The Book of Ptath

A. E. Van Vogt
The Book of Ptath Cover

200,000,000 Years On...

Scott Laz

A. E. Van Vogt's The Book of Ptath (1947) follows Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan in David Pringle's Modern Fantasy sequence, and Pringle is unable to resist describing the transition as a movement from the sublime to the ridiculous. In terms of writing style, this description is probably justified: Peake is celebrated for the literary quality of his fantasy, while Van Vogt may be the ultimate pulp writer, but both in their own ways evoke unique and memorable fantasy worlds.

Van Vogt, of course, is much better known for his science fiction than for his fantasy (The Weapon Shops of Isher is a good place to start), and it may be hard to remember (or believe?) now, but Van Vogt was just as important and popular as Heinlein and Asimov during the 1940s Golden Age, when all three were publishing some of the seminal stories in Campbell's Astounding. As a child, I loved Van Vogt's dreamlike (and not all that scientific) SF, and always looked forward to encountering his stories in Golden Age anthologies. Reading his stories today, though, it can be a struggle to reconnect to the childlike "sense of wonder" they evoked back then. I can't help being derailed by seemingly arbitrary character actions and plot developments (not to mention oddly constructed sentences). I find myself having numerous "wait! what?" moments, wherein I'm reading a paragraph that suddenly makes no sense to me, and I have to go back and reread a page or two in order to figure out how the story got to that point. Usually this involves a sudden occurrence or decision that leads a character off in a direction that seems illogical or arbitrary at the moment it happens. Usually, as I'm about to give up in frustration, I'll be drawn back in by particular details, descriptions, or set pieces. Or previously confusing pieces of plot will begin to sift back together, reminding me of the sheer cosmic scale of Van Vogt's stories. Details like this:

A great orb of moon it was, mightier than Holroyd had ever seen. It was very near, as if Earth and its silver, shining daughter had drawn closer to each other since the long-forgotten twentieth century. The lowering globe looked ten feet in diameter. It filled the night with radiance.

Two hundred million years in the future, when The Book of Ptath is set, the moon is much closer to the Earth. This fact is never explained and barely referenced again, and it provides a good example of the sort of detail that can cause a double-take in the reader, helping build the realization of how inconceivably far in the future the novel is set. Generally considered fantasy because of the "gods" and "spells" in the story, The Book of Ptath is actually set in the far future of our world rather than in a secondary world or alternate reality. There is a brief reference to the fact that the Earth's continents have drifted, and the planet now consists of three lands: Gonwonlane (most of the southern hemisphere, population 54 million, and home of Ptath), Accadistran ("where ancient greater Ameriga and the continent of ancient Breton had once been, population 19 billion) and the "outlaw state" of Nushirvan (population 5 billion) on an isthmus between the other two. Why the technology of this future Earth seems to be on a par with the Middle Ages, and how this world could possibly support so many people economically, is never explained, but seems beside the point. The human population exists in the novel only as a faceless mass, and the phenomenal population number functions similarly to the decision to set the story 200,000,000 years in the future. Big numbers help create the sense of scale and amazement Van Vogt is trying to evoke.

In this world, a few individuals have become gods due to the psychic power of the huge population that worships them, though it seems that they began life as humans. (Keep in mind that Van Vogt doesn't present careful exposition, so this summary is my best attempt to turn his few details into a coherent explanation.) Ptath, the most powerful of the gods, has gone back in history in order to reconnect with his humanity by sharing in the consciousness of individuals throughout time. While inhabiting the mind of a World War II airman whose plane is about to crash in 1944, he is yanked back 200,000,000 years into the future (or, from his point of view, from the distant past to the present) by the goddess Izvestia, one of Ptath's two wives. Izvestia seems to represent the path that Ptath has been trying to avoid, having lost touch with her human compassion and become focused on manipulating the human population in an effort to increase her power. She is engaged in a somewhat vague plan that involves encouraging a war among the three lands, with the goal of subverting a revolt in Gonwonlane and spreading her power to Accadistran. By pulling Ptath back unexpectedly, while he still shares the consciousness of the airman Holroyd, Izvestia hopes to catch Ptath off balance, break his protective spells and kill him before he can interfere with her plans.

L'onee, Ptath's second wife, knows of Izvestia's plans, and manages to keep Ptath/Holroyd from being captured immediately upon his return, allowing him time to get his bearings and begin planning what to do. (The idea of a superman appearing in the world, and having to rediscover his identity and purpose, is repeated in a number of Van Vogt's stories.) L'onee, whose physical body is held in a dungeon by Izvestia, projects her consciousness into various women along Ptath's path in order to influence or help him at key moments—an ability the other two gods also make use of during the novel. This shifting of identities is another element that can add to the reader's disorientation at times.

Ptath's god powers are weak, because his long absence has led to a decline of worshipers, so he sets out to find the "God Chair" in Nushirvan, which is supposed to have the ability to amplify his powers, before Izvestia can destroy it. In one of my favorite chapters, Van Vogt describes the chair:

It shone. It was so bright it hurt his eyes. It was an enormous misty structure, insubstantial and quivery. Veins of crystal light glittered in it; opalescence clouded its surface; splashes of amber streaked it, and bands of vermilion interlaced with stains of pallid ochre. It glittered like some intricate jewel, and its shape was that of a perfect cube with dimensions of fifteen feet. It floated above the floor. It tantalized; it entranced. It had no relation to the solid realities all around. Holroyd walked toward it, then stood in a maze of fascination, staring up at it. It was distinctly up. The lower surface of the cube flickered at least ten feet above his head.

This is a typical Van Vogt description, first fascinating the reader with the description of the psychedelic chair, then ratcheting up the "sense of wonder" with the simple declaration that "it floated above the floor." In order to reach the chair, Ptath must, for no apparent reason, climb the wall and along the ceiling on a series of ladder rungs, then drop from the ceiling onto the chair's seat. Just as we are prepared for the climactic renewal of Ptath's god power, he drops from the ceiling and falls through the chair onto the floor! It turns out that the chair won't help him after all, because he hasn't yet absorbed enough power from the energy of his worshipers... One gets the impression that Van Vogt is making this up as he goes along, in some sort of fever dream. But I actually don't think this is the case. In the end, all the strange details do cohere, and the reader is rewarded with a unique trip through a strange world that makes sense on its own terms. The oddness of Van Vogt's style just contributes to the effectiveness of the work.

Early in the novel, when Holroyd is studying maps and histories, trying to make sense of where he is, Van Vogt writes that the "detailed drawings of the continents of long ago had an unreal quality that he couldn't seem to concentrate on." This sentence struck me when I read it, because it's actually a pretty good description of the feeling I get reading A. E. Van Vogt's writing. It's probably better not to concentrate too hard, or frustration may set in. But if, as John Lennon suggested, you can "relax and float down stream," this chaotic and somewhat psychedelic trip will be an enjoyable one.