TITLE: “Dormant” (1948) by A. E. van Vogt
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Short Story
SOURCE: BEST SCIENCE-FICTION STORIES edited by Michael Stapleton (Hardcover, Hamlyn, 1977, ISBN: 0-600-38243-5, 750pp)
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Startling Stories, November 1948
I was rummaging in the vaults a while ago, and I came upon an old anthology that I haven’t read in years. Well, me being me, I couldn’t resist having a browse through it, and looking at the extensive contents listing of excellent stories, the memories started flooding back.
I fondly remember this particular story as one of my favourites from that anthology. A. E. van Vogt’s short story “Dormant” was one of those Golden Age of Science Fiction classics first published in the November 1948 edition of Startling Stories, and the story isn’t one of those far-future, outer space tales, but is actually pretty much in a contemporary setting, 1948, the same year as the actual publication date of the story. Being an historian (I was actually studying history at school at the time I read it), I’ve always really liked the strong post-World War II setting of this tale, with the US destroyer Coulson and it’s crew doing mop up operations on a remote pacific island, finding hidden caches of fuel and other goodies left behind by the Japanese.
But they also find a lot more than just Japanese leftovers. There’s the perplexing mystery of a gigantic rock, weighing millions of tons, which seems to be able to move around the island at will. A rock with a surface temperature of many hundreds of degrees, and which hurls out seemingly random destructive radioactive blasts. A giant rock which is not actually a rock, but an ancient, sentient robot bomb left on Earth countless millions of years ago by some alien race in a long-forgotten interstellar war.
The sections of the story from the POV of the bomb are among my favourites. The bomb, which actually has a name (it calls itself Iilah), has been dormant for countless aeons, but has recently been reawakened by the radiation from the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll in 1946. It has got only low-level life functions back, and is suffering from amnesia. It cannot see the water, air, and even the humans around it. It’s simply totally unaware of their existence. All it can see are the ships and the planes, which it takes for strange lifeforms, flying around in the “sky”. And it’s the bomb’s attempts to communicate with these “lifeforms”, to try find out where it can get more sources of atomic energy to revive it, which unwittingly causes so much destruction and kills so many people.
And of course the humans, predictable as ever, just HAVE to start shooting at the damned thing. The giant “rock” fights back, kicking their asses and destroying the Coulson, much of the other equipment, and unknowingly snuffing out dozens of lives of which it is totally unaware. The remainder of the taskforce is ordered off the island, and an atomic bomb dropped, which is, ironically, exactly what Iilah needs. The flood of energy totally reinvigorates it, and it remembers its mission. It IS a robot bomb, after all, so it promptly follows orders, explodes and knocks Earth out of its orbit and into the sun. And so the world ends in 1948.
“Dormant” must be one of the first A. E. van Vogt short stories that I read (maybe even the first) back in the day, although I’d definitely read a few of his novels before that point. It was during this timeframe that I also came across three other van Vogt short stories – “The Monster”, “Vault of the Beast” and “Black Destroyer” – in anthologies that I’d taken out from the local library, but I’m pretty sure that I read “Dormant” before any of the others. Those four stories became huge favourites of mine during my mid-to-late-teens, and kick-started my obsession for hunting down collections of van Vogt short fiction.
“Dormant” (indeed all four of these stories) has stuck in my mind these past forty years, and is one of those early gems that cemented my newly-acquired obsession as a hardcore SF fan. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for this one.
Anyone who might want to read this story, and is finding it hard to get a copy of this anthology, can also find the story in a couple of van Vogt’s short story collections, notably Destination: Universe! and Transfinite: The Essential A.E. van Vogt.