Retro Review: “The Winged Man” by E. Mayne Hull and A.E. van Vogt

Astounding Science Fiction, May 1944“The Winged Man” is a novel by E. Mayne Hull and A.E. van Vogt. It was first serialised in the May and June 1944 issues of Astounding Science Fiction and is finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here and here. There is also a paperback version, which has apparently been expanded from the magazine version. However, I don’t have the paperback, so this review is based on the magazine version alone. The review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

“The Winged Man” opens in the present day, i.e. 1944, aboard the US Navy submarine Sea Serpent in the Pacific. The Sea Serpent is currently above water and one night, First Officer William Kenlon chances to observe a very large bird flying past. There is only one problem: The Sea Serpent is more than one thousand two hundred miles from the nearest atoll, so where does the bird come from? Furthermore, the bird Kenlon saw is considerably larger than an albatross, the largest bird who could fly more than a thousand miles.

Kenlon discusses this mystery with the Sea Serpent‘s third officer, one Lieutenant Dan Tedders, who almost never sleeps. However, he is asleep when Kenlon rouses him to annoy him with questions about the exact position of the Sea Serpent (which any officer worth his salt could have determined himself). And since this is a story published in Astounding, that conversation is full of infodumps and clumsy “As you know, Bob…” dialogue about albatrosses and the size of the Pacific.

After the infodump, Kenlon decides to take another look outside. The moon breaks through the clouds and Kenlon chances to see the bird again. Only that it isn’t a bird. It’s a man with wings.

Shortly thereafter, Tedders shows up to apologise and technobabble some more about what Kenlon might have seen. Lucky for the reader, Kenlon and Tedders are interrupted before they can launch into another infodump, because the winged man has landed aboard the Sea Serpent and is attaching something to its hull. Kenlon and the winged man fight, before the winged man takes off into the night.

Now we’re in for another endless round of technobabble and infodumping, while Kenlon attempts to remove the device the winged man has attached to the hull. Alas, the device cannot be removed. Though the radio operator of the Sea Serpent is fairly that it’s not a bomb, but some kind of radio device.

Kenlon and submarine commander Jones-Gordon decide to capture the winged man, for otherwise they would never be believed. They succeed, too, but not before the winged man has attached a second device to the hull of the Sea Serpent. The devices cannot be removed and emit a light so bright that the bones of the crewmen aboard the Sea Serpent become visible (I had flashbacks of The Day After at this point, though the device is not a nuclear weapon)

Interrogating the winged man proves to be difficult, for he speaks a language no one aboard can identify, let alone understand. Finally, they begin to communicate via drawings in a notebook.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Sea Serpent suffers various misadventures. One man drowns as Kenlon and several other crewmen fall into the sea. Later, they spot a bleak grey shoreline on the horizon, even though there shouldn’t be any land in more than a thousand miles. An attempt to explore the mysterious landmass causes two more crewmen to die, when they sink into quicksand.

Kenlon, who has a knack for languages, tries to learn the winged man’s language and teach him English. The effort is successful enough that they can communicate. The winged man, whose name is Nemmo, informs Kenlon that the Sea Serpent has been brought a million years into the future via the strange devices Nemmo attached to the hull. It’s amazing that no one aboard the submarine noticed this before Nemmo told them. You’d think they would at least notice that they have lost contact with their command and that no new orders are coming in.

The land is uninhabitable due to “water that fell from space” and created the treacherous quicksand. The winged people were genetically engineered to survive under the new conditions, as were their sworn enemies, a race of amphibious humans, while the regular human died out. The winged people live in a floating metal city in the sky, the amphibian men live in metal citadel under the sea. The two races have been at war for a long time now. Somehow, Nemmo’s people managed to bring a WWII submarine into the far future. They want the Sea Serpent to destroy the citadel of their amphibian enemies, then they will return them to their own time.

Commander Jones-Gordon has no intention of helping the winged people. The US Navy will not be drawn into a private war in the far future. And besides, the only hostile act – kidnapping the Sea Serpent and her crew – was committed by the winged people.

The Sea Serpent finally reaches the island city of the winged people. Kenlon spots other craft in the water around the island. He asks Nemmo about this. Nemmo tells him that other winged people have been sent through time to bring back war machines to defeat their amphibian enemies. However, the amphibians have not been idle either and drag Commander Jones-Gordon down into the sea. Thus ends part one.

Astounding Science Fiction June 1944

Astounding’s covers in the 1940s were hit and miss, but this one definitely falls on the “hit” side of the equation.

Part two begins with Kenlon, now senior officer aboard the Sea Serpent, staring at the spot where Jones-Gordon was dragged into the depths. Kenlon initially wants to go after Jones-Gordon and his kidnappers with the submarine, but quickly realises that’s futile, because Commander Jones-Gordon is surely dead by now, while the amphibians are headed for their underwater city. Kenlon plans to head there as well, catch up with the kidnappers/murderers of Commander Jones-Gordon and torpedo them. However, Nemmo claims not to know the coordinates of the undersea city. Only the council of the winged people knows the exact location.

Kenlon’s interrogation of Nemmo is interrupted by a delegation from one of the other ships the winged people have brought through time. This delegation consists entirely of women, who are escorting a political figure called the Sessa Clen to her wedding. Their ship comes from ten thousand years in the future. Luckily, the commander, a woman named Dorilee, speaks English that Kenlon can understand (though it is very unlikely that the English language will remain even remotely understandable even a thousand years into the future, let alone ten) and also implies that Americans are the only civilised people of the twentieth century. Coincidentally, Dorilee and her squad of Joannas are the only female characters in the story so far and they only appear partway into part two.

Kenlon is quite smitten with Dorilee, while Dorilee infodumps all over him. She explains how her own flying ship works (magnetism), gives him a rundown on the other ships the winged people abducted and also informs Kenlon that Nemmo has been in constant contact with the other winged people. Then Dorilee abruptly decides to take command of the Sea Serpent, because she believes that only a submarine can carry out the winged people’s mission. Kenlon pulls his gun on Dorilee who takes him out with some paralysing crystals.

“A woman was about to capture a fully armed, fully manned United States submarine”, a desperate and paralysed Kenlon muses, while at least this reader cheered Dorilee on, because she is a lot more interesting than the rather dull and bland Kenlon.

Meanwhile, Kenlon is still standing like a statue in his own control room, while musing about the humiliation he just experienced and how this will disgrace him in the eyes of the crew. He is also furious that Dorilee doesn’t even seem to care about the mortal wound she dealt to Kenlon’s honour, because women just cannot understand such things. At this point, my eyes rolled so hard that I almost sprained them.

But Van Vogt and his wife E. Mayne Hull are not yet done with the casual sexism. For when Dorilee, who apparently also likes infodumping to people who can’t answer, informs Kenlon that they need to return to their own time quickly, for otherwise the Sessa Clen whom they are escorting to her marriage will be replaced by her sister, Kenlon muses that a woman on her way to her wedding is more tigress than human being. At this point, my view of Kenlon changed from “bland nonentity, who unfortunately happens to be the protagonist” to “sexist jerk”.

By now, the second and third officer, who were both up on deck, realise what is going on. The second officer tries to retake the control room, only to fall to the paralysing crystals. Third officer Tedders, however, is manning the Sea Serpent‘s anti-aircraft gun and will not stand down. Dorilee now gives Kenlon a device that neutralises the paralysing effect and tell him to order Tedders to stand down. Kenlon, fearing bloodshed, does so.

Once Dorilee and her Joannas have taken over the Sea Serpent, they are eager to set off and destroy the underwater city. However, the winged people are no more willing to give her the coordinates than they were willing to give them to give them to Kenlon. For it turns out that the council of the winged people is still undecided on the plan to destroy the stronghold of their enemies. This is a problem, because the council is supposed to be omniscient. And so the council demand to see Kenlon first. They do not ask to see Dorilee, at least not now. But then, Van Vogt and Hull have been referring to the winged people as the “winged men” throughout. Apparently, sexism is still a thing one million years in the future.

Kenlon is taken to the city of the winged people and now Van Vogt and Hull finally remember that where there are winged men, there will be winged women as well. None of them get any lines – all we get are some descriptions of Kenlon ogling them, before he decides to ogle the flying city instead.

But before Kenlon gets to meet the council, he first finds his consciousness transferred into the body of a winged being. Kenlon experiences the wonders of flight and joins in with the winged people sunbathing, singing and dancing high above the clouds that now envelop the Earth. But before Kenlon can actually talk to anybody, he suddenly finds himself underwater swimming, his consciousness suddenly transferred into the body of an amphibian person. The amphibians are on a shark hunt with Kenlon along for the ride. And then, once the shark has been captured and killed, Kenlon finds himself taken to the underwater city. He notes that the amphibians are all busily working, whereas the winged people prefer to flit about, while singing and dancing. Kenlon also learns a little about the main problem facing the amphibians – more and more of their number are succumbing to the lure of the sea and deserting the city – and meets an amphibian woman. This one even gets a few lines, mostly to berate the amphibian menfolk for their fascination with the sea and to inform us that women who take to the sea can never return to the city. Whether in the air or under water, sexism is clearly alive and well in the year 999999 A.D.

The Winged Man

This psychedelic cover for The Winged Men dates from 1970.

The scenes of Kenlon experiencing the joys of flying and swimming are nigh hallucinatory. In fact, it is striking how many scenes there are in golden age SFF that read like transcripts of drug trips. I always assumed the association of SFF and drugs was mainly a product of the New Wave, but it was already a thing in the 1930s and 1940s.

Just before Kenlon is returned to his own body, he witnesses several amphibians dragging the limp body of Commander Jones-Gordon through an airlock into the underwater city and announcing that he will be easy enough to revive. So Jones-Gordon is alive after all.

However, Kenlon doesn’t have time to muse about this, before the council of the winged people asks him to decide which of the two humanoid species on this far future Earth – the amphibians or the winged people – should survive. For both species believe that the Earth is not big enough for both of them and are planning to destroy the other. The amphibians have the better chance, because they have powerful tractor beams that are slowly dragging the flying city into the sea. However, the winged people have Kenlon and a submarine.

There is no real reason why this weighty decision should fall to Kenlon other than that he is the protagonist and currently in command (at least in theory) of the lone vessel that can destroy the underwater city. The council of the winged people also make it very clear that they don’t want an alliance with Dorilee and her all-women troop of Joannas (who actually are in command of the Sea Serpent), for only Kenlon can resolve their dilemma. Gee, I wonder why.

Once the council of the winged men have said their piece, they return Kenlon to the Sea Serpent where a furious Dorilee is waiting for him. Turns out that Kenlon has been gone for three days, not a few hours as he initially assumed. It also turns out that Dorilee did not get the amazing drug trip of flying with the winged people and swimming with the amphibians, when she was questioned by the council. Instead, she was merely taken to a room with what sounds like a primitive computer.

Dorilee is eager to attack the undersea city, so they can all return to their own times. Kenlon, however, does not want to attack the city, because that would mean killing Commander Jones-Gordon. Of course, Kenlon doesn’t even particularly like the man, but he still feels dutybound to rescue him. Furthermore, Kenlon finds that he does not want to exterminate an entire species, even though his commanders are planning to do the same thing to the Japanese.

It is depressing that by the standards of Astounding Science Fiction in 1944, a character realising that genocide is bad is a step forward. After all, in Fredric Brown’s “Arena”, published in the same year, genocide was the solution to the protagonist’s dilemma. It’s also disturbing how many science fiction stories published in 1944, mainly in Astounding, but also elsewhere, feature two species so different and hostile to each other that the universe/galaxy/solar system/planet is only big enough for one of them. Yes, I know it was in the middle of World War II, but fanzines from the same era often contain musing about how science fiction can bring about a better and peaceful world for everybody, so why were the prozines so genocidal?

However, Dorilee is still bound on destroying the undersea city and the amphibians. The hatches are closed and the engines start up. However, Dorilee and her Joannas have made a fatal mistake. They use the Diesel engines not the electrical motors. And the Diesel engines require so much oxygen that they quickly exhaust the entire submarine’s air supply. One by one, the Joannas pass out. Kenlon, however, was lucky enough to grab an oxygen tank just in time. He disarms the Joannas, strips them nude, because they might have weapons or shields hidden in their underwear (yes, honestly, that’s the reason given in the story) and locks them in the torpedo room. However, Kenlon has regained his honour and standing in the eyes of his crew and that clearly matters more than the fact that he just stripped and groped more than forty women.

No sooner has Kenlon regained control of the Sea Serpent that the amphibians return Commander Jones-Gordon. It turns out that Jones-Gordon made a deal with the amphibians. They will return the Sea Serpent to its own time, if Jones-Gordon destroys the city of the winged people, using the warheads from the torpedoes as bombs and the submarine’s onboard sea plane to launch them. Kenlon wants nothing to do with this, after all he has just come to the conclusion that genocide is bad.

Luckily, Kenlon speaks the language of the winged people and Jones-Gordon does not. And so he tells the winged people to seize Jones-Gordon and himself. Then he sets course for the undersea city and fires torpedoes into the city’s central computer a.k.a. “council” and the tractor beam emitter, while leaving ninety-five percent of the city intact. This way, the amphibians no longer pose a threat to the winged people.

Jones-Gordon forgives Kenlon for his mutiny and the Sea Serpent is returned to 1944 – without Nemmo and the Joannas, of course.

The Winged Man by A.E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull

An impressive minimalist cover for “The Winged Man” from 1967.

Short fiction rather than novels was the beating heart of the science fiction genre during the golden age. As a result, the novel category at the Retro Hugos is often full of left-field finalist. However, pickings were truly slim in 1944 for The Winged Man to make the Retro Hugo ballot. For the novel is, to put it politely, not very good.

For starters, it’s much too long. There is no reason that this story needs to be novel-length. It would have worked just as well as a novella or even novelette. But as it is, The Winged Man feels padded. A large portion of the novel is being taken up by Kenlon musing about his commander, whom he dislikes because Jones-Gordon is too rigid and unimaginative, Kenlon nursing his wounded masculinity, after Dorilee takes over his ship, and Kenlon wondering whether to commit genocide and how to extract himself and his ship from the dilemma in which they find themselves. As a result, we spend an awful lot of time in the head of Kenlon, who’s simply not a very likeable character. He’s dull, bland and a raging sexist.

The same description could also apply to the novel as a whole. For while pulp science fiction can be many things, it rarely is boring. The Winged Man, however, is just dull. For large stretches of the story, very little happens. And even if something happens, it isn’t particularly exciting. Even action scenes are dull. What little happens is also quite often confusing. There were several moments where I thought, “Wait a minute, what just happened? Did I miss something?” The pacing of the novel is simply off.

Terra: Im Reich der Vogelmenschen

This German cover from 1967 accurately illustrates the story for once.

Submarines were a popular subject for pulp fiction from the 1930s well into the 1950s and beyond, not just in the US but in Germany as well. As a result, I have read my share of submarine adventures and none of them manage to make life and battle aboard a submarine as dull as The Winged Man. For SFF stories about submarines published in 1944 alone, “Undersea Guardians” by Ray Bradbury is much better than this turkey.

But while part I is merely dull, part II is so suffused with glaring sexism that it’s hard to imagine that The Winged Man was co-written by (and in the magazine version, solely credited to) a woman, E. Mayne Hull, A.E. van Vogt’s first wife. I forgive Hull and Van Vogt for not including any women in the first part, because there were no women on submarines of any nation during World War II. However, the treatment of Dorilee and her Joannas in part II is unforgivable. Yes, the idea of an all-women military unit was revolutionary in 1944 (and there are still plenty of people in the SFF genre today who have issues with the idea of women soldiers). And to be fair, Dorilee isn’t particularly likeable – after all, she does commandeer the Sea Serpent after taking out her crew, though she doesn’t want to kill anybody, if she doesn’t have to. She is also fully willing to commit genocide, but then so is Commander Jones-Gordon.

However, Kenlon’s blatant dismissal of Dorilee’s motives grates. Yes, it’s only a wedding, but Kenlon himself admits that he has no idea how weddings work and what they mean in the future world from whence Dorilee hails. It’s well possible that the failure of the bride to appear at her wedding might mean summary execution for the bride and her retinue. It might mean that the bride’s home country is bombed into submission – after all, it’s clearly a political wedding. We don’t know the consequences of the bride missing her wedding and neither does Kenlon. Nonetheless, he is convinced that the Sessa Clen, the woman Dorilee serves, is merely a bridezilla willing to do whatever it takes to get her perfect wedding.

The fact that Dorilee and her Joannas are defeated by their lack of knowledge about how WWII submarines work grates as well, even though the text makes it clear that the reason for their ignorance is the fact that the technology is so old that any knowledge they have about it is spotty. Nonetheless, there is an unpleasant undertone of “women are just too stupid to understand science” here, especially since oh so superior Kenlon manages to stay conscious, because he knows how his own submarine works.

The Winged Man by A.E. Van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull

I assume the woman on this 1980 cover is Dorilee, but why are the men dressed like extras from Battestar Galactica, when they should be wearing Navy uniforms?

But the most annoying thing is being treated to pages upon pages of Kenlon nursing his wounded masculinity and worrying that the crew will no longer respect him, now he has been beaten by a woman (Dude, I’m pretty sure the crew can’t stand you anyway, because you’re an insufferable prick). And then we get Kenlon whining that Dorilee will never understand how she has humiliated him, because she is just a woman. Never mind that Dorilee is a military commander as well and therefore Kenlon’s equal and would probably understand his worries about losing the respect of his subordinates. Most likely, it simply never occurs to her that the fact that she is a woman would be a problem for Kenlon. And don’t even get me started on Kenlon personally stripping every single Joanna aboard naked. But he doesn’t do it because he enjoys it (yeah, I bet he doesn’t), but because the Joannas might have hidden weapons or shields in their underwear. Honestly, the supposed hero of this story gropes and strips more than forty unconscious women. I cannot imagine such a scene flying anywhere in modern SFF.

All of the above could be blamed on the fact that the POV character of the novel just happens to be a sexist jerk. However, the sexism in The Winged Man is not just in Kenlon’s head – no, the whole novel is suffused with casual sexism. It begins with the fact that the two species competing for dominance on the Earth of the far future are referred to as the winged men and the fishmen throughout the novel. And while we do meet females of both species, the winged women never get any lines at all and the lone amphibian woman only gets to nag the menfolk for being too enamoured with the sea. Finally, there is the fact that it is Kenlon of all people who is asked to make the final decision about the fate of the winged people and the amphibians. Not Dorilee or Commander Jones-Gordon or the Sessa Clen or any of the people aboard the other ships that have been abducted into the future, but Kenlon, whose only distinguishing qualities are that he is an annoying jerk who happens to be the protagonist.

The Winged Man

This cover of “The Winged Man” depicts the citadel of the winged people.

Talking of which, I also find it extremely unlikely that a WWII submarine, even a particularly advanced one, is the mightiest weapon to be found in one million years. That’s like claiming the Wilhelm Bauer, the most advanced submarine of its time (which – though still powered by both diesel engines and electrical motors – was a lot less likely to accidentally suffocate its crew than the Sea Serpent) built in the last days of WWII, was the mightiest weapon in all of creation. Yes, if you want to destroy an underwater city, a submarine is a good bet. And while the military usefulness of submarines will eventually decline – though I suspect that the aircraft carriers the Americans love so much will be gone before submarines – grabbing a nuclear submarine with nuclear warheads from a couple of decades later would have been much more effective. And yes, Van Vogt and Hull had no way of knowing this. But claiming that a WWII submarine is the most mightiest weapon of all time is extreme even for John W. Campbell’s well known superiority complex.

So far, I have been very harsh on The Winged Man and frankly, the novel deserves it, because it really is not very good. However, there were some aspects about the story that I liked, so let’s focus upon them: For starters, I like the fact that genocide is not the answer in this novel. Yes, I know that “Genocide is bad” is a low bar to clear, but there are 1944 SFF stories (as well as many later ones) which fail to clear even that low bar (“Arena”, cough). I also like that Commander Jones-Gordon is initially unwilling to get involved in the conflict between the winged people and the amphibians, because it’s not the US Navy’s job to get involved in other people’s wars. Of course, Jones-Gordon still goes fully genocidal at the end and the US would get involved in other people’s wars plenty of times over the next seven decades, but by 1944 standards “Genocide is bad” and “We keep out of other people’s conflicts that we neither understand nor do they have anything to do with us” are remarkably progressive statements.

Another thing I liked about The Winged Man is that the plot largely makes sense and is free of the random plot twists every 800 words or so that Van Vogt was so fond of. I suspect that this is the influence of E. Mayne Hull.

De Gevleugelde Man

This Dutch cover from 1974 is probably my favourite of all the many covers “The Winged Man” has had over the decades.

I also liked some of the worldbuilding details such as the fact that the winged people’s numbering system has a base of nine rather than ten. The descriptions of the citadels of the winged people and the amphibians respectively are suitably alien and yet make perfect sense for the beings that inhabit them. Van Vogt and Hull also at least considered the biological implications of the humanoid beings they introduce, e.g. the winged men have hollow bones to allow them to fly and the amphibians are bigger than regular humans and have gills.

However, the few good aspects don’t make up for the fact that The Winged Man is a slog and simply not a good novel. If not for the fact that there are still many fans who like Van Vogt’s work, I doubt it would have made the Retro Hugo ballot. Cause it’s just not Hugo-worthy in my opinion (unlike Van Vogt’s much better “Far Centaurus”). If it wins, I shall be very cross, especially since both Shadow Over Mars and Sirius are much better.

 

 

 

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