The best-laid plans of mice and men…
So here I am on a DC-7C turbo-prop headed for the emerald isle of Kaua’i. A full week of lying out on the beach with nothing but my family, my typewriter, and a large backlog of books and magazines. I had intended to write, today, about the rest of the February 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction. Unfortunately, due to a S.N.A.F.U. in bag-packing, that magazine was unavailable to me for the flight out.
But every cloud has a silver lining. As it turned out, I had packed a random A.E.Van Vogt novel called The Mixed Men. It was published some seven years ago, and the original stories from which it was compiled were published during the War. I finished the short novel in just a few hours, and, as the flight takes nearly half a day, I found myself with time to write this article and flash it to my editor. On time for the evening edition, no less!
The book is very very good.
I read a lot of science fiction, and precious few authors write advanced technology and settings in a way that is not destined to become dated in short order. There is an art to boldly plotting the future while keeping the descriptions of the advanced components of technology non-specific. Van Vogt, of course, is well-regarded for a reason. A spiritual descendant of Doc Smith, his space opera is both sweeping and plausible.
In The Mixed Men, it is some tens of thousands of years in the future, and humanity has colonized the entire Milky Way galaxy. The Imperial Battleship Star Cluster has been dispatched to the Greater Magellanic Cloud (a satellite galaxy of ours) on a ten-year mapping mission. The vessel is enormous, fully a mile long and crewed by 30,000 men and women.
Significantly and refreshingly, its skipper is a woman, the viewpoint character Lady Gloria Laurr. More refreshingly, she is brilliant and capable (gasp!)
The story: at the tail-end of the Star Cluster’s assignment, the ship finds incontrovertible evidence of a human presence spanning the Greater Magellanic Cloud. Complicating the matter is the revelation that the Magellanic peoples are actually mutant refugees (and their non-mutant allies) from Earth. The mutants possess superhuman intelligence and strength, but at the cost of their creativity. The “robots,” as they were pejoratively labelled, were reviled by “normal” humanity and became the victims of a genocidal war prosecuted against them some 15,000 years prior. They were forced to flee our galaxy to the Magellanic Cloud, where they have now lived for millennia on 50 hidden worlds.
With the discovery of this renegade branch of humanity, Lady Gloria orders the ship to undertake a new mission: the incorporation of the 50 worlds into the Terran Empire—by force, if necessary. Her aim is not subjugation for its own sake. The Imperial policy is one of freedom and democracy for all, but no independent states are allowed to exist for fear that an external force might pose a threat to the Empire.
Lady Gloria’s decision predictably leads to an all-out conflict with the Magellanic state, which also has a protagonist in the person of Peter Maitland. Ostensibly an astrogator on a Magellanic warship, Maitland is actually the hereditary leader of the “Mixed Men,” offspring of the mutants and non-mutants. These Mixed Men have double-brains conferring to them the brilliance and toughness of the mutants as well as the creativity of normal humans. Moreover, Mixed Men have the ability to exert psychic domination upon others making them quite formidable indeed.
Just as the mutants were mistrusted and shunned by Earth, so are the Mixed Men discriminated against by the Magellanic Government. Thus, the Mixed Men are forced to constitute a hidden state within the 50 worlds.
Confused yet? And that’s just the set-up! Yet the story flows quite naturally and with a strong personal connection. There are wheels within wheels, machination after machination, and best of all, intelligent decisions made all around from beginning to end. If I have any quibble at all, it is that the second half flags slightly after the brilliance of the first half; Van Vogt was not quite able to completely caulk over the seams of the three stories that make up the book. I also felt a little uneasy at the mind-control exerted not just by Maitland, but by Lady Gloria (the latter using machinery where Maitland needs only his mind). But only a little: Van Vogt sensitively restrains himself from portraying mind-rape, for which I am grateful.
In short, The Mixed Men is science fiction that is at once of the widest and narrowest scope. Whole galaxies are involved, yet the players are few and well-drawn. I heartily recommend it. Interestingly, going back over my old Astoundings, I see P. Schuyler Miller didn’t like it much, and he felt the protagonist “wasn’t very convincing.” I wonder which protagonist he’s talking about. I liked ’em both. I know, too, that Van Vogt has been attacked for reworking his short stories into “fix-up” novels, but I think it worked pretty well with this one.
Stay tuned day-after-tomorrow for another article and photos from Nawiliwili Bay!
(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)