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The War Against the Rull
A.E. van Vogt
Tor Orb Books, 288 pages

The War Against the Rull
A.E. van Vogt
A.E. van Vogt was born in 1912 on a farm was in Manitoba, south of Winnipeg, Canada. When he was 10, they moved to Morden, Manitoba, and then to Winnipeg where his father became manager of the Holland-America steamship line. He worked as a truck driver, farmhand and statistical clerk. Between jobs he began to write. While in Ottawa, he took a course in writing. He wrote his first story and entered a contest in True Story magazine. His first SF story was inspired by John W. Campbell's Who Goes There? and his second story, "Black Destroyer," made the cover of the July 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and won first place in the reader voting.

Turned down by the local draft board, he was able to get a job working for the Department of National Defense in Ottawa. In the evenings, he wrote Slan, published as a four-part serial in Astounding Science Fiction. Quitting in 1941 and moving to Farm Point, Quebec, he wrote several short stories and then The Weapon Shop.

He and his wife, Edna Mayne Hull, moved to Los Angeles in 1944, a hub of all kinds of religions, cults and sciences. He met L. Ron Hubbard in 1945. Dianetics was to influence both him and his wife for many years. A.E. van Vogt died in January 2000.

ISFDB Bibliography
A.E. van Vogt Tribute Site
A.E. van Vogt Tribute Site
A.E. van Vogt Tribute Site
A.E. van Vogt Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by A.L. Sirois

Alfred E. van Vogt died recently, leaving behind a body of writing that probably won't survive very far into the next century except as an example of one man's determination to do things his way. There is no doubt that classic SF such as Slan or The Weapon Shops of Isher did much to shape the way SF was read and written throughout the 40s and 50s. Reading van Vogt today, however, can be a frustrating experience. His tales can start out well, but the gears keep shifting even when they don't need to do so, and his characterizations generally aren't all that good. Consequently, one tends to come away with an impression of too much story fulmination and stock characters balanced against fast-moving plots and a startling, natural ability to render mood and vivid scenes.

The irony here is that van Vogt was probably a better storyteller than he allowed himself to be. What does him in is his vaunted method of writing: put in a plot shift every 800 words or so. This stylistic trick hurt him, I think, because he didn't allow himself to get much beyond its confines.

This problem, however, is not what ultimately scuppers this book. The War Against the Rull is comprised of several linked novelettes published between 1940 and 1950, and a "new" story, "The First Rull." The lead character throughout is Trevor Jamieson, although at various times van Vogt uses other viewpoint characters, including Jamieson's son. The real problem is that we never really get inside Jamieson's head. He claims a Ph.D. in physics, including celestial mechanics and interstellar exploration "-- a highly specialized subject," he adds. Besides a son, Jamieson has a wife, but that doesn't give us much to go on. He just isn't interesting enough as a person to engage us.

Typical of most SF of the day (and even today), the first chapter opens strong. Jamieson is trapped with a ferocious alien beast, an ezwal, on an antigravity barge that is slowly descending to the surface of a savage world controlled by the insectlike Rull, who have wrecked the ship in which Jamieson has been taking the ezwal to Earth. (Precisely why the Rull are at war with humanity is not clear -- apparently they simply regard themselves as superior to everyone else, therefore everyone else must go. You find a lot of this "assumption of superiority" thing in van Vogt's work.) Ezwals -- surprise -- are not beasts, however; they are intelligent and telepathic and have been hiding these qualities from humans in order to prevent a full-scale war of extermination against them. Jamieson has to convince the ezwal to work with him to foil the Rull, for whom the ezwal has as much contempt as for humans.

In the next tale, Jamieson and a woman trying to kill him have to escape from another bloodthirsty alien critter. So far we've had 85 pages of stuff like this (Jamieson trying to elicit co-operation from a murderous ally) and no story arc. Next up is the tale of a young ezwal marooned on Earth and hunted by the authorities, who still think of it as a dumb animal. Enter Jamieson to save the day by appealing to the ezwal's sense of self-preservation.

And so on. What these tales really add up to is nothing. Three reasons why: First, there is no depth to them. Van Vogt obviously did not give a lot of thought to the economic and social structure of his galaxy-wide civilization. A pulp writer could get away with that 50 or 60 years ago, but the audience is more sophisticated these days.

(Another of van Vogt's "stitched-together" books, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, works better. The human characters are really no better, but the van Vogtian pseudo-science "nexialism" is trotted out to provide some logical underpinning for the lead character's actions. The adventures are lots more interesting, too, making the book a prototype for Star Trek. I believe I read somewhere that Gene Roddenberry was familiar with The Voyage of the Space Beagle, but I am not certain of this. It wouldn't surprise me, though. One could certainly think of Spock as a "nexialist" of sorts.)

Secondly, the scope of the stories comprising The War Against the Rull remains so tightly focused as to elicit a sort of breathlessness in the reader. Doubtless this is what van Vogt intended, and although it might be appropriate for a magazine story, it doesn't work well in what purports to be a novel.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, each event in the sequence remains essentially unconnected from the others. The stitching that holds this Frankenstein's critter of a book together is quite evident -- and, as I said above, it adds up to nothing.

The final "chapter," titled "The First Rull," is even worse. Here we have a Rull as viewpoint character, disguised as a human and acting as a saboteur in a college laboratory. This just doesn't work. For one thing, it supposedly predates all the other tales in the book. You might think, therefore, that it would be best presented first. But the main problem is the outdated technology -- the Rull is concerned about destroying photographic plates returned from an interstellar expedition. This tale was copyrighted in 1978. Even then, the notion of using photographic plates to store image data in the context of a far-future space voyage would have been considered quaint. Today it's just plain silly. (Van Vogt has a character say that the sabotaged plate "ruined" an eight- and-a-half-billion dollar "particle experiment"! Talk about Big Science.) We'll leave aside the fact that van Vogt never explains what, precisely, is so important about these plates.

Van Vogt never seemed to pay much attention to the physical sciences and their possible application. The Rull are described as having high metabolisms that leave them "hungry almost all the time." How does an advanced race deal with this? How does a race that has such high nourishment requirements become intelligent in the first place if it has to spend all its time looking for food? Van Vogt gives us no clue.

Van Vogt's general stylistic approach can be best illustrated with a small sample of "galactic history":

"A thousand planetary systems were lost to [the Rull] before humanoids could mobilize their fleets and counterattack in sufficient force to halt the advance. For a few years the far-flung battlefront held fairly steady, the Rulls' cold, ruthless tenacity being met by man's sheer, selfless valiance, the older, more evenly balanced science of the enemy offset by the matchless creativity of the human mind under stress."
Well, yes. As you can see, the real problem with The War With the Rull is that it has dated pretty badly. The dialogue creaks and the plotting never rises above pulp magazine level. As a novel, therefore, it's pretty thin going. Indeed, it's only about 288 pages in fairly large type. Not even the Hubert Rogers cover art, salvaged from Astounding Science Fiction Magazine (which later became Analog), can help much. It depicts a heroically proportioned guy in a tight-fitting red suit posing determinedly against a murky greenish-black background. You have to wonder -- where is this guy's dick? And what the devil is that little box on his belt supposed to be?

If it were a better story, told more engagingly with appealing characters, well, then we might have something here. As it is, there are some nice images, a few good ideas, but mostly it's a lot of nonsense rooted in a 40s sensibility.

I found my attention wandering a little while reading this. It typifies the sort of thing I liked when I was in my teens -- lots of movement and colour, with some pseudo-scientific nonsense thrown in to engage portions of the intellect. The Rull come off as the typical sort of snooty van Vogtian super-beings, but from today's standpoint they really don't seem all that superior, nor particularly alien.

So, The War Against the Rull seems a little empty on reading. I suppose it's good to keep track of this older material, but it really has little to recommend it to anyone other than a student of the genre -- or of van Vogt's lesser work.

Copyright © 2000 by A.L. Sirois

A.L. Sirois walks the walk, too. He's a longtime member of SFWA and currently serves the organization as webmaster for the SFWA BULLETIN. His personal site is at

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