“Dormant” (1948) by A. E. van Vogt

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.

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More New DVDs April 2016

I’ve been buying a lot of DVDs recently, and they keep rolling in, although I think I’ll start switching back to books for a while after this. And for a change, none of the latest batch of DVDs are Gerry Anderson-related.

Actually, the first one up IS vaguely related to Gerry Anderson. Roberta Leigh’s classic puppet show Space Patrol aired on UK television during 1963-64, and was pretty much contemporary with and competition for Anderson’s Fireball XL5, was also set in space, and featured… er… puppets. Add to this the fact that Roberta Leigh was Gerry Anderson’s employer for the first couple of puppet series that he produced, and there IS a strong connection. This particular DVD boxset is the classic six-disc edition released by Network Distribution back in 2003, compiling all thirty-nine episodes plus a nice bunch of extras.

Second up is the gorgeous Network Distribution (Again? These guys are everywhere!) 2015 restoration of Nigel Kneale’s classic Quatermass (1979) four-part, 207 minute serial, plus a bunch of other extras, including the much shorter and heavily edited feature-film version The Quatermass Conclusion plus a nice booklet by Cult Sci-Fi TV historian Andrew Pixley. Also, for good luck, I picked up a copy of the original 2003 Clear Vision three-disc boxset release. The picture quality isn’t nearly as good as the lovely 2015 Network restored version, but the packaging is nice, and the extras are different, as is the booklet, written by Ian Fryer. So it’s well worth having, particularly since I got it at a very reasonable price.

Finally we have Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD, a remarkable 105 minute documentary giving a comprehensive overview of the background history of and crazy goings-on at the (in)famous 2000AD, the various personalities involved, the most famous of the strips, and even sidetracking into the two Judge Dredd films. Totally engrossing, and I’d recommend it to any fans of UK comics.

That’s a great haul of DVDs. They should do me nicely until the next batch arrives. 🙂

Some New Gerry Anderson DVDs (Part 2)

A couple of posts back, I mentioned about being on a roll with buying Gerry Anderson DVDs. Well, that trend is showing no signs of abating. I’ve recently picked up another couple of Anderson items on DVD, so the collection is growing quite a lot right now.

First up is the excellent Network Distribution 2013 DVD boxset release of the classic 1962 series Fireball XL5. We have all 39 episodes of the original series, restored and remastered, one full episode gorgeously recolourised. There’s also two excellent new documentaries, a load of other extras, and a lovely colour booklet by television historian Andrew Pixley. This is a seriously cracking boxset.

Second up, we have yet another Network Distribution release, this time from 2014. We have what is probably the best Gerry Anderson documentary ever made, bar none. Filmed in Supermarionation is almost two hours of fascinating Anderson history, detailing the development of Anderson’s puppet shows and their pioneering techniques from 1957 up until the end of the 1960s. This is a fascinating documentary, and kept me rivetted to the TV for the entire two hours. There are also some nice extras on the DVD

I’ve also just watched the two documentaries on the Fireball XL5 boxset, and they are also seriously good. Now to watch a few Fireball XL5 episodes! 🙂