It’s been years since I’ve read any straight-up science-fiction. You know, the classic stuff by authors like Arthur C. Clarke or Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov. But I got back into it recently through A.E. Van Vogt, having picked-up a used copy of Empire of the Atom.
I’d seen Van Vogt’s name before, but never realized he was Canadian (and Mennonite.) I actually consider that a good sign of his success in the field, because nothing is as suspect as qualifying an author/actor/musician/artist as Canadian – as if they wouldn’t be of note if they weren’t Canadian. In fact, Van Vogt is considered one of the founders of the genre, and his story “Black Destroyer” (originally published July 1939 and later incorporated into The Voyage of the Space Beagle) ushered in the Golden Age of science fiction.
But this article isn’t just about A.E. Van Vogt. It’s about a certain kind of science fiction, and in particular the unexpected enjoyment I found in these stories. There’s a kind of escapism in science fiction which I never recognized when I was younger. As a
teenager, I thought I enjoyed science fiction for the flights of ideas and speculations about the future. And that is still an important part of the attraction. But what I noticed, reading Van Vogt in particular, was how much I was enjoying the competency of his characters. They were good at their job. From the lowly mechanic to the leader of the expedition, all the characters were earnestly doing their best; they cared about their work and took pride in doing it well. They relied on their intelligence and skill to accomplish goals! They behaved rationally and tried not to let their emotions govern their decisions!
This is not my experience with real life.
In real life, I find that the vast majority of people suck at their job. Whether it’s because they aren’t invested in their work or because they actually don’t have the skill or intelligence to perform any better, many people only do as much as they have to do to appear competent. In fact, most people are merely adequate to their position, which means they manage not to make any more than an acceptable amount of mistakes. They do not strive for 100% and fall short; they strive for 90% or 80%, or even 60% if that’s a passing grade. In real life, people are a constant disappointment to me.
But in science-fiction, I am pleased to find that space ships are staffed with only the best of humanity; that political and military leaders are clever as can be, anticipating their opponents’ next moves and trying to outmaneuver them. In the conflicts between characters, between the scientists and aliens (and also between the scientists themselves) as in Voyage of the Space Beagle, both protagonists and antagonists are portrayed as basically smart people having different agendas.
And while I noticed it especially with Van Vogt, I can see the same trends in the portrayal characters in books like I, Robot or Ender’s Game or even Neuromancer–and in Star Trek (though not Star Wars, where I recognize very well my fellow flawed humans in the Empire’s commanders and stormtroopers as well as other sentient beings that populate the cantinas and even the deserts of those worlds.) Whether it’s the characters in Van Vogt’s Empire of the Atom or in Asimov’s Foundation or in Frank Herbert’s Dune or even Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land–the principal characters are all highly competent people. And to a certain extent, I see “competency vrs. disappointing humanity” played out more explicitly (and I think just as science-fictitiously) in Ayn Rand’s novels, where she actually sets lumpen humanity against her clever protagonists.
I had been aware that classic science fiction has a rather idealistic (that is: unrealistic) portrayal of people, but, wow, am I enjoying that! I’m eating it up! These stories allow me to imagine I live in a world where people were prepared to deal bravely and confidently with even the most catastrophic emergencies. Where oil spills are contained and flood waters are diverted. Where prescient scientists create gravity rays to divert the asteroids that will inevitably come to destroy us all.
Looking back with my adult eyes, I can see how those worlds must have been equally (if unknowingly) appealing to my teen-age self: a nerdy kind of kid who earnestly trying to learn and do well at math and science, as well as english class and french class, to play trombone and even do my awkward best at phys-ed. Many of my peers were, disappointingly, not so engaged.
Science-fiction envisages a better world: a world where clever, competent people run things, where merit is recognized and rewarded, a world where the best and brightest are at the forefront of human endeavor. How pleasant to imagine!