Thursday 10 May 2012
The War Against the Rull by A E Van Vogt
I last read The War Against the Rull in the 1960s and liked it enough to hang on to my ancient copy, so I was pleased to renew my acquaintance with it when it was selected for this month's read by the Classic Science Fiction discussion group. Its origin is a series of five linked stories published between 1940 and 1950, which were tied together into one fix-up novel in 1959. I should add that according to another review there is at least one more story, from 1978, included in later editions of the book, but I haven't read that.
The setting is the far future, when a human galactic empire is engaged in a long-drawn-out war of survival against the empire of a formidable insectoid race called the Rull. The principal character in most of the tales is Trevor Jamieson, a high-powered trouble-shooter for the Galactic Convention and typical of the "competent man", capable of dealing effectively with any situation, who features as the hero in so much SF even to the present day.
Rather surprisingly, the Rull only make an occasional appearance and that mostly towards the end. The most significant is when Jamieson and a Rull leader are trapped together on a sheer-sided mountain top on an uninhabited world in a classic one-on-one climactic battle of wits; interestingly, the viewpoint alternates between the characters. Another is told from the viewpoint of Jamieson's young son, who has to deal with Rull agents on Earth.
Far more time is devoted to Jamieson's problems with the ezwal; terrifyingly large, fast and powerful telepathic beings who are regarded as non-sentient animals by most of humanity and are targeted for destruction since their planet is needed for a strategic base. Jamieson is the only person who is aware of their intelligence and telepathic ability but has a major task to convince them to co-operate with humanity in order to save themselves, and to persuade other people to believe him. The novel immediately plunges the reader into the middle of a critical situation involving an ezwal who crashes with Jamieson on another remote planet, this time in an equally classic "co-operate or die" situation. As with the Rull, in one story the author provides the ezwal's viewpoint.
In assessing this novel it is only right to remember its origins, and the period in which the original stories were written. It has a decidedly disjointed feel without any clear structure. The characterisation is minimal, as is usual for the period, and is as good (or bad) for the Rull and the ezwal as it is for the humans; in fact, providing their viewpoints adds depth and interest to the stories. There are some intriguing SF ideas, as one expects from this author. The one which caught my attention (and the only part of the story I remembered in advance of reading it again) was ability of the Rull to hypnotise humans to carry out certain actions by the use of carefully-designed patterns inscribed on a suitable surface.
Was it worth reading again? Yes, despite its flaws I enjoyed it, but nostalgia played a part in that. Unlike Bester's The Stars My Destination, another classic novel from the same era, it doesn't stand up well today. Don't expect the kind of approach a modern writer like Cherryh would give to a tale of alien races.