Birthday Reviews: A.E. Van Vogt’s “War of Nerves”

Birthday Reviews: A.E. Van Vogt’s “War of Nerves”

Cover by Malcolm Smith
Cover by Malcolm Smith

A.E. (Alfred Elton) van Vogt was born on April 26, 1912 and died on January 26, 2000.

Van Vogt began publishing science fiction with “The Black Destroyer,” the first of four stories which became his novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle. His other major works include Slan, The Weapon Shops of Isher, and The World of ­Ā.

In 1966 his story “Research Alpha,” co-written with James Schmitz, was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novella. In 1996 his “The Mixed Men” and The World of ­Ā were both nominated for Retro Hugo Awards. That same year he received a Worldcon Special Convention Award for his six decades in science fiction. He finally won a Retro Hugo in 2017 for the novel Slan. His The Weapon Shops of Isher received a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 2005. He received a Forry Award in 1972 and an Aurora Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1980. In 1996, he was named an SFWA Grand Master and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

“War of Nerves was incorporated into van Vogt’s fix-up novel, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, the last of the four stories published (although set after the first story in the novel). It originally appeared in Other Worlds magazine in the May 1950 issue, edited by Raymond Palmer, the only one of the four not to appear in Astounding. The original story has been reprinted in van Vogt’s collections Monsters, The Best of A.E. van Vogt, and Transfinite: The Essential A.E. van Vogt. Monsters has also been published under the title The Blal. The story has been translated into French and twice into Italian.

“War of the Nerves” describes a telepathic attack on the Space Beagle by a previously unknown race, the Riim. The attack, which comes out of nowhere, results in the crew becoming either incapacitated or allowing their pent up emotions free. The scientists on board take sides in a civil war between factions and the military men begin looking for an excuse to let their hostility towards the scientists loose.

The only person on the Space Beagle who appears unaffected by the attack is Elliott Grosvenor, the ship’s Nexialist, a term which isn’t fully explained in the story since van Vogt seems to expect that his readers would be familiar with the three earlier installments. Grosvenor is a superhuman, with tendrils instead of hair, and he would have been right at home in van Vogt’s novel Slan. Mostly by force of will, although with a little help from an encephalo-adjuster, Grosvenor is not only able to maintain a semblance of peace on the ship, but also able to reach out to the Riim and defeat the entire alien civilization.

Van Vogt’s story is an example of a type of science fiction which has gone out of vogue, not just the idea of the Übermensch, but the use of psychological enhancements to perfect the hero and allow him to tap into his full psychic potential. Possibly coincidentally, “War of Nerves” was published in May 1950, the same month L. Ron Hubbard published the first edition of Dianetics. Van Vogt became a disciple of Hubbard and a firm believer in Dianetics and later Scientology, serving as the head of Dianetics in California in 1950.

Reprint reviewed in the collection Transfinite: The Essential A.E. van Vogt, by A.E. van Vogt, edited by Joe Rico, NESFA Press, 2003.


Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a sixteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Doing Busines at Hodputt’s Emporium” in Galaxy’s Edge. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 5 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.

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Thomas Parker

A genuine science fiction wildman. I don’t think anyone exemplifies both the strengths and weaknesses of the genre better than does A.E. Van Vogt.

Jason

Agreed, Thomas. Nice write-up, Steven, except that I have to wonder about the last sentence.

My understanding is that van Vogt was interested in basically every sort of “self-improvement” gimmick imaginable and Dianetics was one. I don’t think he was a “disciple” of Hubbard at all and I don’t think he ever had anything to do with Scientology (disliking both Hubbard’s and Scientology’s “mysticism”). Perfectly willing to be corrected, of course, but that’s my understanding.

Bob Byrne

Van Vogt was a Solar Pons fan. Here’s an in depth essay he wrote, comparing the Ponsian and Holmesian deductive systems.

Could have been a good mystery writer!

Thomas Parker

I know I’ve seen Van Vogt’s name of the cover of an old mystery pulp.

Raphael

What I like in van Vogt is that very thing you cite as having gone out of style, that is, the focus on psychological advancements. Nexialism – a kind of holistic, humanistic metascience – is what allows the protagonist of Space Beagle to rise above petty interdisciplinary squabbles and turf wars between specialists to solve the problems facing the ship. With minor adjustments, it would work quite well as a satire on university politics. I recall being disappointed that he resorts to hypnotism / brainwashing at some point. But van Vogt, as evidenced in World of Null-A, identifies a person with their own thoughts / memories, so I would argue that his ethics are internally consistent, although (to me) somewhat repugnant…

[…] Black Gate » Birthday Reviews: A.E. Van Vogt’s “War of Nerves”. As one commenter says, “a genuine science fiction wildman.” (And, as I say, van Vogt was not a “disciple” of Hubbard or a Scientologist.) […]

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