An imaginative book from the author who was paid-off when he sued Hollywood for lifting a plot from his earlier novel which they turned into the film Alien. I would have given this 5 stars as it was good for most of the book but there are some trite and annoying ideas in the latter chapters.
The first cheat was giving a character a way ‘as if by magic’ to travel and vanish (time ratio manipulation by a device in his pocket), which sounded like putting a thin veneer of scientific explanation on a way out of a cul-de-sac to keep the character’s mobility in the story.
The second annoyance was the overt and total male hedgemony — even taking into account the caveman societal expectations around the author when this was written in 1975 — where it is excrutiating to read in 2022 that no women of the future are given the responsibility of jobs, all hang around the bedrooms, make ‘soft movements’, have ‘bright eyes’, sob frequently, cower in packs for comfort when not needed, are totally submissive to the males and the captain can have 4 wives but replacement captains can take wives over by rite of inheritance. The job of captain is passed on by regular revolutions; and the bigger rooms and wives are bonus chattle. Essentially, females of the future are male property, exist to be protected and silently serve food in domestic stuations. His dolls don’t have the brain power to understand anything that is going on. Even in grandpa’s time, the four female character stereotypes were The Fawn, The Bitch, The Matron and The Witch but this author only writes fawns.
A.E. van Vogt died in 2000 from Alzheimer’s, so it is now much too late to defeat him at chess, force-feed the pieces and strangle him. Then again, he has one plausible defence: If a five-generational ark vessel were to voyage into outer space with no external communication possible, its society’s norms and conventions would diverge from the acceptable standard back on Earth. There would no longer be that ‘anchor to reality’ or frame of context that would make slow divergence visible. A category of people could become subdued and their children would continue the tradition because it is all that they know. Therefore, I have to allow for the possibility that A.E. van Vogt might have been describing a dystopian outcome which is not something he agrees with. On balance of probability though, I think that the dismissal of female characters as being capable of serious consideration in this story has a direct connection to what the author was like.
Setting this insulting 70s male-chauvanist content aside (bearing in mind that Isaac Asimov did it too in Foundation), the book definitely includes the science in the sci-fi and that meets my expectations (plenty of observed relativity theory), it clearly rattles along as an imaginative and entertaining journey (travel, star ships, an alien called Bziing, futurology) and there’s a philosophical nod as the author re-works Plato’s allegory of the cave (context of down a well vs the larger reveal of surfacing to a meadow). The temporal conundra is the main challenge in the narrative and I think he conveys that aspect quite well.
The other theme that stays in the mind is the paranoid backdrop of threat from above, where the captain can only maintain his position with henchmen, deceit and the police-state-style removal of rivals. No one at the top dies of natural causes or hands over their role willingly. I was about to say that publicly tolerated authortarianism in peace-time was of its era too (50s to 70s), but all these things still happen today in countries like Russia, North Korea and the European Union so maybe it is still very effective for an unelected minority to subdue and farm a public majority with propoganda and the implied fear of midnight punishment beatings. We’re a horrible species, aren’t we? I shall now completely reverse Hamlet’s intended meaning (originally a question, not a statement) by concluding: What a piece of work is man. Just that. For veracity’s sake, the rest of the quote I have helpfully deleted.