WHO WROTE IT: A.E. van Vogt, whom I mentioned once in an earlier post, and who really deserves more recognition than he gets. He was born into a German-speaking household in a Russian Mennonite community in Manitoba. He started out writing pulp fiction, but decided to write sci-fi after reading the August 1938 edition of Astounding Science Fiction. Yes, that’s right: the very same issue in which the last great sci-fi story I talked about, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. was published. Van Vogt was so inspired by Campbell’s tale that he wrote a story called “Vault of the Beast,” which he then submitted to Astounding SF. Campbell rejected it, but van Vogt refused to be daunted, and wrote “Black Destroyer.” It was accepted and published, nabbing the humble and relatively isolated van Vogt his first SF sale and a nifty cover story in Astounding.
WHERE IT WAS PUBLISHED: Astounding Science Fiction, July 1939
WHAT IT’S ABOUT: So there’s this alien. It’s called a “Coeurl.” Looks like a gigantic black cat with tentacles sprouting out of its back. It eats id. No, seriously: the planet it lives on is populated by “id-creatures” which the Coeurl and others like him consume. Or used to consume, before the id-creatures almost went extinct. Now id-creatures and Coeurls are few and far between. Their planet is a bleak, starving wasteland. Our Coeurl feels somewhat bummed about that. Suddenly, whoosh! Down flies a spaceship full of human beings, causing a stampede of id-creatures. The Coeurl (who, as van Vogt writes him, is quite intelligent and cunning) realizes that this is a scientific expedition and the humans probably won’t hurt him. So he approaches the ship and tries to communicate, and the open-minded humans give it a tour of their ship. The Coeurl starts thinking “Hey, maybe it’d be a great idea if I killed these guys and stole their spaceship. Wherever they came from must be brimming over with id.”
The Coeurl kills a couple of humans, eating their id. The humans get wise to him and lock him up. The Coeurl can control various forms of vibration and energy, and easily picks the electronic lock on his cage. He sneaks out in the middle of the night and slaughters several more humans, slipping back into his cage by morning and acting all innocent. (Typical cat.) The humans aren’t fooled for a minute and are getting pretty riled up by this point.
The Coeurl locks itself in the engine room and uses its abilities to reinforce the walls, prohibiting the humans from breaking in. It then builds a tiny spacecraft in the engine room and escapes. The humans’ ship, however, can turn on a dime, and outmaneuvers the Coeurl’s jerry-rigged hunk of junk. The Coeurl, enraged, self-destructs its ship and kills itself rather than submit to the humans.
Does this sound familiar at all? It should.
BIG QUESTIONS IT ANSWERS: It’s the question on every space-geek’s mind, and a question you and I may not live to see answered.
What exactly will happen when human beings encounter an alien for the first time?
Lots of different answers to that one. Sometimes humans meet an alien race and everything goes to crap. The humans and the aliens wage terrible war for centuries. Sometimes they wind up as allies, albeit uneasy ones. Sometimes, if you’re dealing with a non-sentient race (and/or you’re reading a Robert A. Heinlein book), a total bug war may result.
A.E. van Vogt came up with an interesting answer to this question. He invented a different kind of alien. Not a little green man, or a mindless beast, or a member of a stately, dignified, super-intelligent, elfin race that left behind vast tracts of untold knowledge and wealth. An alien animal, but an incredibly smart animal, an animal that understands and preys on the scientific curiosity of human beings. A bloodthirsty predator that can out-think and outmaneuver puny human beings, at least for a little while.
This still doesn’t sound familiar? Jeez.
WHY I THINK IT’S GREAT: Well, it’s a classic story, ain’t it? Scientists land on a distant planet. Hostile alien beast lies in wait. Hostile alien somehow gets aboard ship. Suspicious humans try to hunt alien down, even as it kills them off one by one. Humans finally manage to outwit alien in a do-or-die, all-or-nothing confrontation.
(C’mon now. If this doesn’t sound familiar by now, you really need to watch more movies.)
Was van Vogt the first guy to think up this kind of story? Well, no. Obviously not. He was inspired by Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. And ever since then, this plot and theme have been done to death in science fiction, sometimes well, sometimes with a big steaming pile of schlock.
No, the reason I think “Black Destroyer” is great is the way van Vogt writes it. You could tell he was really into science fiction. He loved it. He loved what he was doing. He loved Campbell’s stories and others he read in Astounding Science Fiction and wanted to do the same. I can relate to that. His enthusiasm and love for the genre of science fiction just leaps off the pages of “Black Destroyer.” It’s one of those stories that a sci-fi lover like me can just dive right into, right from the very first sentence, and get lost in.
WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT: Like stories about space exploration and killer alien creatures? Want to read a story by one of the greatest sci-fi writers who ever lived but whose name has been almost universally forgotten (by anyone who isn’t a hardcore sci-fi fan or writer)? Like sci-fi adventure that skims the surface of sci-fi horror? Want to read one of the sci-fi stories that inspired the movie A—
Whoops. Almost spoiled it.
Look, don’t take my word for it. Veteran sci-fi writer David Drake says it better than I ever could in his foreword to the story in The World Turned Upside Down:
You can get an argument as to when the Golden Age of Science Fiction ended. (Well, you can get an argument if you’re talking with the right people.) Almost everybody agrees that the Golden Age started with the July 1939 issue of Astounding, however. That’s because its cover story was “Black Destroyer,” the first published SF by A.E. Van Vogt.
I didn’t know that when I first read the story in Tales of Space and Time, edited by Healy and McComas, when I was thirteen. Back then I didn’t know much of anything, about authors or writing or SF. But I knew “Black Destroyer” was amazing, not only for what was in the story (and considered as either adventure or horror, it’s a very taut, suspenseful piece) but even more the implicit background, the sciences and technologies that didn’t exist in my adolescent world—or anywhere else outside the story, as I now know.
When I was thirteen, everything was possible. “Black Destroyer” is one of the few stories that gave—and give—form to those infinite possibilities.
WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT: This is another story I ran across in The World Turned Upside Down by Jim Baen, Eric Flint, and David Drake.
Great book. I’ve already sung its praises elsewhere on this blog, so I won’t repeat myself. But you can find this book on Amazon. You might be able to request it from your local bookstore, too, if you’re not an Amazon user. David Drake’s foreword to van Vogt’s story is…quite effusive (see above).
WHAT IT INSPIRED:
Give me an A.
Give me an L.
Give me an I.
Give me an E.
Give me an N.
That’s right, folks. Alien. The 1979 science fiction horror film that made us scared to land on other planets and put our faces too close to slimy green alien eggs.
See, A.E. van Vogt had a peculiar habit. He would take his various short stories and retcon them into novels, which he called “fix-ups.” One of those fix-ups was compiled and published in 1950 as The Voyage of the Space Beagle. It included “Black Destroyer” as well as another story van Vogt wrote called “Discord in Scarlet,” where an alien lays parasitic eggs in the members of a spaceship’s crew and they eat their way out. Some film critics have claimed, not without good reason, that Dan O’Bannon took the inspiration for his xenomorphs from van Vogt’s tales of ship-invading, parasite-injecting aliens.
Anyway, put “Black Destroyer” on your reading list. And then go watch Alien. Bask in the glory that is sci-fi horror, brought to you by the unsung master himself, A.E. van Vogt.