This is the story of a research space vessel travelling through the universe in a great scientific endeavor obviously named after Darwin’s ship HMS Beagle. The ship is filled up with scientists of various disciplines; chemists, physicists, biologists, etc. But one of the scientists is a generalist, or to be precise a Nexialist. This man, Elliot Grosvenor is the story’s protagonist and the book is just as much about his struggle to proselytize his fellow scientists about the wonders of Nexialism as it is fighting various interstellar monsters.
This Nexialism is akin to the synthesists that Heinlein sometimes mentions in his writing. They are able to rise above the narrow expertise of the subject matter experts in each of the sciences and see the big picture. Gregory Kent, the head of the Chemistry Department is Grosvenor’s nemesis. He uses all methods normal or criminal to prevent Grosvenor from spreading the gospel of Nexialism but, inexorably, Grosvenor’s string of victories in figuring out the nature of the threats that each of the alien monsters presents bring more and more of the scientists on his side until by the end of the story Grosvenor is able to take control of the mission and bend it to his purpose.
Interestingly one of the monsters, the Ixtl, is the source for the creature in Alien. The creature takes its victims alive and implants an egg in each to reproduce its kind. The other threats are less frightening; a cat-like predator, a hive mind that sends out its thought telepathically and finally a giant gas cloud that feeds off the life of a whole galaxy at a time.
Re-reading this book so many decades later it’s plain to see that as a kid I never noticed how badly A. E. van Vogt’s writes people. In some ways it reminds me of the phenomenon I sense in Lovecraft’s writing. There is a fertile mind that can create images that are striking but the dialog and the characters are flat and lifeless. His human characters are not very interesting. But a ten-year-old boy isn’t really interested in reading deathless prose. Surprisingly, his monsters are livelier. Perhaps he wrote from the point of view of the aliens. And the science fiction in the stories can be quite entertaining. The scientists have to jury rig all sorts of science projects to outwit their enemies in each chapter and the technical mumbo jumbo is a lot of fun.
So, do I recommend this book. Let’s do it this way. If you are from the literary camp of science fiction then forget it. The Space Beagle won’t work for you. If you like space opera of the old school then by all means give it a shot. Just don’t get mad if you find out A. E. van Vogt isn’t Bill Shakespeare.
After finishing up my review of Galaxy’s Edge – Galactic Outlaws, it occurred to me that there was more to say about the category of Space Opera. Some might say that I was a little unfair to social justice fiction fans. After all there must be a significant audience of fans with blue hair and cats who really enjoy girl power super heroes and their adventures in space. So, to say that these are automatically bad just because I heartily dislike them might seem arbitrary and unfair. It might seem that way but it isn’t. And that’s because I am the final arbiter of good and bad in science fiction. I earned this coveted status by living long enough to see everything in the world. So, once again, all Star Wars movies after Return of the Jedi (and even some parts of them before that point) are irredeemably bad and should be cast into the outer darkness where there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. And that lines us up for me to proclaim what does make a good space opera. What follows is:
“photog’s RULE FOR WHAT MAKES GOOD SPACE OPERA” (patent pending).
It needs to appeal to the sense of wonder of the twelve-year-old boy in you. Now mind you, it doesn’t have to only do that. It can also be a brilliant philosophical treatise on the dualistic nature of the universe or a psychological study of the impact of technology on the human race, or even a deathless love story written across the stars of the galaxy. But if it fails to inspire the twelve-year-old boy in you it’s not space opera. It may be science fiction or anything else but it isn’t space opera. And this isn’t even an exclusive precinct of science fiction. Any adventure story has to satisfy that same basic requirement. Take the literature of the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century. A quintessential example that comes to mind is Treasure Island. Here is a story that was tailor made for the sense of wonder of a twelve-year-old boy. It has all the earmarks of the tale of wonder. The boy who loses his father, the quest for riches, exotic locales, colorful and dangerous opponents, the revelation of secret knowledge, the coming of age experience of the world and the people in it. An adventure story is a story for a boy that kindles his interest in the world around him. It leads him to think there is more to life than school and chores. It inspires him to strike out on his own and find his place in the world.
Now I can just hear the modern women and girly men screeching, “Girls want adventure too!” To which I reply “Stop screeching, you’re hurting my ears.” But also, I would say that what girls want is neither here nor there. Boys need the adventure story because it fits their brains. Girls have been told that they want adventure stories so they want them in order not to get left out in the modern #metoo world that they live in. And in fact, I don’t really care if there are adventure stories for girls. More power to them, I guess. What I do mind is that for the sake of inclusiveness they are ruining all the adventure stories that are coming out of Hollywood. And that is why I look for good old (and new) space opera and other adventure stories for my grandsons (and for me).