Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Pulp Review: Black Destroyer

Alfred Elton (A. E.) van Vogt (1912-2000) was a Canadian-born author who is more or less forgotten in the modern age thanks to fellow Sci-Fi author and Science Fiction Writers and Fantasy Writers of America founder Damon Knight who savagely vilified van Vogt in the 50s. Which is odd, considering that van Vogt is also credited with ushering in “The Golden Age of Science Fiction” when he sold his first SF story to John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction in 1939. (There is, of course, contention about whether the Campbellian period should be considered the Golden Age, but that's a beside the point of this review).

The story in question is Black Destroyer, and it was the featured cover story of its issue of Astounding.

While retroactively crediting it with starting “The Golden Age” of Sci-Fi feels like a stretch, it does feature a lot of elements common to later Hard Sci-Fi stories. A team of scientists travel to another world to conduct research and discover a dangerous life form that they have to survive using their brains. The threat in question is an intelligent, malevolent, cat-like creature called a coeurl with a pair tentacles sprouting from its back as extra appendages that feeds on “id-creatures” by draining all the phosphorus from their bodies. The unnamed world is a dying wasteland filled with Barsoomian ruins and the coeurl is starving, having exhausted all of the food in its territory. The humans show up and its a veritable buffet for the starving creature.

Using guile, the coeurl (no, I don't know how to pronounce that) pretends to be a simple beast curious with the visitors, but then secretly starts killing them off for food and, later, for sheer bloodthirstiness. As the science team learns about the threat, they also learn that the “pussy” they adopted is far more intelligent and powerful than they first thought.

Its simple, but also fairly effective Space Horror, and its DNA is clearly visible in movies like Alien. The coeurl itself has loads of personality despite not being able to communicate with the humans, but in no way is it treated as a sympathetic monster. Its a killer and a barbarian, a degenerated relic of the creatures that once ruled its world, and the coeurl's spite and malice end up sabotaging itself even while it schemes to unite its kin so they can conquer the stars.

The humans, on the other hand, are clearly heroic, if terribly naive. After one of the team is found dead by mysterious means, several of the team suspect the coeurl (its the only living thing they've found) but the captain, Morton, doubts that and allows it on the ship so they can study it more. Its a stupid call that gets a dozen of his crew murdered, and Morton feels really bad about that, rallying his men to find a solution through their collective intelligence (and disintegration guns).

And then when discussing civilizations, van Vogt has the Japanese archaeologist (Pearl Harbor was still some years away) say this:

     “You may ask, commander, what has all this to do with your question? My answer is: there is no
     record of a culture entering abruptly into the period of contending states. It is always a slow 
     development; and the first step is merciless questioning of all that was once held sacred. Inner 
     certainties cease to exist, are dissolved before the ruthless probings of scientific and analytic 
     minds. The skeptic becomes the highest type of being.”

That's heavy stuff, and a thorough rejection of postmodern thought. Its no wonder that a Futurian hard leftist like Damon Knight would hate him enough to try to destroy his career.

A small, fairly simple story, the plot is straightforward but satisfying enough that I can recommend for a quick read. It was eventually “fixed up” by van Vogt for inclusion in 1950's The Voyage of the Space Beagle, but it works well as a stand-alone. The real draw are the ideas at play, from the foundation it lays for Space Horror that still stands today to the interesting dead world, and the coeurl is just a damn cool monster. So cool, that it its the direct ancestor of D&D's Displacer Beast.

But that's an essay for another day.

No comments: