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.