Early life and writings
Alfred Vogt (both "Elton" and "van" were added much later) was born on April 26, 1912 on his grandparents' farm in Edenburg, Manitoba, a tiny (and now defunct) Russian Mennonite community east of Gretna, Manitoba, Canada. He was the third of six children born to Heinrich "Henry" Vogt and Aganetha "Agnes" Vogt (née Buhr), both of whom were themselves born in Manitoba, but who grew up in heavily immigrant communities. Until age four, van Vogt and his family spoke only a dialect of Low German at home.
For the first dozen or so years of his life, van Vogt's father, a lawyer, moved his family several times within western Canada, alighting successively in Neville, Saskatchewan; Morden, Manitoba; and finally Winnipeg, Manitoba. His son found these moves difficult, later remarking:
Childhood was a terrible period for me. I was like a ship without anchor being swept along through darkness in a storm. Again and again I sought shelter, only to be forced out of it by something new.
By the 1920s, living in Winnipeg, father Henry worked as an agent for a steamship company, but the stock market crash of 1929 proved financially disastrous, as the family was unable to afford to send Alfred to college. During his teen years, Alfred worked as a farmhand and a truck driver, and by the age of 19, he was working in Ottawa for the Canadian census bureau. He began his writing career with stories in the true confession style of pulp magazines such as True Story. Most of these stories were published anonymously, with the first-person narratives allegedly being written by people (often women) in extraordinary, emotional, and life-changing circumstances.
After a year in Ottawa, he moved back to Winnipeg, where he sold newspaper advertising space and continued to write. While continuing to pen melodramatic "true confessions" stories through 1937, he also began writing short radio dramas for local radio station CKY, as well as conducting interviews published in trade magazines. He added the middle name "Elton" at some point in the mid-1930s, and at least one confessional story (1937's "To Be His Keeper") was sold to the Toronto Star, who misspelled his name "Alfred Alton Bogt" in the byline. Shortly thereafter, he added the "van" to his surname, and from that point forward he used the name "A.E. van Vogt" both personally and professionally.
Early science fiction career (1939-1944)
By 1938, van Vogt decided to switch to writing science fiction, a genre he enjoyed reading. He was inspired by the August 1938 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which he picked up at a newsstand. John W. Campbell's novelette "Who Goes There?" (later adapted into The Thing from Another World and The Thing) inspired van Vogt to write "Vault of the Beast", which he submitted to that same magazine. Campbell, who edited Astounding (and had written the story under a pseudonym), sent van Vogt a rejection letter, but one which encouraged van Vogt to try again. Van Vogt sent another story, entitled "Black Destroyer," which was accepted. A revised version of "Vault of the Beast" would be published in 1940.
Van Vogt's "Ship of Darkness" was the cover story in the second issue of Fantasy Book
Van Vogt's first SF publication was inspired by The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. "The Black Destroyer" was published in July 1939 by John W. Campbell in Astounding Science Fiction, the centennial year of Darwin's journal. It featured a fierce, carnivorous , the coeurl, stalking the crew of an exploration spaceship, and served as the inspiration for multiple science fiction movies, including Alien (1979).[a]
Also in 1939, still living in Winnipeg, van Vogt married Edna Mayne Hull, a fellow Manitoban. Hull, who had previously worked as a private secretary, would act as van Vogt's typist, and be credited with writing several SF stories of her own throughout the early 1940s.
The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 caused a change in van Vogt's circumstances. Ineligible for military service due to his poor eyesight, van Vogt accepted a clerking job with the Canadian Department of National Defence. This necessitated a move back to Ottawa, where he and his wife would stay for the next year-and-a-half.
Meanwhile, his writing career continued. "Discord in Scarlet" was van Vogt's second story to be published, also appearing as the cover story. It was accompanied by interior illustrations created by Frank Kramer[b] and Paul Orban. (Van Vogt and Kramer[b] thus debuted in the issue of Astounding that is sometimes identified as the start of the Golden Age of Science Fiction.)
Van Vogt's first completed novel, and one of his most famous, is Slan (Arkham House, 1946), which Campbell serialized in Astounding September to December 1940. Using what became one of van Vogt's recurring themes, it told the story of a 9-year-old superman living in a world in which his kind are slain by Homo sapiens.
Others saw van Vogt's talent and stardom from his first story, and in May 1941, van Vogt decided to become a full-time writer, quitting his job at the Canadian Department of National Defence. Freed from the necessity of living in Ottawa, he and his wife lived for a time in the Gatineau region of Quebec before moving to Toronto in the fall of 1941.
Prolific throughout this period, van Vogt wrote many of his more famous short stories and novels in the years from 1941 through 1944. The novels The Book of Ptath and The Weapon Makers both appeared in magazines in serial form during this era; they were later published in book form after World War II. As well, several (though not all) of the stories that were compiled to make up the novels The Weapon Shops of Isher, The Mixed Men and The War Against the Rull were also published during this time.
Move to California life and post-war writing (1944-1950)
In November 1944, van Vogt and Hull moved to Hollywood; van Vogt would spend the rest of his life in California. He had been using the name "A.E. van Vogt" in his public life for several years, and as part of the process of obtaining American citizenship in 1945 he finally and formally changed his legal name from Alfred Vogt to Alfred Elton van Vogt. To his friends in the California science fiction community, he was known as "Van".
Van Vogt systematized his writing method, using scenes of 800 words or so where a new complication was added or something resolved. Several of his stories hinge on temporal conundra, a favorite theme. He stated that he acquired many of his writing techniques from three books: Narrative Technique by Thomas Uzzell, The Only Two Ways to Write a Story by John Gallishaw, and Twenty Problems of the Fiction Writer by Gallishaw. He also claimed many of his ideas came from dreams; throughout his writing life he arranged to be awakened every 90 minutes during his sleep period so he could write down his dreams.
Van Vogt was also always interested in the idea of all-encompassing systems of knowledge (akin to modern meta-systems) — the characters in his very first story used a system called "Nexialism" to analyze the alien's behavior. Around this time, he became particularly interested in the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski.
He subsequently wrote a novel merging these overarching themes, The World of Ā, originally serialized in Astounding in 1945. Ā (often rendered as Null-A), or non-Aristotelian logic, refers to the capacity for, and practice of, using intuitive, inductive reasoning (compare fuzzy logic), rather than reflexive, or conditioned, deductive reasoning. The novel recounts the adventures of an individual living in an apparent Utopia, where those with superior brainpower make up the ruling class ... though all is not as it seems. A sequel, The Players of Ā (later re-titled The Pawns of Null-A) was serialized in 1948/49.
At the same time, in his fiction, van Vogt was consistently sympathetic to absolute monarchy as a form of government. This was the case, for instance, in the Weapon Shop series, the Mixed Men series, and in single stories such as "Heir Apparent" (1945), whose protagonist was described as a "benevolent dictator". These sympathies were the subject of much critical discussion during van Vogt's career, and afterwards.
Van Vogt published "Enchanted Village" in the July 1950 issue of Other Worlds Science Stories. It was reprinted in over 20 collections or anthologies, and appeared many times in translation.
Dianetics and fix-ups (1950-1961)
In 1950, van Vogt was briefly appointed as head of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics operation in California. Van Vogt had first met Hubbard in 1945, and became interested in his Dianetics theories, which were published shortly thereafter. Dianetics was the secular precursor to Hubbard's Church of Scientology; van Vogt would have no association with Scientology, as he did not approve of its mysticism.
The California Dianetics operation went broke nine months later, but never went bankrupt, due to van Vogt's arrangements with creditors. Very shortly after that, van Vogt and his wife opened their own Dianetics center, partly financed by his writings, until he "signed off" around 1961. In practical terms, what this meant was that from 1951 through 1961, van Vogt's focus was on Dianetics, and no new story ideas flowed from his typewriter.
However, during the 1950s, van Vogt retrospectively patched together many of his previously published stories into novels, sometimes creating new interstitial material to help bridge gaps in the narrative. Van Vogt referred to the resulting books as "fix-ups", a term that entered the vocabulary of science-fiction criticism. When the original stories were closely related this was often successful—although some van Vogt fix-ups featured disparate stories thrown together that bore little relation to each other, generally making for a less coherent plot. One of his most well-known (and well-regarded) novels, The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) was a fix-up of four short stories including "Discord in Scarlet"; it was published in at least five European languages by 1955.
Still, although Van Vogt averaged a new book title every ten months from 1951 to 1961, none of them were new stories. All of van Vogt's books from 1951-1961 were fix-ups, or collections of previously published stories, or expansions of previously published short stories to novel length, or republications of his books under new titles. All were based on story material written and originally published between 1939 and 1950. As well, one non-fiction work, The Hypnotism Handbook, appeared in 1956, though it had apparently been written much earlier.
Some of van Vogt's more well-known work was still produced using the fix-up method. In 1951, he published the fix-up The Weapon Shops of Isher. In the same decade, van Vogt also produced collections and fixups such as The Mixed Men (1952), The War Against the Rull (1959), and the two "Clane" novels, Empire of the Atom (1957) and The Wizard of Linn (1962), which were inspired (like Asimov's Foundation series) by Roman imperial history, specifically the reign of Claudius.
After more than a decade of running their Dianetics center, Hull and van Vogt closed it in 1961. Nevertheless, van Vogt maintained his association with the overall organization and was still president of the Californian Association of Dianetic Auditors into the 1980s.
Return to writing and later career (1962-1986)
Though the constant re-packaging of his older work meant that he had never really been away from the book publishing world, van Vogt had not published any wholly new fiction for almost 12 years when he decided to return to writing in 1962. He did not return immediately to science fiction, however, but instead wrote the only mainstream, non-sf novel of his career.
Van Vogt was profoundly affected by revelations of totalitarian police states that emerged after World War II. Accordingly, he wrote a mainstream novel that he set in Communist China, The Violent Man (1962); he said that to research this book he had read 100 books about China. Into this book he incorporated his view of "the violent male type", which he described as a "man who had to be right", a man who "instantly attracts women" and who he said were the men who "run the world". Contemporary reviews were lukewarm at best, and van Vogt thereafter returned to science fiction.
From 1963 through the mid-1980s, van Vogt once again published new material on a regular basis, though fix-ups and reworked material also appeared relatively often. His later novels included fixups such as The Beast (also known as Moonbeast) (1963), Rogue Ship (1965), Quest for the Future (1970) and Supermind (1977). He also wrote novels by expanding previously published short stories; works of this type include The Darkness on Diamondia (1972) and Future Glitter (also known as Tyranopolis; 1973).
Novels that were written simply as novels, and not serialized magazine pieces or fix-ups, were very rare in van Vogt's oeuvre, but began to appear regularly beginning in the 1970s. Van Vogt's original novels included Children of Tomorrow (1970), The Battle of Forever (1971) and The Anarchistic Colossus (1977). Over the years, many sequels to his classic works were promised, but only one appeared: Null-A Three (1984; originally published in French). Several later books were originally published in Europe, and at least one novel only ever appeared in foreign language editions and was never published in its original English.
Van Vogt's first wife, Edna Mayne Hull, died in 1975. Van Vogt would marry Lydia Bereginsky in 1979; they remained together until his death.
When the 1979 film Alien appeared, it was noted that the plot closely matched the plot of van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle. Van Vogt sued the production company for plagiarism, and eventually collected an out-of-court settlement of $50,000 from 20th Century Fox.
In increasingly frail health, van Vogt's final short story appeared in 1986.
The Science Fiction Writers of America named him its 14th Grand Master in 1995 (presented 1996). Also in 1996, van Vogt received a Special Award from the World Science Fiction Convention "for six decades of golden age science fiction". That same year, he was inducted as an inaugural member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
On January 26, 2000, A.E. van Vogt died in Los Angeles from Alzheimer's disease. He was survived by his second wife, the former Lydia Bereginsky.