Voyage of the Space Beagle

These are the voyages of the Space Beagle. It’s mission: explore new worlds, seek out new life … and kill it!

Wait, what?

Let me step back a moment. When I married my wife, a friend quipped that I was marrying her for her collection of science fiction novels. One of those novels was A.E. van Vogt’s classic science fiction tale, Voyage of the Space Beagle. It’s one of those novels I’ve long meant to read and I came across it the other day on the bookshelf and decided to give it a go.

The novel is a fix-up of four novellas written between 1939 and 1943 that describe a large space ship full of scientists sent out to the galaxy to learn everything they can. The primary point of view character is Elliott Grosvenor, an early practitioner of a science called nexialism which endeavors to take the results of all the sciences and come up with comprehensive results that specialists in those fields can’t achieve alone. This is probably a good thing, since the Space Beagle’s all-male crew consists of a bunch of scientists from different specialties, most of whom don’t seem to work and play well with others. Even Grosvenor felt like something of a know-it-all jerk at times.

In the first part, the Space Beagle lands and takes the cat-like creature from the cover aboard as a specimen. This coeurl turns out to be a lot smarter than anyone anticipated and it goes on a killing rampage through the crew until they figure out how to dispatch it. In the second part, hypnotic suggestions begin flooding the ship and causing the crew to turn against each other. Grosvenor figures out that they’re receiving communications from an alien race. In the third part, they encounter a living creature out in space called an Ixtl and decide to bring it aboard as a specimen. It promptly begins going around the ship and inserting its eggs into the intestinal tracts of the crew. Finally, the Space Beagle leaves the galaxy and encounters a galaxy-spanning entity at M33. It transforms planets into jungle planets with lots of life that it can feed on.

I found it difficult to sympathize with a lot of the characters in this novel. While it was interesting that they had egos and that led to conflict, I just wanted them to get over themselves and work together once in a while as something nasty attacked the ship. What’s more, for a thin novel, it was rather plodding and methodical in its pacing. Despite that, the real importance of this novel is in its influence. The first thing I noticed was the cat-like creature on the cover. He reminded me of one I’d seen on another recent novel.

It turns out that Haruka Takachiho, the author of the Dirty Pair light novels was a fan of A.E. van Vogt and Mughi, the third lovely angel, shown on the cover, is supposed to be a coeurl. There are obvious parallels in this novel with movie and TV space opera that followed, such as Forbidden Planet and Star Trek. When van Vogt mentioned his all-male crew, I immediately thought of the problems the crew of the C-57D had when it’s all-male crew encountered a woman on Altair IV. Although I poke fun at the Star Trek connection in the opening of this blog, it does resemble Star Trek in that the Space Beagle ostensibly is an exploratory ship that finds itself in the position of defending Earth against creatures that would do Earth harm. For that matter, the coeurl feeds on the potassium in human bodies, not unlike the creature that kills people for salt in an early episode of Star Trek.

One thing that’s quite striking in this novel is its resemblance to the plot of 1979’s movie, Alien. Most people point to the obvious parallels of the egg-implanting Ixtl, but the coeurl story also resembled Alien quite a bit. I was especially struck at the end of that story when the biologist, Kent, suggests that a crew should return to the coeurl’s planet and exterminate the species before they become more of a problem, the setup for this universe’s version of Aliens. Apparently van Vogt did sue the producers of Alien and was awarded a settlement.

Although it feels dated, and I’ve read novels from the period that I enjoyed more, I was glad to discover this influential science fiction novel and travel with the crew of the Space Beagle for a little while, and survive the experience.

6 comments on “Voyage of the Space Beagle

  1. I’ve read more of van Vogt’s short stories than novels, although i know a number of his novels were adapted from short stories including this one.

    I haven’t read *Voyage of the Space Beagle*, but I think I can understand why its stories might look xenophobic through modern eyes. Most of the original stories (note on that below) were published during the World War II years. Much of the world at the time was afraid of “those other people.” In America’s case, that tragically included some of its own citizens.

    I can’t verify this as accurate, but the Wikipedia article on the novel says: “‘War of Nerves’ (May, 1950, *Other Worlds* magazine) (chapters 9 to 12).” The author was then apparently living in America during the beginning of “McCarthyism,” another period of xenophobic paranoia.

    • Amendment to the above: I just noticed that you wrote the four novellas were “written between 1939 and 1943” while Wikipedia lists the *publication* date of “War of Nerves” as 1950. That story was apparently published the same year as the novel, which makes me wonder at that timing.

    • While the original novellas that comprise Voyage of the Space Beagle were written between 1939 and 1943, they were combined and published as a novel in 1950, the same year as “War of the Nerves” was published. So perhaps that explains your timing question.

      Without putting too much weight on my silly opening hook, it did strike me that the characters in the novel got themselves into their situations by wanting to understand the creatures they encountered. That Star Trek spirit of exploration is there. The xenophobic undercurrent comes from the fact that every alien proves itself to be a danger to humanity. I suspect you’re right that this undercurrent comes from the timing the novellas were written and the novel itself was assembled.

      What bothered me more was how little spirit of collaboration the scientists in this novel exhibited. Working for a scientific organization, sure, I see scientists bicker and argue, sometimes heatedly. However, it’s always with the common goal of solving the problem at hand. These scientists seemed much more intent on showing how much better they were than their peers, even when the crisis is in full swing. To me, it would have been more gratifying emotionally to have seen the scientists get over their differences and work together for a while, despite the tension of their personal ambitions.

  2. It can be challenging to read older novels, because subtle attitudes have changed and we do not have the same assumptions that they did 70 or 80 years ago. What sticks out from your description is now all of the scientists are highly regarded experts who don’t play well with others. This is a “type” I remember from various work, including The Thing, where the scientist insists on trying to communicate with a murderous alien, while the soldiers view it solely as a threat.

    The underlying expectation may have been that scientists generally were looked up to as a kind of miracle-worker. There was a “trust me, I’m a scientist” vibe. In the intervening decades there have been so many cases where products of science turned out to be harmful, the public no longer accepts that claim.

    • Very true about changing attitudes and in many ways, the trope that scientists are highly regarded experts who don’t play well with others hasn’t really gone away. What makes “Space Beagle” different is that the scientists, for the most part, actually play well with the military. The problem is that scientists of different specialties don’t play at all well with one another in the book. I think it’s because they do work well with the military that this inability to cooperate between scientific disciplines seems so striking.

      Another trope that’s easy to dismiss because of the novel’s age is its sexism. It all but says only men can be scientists and military who will explore space, which is pretty extreme even for the 1930s and 40s. Check back Tuesday for an example of a pair of near contemporary novels that, while they display their share of sexism, do also show women as competent adventurers.

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