Depths

A Review of A.E. Van Vogt’s The Silkie
By Derek Newman-Stille

Van Vogt’s creation, the silkie is both human and fundamentally alien, integrating elements of “us” with the “Other”. Possessing senses beyond human understanding -enough to reframe the entire sensory network – the silkie sees the world through different eyes, yet it is forced to take a human mate and live as a human for periods of time. It is at home in the depths of the ocean and in the expanse of space, able to shift its form from an aquatic being, to a human form, to a space-fairing form capable of swimming through the stars, it possesses the ability to move beyond the limits of human exploration, both sets of depths.

The name “silkie” is borrowed from mythology, from the figure of the “selkie”, an entity that is capable of shifting from the form of a seal to a human form. In myth, the selkie is often female and is trapped into a marriage relationship when a male human being takes her seal skin and she forgets her life under the sea and becomes subservient to him. Van Vogt’s silkie is male, forced by genetic manipulation to take a weaker, human state in order to mate with human females on a cycle to ensure that the silkie maintains its allegiance to Earth. Van Vogt plays with the myth, inverting gender and inverting the impulses of the creature. It is still a creature that can occupy a human form, but is capable of travelling into depths that are inaccessible to humans, and it is imbued with the “Otherness” that comes from having a transformative body and that comes from venturing into places of the unknown or unfamiliar.

Van Vogt’s silkie challenges the alien in other forms – alternating between human and alien bodies, it is capable of confronting difference in the form of invading aliens. Although its body is transformative, the silkies of Earth have been made police officers, enforcing the status quo and resisting change. They challenge alien invaders and eliminate them, sometimes incorporating elements of the alien into themselves in order to best them like an undercover police officer confronting the criminal underworld while allowing him or herself to meld with it.

Thanks to James Kerr for lending me this book. This book is currently out of print, but is available through used bookstores and used book retailers.

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