Retro Review: “Far Centaurus” by A.E. van Vogt

Astounding Science Fiction, January 1944I’m continuing my reviews of the 1945 Retro Hugo finalists with “Far Centaurus”, a science fiction short story by A.E. van Vogt that was published in the January 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and is a finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugo Award. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point.

“Far Centaurus” starts with the first person narrator – we later learn that his name is Bill Endicott – awakening from suspended animation. Over the next page or so, we learn that he is a crewmember aboard a sublight spaceship bound for Alpha Centauri and that he has been asleep for fifty-three years, seven months and two days. Our narrator muses that everybody he knew back on Earth, including his old classmates and the girl he kissed at a party just before take-off, are all old or dead now, while he is unchanged due to a handwavium medication called “the Eternity drug”.

While Bill eats some soup, we learn that the four crewmembers – all men, of course, and all college friends – are woken up approximately every fifty years for brief periods to look after the ship, before taking another dose of the drug and going back to sleep. Altogether, the trip to Alpha Centauri will take five hundred years.

However, the Eternity drug has a certain failure rate, as our narrator finds out to his shock, when he finds one of his fellow crewmembers – Pelham, inventor of the Eternity drug – dead in his quarters. There is a grisly moment, as Bill tries to prepare Pelham’s body for a space burial, only that the body is so badly decayed that pieces keep falling off. Then Bill radios his report to Earth, where it will be received in five months. He also enters Pelham’s death as well as a note for the next crewmember to be woken, engineer Jimmy Renfrew, into the ship’s log. Then he goes back to sleep, this time for one hundred and fifty years.

There is a jump ahead in time and our narrator Bill wakes up again. This time, two hundred and one years have passed since take-off. Bill immediately heads for the log book to see what his fellow crewmembers have written. Jimmy Renfrew, the next to wake, has only logged instrument and made no personal comments at all. His entry reads like a robot’s, Bill muses. Even the death of Pelham, who was a close friend of Renfrew’s, doesn’t seem to bother him. This worries Bill, because Jimmy Renfrew was always a sensitive soul.

Bill is not the only one worried about Renfrew. For the other crewmember, Ned Blake, has left a letter for Bill in the log book, instructing him to tear out and destroy the sheet when he has read it. In this letter, Blake confesses his worries about Renfrew’s mental state. Back on Earth, Renfrew was rich, charming, a brilliant engineer and a ladies man (we learn that he has three ex-wives who are not so ex, at least according to Blake). Both Blake and Bill were already worried about Renfrew’s reaction upon awakening from his drug-induced sleep only to realise that everybody he’d ever loved, including the three ex-wives, was dead. They assumed that Pelham would act as psychological support for Renfrew, only that Pelham is dead, too. Blake closes the letter by urging Bill to think what to do about the unstable Renfrew, since they will have to live with him, once the ship reaches Alpha Centauri.

Bill destroys the letter as instructed, does his routine work and checks on Blake and Renfrew who are asleep and still alive. He still has no idea what to do about Renfrew, but there still is time, so our narrator goes to sleep for the third time.

When Bill wakes for the third time, the ship’s alarm is ringing. Once he makes it to the cockpit, he sees a great ball of fire on the viewscreen, which set off the proximity alarm. Bill initially thinks that the ball of fire is an unknown star, but he eventually realises that it is a giant spaceship on fire. He assumes that the spaceship hails from Alpha or Proxima Centauri, which must have inhabited planets. Thrilled that they won’t be all alone when they reach Alpha Centauri, but that they will encounter an alien civilisation there, Bill goes back to sleep.

The next time Bill wakes up, he is not alone. The ship is about to reach its destination and Ned Blake is already up and walking about with a grim look on his face. He feeds Bill, who’s still dizzy from his long sleep, soup and informs him that Renfrew has gone mad and had to be restrained. Bill is shocked, for while Renfrew was prone to depression, he didn’t expect that the knowledge that everybody he ever knew and loved was dead would drive him to insanity.

“It isn’t only that,” Blake says and tells Bill to prepare for the greatest shock he ever had. For when Blake awoke and saw Bill’s report about the strange spaceship, he checked if he could receive some radio signals from Alpha Centauri. He found hundreds of radio stations, all broadcasting with perfect clarity. Renfrew couldn’t take the news and promptly went mad. Blake also informs Bill that a ship is coming from Alpha Centauri to meet them. Blake still hasn’t told Bill what precisely the problem is, but Bill – and at least this reader – can already guess what’s up.

Spoiler alert: In the five hundred years it took Bill, Blake and Renfrew to get to Alpha Centauri, humans developed lightspeed and got there before them. The Alpha Centauri system is settled and has been for a long time. Though the Centauri were kind enough to name four planets orbiting Alpha Centauri A and B as well as Proxima Centauri after the four brave explorers who were late to arrive.

Not long after this revelation, Bill and Blake are met by a giant spaceship and instructed to land in its onboard hangar. This ship, they learn, can make the trip from Alpha Centauri to Earth – a trip which took Bill, Blake and Renfrew five hundred years – in three hours.

Aboard this ship they are ushered into a luxurious parlour, where they meet a heavily perfumed man called Casellahat, who informs them that he has studied the language and customs of the mid American period since early childhood solely for the purpose of welcoming the visitors from the past. Because not only has technology advanced in five hundred years, language has changed, too. The visitors from the past are honoured guests on Alpha Centauri and will be given a luxurious penthouse and well as five million credits. However, Casellahat keeps wrinkling his nose and finally tells Blake and Bill that they should not interact with the Centauri population directly, because they stink. Which is really mean. After all, Blake and Bill haven’t had a shower in five hundred years, so of course they smell.

The Centauri have been able to restore Renfrew’s mind to sanity. Bill and Blake hug him, overjoyed to see their friend finally well again. In fact, Renfrew is well enough to ask Casellahat science questions, which leads to roughly two pages of the technobabble that John W. Campbell so loved and most others skip (Leigh Brackett said so in 1944). There is something about bachelor suns that don’t tolerate anything in orbit around them and their tenuous connection to the universe. We also get a crash course in the development of the interstellar drive and the history of the settlement of Alpha Centauri. Oh yes, and the burning spaceship that Bill saw upon his third awakening was a tragic accident, but one that advanced spaceship technology a lot, so they shouldn’t feel bad about accidentally having caused the explosion.

Bill and Blake are feeling morose, because they still have a good fifty years or so left to live in a world where other people, including women, find them disgusting and where they cannot even figure out how the simplest machines work. They are torn out of their ruminations by Renfrew who announces that he has purchased a spaceship and that all three of them will go on a trip.

Bill and Blake go along with the plan, but even the wonders of cruising through space cannot shake the melancholy the two of them feel. Only Renfrew is permanently cheerful, but then Renfrew was mentally unstable to begin with.

One day, Renfrew enters Bill’s cabin with a gun in his hand. He ties up Bill and Blake, so they won’t interfere with his plan. Now Bill – and the reader – finally learns that the Centauri psychologists managed to cure Renfrew by telling him that Bill and Blake had gone insane because of the shock. The sense of responsibility for his friends shocked Renfrew back into sanity and now he has found an ingenious solution to their dilemma. He is going to pilot the spaceship into one of the bachelor suns that Renfrew and Casellahat technobabbled about earlier.

Bill and Blake manage to free themselves and try to stop him – after all, Renfrew is  insane and even if they wasted their lives on a futile dream, they don’t want to die just yet. But try as they might, they cannot get the ship into orbit around the bachelor sun, because bachelor suns don’t like anything orbiting them. Meanwhile, Renfrew babbles something about how contact with the bachelor and its tenuous hold upon the universe will throw them all back in time by four hundred and ninety years and seven months.

Bill finally realises just what Renfrew is planning. He’s taking them all back to their own time, one and a half years after they left. “But what about the ship?” he asks. Wouldn’t bringing back a hyper-advanced starship from the future change the course of history?

Renfrew says that won’t be a problem, because no one can understand how the future technology works anyway. They’ll keep the ship for their own use to jaunt around the universe and otherwise let history take its course.

Bill is still unsure, but Renfrew tells him that the girl he kissed at the good-bye party just before the launch, the girl Bill has been pining for every time he woke up again, that girl will be sitting right next to him, when Bill’s first radio message from space finally reaches Earth some fifty years from now.

The story ends with the line, “That’s exactly what happened”

Destination Universe! by A.E. van VogtNow I have to admit that I’m not a huge A.E. van Vogt fan. I know that he was one of the most popular authors of the golden age, but his stories just don’t work for me. And I certainly tried. I tried Slan and The Worlds of Null-A and The Weapon Shop/The Weapon Makers and didn’t care for any of them. As a result, my reaction whenever A.E. van Vogt puts in an appearance on the Retro Hugo ballot is, “Oh no, I have to wade through another one of those.” I have much the same reaction to C.S. Lewis’ appearances on the Retro Hugo ballot, by the way.

Coincidentally, I was stunned that A.E. van Vogt, who would have celebrated his 108th birthday on April 26, lived until 2000, until the ripe old age of 88. For van Vogt is so associated with the 1940s and 1950s that I assumed he died much earlier. According to ISFDB, his publication frequency drops drastically from the mid 1950s on, but he still published stories and novels well into the 1980s.

There are three A.E. van Vogt works on the 1945 Retro Hugo ballot, one of them co-written with his wife E. Mayne Hull. I decided to start with “Far Centaurus”, because it is the shortest. To my surprise, I found that I liked the story. It’s probably the best story by van Vogt I have read so far. True, the story does suffer from van Vogt’s well-known weaknesses such as inconsistent or rather non-existent plotting and random plot twists every eight hundred words or so. But by some miracle, van Vogt’s random plotting technique works this time around and results in a satisfying story.

As Paul Fraser points out in his review, the best part of the story by far is the first half with Bill waking up every couple of decades aboard the starship. Van Vogt’s prose tends towards the purple, but he does manage to convey the sheer scale of the journey that our three explorers are undertaking very well. He also manages to convey the sense of loneliness and isolation that Bill feels as he thinks about the people he’s known who are now old and later dead and of the girl he kissed the night before and fell in love with. This girl is the only female character in the entire story, by the way, and she never even gets a name.

The clock announcing how much time has passed and Alpha Centauri growing brighter and bigger, as our sun grows dimmer in the viewport are nice touches, as are the notes that Bill and Blake leave for each other. The death of Pelham is a genuine shock and for a moment I assumed we were in for a murder mystery in space a la 2018 Hugo finalist Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, especially since one of our three explorers is supposedly mentally ill. However, Six Wakes is a story that could only happen after stories about century long space journey at sublight speeds had become an old enough hat that a sublight ship could serve as a backdrop for a completely different story.

However, in 1944 a journey through space lasting five hundred years was still a brand-new idea and must have teased that good old sense of wonder hard. After all, golden age science fiction rarely ventured beyond the boundaries of the solar system. With so much excitement and adventure to be found on Venus, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and elsewhere, Alpha Centauri is indeed far out. And indeed, several people who first read the story when they were young report how it blew their minds. I imagine it would have blown mine as well, if I had first read it at fifteen.

Talking of which, I was surprised that it was already known in 1944 that Alpha Centauri is a triple star system consisting of Alpha Centauri A and B as well as Proxima Centauri, since I thought this was a later observation. However, it turns out that the binary nature of Alpha Centauri was discovered as early as 1689 by Jean Richaud. Proxima Centauri was discovered in 1915 by Robert T.A. Innes. So that part of the story was based on known science. Even the fact that the triple star system has habitable planets is not that far out, since a potentially habitable exo-planet was discovered in orbit around Proxima Centauri in 2016.

Strange Ports of Call, edited by August DerlethMost authors would probably have ended the story with the revelation that later generations of humans had beaten our three brave explorers to Alpha Centauri and that the system had long since been colonised – a revelation that likely was a lot more shocking in 1944 than today.

A.E. van Vogt, however, just keeps on writing and takes a story into a completely new, if not entirely unexpected direction, as our three explorers finally reach their destination and find that they don’t fit into the brave new world of Alpha Centauri at all. Not only does everybody around them think they smell horrible, they also cannot understand the local language, let alone the most basic principles of science. Of course, you cannot blame them for the latter, since the science of bachelor stars and adeledicnander stardrives is complete and utter gobbledegook.

Once the three got on the starship towards the end, I expected the story to go for a downer ending with a triple suicide in the flaming heart of the bachelor star. But maybe I shouldn’t have skimmed over the page of technobabble earlier in the story, because that’s not what happens at all. Instead, Jimmy Renfrew – who clearly is the most brilliant of the three explorers and probably never was mentally ill at all – has found a way to take them all back to a time they understand.

And so the story comes to a neat and surprisingly satisfying ending. Steve J. Wright points out in his review that given van Vogt’s plotting or lack thereof, the fact that the story comes to a satisfying ending is most likely an accident. Nonetheless, it works.

Everybody gets home, Casellahat is probably very relieved to be rid of those smelly ancient humans and Bill gets the girl he’s been pining after for five hundred years. Of course, it’s amazing that the girl waited for him for one and a half years, especially since she thought that Bill was gone forever on a five hundred year trip to Alpha Centauri. Not to mention that she said, “A kiss for the ugly one, too” just before she kissed Bill, which doesn’t exactly sound like the prelude to a great, time- and space-spanning romance. On the other hand, Bill did pine for her for five hundred years and flew straight into a star to get back to her, which should soften even the hardest of hearts. And indeed, Adventures Fantastic notes in his review that the last two paragraphs stuck with him for a long time.

Men Against the Stars, edited by Martin GreenbergAs so often with science fiction stories of the golden age, particularly those published in Astounding, the characters are largely cyphers. We learn next to nothing about our narrator Bill except that he ended up on the expedition team, because he was friends with the other three explorers in college, and that he pines after a girl he kissed at a party the night before take-off. We don’t even know what he looks like, except that he’s apparently less attractive than his friends. Ned Blake is even more thinly sketched and basically serves only as a sounding board for Bill. Jimmy Renfrew gets a bit more characterisation and we even learn what he looks like. However, we only ever see Jimmy through the eyes of Bill and Ned Blake who to equal parts admire Jimmy and are jealous of him, because he is rich, brilliant, handsome and gets all the girls. It’s not even clear if Jimmy Renfrew truly was mentally ill or whether Bill and Blake just think that he is.

In many ways, the idea of four friends, two of whom just happen to be brilliant scientists, building a spaceship together to explore the cosmos (like you do) is a throwback to the very early days of science fiction, when scientists/explorers like Richard Seaton or Hans Zarkov built spaceships in their backyard to explore the universe. By 1944, it would have been obvious that space travel would not be achieved by enthusiasts tinkering in their garages. Though the trope of brilliant scientists building spaceships and taking their friends for a ride into space without waiting for official authorisation did last well into the era of actual space exploration. After all, this is the origin story of the Fantastic Four in 1960 (and we know that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were heavily drawing on pulp science fiction). In fact, I now imagine Bill looking like Ben Grimm pre-transformation. After all, he is “the ugly one”.

This is probably the most stereotypically Campbellian story on the 1945 Retro Hugo ballot. We have a trio of competent men, even if one them may be mentally ill (and let’s not forget that Campbell was very interested in psychology and hoped to turn it into a more exact science, so the cure narrative would have appealed to him). We have humans triumphing over adversity as well as a positive view of human progress – after all, what our explorers find on Far Centaurus are not aliens, but advanced humans. We have neat central idea, which is grounded in the actual science of the day, and a lot of technobabble, which is not connected to any actual science at all.

On the other hand, the prevailing mood of the story is not one of boundless optimism and marvel at human ingenuity – no, it’s melancholy. Melancholy at having left everybody and everything they knew behind, melancholy at no longer fitting into the world of the far future (compare this e.g. to Buck Rogers who becomes a hero within days of waking up in the future). Come to think of it, melancholy was the prevailing mood in several of the stories from Astounding that I read for the Retro Reviews project (“No Woman Born”, “The Children’s Hour”, “Desertion”, “The Huddling Place”, even the Galactic Empire section of “The Big and the Little”), which is certainly interesting. Finally, the story ends not in the far future on Alpha Centauri, but in the much nearer future with an elderly couple looking up at the stars.

In fact, I have come to suspect by now that our idea of what Campbellian science fiction was like is very much a myth. Because so far, pretty much every story that was published in Astounding Science Fiction that I read for the Retro Reviews project was atypical in some way.

“Far Centaurus” is a surprisingly good story from an author whose work I normally don’t much care for. It has been reprinted several times over the years and Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg also selected it for the 1944 volume of their Great Science Fiction Stories anthology series. “Far Centaurus” certainly a worthy Retro Hugo finalist. Let’s hope that the other two van Vogt stories on the ballot are as good as this one.

 

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2 Responses to Retro Review: “Far Centaurus” by A.E. van Vogt

  1. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 4/28/20 A Scroll As Small As A Footnote Is Rising From The Pixels | File 770

  2. Mark Pontin says:

    Cora B wrote: “…the prevailing mood of the story is not one of boundless optimism and marvel at human ingenuity – no, it’s melancholy … Come to think of it, melancholy was the prevailing mood in several of the stories from Astounding that I read for the Retro Reviews project (“No Woman Born”, “The Children’s Hour”, “Desertion”, “The Huddling Place”, even the Galactic Empire section of “The Big and the Little”), which is certainly interesting … I have come to suspect by now that our idea of what Campbellian science fiction was like is very much a myth.”

    Correct. You aren’t being stupid here at all.

    Algis Budrys, the Lithuanian-American SF writer and probably the best critic SF has had, pointed to the story “Twilight” by Campbell, published in 1934, as the defining moment when American magazine SF took off and ceased being junk super-science adventure stories of the kind that Campbell himself produced profusely all through the 1930s. In Budrys’s phrase, ‘Twilight’ set the stage for “a decade-long series of engineers/mystics as the archetypical writers of the ‘Golden Age’ and … (for) the late Victorian-Edwardian flavor of ‘Modern’ science fiction. ”

    “Twilight” was so different in its time that Campbell used a pen-name, Don A. Stuart — derived from his wife’s name — to separate it from his other work. Here’s the Wiki on it; if its story-line isn’t the very essence of cosmic melancholy, I don’t know what is.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twilight_(Campbell_short_story)

    Alongside the ‘engineer-mystics’, Budrys’s line about the ‘late Victorian-Edwardian’ flavor of ASTOUNDING’s Golden Age writers is also on the money because Campbell in ‘Twilight’ was clearly very influenced by H.G. Wells.

    I don’t think the American Golden Age SF writers actually do measure up to the British ‘scientific romance’ writers of the 20th century’s early decades: Wells, Rudyard Kipling in stories like ‘As Easy As ABC’, E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops,’ Stapledon (nor for that matter to the best of Stanislaw Lem later) .

    Nonetheless, Campbell’s ASTOUNDING in the 1940s is when the possibility off American SF actually becoming art commences, with IMO C. L. Moore’s ‘Vintage Season’ in 1946 as the first actually adult piece of American magazine SF writing.

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