Beagle encounter the terrifying Coeurl in Van Vogt's première story, a creature retrieved in the depths of space in a tale that was the inspiration for a number of science fiction films ending in Alien, a mind attack right out of the Star Trek handbook, and a galaxy-eating gas monster.  In each case, the crew face a new monster, battle it and defeat it in a fashion that becomes formulaic by the end of the book.  In order to make this into a novel, Van Vogt stirs in a healthy dose of his obsession with mental self-improvement by introducing as his hero a "Nexialist"; a man who specialises in not specialising, but through hypnosis and lots of deck-staking on Van Vogt's part is able to master all the sciences simultaneously.  Naturally, despite the prejudice of his crew mates, he saves the day in every story and wins acceptance for his self-improvement regime.

Despite its fameThe Voyage of the Space Beagle is something of a disappointment.  The beautifully laid on atmosphere and sense of menace that "Black Destroyer" offered is ruined here as it is shoehorned into a novel and made to serve the ends of setting up the hero.  The next three episodes don't build on the plot or pick up the pace, but rather slow it down and dissipate any drama that might have existed.  Worse, each one is of poorer quality than the last until finally the whole thing bogs down in what can only be described as an anticlimax.  This may be a book worth picking up for historical value, but I'd much more recommend reading "Black Destroyer" in its unadulterated form and then seeking out the other short stories as opportunity offers itself.

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