The Violent Man by AE Van Vogt (book review)

As I commented a while back, just when I thought I had read all of AE Van Vogt’s books, I came across ‘The Violent Man’ and managed to get a copy. There are copies out there. This edition was released in 1978 although it was originally released in 1962. Of particular interest the cover actually shows Chiun and Remo Williams from ‘The Destroyer’ book series. I don’t know from which book, the scan on google didn’t spot it. Considering ‘The Violent Man’ is set in China, it could equally have been a repurposed cover.

The setting is 1957 China and Seal Ruxton, as well as another 21 Americans and 15 Orientals have been grabbed from Hong Kong with the intention of not so much making them prisoners but indoctrinating them into becoming communists. Ruxton’s military service was only as a hard-headed private and later a short spell in prison for attempted manslaughter. He can speak several languages but is careful not to show how much he understands to his captors. Oh, there’s a little matter of if they don’t show any progression in this political changing within a few months then the failures will be shot.

Oddly, for Van Vogt, there is a lot of tempered sexual content that you do have to wonder at Ruxton’s stamina. By ‘tempered’ I mean recognising sexual event but not going into detail. In a similar manner, he doesn’t dwell on the execution of various prisoners used to keep the rest under control but that changes as the novel progresses.

I’ve used the joke about playing Russian roulette with an automatic pistol and still missed (no, I wouldn’t do it for real) but Van Vogt found a way to do it that is absolutely scary with the prisoners and their captor with the gun and played over several chapters that is an absolutely tense piece of drama. Ruxton being forced to run non-stop on a treadmill, collapsing and forced back on is also terrifying and not something recommended to try. For its time period, Van Vogt didn’t hold back and both scenarios are truly terrifying to break down a person’s resistance.

The ending did feel a little confusing as though Van Vogt was aware that he needed to get the book to an end, more so back in the early 1960s, a 300 page count was a long read and he might have had to whittle it down a bit and cover all the loose ends. That left a few questions on how some people could leave by aeroplane. I’m also less sure about the title, as Ruxton isn’t overtly violent but making rational decisions and doing what he can to survive and not be broken.

This is not a typical AE Van Vogt book. He lists two pages of references he used in building this novel, mostly for getting the setting right and the style of brainwashing used, that some are also mentioned in the book. The more I read, the more I got convinced this would make an interesting film and surprised rights were never bought for it. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had Van Vogt had switched from SF to general genre stories as this holds up well as any from that time period if not better. Certainly, it demonstrates a comment he made about researching a lot of subjects being used here. Maybe in this one about brainwashing in China he felt that it needed to be out as a novel.

I’m so used to Van Vogt’s SF material that I thought I couldn’t be surprised any more and yet I was with this book. There aren’t many SF authors who can switch genres and be equally good. Van Vogt is certainly one of them.

GF Willmetts

May 2023

(pub: Kangeroo/Pocket Book/Simon & Schuster, 1978. 316 page paperback. Price: ??. ISBN: 0-671-82004-4-195)

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