Action! Adventure! A physicist/swashbuckler pitting his wits against the most dangerous planets in the universe!
This is a new book? Well…
A.E. VanVogt is a prominent space opera writer, dominating the Golden Era of Science Fiction. A half-dozen of these stories depict an interstellar war pitting a human-led federation against the implacable Rull: iridescent worm aliens from another galaxy.
As written, these stories are only tenuously related. They are, however, unified by Van Vogt’s riproaring style, the backdrop of the Rull war, and the overall theme of survival under hostile conditions, against deadly environments and personal adversaries.
So why not tie them together using the time-worn format of the “Fix-up novel”? This is where a collection of stories is spliced together with linking material, sometimes with substantial revision. Brian Aldiss had one called Galaxies like Grains of Sand, and VanVogt, himself, recently did it with The Mixed Men.
Thus, we have The War against the Rull (published in hardcover in 1959, reprinted this month in paperback), comprising the following stories, all of which debuted in Astounding Magazine: Cooperate or Else, 1942; Repetition, 1940; The Second Solution, 1942;
The non-chronological order is deliberate—this is the order in which they appear in the novel. Polymath protagonist, Trevor Jamieson, ties them together. The excitement starts on Page 1: trapped on a planet with the fearsome, telepathic ezwal, Jamieson must persuade the murderous alien to work with him long enough for both of them to survive a planet of horrors. This ordeal convinces Jamieson that the ezwal could be the linchpin in the war against the Rull.
But prejudice against the ezwal, who have killed countless human colonists and done their best to convince humanity that they are no more than stupid animals, is high. So high that, on the heels of Jamieson’s presentation to the colonist council on the ezwal homeworld, he is the target of an assassination attempt. Once again, he must work with a hostile companion to defeat a menagerie of alien beasts.
We then awkwardly segue to my favorite bit of the book, wherein a baby ezwal ends up on Earth, evading humanity and attempting survive in the wild. Told quite effectively from the alien’s perspective, it is a nice role reversal.
Then we’re back to the original hero for the next section. Jamieson thwarts a Rull attempt to sabotage production of an anti-Rull bioweapon. This is where we learn that the Rull are master spies, able to change their apparent shape at will.
Jamieson’s 9-year old son gets to be the viewpoint of the next story. With some help from an ezwal, the child helps nab an entire Rull spy ring before it can wreck a giant spaceship.
The book concludes with a one-on-one confrontation between Jamieson and a Rull general. They play a cat and mouse game to capture each other, both convinced that a live prisoner will be the key to understanding the enemy. It builds on all the previous stories; the final victory would have been impossible without Jamieson’s prior triumphs.
Does it work? Some of the stitching is a bit clumsy. Having not read the original stories, I can’t tell if they worked better independently; I suspect Jamieson was not the star of all of them, originally. The writing is in an outdated style, as one might expect. The novel is like a rollercoaster with six peaks and subsequent wild rides. As such, the plot doesn’t exactly make sense, and Jamieson’s life comes off a bit too outrageous. For all that, War is an enjoyable read. Van Vogt writes fun, creative, and occasionally thoughtful adventure.