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Unravelling Van Vogt's fix-up novels

A.E. Van Vogt (1912 - 2000) was one of Astounding's most popular and prolific writers during the 1940s, producing more than forty short stories and five serialized novels (Slan, The Weapon Makers, The Chronicler, The World of Null-A and The Players of Null-A) between July 1939 and November 1949. Although little known today, his popularity at the time rivalled that of Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, both of whom were also prolific contributors to the Astounding of the 40s.

During the 50s and 60s, Van Vogt produced relatively little new fiction, but (with the boom in paperback publishing) most of his magazine stories were reprinted in book form. This was a natural thing for authors to do, because it was an easy way of boosting their income while meeting the demand from fans for stories they may have missed the first time around. All of Van Vogt's novels were reprinted (with The Chronicler being retitled Siege of the Unseen), while many of his short stories were collected together in book form (a precedent had been set by Asimov and Heinlein, whose respective collections I, Robot and The Man Who Sold the Moon both appeared in 1950).

What distinguished Van Vogt's reprints from those of any other author (and arguably contributed to his precipitous decline in popularity with fans) was his practice of reworking near-perfect short stories into what he referred to as "fix-up novels". Why Van Vogt chose to do this is unclear, although it may have been a perception that novels sell better than collections. Unfortunately, the result was often tantamount to vandalism of some of the most imaginative and seminal short stories of early science fiction.


Slan (Simon and Schuster, 1951) - one of Van Vogt's real novels, not a fix-up.

Any work of fiction consists of three main elements: Theme, Character and Plot. Of these, Theme and Character are the two elements that are important to the reader (i.e. the ones that determine whether a story is good or bad). The third element, Plot, is simply a means to an end. Good plots can make very entertaining reading, and Van Vogt's plots are as good as they come. But unfortunately he seemed to view his short stories simply in terms of "plot units" that could be inserted into fix-up novels in a completely different Theme/Character context from the original intention. This is what makes Van Vogt's fix-up novels so infuriating to the reader who is familiar with the original context, and baffling to the reader who isn't.

The two worst offenders are The War Against the Rull (1959) and The Beast (1963), which take some of the finest SF stories of the 1940s and scrunch them into a whole which is distinctly LESS than the sum of the parts. Another notable but less offensive example is Quest for the Future (1970), where the combining is done more skilfully and the original stories were relatively lightweight to start with. Here is a chronological analysis of each of these in turn:


Interior art from the May 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, depicting a battle between Professor Jamieson and a Rull riding on an antigravity plate. This is a real Rull, not a human-like Yevd.

Having dealt with these three notorious examples, it should be said that most of Van Vogt's novelizations are not really fix-ups in this sense at all -- they simply follow the same practice adopted by other authors for converting short stories into novels. These can be divided into two categories:

Two comments on The Voyage of the Space Beagle:

  1. The last of the three Astounding stories, "M33 in Andromeda", introduces a new character, Grosvenor, and a new science, Nexialism. In the novel, these are both present from the beginning of "Black Destroyer", but this is done without vandalizing the other characters and concepts!
  2. The commander of the Space Beagle, an interstellar spaceship, is named Hal Morton. In another of Van Vogt's early stories, "The Vault of the Beast" (one of the few to avoid any form of incorporation into a novel) there is a crew-member on an interplanetary freighter called Lieutenant Morton. The story is not dissimilar in tone to the Space Beagle stories, so it is to Van Vogt's credit that he resisted any temptation to work it in as a prequel to "Black Destroyer"!

Centaurus II   


Cover of the December 1947 British reprint edition of Astounding (based on the original US edition of June 1947), containing the story "Centaurus II" which Van Vogt later expanded into the 1965 novel Rogue Ship. The Astounding story, which forms the first part of the novel, survives essentially intact -- the major change being the alteration of the story's downbeat ending to permit a continuation of the action.

Another of the novel's ingredients, "The Twisted Men" (originally published in Super Science Stories in March 1950) fares less well, its characters being twisted still further to furnish the concluding part of the novel. The book's middle section appeared as a much later story ("The Expendables", in the September 1963 issue of If magazine), but this was probably written after Van Vogt had planned the fix-up in his mind (it combines the spaceship name from "The Twisted Men" with character names from "Centaurus II").

Copyright © 2009 Andrew May Visit

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