Thursday, 13 August 2020

Rogue Ship

1975 Panther (cover by Peter Jones)
Author: A. E. van Vogt
First Published: (in book form) 1965
Pages: 205pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Not currently available in eBook format

I clearly have a very short memory. I last reviewed a book by A. E. van Vogt in December 2019, with the novel The Man with a Thousand Names. Back then, I wasn't particularly blown away by Vogt's writing style, but overall found the book a reasonably enjoyable experience. At the time I couldn't see myself reading another of his books in case I came across one of his novels that fell into his penchant for regurgitating old serialised stories from a few decades before, and link them up with interconnecting new passages (he liked to call them 'fix-ups').

Next time I decide to set myself a challenge of reading specific genres in a single month, perhaps I should double-check what I've chosen before I list them on this site! I guess it couldn't really have been that bad - otherwise I'd have subconciously rejected reading this author again?

Rogue Ship is one the novels Vogt constructed from previously issued stories into a 'fix-up' and has a complicated history. From the notes in my 1975 Panther paperback edition it started life as three seperate stories that were rewritten for this single novel. Beginning in 1947, with Centaurus II, which was first published in 'Astounding Science Fiction' (which became the magazine 'Analog Science Fact - Science Fiction'), we then move on to Rogue Ship published in 'Super Science Fiction' three years later, and lastly have a story called The Expendables published within the pages of 'IF Worlds of Science Fiction' in 1963. Drawing all three together and re-writing chunks of them to establish a more coherent plot (something that is debatable when reading a Vogt book!) he repackaged the lot into it's single title.

Rougue Ship is set in an undated future and concerns the journey of the Hope of Man, a giant space cruiser sent out to investigate the Centaurus star system in order to find a new place for mankind to settle. Back on Earth leading scientists are convinced that a cosmic event is imminent, which will pass through the Sun and  become a terrifying wave of solar radiation that will eventually cross paths with our own planet and cause such devastation that it will be the catalyst for the end of mankind on his homeworld.

Mega-rich businessman Averill Hewitt is responsible for the construction of the ship. He hand-picks the crew of men and woman, and sends them on their mission - a one-way trip to find out if the planets believed to be part of Alpha Centauri are suitable to sustain human life. 

But the story is not entirely about the grand search for a new home. Vogt concentrates upon the men who operate the giant vessel. He centers his plot around the ramifications of how such a long journey would effect the travellers. Many years pass, with little to no interation with any other ships, the crew begin to fracture and have doubts about the purpose of thier mission. As the book opens, we are introduced to Officer Lesbee II, son of Captain Lesbee. He is approached by another young man who has spent the majority of his life aboard the Hope of Man. There is to be an attempted mutiny, and he wants to know if Lesbee II will support the uprising against his father. Many people wish to turn back and return to the Solar System, unwilling to believe that the Earth has succumbed to it's predicted fate.

It soon becomes clear that life aboard the ship is very different; men are in charge; roles and responsibilites are handed down based upon bloodline - if you are born to a cleaner or a gardener - you will become a cleaner or a gardener. There is no way of escaping this cycle. Lesbee II will become Captain and keep the ship driving relentlessly towards Centaurus.

The general idea of the plot is sound. Vogt pushes the story through many years of travelling at a fast pace. Individual characters come and go. But the family names live on. Eventually they arrive in Alpha Centauri and begin to look for a suitable planet. But even then, travel between planets is a monumentous undertaking, and so young men in charge at one planet are old men at the next. The attention required by each generation to retain power and decide on whether to maintain their present course or give up and turn back is a constant battle.

Due to the way in which Rogue Ship was constructed, it's clear where the three seperate stories come and go. It isn't too disruptive, as the nature of the time-spans involved in the space travel allows Vogt to get away with homing in on three distinct situations. However, by the final segment Vogt is in full flight, and the fiction in his science has achieved his well known surrealist slant, with characters travelling from place to place, time to time, reality and unreality, either instantaneously or over a period of hundreds of years.

I couldn't help comparing the journey of the Hope of Man with that of the ancient ship in Brian Aldiss' first novel Non-Stop. I don't think Rogue Ship is anywhere near as good, but I couldn't help making the comparison during the earlier parts of the novel.

Vogt's writing style takes a bit of getting used too. As has been stated before he can be very sparse, with his choice of words seeming to never quite fit as naturally as other similar contemprary authors. That being said, this is my second Vogt, and I don't think I mind his way of writing. One thing that does stand out particularly in this title, is Vogt's depiction of women. It isn't very flattering. Even when taking the period from which the original stories come from into account. There are no female characters of any note that are not wives and there are some unfortunate comments about them and thier emotional states.

The story of Rogue Ship is interesting, and certainly could be called intriguing and quite full of action and adventure. There is plenty of scheming and double-dealing taking place - with most of the central thrust arising out of how each subsequent Captian decides to deal with the constant threat to their position and the danger of a mutinous crew. The later part of the book, where Averill Hewitt makes a surprise reappearance injects a new layer of pace to bring the tale to an end.

A book for classic sci-fi fans, and those willing to try out something a bit different.

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