Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

van Vogt, A E

Entry updated 14 August 2023. Tagged: Author.

Icon made by Freepik from


(1912-2000) Canadian author, in the US from November 1944, when he was welcomed to California by the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society and made regular appearances at its meetings (see Fandom). He was born Alfred Vogt and legally changed this to Alfred Elton van Vogt during the process of applying for American citizenship in 1945. Van Vogt had not left his native land until his early thirties, and it is arguable that a Canadian solitudinousness colours his work throughout; it is certainly the case that he wrote very few tales that, after the American pattern, involve the penetration of frontiers by culture Heroes whose relationship to Homo sapiens is patriotic. The many Space Opera empires in his work generally pre-exist the tales that describe them, and are conquered from within by protagonists who may be revealed already to have been Secret Masters.

Van Vogt had been active for several years in various other genres, but starting with "Black Destroyer" in Astounding Science-Fiction for July 1939, he wrote at a rough estimate (including stockpiled tales published later) at least fifty shorter works and four novels for John W Campbell Jr before his emigration, firmly establishing his name as the first Canadian sf writer or real importance, and as one of the creators and main figures of Golden Age of SF. He made his move to California with E Mayne Hull, whom he had married in 1939, and whose claimed collaborations with her husband appeared almost entirely before their emigration. There remains some doubt as to how much she contributed to these collaborations, and even her solo works have been speculatively credited to van Vogt (for further comments, see her entry). Whatever the case, she can be thought of as plausibly sharing van Vogt's inherent "Canadianness" with respect to the ambient wilderness [for Water Margins see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Hull's career ended in 1950 with her conversion to L Ron Hubbard's Dianetics. A few prime stories by Van Vogt appeared, like The Enchanted Village (July 1950 Other Worlds as "Enchanted Village"; 1979 chap) [for further title details see Checklist], which rebukes triumphalist assumptions about Homo sapiens's supremacy as a species. But Van Vogt also converted to Dianetics, an action which seems to have derailed his surprisingly fragile afflatus; he became virtually silent for several years, releasing no new stories in English between 1951 and 1963, after which date he entered a second period of high productivity. His late works have generally, however, been disregarded in any assessment of his importance to the field.

In 1939-1947 van Vogt published at least thirty-five sf stories in Astounding alone, some of novel length (further titles appeared in Unknown), and it was the work of these years, much of it not to be published in book form until long afterwards in reconstructed versions, that gave him his high reputation as a master of intricate, metaphysical Space Opera. He joined Isaac Asimov and Robert A Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon, and to a lesser extent L Sprague de Camp (though only dubiously L Ron Hubbard), who were effectively creating what Campbell wanted to publish: numerate scientifically-plausible stories set in storyable venues; only in this "Golden Age" did sf begin to achieve, in literary terms, what the writers of US Genre SF had eschewed twenty years earlier when they had found that Pulp magazines not only wished to publish sf but were their only consistent market. Van Vogt's strategy differed from that of his compeers, however, through his seeming loyalty to the melodramatic contortions of earlier work, but at the same time radically intensifying the emotional impact and complexity of the stories told: his nearly invincible alien Monsters, the long timespans of his tales and the Time Paradoxes that fill them (see also Time Abyss), the quasi-messianic Supermen who come into their own as the stories progress, the Galactic Empires they tend to rule and the states of lonely transcendental omnipotence they tend to achieve – all are presented in a prose that uses crude, dark colours but whose striking Sense of Wonder is conveyed with a dreamlike conviction. The abrupt complications of plot for which he became so well known, and which have been so scathingly mocked for their illogic and preposterousness – within narratives that claimed to be presenting higher forms of logic to the reader – are best analysed, and their effects best understood, when their sudden shifts of perspective and rationale and scale are seen as analogous to the movements of a dream.

It is these "Hard-SF dreams", so grippingly void of constraints or the usual surrealistic appurtenances of dream literature, that have so haunted generations of children and adolescents, particularly through the oneiric concision achievable in the short story; many of his best stories convey more clearly therefore than his novels the driven hauntedness central to Van Vogt. Although many of the tales published during the first decade of his career were later assembled into Fixups (see below), original versions can be found in collections like Out of the Unknown [for further publication details see Checklist] (coll 1948) with E Mayne Hull (see above), Destination: Universe! (coll 1952) and Away and Beyond [again for further publication details see Checklist] (coll 1952). The earlier Masters of Time (coll 1950) – a volume comprising two long stories later published separately as The Changeling (April 1944 Astounding; 1967) and Earth's Last Fortress (March 1942 Astounding as "Recruiting Station"; 1960 dos; vt Masters of Time 1967) – contains in the novella "Recruiting Station", a genuine if primitively couched Changewar in which the victory of one side will mean the extinction of the other throughout history (see also Parallel Worlds; Time Loops). This tale, plus twenty-four other early works, has been assembled as Transfinite: The Essential A E Van Vogt (coll 2003) ed Rick Katze and Joe Rico.

Van Vogt's first novel, and perhaps still his best known, is Slan (September-December 1940 Astounding; 1946; rev 1951). Its Hero, the young Jommy Cross, is a member of a Mutant race, the Slans, a Pariah Elite long driven into hiding through the jealousy of normals. Jommy's Superpowers (see Children in SF), which include Telepathy, physical superiority to normals (he has two hearts) and extraordinary Intelligence, enable him to survive the mobbing, arrest and offstage death of his mother (see Women in SF) and to escape from sight into an adolescence and young manhood during which he begins to sense his true powers. As a man he becomes involved with Earth's mysterious dictator, with defective Slans, and with various intrigues centring on new Power Sources. Matters are cleared up only at the book's close with the revelation that the dictator is himself a secret Slan (see Secret Masters), that the girl Slan with whom Jommy is in love is the dictator's daughter, and that Jommy is in line for the succession. Slan is a much imitated model for the creation of this sort of wish-fulfilment [for Hidden Monarch see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. A follow-up tale based on an unknown amount of draft material from the end of Van Vogt's active career around 1984, Slan Hunter (December 2006-April 2007 Jim Baen's Universe; 2007) with Kevin J Anderson might almost be deemed a Sequel by Other Hands, and is very significantly less interesting. Slan & Slan Hunter (omni 2007) assembles the 1951 revision of Slan along with the later book.

However, it was in the two Weapon Shops Time OperasThe Weapon Shops of Isher (fixup 1951) and The Weapon Makers (February-April 1943 Astounding; 1946) [for vts and further details see Checklist below] – that van Vogt's mixture of hard-sf dreams, enormities of complication, and transcendent superheroes was most hypnotically presented. The main protagonist of the two books, the immortal Robert Hedrock (see Immortality; Secret Masters), has not only in the dim past created the Weapon Shops as a Libertarian force to counterbalance the imperial world government long dominant on Earth, but also turns out eventually to have literally begotten the race of emperors and empresses who rule that government in traditional opposition to the mysterious Shops, which are invulnerable and sell weapons to anyone. (Van Vogt himself never seemed closer to sounding American than in this presentation of the inalienable right to own guns.) En passant, as revealed at the very end of the second book, Hedrock unwittingly passes an initiation test designed by previously unmentioned Forerunners to select (see Uplift) the next rulers of the galaxy, announcing their choice in the last sentence of the novel: "Here is the race that shall rule the sevagram." The word "sevagram" only appears once in The Weapon Makers, as its last word. This resonantly mysterious Slingshot Ending, which seems to open universes to the reader's gaze, may well stand as the best working demonstration in the whole of genre sf of how to impart a Sense of Wonder.

The second major series of van Vogt's prolific decade – the Null-A sequence comprising The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948) and The Pawns of Null-A (October 1948-January 1949 Astounding as "The Players of Ā"; 1956), plus La Fin du Ā (1984; orig English text as Null-A Three 1985) [for vts and further details see Checklist below] – may have appeared weightier in its attempts to present arguments in terms of "non-Aristotelian" thought (see General Semantics), a claim which might seem ominously to prefigure a rationalization of the effortless dream logic of the earlier stories; but in the event tends to stumble into excessive tangles of complication, especially in the final volume, where the intensely storyable flow of Van Vogt's early work had dried up by this late point in his career, and incoherence ruled. The protagonist Gosseyn (ie go sane), whose Psi Powers include Teleportation, lacks humour even more decidedly than his superman predecessors, and his rapid, confusing, nearly emotionless shifting from one Gosseyn body to another, in a kind of Identity Transfer between Clones but without the concept of cloning to sustain it, makes his eventual supremacy so peculiarly disorganized as to be almost without effect on the reader. John C Wright's authorized Sequel by Another Hand, Null-A Continuum (2008), is much more ingeniously recomplicated and expanded in scope, far surpassing van Vogt's weak third volume.

By this time van Vogt was nearing the end of his association with Astounding, after an extraordinarily productive decade (see above), and would soon stop writing entirely; perhaps The Pawns of Null-A, which in magazine form stretched to 100,000 words, was about as far as he could go without an extended breather. Certainly his third series from this period – the Clane sequence comprising Empire of the Atom (stories May 1946-December 1947 Astounding; fixup 1957; cut 1957 dos) and The Wizard of Linn (April-June 1950 Astounding; 1962) – is considerably less intense, though something of the effect of the original is recaptured in Transgalactic (omni 2006), which reprints the series in its magazine form. James Blish argued of this series about superscience and palace politics that its plot and characters closely resemble those of Robert Graves's Claudius novels: it would have been a brave critic who, with equal persuasiveness, could have found van Vogt's earlier series to resemble any previous work of world literature.

The Voyage of the Space Beagle (stories July 1939-August 1943 Astounding, May 1950 Other Worlds; fixup 1950; vt Mission: Interplanetary 1952) marshalled several early stories into a loose chronicle depicting various ways in which Elliot Grosvenor – a "Nexialist" trained to synthesize different fields of knowledge – makes First Contact with Aliens (some of them Monsters) over the course of a Fantastic Voyage in which he visits a Galapagos-like Archipelago of planets. The book incorporates van Vogt's first two sf stories; and Nexialism itself, which involves a system of intensive psychological training, symptomatically prefigures L Ron Hubbard's Dianetics, with which van Vogt was to become so closely involved. This involvement was the culmination of his persistent interest in all training systems which purport scientifically (or pseudoscientifically; see Pseudoscience) to create physical or mental superiority and awaken dormant talents, an interest which generated not only the three General-Semantics novels described above but also Siege of the Unseen (October-November 1946 Astounding as "The Chronicler"; 1959 dos; vt as title story in The Three Eyes of Evil coll 1973), in which, inspired by the Bates eye-exercise system, he dramatized the curing of eye problems through partly mental means. Though described in less detail, the Dellian mind techniques invoked in The Mixed Men (stories September 1943-January 1945 Astounding; fixup 1952; cut vt Mission to the Stars 1955) are of the same ilk.

During this first decade of story-writing, van Vogt also contributed material to Astounding's sister magazine, Unknown, most notably The Book of Ptath (October 1943 Unknown; 1947; vt Two Hundred Million A.D. 1964; vt Ptath 1976), a Far-Future epic in which a reincarnated but Amnesiac god-figure must fight and overcome a She-like usurper to re-establish his suzerainty. The distinction in Van Vogt between an sf and a fantasy Superman is not perhaps great; but it is the case that he rarely claimed to write in the latter genre.

In Reflections of A.E. van Vogt: The Autobiography of a Science Fiction Giant, with a Complete Bibliography (1975), van Vogt uses the term "fix-up" (or Fixup) in the sense which we have adopted for this encyclopedia: a book made up of previously published stories altered to fit together, usually including new material to cement these parts, and with the end product being marketed as a novel. It is possible that van Vogt invented the term: although fixups are not unknown outside sf, the peculiar marketing circumstances of the genre in America encouraged their creation after World War Two, when publishers began to ask for more Genre SF titles than those competent to write them could produce quickly, and certainly van Vogt wrote (or compiled) more fixups than any other sf writer of stature. It was during his time of relative inactivity as a creator of original material – the 1950s and early 1960s – that he began producing these numerous fixups, including titles already mentioned (see above). Further fixups incorporating Golden-Age material include The War Against the Rull (stories April 1940-February 1950 Astounding; fixup 1959), The Beast (stories July 1943-April 1944 Astounding; fixup 1963; vt Moonbeast 1969) and Quest for the Future (stories January 1943-July 1946 Astounding; fixup 1970).

The Silkie (stories July 1964-October 1967 If; fixup 1969), though technically similar, was the first to use substantially contemporary material – and may have been the first whose component parts were all written with the end result in mind. It signalled the beginning of van Vogt's second period of productivity, with Children of Tomorrow (1970) being his first new sf novel since The Mind Cage (1948 Fantasy Book #3 as "The Great Judge"; much exp 1957) – although he had also published The Violent Man (1962), a nonfantastic political thriller about the attempted brainwashing of Westerners in contemporary communist China. The most sustained effort of this second wave of titles was perhaps The Battle of Forever (1971), in which the enhanced-human protagonist, Modyun, leaves the Keep where his kind had for aeons dwelt in seclusion and undertakes a Far-Future odyssey through a decadent world and Galaxy, battling against aliens and gradually coming to full stature as a Superman. Compared to the fixups of the previous decade or so, the story is well paced and emotionally coherent, though the oneiric flow of arousing event and imagery is damaged by a sense of self-consciousness. Further novels do not live up to this promise of partial renewal, and were not well received.

Critics such as Damon Knight – in an extended review (1945 Destiny's Child; exp in In Search of Wonder, coll 1956; exp 1967; exp 1996) – have tended to treat the typical van Vogt tale as a failed effort at Hard SF, and have consequently tended to describe stories others have written in the modes he developed – like Philip K Dick, Charles L Harness and Larry Niven– as "improvements" on the original model. In some ways, of course, these writers have built upon the complexity of van Vogt's worlds and have significantly rationalized his convulsive shuffling and reshuffling of every element of his stories, but without paying sufficient attention to the hauntingly whited-out wilderness venues that in their very absence of human detail impart a deeply Canadian chthonic frisson to otherwise jumbled plotlines (see above). Thus freed of any surface verisimilitude, Van Vogt's space operas, as noted, are at heart enacted dreams which articulate deep, symbolic needs and wishes of his readership. Because there is no misunderstood science or cosmography or technology at the very heart of his best work, there is no "improving" van Vogt. In 1995 he received the SFWA Grand Master Award; he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame on its inauguration in 1996. [JC]

see also: Adam and Eve; AI; Antimatter; Arkham House; Conceptual Breakthrough; Cosmology; Discovery; ESP; France; Future War; Generation Starships; Genetic Engineering; Gods and Demons; History in SF; History of SF; Illustration; Invasion; Lie Detectors; Living Worlds; Longevity in Writers; Matter Penetration; Memory Edit; Paranoia; Parasitism and Symbiosis; Perception; Physics; Poisons; Politics; Precognition; Psychology; Reincarnation; Rays; Religion; Scientific Errors; Series; Suspended Animation; Thrilling Wonder Stories; Underground; Vampires.

Alfred Elton van Vogt

born near Winnipeg, Manitoba: 26 April 1912

died Hollywood, California: 26 January 2000




  • Slan (Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1946) [first appeared September-December 1940 Astounding: Slan: hb/Robert F Hubbell]
    • Slan (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951) [rev of the above: Slan: hb/Edward R Collins]
  • Slan Hunter (New York: Tor, 2007) with Kevin J Anderson [completion by Anderson of portion drafted in 1984 by Van Vogt, first appeared December 2006-April 2007 Jim Baen's Universe: Slan: hb/Bruce Jensen]
    • Slan & Slan Hunter (New York: Science Fiction Book Club, 2007) [omni of the above plus 1951 rev of Slan: Slan: hb/Vincent Di Fate]



  • The World of Ā (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948) [first appeared August-October 1945 Astounding: Null-A: hb/Leo Manso]
  • The Pawns of Null-A (New York: Ace Books, 1956) [first appeared October 1948-January 1949 Astounding as "The Players of Ā": Null-A: pb/Ed Valigursky]
  • La fin du Ā (Paris: J'AI LU, 1984) [prior trans into French of the below: Null-A: pb/Tibor Csemus]
    • Null-A Three (London: Sphere Books, 1985) [original English text of the above: Null-A: pb/Bruce Pennington]
      • Null A3 (Beverly Hills, California: Morrison, Raven-Hill Co, 1985) [vt of the above: dated 1984 but published 1985: Null-A: hb/Martin G Cameron]


  • Empire of the Atom (Chicago, Illinois: Shasta Publishers, 1956) [fixup: "A Son is Born" first appeared May 1946 Astounding, "Child of the Gods" first appeared August 1946 Astounding, "Hand of the Gods" first appeared December 1946 Astounding, "Home of the Gods" first appeared April 1947 Astounding, and "The Barbarian" first appeared December 1947 Astounding: hb/H W McCauley]
  • The Wizard of Linn (New York: Ace Books, 1962) [first appeared April-June 1950 Astounding: Clane: pb/Ed Valigursky]
    • Transgalactic (New York: Baen Books, 2006) [omni of the stories comprising Empire of the Atom above but in their magazine form, plus The Wizard of Linn; plus added non-series stories: Clane: pb/Bob Eggleton]

individual titles

For The Beast and its vt Moonbeast see under Masters of Time in collections below.

collections, stories and omnibuses


about the author


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies