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Futures Past by A.E. Van Vogt

1/04/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Futures Past in the USA - or Buy Futures Past in the UK

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pub: Tachyon Publications. 207 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $17.00 (US) - buy from publisher for the best price. ISBN: 1-892391-05-8.

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It might have escaped your notice but I have a lot of respect for A.E. Van Vogt and spotting this book, ‘Futures Past’ in Tachyon’s booklist, even if it was released eleven years ago, deserves some exposure. After all, with most of the Golden Age SF authors no longer amongst us, there are few re-issues, let alone reminders why such authors were so highly regarded. Van Vogt’s reputation got a bit of a knock from author/critic Damon Knight, who was hardly a fan of him, but as you look down the back cover of this book, a lot of authors acknowledge his writing. To have Harlan Ellison do an introduction puts a lot of things in perspective. At the time he wrote this, Van Vogt was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s syndrome, a condition none of us would like but the loss of personality especially when it powers a vivid imagination is always seen as a great loss.

What made Van Vogt so unique was his ability to create fresh cloth with every story for the pulp magazines from the 40s-50s and the successfully expand to novels and then doing fix-ups of a lot of his short stories into novels which were probably the first mosaic storylines on the market. You’ve seen my appreciation of Van Vogt with his ‘Null-A’ books where he had teleportation, cloning and terraforming before they even had the recognised terms we had for them today which shows the level of imagination. Saying that, I doubt if the term ‘similiarization’ would have caught on as a name like ‘teleportation’ did even if his explanation was just as nifty. I mean, most SF writers might come up with one great idea per story but nor play with three, often in a throwaway manner.

What we have here is an anthology of eight of Van Vogt’s short stories scattered from three decades. Two of the stories, ‘Cooperate Or Else!’ and ‘The Second Solution’ ended up as part of the fix-up novel ‘War Against The Rull’ and the cover painting is based on a scene from the first of these showing an ezwal, an alien creature that was previously thought to be an unintelligent animal but wasn’t. Indeed, the second story is done from one of its relatives perspectives as it gets stranded on Earth. A demonstration of not necessary taking the human perspective and, very probably, Van Vogt led the way in doing this.

This selection features one of my favourite and often most used stories used in mixed author anthologies ‘The Enchanted Village’, where a stranded astronaut on Mars (although it could be any planet but in those days, there was still hope that there was life on the red planet) finds a deserted village that adapts to helping his survival with a great twist at the end. It’s so visual that you wonder why no producer has ever thought to do a televised version especially as the character goes through an emotional gamut in the face of survival as he rationalises what is going on. Ellison points out that this volume contains some of Van Vogt’s lesser works but other than ‘The Reflected Man’, I have seen most of these reprinted a couple times or more over the years.

Oddly, the last story and the earliest used here, ‘The Vault Of The Beast’, is the one that is the less fulfilling and was surprised that this one was chosen as opposed to two that Ellison mentioned in the introduction, ‘Black Destroyer’ and ‘Discord In Scarlet’ that were fixed-up into ‘The Voyage Of The Space Beagle’ which were the basis of a certain 1970s ‘Alien’ which Van Vogt suitably sued over and won and have never seen in their original form.

Van Vogt’s niche was to play around with aliens and super-humans in his stories and raise all kinds of issues that could arise from any generation. Equally, he could also find a place for everyone as witnessed in ‘The First Martian’ where people who lived happily at high altitude could live successfully in a thinner Martian atmosphere.

‘The Reflected Man’ was written in 1971 but led an interesting way into alternative realities where alternative versions of the same people were brought into the same reality and others determined to wipe them out to try to tidy things up.

‘The Replicators’ actually takes some elements of Van Vogt’s ‘Null-A’ stories but applied to a seemingly alien invader who continues through a succession of duplicate bodies but has copied the emotional mindset of a dissident ex-soldier and living out his suppressed thoughts with alarming consequences. It is also a demonstration of intelligence over emotion in coming up with a solution which becomes a riveting twister.

I could rant on for ages. Van Vogt was never afraid to take chances with his stories. It’s something I learnt my lessons from for my own stories. As the last compilation of Van Vogt’s stories before his death should belong in any SF reader’s collection. If you’re too young to have come across his other material, it might make you want to investigate further. I rate seven out of the eight stories here and how many times can you say that of any anthology these days? See for yourself.

GF Willmetts

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