22 May 2010

Book review: The Space Vampires

The Space Vampires
Colin Wilson (Random House, 1976)

For someone who has written about his general aversion to picking up books about vampires, given how popular culture has done a superb job of desanguinizing them, I seem to keep turning back toward them when I stare at the unread volumes in my tower o’ books. This time, I grabbed my used Science Fiction Bookclub edition of Colin Wilson’s SF-and-vamps novel The Space Vampires. I can’t think of a more straightforward title than that. At least it comes from an era when this sort of vampire angle would have seemed fresh.

However, The Space Vampires is leagues away from straightforward; it’s nothing like what you might expect from the title, but then it is the work of Colin Wilson, a man far beyond the ordinary—even for a speculative fiction author.

What I appreciate about British author Colin Wilson is that he’s an existential philosopher who also writes science-fiction novels with titles like The Mind Parasites and The Space Vampires. He once wrote: “Philosophy may only be a shadow of the reality it tries to grasp, but the novel is altogether more satisfactory. I am also tempted to generalise and say that no philosopher is qualified to do his job unless he is also a novelist.” (Voyage to a Beginning.) I like that attitude.

With his philosophy background, you might expect something more akin to the fictional dissertations of Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men and Star Maker from Wilson, but although his work is highly cerebral and focused on idea more than action and character, his novels still can have broad appeal to speculative fiction readers, something Stapledon can’t claim.

(Clarification: I’m actually a huge fan of Stapledon’s work, especially Last and First Men, one of my favorte SF novels of all time. But Stapledon’s writing and themes are immersively cerebral and presentational to almost the point of defining both terms. And they don’t have enough naked hot space vampire sex action for most people. Also, I’m not familiar with Wilson’s philosophy, so I’ll avoid making any assumptions about his beliefs in discussing the novel.)

In the year 2080, when humanity has spread out through its own solar system, the spacecraft Hermes locates an enormous black ship floating in a spot where Earth instruments should have detected it long ago. Captain Olof Carlsen brings his ship to the mystery vessel, which appears pock-marked with asteroids hits—it might have been adrift for thousands, even millions of years. Aboard the mystery ship, the seven crew members find a strange work of art, almost like the decorations for a cathedral in space, and beautiful humans in coffins: dead or in an unusual state of suspended animation.

At this juncture, readers might imagine they know how the book will now unfold. But Wilson has other intentions. This isn’t going to be an “alien gets loose on the ship” tale. The book returns us and Carlsen quickly back to Earth, where the discovery of the ship now dubbed the Stranger has made turned the captain into a celebrity. Three of the people aboard The Stranger have gotten brought down to Earth, and Carlsen accidentally aids in one of them awakening from her torpor and draining the lifeforce of a young reporter who begged Carlsen to let him have access to the labs.

Criminologist and all-around brilliant scientist Hand Falland tells Carlsen his theory about these creatures: They are vampires. They don’t suck blood, but they can drain away the “lifeforce” of their victims, measured in lambda waves. Fallanda believes that all humans inherently have vampiric qualities based on his studies —for example, certain people seem to be able to drain energy from others through sexuality, although Fallada calls this “positive vampirism.” But these creatures can completely drain someone of all lifeforce. And he thinks all three are loose and temporarily using other bodies.

What occurs next in The Space Vampires is copious amounts of explanation and exploration of the concept of mental and metaphysical vampirisim, sometimes expressed in long conversations, and other times in descriptions of the mental give-and-take in a vampiric session. What doesn’t happen is a tight thriller about the pursuit of the body-jumping space vamps who have designs on the whole planett. Readers hoping for that will find themselves disappointed during the long sequence where Carlsen and Falland visit “spirit vampirism” expert Count Geijerstam and his trio of lovely ladies in his castle. I was a bit disappointed myself, since the urgency I would expect of trying to track down deadly alien vampires loose on our planet evaporates during this protracted period when Carlsen learns some interesting facts about himself.

However, this is a rare time in a speculative fiction novel where I came across a sex scene occurs that is utterly not gratuitous. In fact, it’s a highlight of the novel as it shows the way Wilson explores the deeper connections of sexuality beyond the mere physical. It’s unusual, and it’s pretty hot too.

I often found myself slipping into thinking that these events were occurring in contemporary time. Wilson doesn’t spend much verbiage on creating the concepts of a later twenty-first century Earth; the space-traveling aside and a few interesting vehicles, there’s hardly any futurism to the book at all.

The Space Vampires does eventually return to the chase, and the climax is an exciting and unexpected one. There’s also a lengthy “who-we-are-and-how-we-came-here” exposition from our title monsters that manages to be totally gripping in a way that most other authors might have botched into a boring speech. But this is what Wilson is especially good at, and this world-building through eons, where he starts to merge with Stapledon, is perhaps the strongest moment in this strange, sometimes unsatisfying, but ultimately memorable novel.

The Space Vampires would get turned into a film less than a decade after its first publication: Tobe Hooper’s 1985 Lifeforce. More about that later.