Fall Into The Sky

The Voyage of the Space Beagle — A. E. Van Vogt

The Voyage Of The Space Beagle

A. E. Van Vogt’s 1950 The Voyage of the Space Beagle is a fix-up novel of deep-space exploration.

All but one person crewing the Space Beagle are experts, knowledgeable in their own field and ignorant of any other. The one exception is the Nexialist, Dr. Elliott Grosvenor. He is a generalist who can synthesize multiple fields. Nexialism is a new field with new methods. The experts on the Space Beagle view the new field with disdain.

Pity, as only Grosvenor can prevent the utter destruction of the mission.

The galaxy and realms beyond are filled with a myriad planets. The Space Beagle crew has a remarkable talent for exploring regions populated by beings who want to eat or otherwise harm the crew. In order of encounter, they meet:

  • Coeurl, a cat-like alien trapped on a barren world short of food. Happily for the alien, the Space Beagle is rich in food-stuffs. Unhappily for the crew, they are the food.

  • The Riin, birdlike aliens whose telepathic touch sends the ship into a frenzy of violence.

  • Ixtl, a relic of an ancient era whose interest in humans lays solely in their potential to be hosts to its eggs and so bring its race back from extinction.

  • Anabis, a vast, voracious being spanning the whole of a galaxy. For Anabis, the Space Beagle is a means to reach new galaxies, that is, new feeding grounds.

In each case Grosvenor’s insight, often supported by archaeologist Korita’s understanding of historical cycles, saves the crew. Most of the crew. The survivors show a remarkable reluctance to learn from experience. In the end, Grosvenor is forced to seize control of the ship!


Is the Space Beagle just unlucky? Or is space jam-packed with entities eager to exploit and harm humans? I am inclined to think the ship unlucky, because this is not the first expedition of its kind. Humans don’t seem to see aliens as serious threats, as they would if previous expeditions had such dire experiences. Of course, most ships don’t have Nexialists, so maybe those crews were consumed and unable to report back.

It’s a good thing that the Space Beagle has a large crew, some thousand plus. Crew are dying like flies and there’s no way they can be replaced.

One would expect that the high death rate would have some effect on the remaining crew. Extended mourning, rage, PTSD. Nothing like that. Nobody on the ship seems to like anyone else all that much. It’s like Star Trek in that sense: redshirts die by the gross but no one seems especially concerned1. Perhaps this is because by and large the crew seem to be an unlikable lot, almost as though HQ chose people who would not be much missed if they failed to return home.

Do not read Van Vogt for the hard science (present only in homeopathic quantities).What science there is seems to be a now-antiquated version of anthropology and history: culture evolves in a predictable progression, history goes through cycles. Grosvenor and Korita work out what stage an alien culture had reached2 and then know how to deal with them. By deal I mean kill.

This is notable for being the sole Van Vogt that I have ever been able to reread. I cannot pull a Damon Knight on the late Van Vogt because frankly, I would need to have read and reread far more than a single book to have an informed view on his fiction. What I can say is that generally his prose and plotting styles were rarely to my taste, save for this precursor to Star-Trek-style tales.

The Voyage of the Space Beagle is available here (Amazon), here (Amazon.ca) and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: Cue Scalzi’s Redshirts, in which the crew do react to the death rate.

2: All history, everywhere, follows the same pattern. The same white colonialist pattern. As the book says:

Huge old India had crumbled before a few thousand Englishmen. Similarly, all the fellah peoples of ancient Earth were taken over with ease, and did not revive until the core of their inflexible attitudes was forever shattered by the dawning realization that there was more to life than they had been taught under their rigid systems.


  • JVjr

    Hmm, Wikipedia* states that the ship is "manned by a chemically castrated all-male crew". Might that help explain their psychology?

    *I never read the book itself/myself, just translations of some two stories long ago, recall very little and certainly not this detail.

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    • Joel Polowin

      I did a quick skim of the 3 parts of the book that are included in Transfinite (missing the "M33 in Andromeda" part) and didn't see that mentioned. It would be a very odd detail to include in a macho-explorer book of its time.

      That bit was added to the W'pedia article by an anonymous editor on 21 September 2010. A couple of that editor's other edits look a bit dodgy, though not apparently trollish to my eye. This one may have been unwarranted extrapolation on the part of that editor.

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      • JVjr

        Actually, it is early in the new connecting chapter 7 of the book, just after Coeurl and before the new "War of the Nerves" Riim bit:

        As he sat down, one of the men said cheerfully, "Well, what de­fenseless woman’s character shall we assassinate today?" Grosvenor laughed good-naturedly, but he knew that the remark was only partly intended as humor. Conversation among the younger men tended towards a certain sameness. Talk leaned heavily on women and sex. In this all-masculine expedition, the problem of sex had been chemically solved by the inclusion of specific drugs in the general diet. That took away the physical need, but it was emotionally unsatisfying. No one answered the question. Carl Dennison, a junior chemist, scowled at the speaker, then turned to Grosvenor. "How’re you going to vote, Grove?" "On the secret ballot," said Grosvenor. "Now, let’s get back to the blonde Allison was telling us about this morning—"

        So yes, "chemically castrated" seems a bit… what one would expect from James rather than Wikipedia.

        But the crew's obsession with faction fighting and elections is pretty odd as well. (Fully fifty per cent of interstellar expeditions in the previous two hundred years had not returned. The reasons could only be deduced from what had happened aboard ships that did come back. The record was of dissension among the members of the expedition, bitter disputes, disagreement as to ob­jectives, and the formation of splinter groups. These latter increased in number almost in direct proportion to the length of the journey.) I don't think we are supposed to take it as a replacement macho activity in the absence of women.

        Also, the crew is not "some thousand plus", but just below: "Remember, your ship, in addition to its military complement of 180 officers and men, carries 804 scientists headed by an administration hastily elected by a small minority before the take-off." The scene is post-Coeurl, but I don't think he made it over 15.

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  • DemetriosX

    Van Vogt sued 20th Century Fox for plagiarism of the Couerl and Ixtil episodes in Alien. Dan O'Bannon swore up and down he wasn't inspired by those stories (maybe a martian flatcat/tribble thing). Fox settled out of court.

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    • JVjr

      Yeah, everybody and their Wikipedians says that, but I haven't been able to find any reasonably primary and detailed source. (Some say that he sued only for Coeurl, like Charles Platt's profile http://www.icshi.net/sevagram/articles/platt.php written "very shortly" afterwards; though the egg-laying and nigh-indestructible Ixtl seems closer.)

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  • Richard Hershberger

    "culture evolves in a predictable progression, history goes through cycles"

    This was the era of Arnold Toynbee. Also, anthropology from that era seems very weird today.

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  • Mike Swaim

    I remember reading the Coeurl stand alone story in a couple of collections, and I'd swear that Grosvenor wasn't in them. Was he in any of the other stories as originally published?

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  • Robert Carnegie

    Mike - I'm puzzled why James's audiences elsewhere don't comment under the reviews, although being unable to find a "reply to Mike" button today - while my browser (Opera 60) reports blocking insecure content on the page - is one drawback.

    The loci I'm aware of are: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/rec.arts.sf.written/dvFX3wlklCs https://james-davis-nicoll.dreamwidth.org/12329798.html

    In the first of these, Ted Nolan offers electronic access to "original forms" of all these stories, and reports that Grosvenor and Nexialism were introduced in the last of the set, "M33 in Andromeda", and then written into the other stories (along with, we've learned, chemical castration) for novel publication.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M33inAndromeda describes some plots of a 1971 collection which includes the Ixtl episode ("Discord in Scarlet") (Ted says "Xtl" - oh, well) and "M33 in Andromeda" - which versions? - and four unrelated stories, and points out that the galaxy in the constellation Andromeda, also called "Andromeda" these days after a "Doctor Who" character, is M31, although M33 is galactically nearby and a possible companion (the Doctor has lots of companions).

    I am joking about "Doctor Who", although I wonder what Space Beagle fans will think of "The Tsuranga Conundrum", which some reviewers believe is a version of "Alien" without anybody being eaten or converted to an alien - oddly, since "Doctor Who" regularly does both. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TheTsurangaConundrum misstates "Tsuranga" as the name of a spaceship; I think it's the owner. Tauranga is a substantial place (relatively speaking) in New Zealand, which is not obviously relevant. Ixtl and Pting, the Tsuranga antagonist, are frequently mentioned together online, but only in very bad scanned copies of newspapers.

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  • Robert Carnegie

    ...perhaps next time I'll remember that this forum treats symbol _ as denoting slanted letter italics, and gets confused when the symbol appears as a space in URLs, like Wikipedia's. Well, changing them to %5F, or perhaps to %20 (space), ought to work...

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ta%20Da ?

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