Within the very first pages of this anthology, author A.E. van Vogt describes the story’s monster like this: “The creature was tiny, but it was a monstrous, many-legged, long-bodied, long-snouted, hideous miniature, a very caricature of abnormal life, a mad creation of an insane imagination.”
With this extravagant description, van Vogt establishes his concept of “alien attraction,” defined loosely as mankind’s ever-lovin’ fascination with “monsters, things, creatures and aliens.” And certainly, the eight stories in this collection feature a riot of fantastical science fiction beasts. Spoiler alert: mankind is often revealed as the ultimate monster in a few of the stories.
Like all science fiction writers from the early twentieth century, van Vogt was interested in simple things like robots and space travel. And because of this, some of these golden age stories haven’t aged very well. “Robot Command,” in particular, is a bit creaky. Back in van Vogt’s heyday, the future was fuzzy and romantic. But today, with artificial superintelligence and whole brain emulation right around the corner, debating robot civil rights seems a tad quaint.
But it’s easy to forgive van Vogt for such things, mostly because he was a delightfully quirky writer. He obviously loved monsters (avianoid, oceanic, Martian or otherwise), and you can’t help but marvel at his “plot ingenuity, skill in mystification and his flair for poignancy.”
The first story (“Not Only Dead Men”) is about monsters and men working together to fight a common threat. As it turns out, the otherworldly creatures stranded on Earth understand the concept of humanity better than their human counterparts. Similar stories such as “War of Nerves,” “Enchanted Village” and “Concealment” make it clear that there’s always a compassionate solution to any dire situation.
The collection ends with a bang. “Vault of the Beast” is easily the best story of the bunch. “The creature crept,” wrote van Vogt. “It whimpered from fear and pain. Shapeless, formless thing yet changing shape and form with each jerky movement. It crept along the corridor of the space freighter, fighting the terrible urge of its elements to take the shape of its surroundings. A gray blob of disintegrating stuff, it crept and cascaded, it rolled, flowed, and dissolved every moment an agony of struggle against the abnormal need to become a stable shape. Any shape!”
Just as Frankenstein’s monster was created by man and rejected by mankind, the wretch of this story eventually develops a case of existential ennui. “Am I just a machine?” it laments. “Do I have a brain of my own?”
Despite its grotesque appearance and murderous mission, van Vogt’s “metimorph” monster is simply trying to find a little dignity in the madness of life. “The struggle to be human was a continuous ache,” acknowledged the author. Mary Shelley couldn’t have said it any better.
[Monsters / By A.E. van Vogt / First Printing: February 1965 / ISBN: 9780552085700]