BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The episodic adventures of a space exploration team – mostly dealing with hostile alien encounters.
PROS: Classic feel; rousing space adventure.
CONS: One of the four adventures should have been left out.
BOTTOM LINE: Read the first three stories, skip the fourth.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle is a fixup novel comprised of 4 stories. Here are brief synopses of each:
BLACK DESTROYER (1939 – )
- SYNOPSIS: The crew of the exploratory spaceship Space Beagle discovers an alien life form on a faraway planet. What they do not know is that this seemingly docile alien is actually a highly-intelligent savage who craves to feed on “id”, a substance (potassium, we learn) that is satisfactorily obtained only from a living being. The creature named Coeurl is panther-like?except that it has suction-cupped tentacles sprouting at the shoulders. The seemingly tame Coeurl is led aboard the ship, home to about one thousand spacefarers, in the interest of science. Then Holy Hell breaks loose.
- REVIEW: The story alternates between Coeurl’s point of view and that of the Nexialist, Elliot Grosvenor. Nexialism is the discipline that brings about better understanding by combining the knowledge of many different fields. Van Vogt’s writing is very descriptive. The tension exhibited in the story is excellent and rarely matched. And Coeurl’s kills are fairly bloody!
WAR OF NERVES (1950 – )
- SYNOPSIS: While a political power struggle is waged between the scientist and the military factions of the Space beagle, a remote race of birdlike creatures use telepathy to attack the ship.
- REVIEW: Another good outing. The political conflict, while well-written, just seemed like unnecessary padding. I suspect (hope?) that this added as part of the fixup. The Riim, the telepathic bird-creatures, are wonderfully imagined and are described with crystal clarity.
- NOTE: …But just in case, Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials by talented artist Wayne Barlowe (see some of his work or his website placeholder) offers his rendition of the Riim. Sorry, no image available on the web as far as I can find.
DISCORD IN SCARLET (1939 – )
- SYNOPSIS: A creature named Ixtl is taken aboard the Space Beagle (don’t they ever learn?) with the intention of studying it as part of their exploratory mission. Ixtl is the last of his kind but he carries several eggs within himself and he hopes to re-populate his species and dominate the galaxy. His intention is to use the crew as “guuls” or egg hosts by inserting the eggs into the stomachs of suitable crew members where they will eat their way to adulthood within a few hours.
- REVIEW: Another good adventure, although a bit longer than it needed to be.
- NOTE: Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials also offers a rendition of Ixtl.
M33 IN ANDROMEDA (1943 – )
- SYNOPSIS: The Beagle travels to galaxy M33 where they encounter an enormous alien entity capable of rearranging planets.
- REVIEW: This one was a disappointment. The alien isn’t fully encountered until the ending and up until that point, there is a lot of political maneuvering and little adventure. This is the weakest of all the Beagle stories.
As a whole, the book reads nicely, at least until the last outing. Each of the stories, in turn, shows how the science of Nexialism prevails over the most difficult of circumstances. Those parts were slightly bogged down with political power struggles. It’s the aliens and the action that are the appeal of this book.
Van Vogt’s writing has a classic feel and is swift and clear, even if his characters here are somewhat stiff. All the characters (none of which are women) are experts in their field, yet still they make some strange choices. Like, f’rinstance, allowing an unknown alien aboard the ship – again and again. This would probably not please readers with a low tolerance for the unrealistic. (We amateurs of the modern age are so much smarter than the professionals of days gone by.) But they would be doing themselves a great disservice by passing on the better stories.
For the anal-retentive purist (I know who I am), there’s a lot of history in Voyage of the Space Beagle. To wit:
- It is a fixup novel. The word “fixup” was coined by van Vogt himself and is the commonly used term when authors patch previously published shorter stories together to form a makeshift novel.
- Black Destroyer was van Vogt’s first published story and, some say, his best.
- Black Destroyer was published July 1939 in the very first issue of Astounding magazine edited by John W. Campbell.
- Black Destroyer and Discord in Scarlet were seemingly the basis for the Alien movies – Van Vogt sued Twentieth Century-Fox and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum (or $50K).