A. E. van Vogt Biography

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(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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Along with Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, A. E. van Vogt has long been regarded as one of the three pre-eminent writers in science fiction's "Golden Age" of the 1930s and 1940s. Although after the 1960s he expanded the range of his fiction beyond that of the 1940s, his stature as one of modern science fiction's "fathers" has continued to increase among many science fiction fans. His writings have attained world stature and have been translated into several languages; in France, his writings are especially popular, sometimes outselling those of even the most popular French authors. However, this popular esteem has not been echoed by all critics.

Born on a farm near Winnipeg, Canada, on April 26, 1912, Alfred Elton van Vogt spent his childhood in rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan. As an adolescent, he was shy, withdrawn, and an avid reader of hundreds of books per year. Unable to attend college because of his family's poverty, at age nineteen he took a job as a clerk for Canada's census department. He began his writing career by selling "confession" stories to True Story Magazine in 1932. Although the fees from the sales of his stories were a significant addition to his clerk's income of a little more than one thousand dollars annually, he tired of writing "confessions" and turned to writing radio plays instead, earning about six hundred dollars for fifty of these. By the mid 1930s, van Vogt seemed destined for a career in government service or as a sales representative in private business; writing was neither interesting nor profitable for him.

When a youngster, he had been an avid reader of Amazing Stories, a science fiction magazine, but had lost interest as he became older. In 1938, perhaps remembering his old pleasure in reading it, he picked up a copy of Astounding Stories, then the preeminent science fiction magazine. In it was "Who Goes There," by Don A. Stuart, a pen name for the magazine's editor, John W. Campbell, Jr. This story still ranks as one of the best in the science fiction genre and formed the basis for the motion pictures The Thing from Another World—produced by Howard Hawks in 1951 and itself a landmark in science fiction film making—and The Thing, directed by John Carpenter in 1984. The story's idea of changing one's appearance in order to pass safely in a hostile society caught van Vogt's imagination; it has since become an important theme in his fiction. Inspired, van Vogt wrote "The Vault of the Beast," which was accepted by John Campbell for publication, appearing in the August, 1940, issue of Astounding Science-Fiction (the new title of Astounding Stories) after some of van Vogt's other stories had been published.

His first published science fiction story was the "Black Destroyer," which was printed in the Astounding Stories' July, 1939, issue. This was followed by a flood of stories that created a sensation among the magazine's readers; in the 1940s, van Vogt's popularity rivaled that of Robert Heinlein, that era's most popular author of science fiction. By the 1950s, van Vogt had produced dozens of stories and seven novels and was a full-fledged success. Even so, he decided to give up writing—believing that his popularity was soon to ebb.

In 1944, he left government service and moved to California. In 1950, he accepted L. Ron Hubbard's appointment to the directorship of the California branch of the Dianetic Research Foundation. This job ended in 1951 when the national organization could not pay its debts. Convinced of the validity of Hubbard's idea that subconscious negative memories are the sources of anxiety and illness and that by recalling these memories and then "erasing" them people can overcome fears and inhibitions, van Vogt remained California's chief auditor—a person who helps people work through their memories—only distancing himself from Hubbard in 1960 when the latter made Dianetics part of a religion, Scientology. Van Vogt then became a full-time author and by 1970 had returned to his...

(The entire section is 2,014 words.)