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.

Treat Yourself to a Scary Read

This week, my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt is Lachesis Publishing’s Book of the Week.

In my novel, astronomers, ghosts, drug dealers, and a monster from the beginning of time collide at a remote observatory during a violent thunderstorm. You might ask why a professional astronomer who operates telescopes would set a horror novel at an observatory. There are actually several reasons I chose to present this as a venue for a scary tale.

First, one of the scariest movies from my teen years was Ridley Scott’s movie Alien. Part of the reason the movie was so effective was that I was a big Star Trek and Star Wars fan growing up. Alien allowed haunted house horror to encroach on the “safe place” of science fictional optimism and action. Sure, Star Trek and Star Wars had their scary moments, but those moments were soon relieved by the heroes escaping the scary situation, a logical scientific explanation, or even humor. In Alien, the scary moments never let up. What’s more, the space ship was dark, dank, and full of shadows, not like the bright and colorful ships of those other science fictional franchises. For me, having a monster on the loose in an astronomical observatory is very much a call back to Alien.

Setting a horror story at an observatory is also something of an homage to one of the masters of twentieth century horror, H.P. Lovecraft. He was fascinated by astronomy and actually wrote scientific articles. Of course, he imagined ancient creatures from the depths of space to be among his horrors that tormented those people who dared to look in dark places.

Arguably one of the most important reasons for setting a horror story at an observatory relates to the adage, “write what you know.” I’ve worked at observatories for twenty-two of the last thirty years. Ironically, I feel comfortable and even safe working at observatories. However, some of the scariest stories happen in places where we don’t expect horrific things to occur. It’s one of the reasons Ray Bradbury could scare people with a story set at a fun carnival, and why Stephen King could scare us so effectively with a resort hotel in the Rockies. If you watch science shows, you’ve undoubtedly seen an astronomer speaking about the mysteries of the universe. You don’t expect something horrible in that situation.

And yet, it’s never far from the back of my mind that horrific things can happen. We’re at a remote site with wild animals. Observatories have big industrial equipment that come with their own safety issues. We work in the dark, in big, windowless buildings. When the power goes out, it can be really and truly dark. I’ve made the mistake of going into rooms without a flashlight and having doors close behind me and becoming quickly disoriented. There are access hatches that open into big, open areas. Those of us who work at observatories have to be ever vigilant to make sure accidents don’t happen.

I’ve also spoken at some length about how some observatories have literal crypts in or near their structures. James Lick is buried in the pier of the 36-inch telescope and Percival Lowell is interred in a mausoleum just outside the 24-inch telescope where he observed the features he thought were Martian canals.

In The Astronomer’s Crypt, I dared to take a place I loved and then scared myself by imagining the worst possible things happening. This Halloween, I dare you to come along with me and peer into the dark places behind the scenes at an observatory.

Lachesis Publishing has sweetened the deal making this a great Halloween treat. They’ve reduced the ebook from $4.99 to 99 cents for the rest of October at: