[originally posted here at Castalia House]
The Star Saint by A.E. Van Vogt appeared in the March 1951 issue of Planet Stories. It can be read here at Archive.org.
The Star Saint is the first story I’ve read by A.E. Van Vogt; it’s a deconstruction of the Raygun Romance, and I hated it.
A ship full of colonists is on its way to drop off a fresh batch of pioneer folk at a frontier outpost only to find that the outpost is destroyed and all of the colonists are dead. There were only enough supplies for a one-way trip, so the colonists are going to have to hold out against whatever alien threat awaits until something more can be done. Something like receiving aid from the Star Saint.
The Star Saint is something of a rogue space cop – he only shows up where and when he feels like it, but when he does show up, he has a reputation for saving the day. He’s strong, he’s brilliant, he’s reputed to be able to survive even in the vacuum of space, and the womenfolk all around the galaxy swoon at the thought of him. He practically craps rainbows. Except he’s not the main character. Some poor shlub named Leonard Hanley is.
When Mark Rogan, the Star Saint, shows up, he and Hanley don’t hit it off. Rogan is dispassionate and frank (and frankly a knowitall), and the fact that Hanley’s wife is one of the many women swooning over him doesn’t sit well with Leonard.
Out on the planet’s surface, investigating what happened to the original colonists, Rogan and Hanley get attacked by rocks. Think a bad 50s or 60s movie with rolling Styrofoam rocks bouncing and flying and attaching themselves to greasy-haired square-jawed victims. During the attack, Rogan and Hanley are separated. Rogan’s nowhere to be found, and while Hanley has trouble reassuring himself Rogan didn’t just abandon him, he knows that the colonists have placed all their hopes on the Star Saint, so it wouldn’t do to trash him. When he gets back to the ship, Hanley’s wife is more concerned about Rogan than him!
“I’ve been worried,” she said drably.
“I’m all right,” Hanley spoke reassuringly. “I was only bruised a little, and shaken.”
She seemed not to hear. “When I think of him down there with the fate of the whole colony depending on his remaining alive—“
Briefly, it shocked Hanley to realize that her anxiety was for Rogan, not himself. She looked up unhappily.
“Len, do you think it was wise of you to let him go on alone?”
Hanley becomes more determined than ever to solve the problem before Rogan does. And he thinks he does! By golly, he’s figured it out, and he did it without the damned Star Saint’s help! Except he’s wrong. The Star Saint tells him he’s wrong, and it turns out that the Star Saint is right. The Star Saint tells everyone what to do, they do it, and the day is saved. The story ends with the main character having resigned himself to the possibility that the Star Saint has cuckolded him and that in the end it’s probably for the best.
This is one of the few times a story has left me genuinely angry when I was finished with it. I don’t know what – maybe the Commies, maybe the Nuclear Scare, maybe the Kinsey Report — something happened around the cusp of 1950, and I may never put my finger on it, because it probably wasn’t just one thing, but something was changing! And not for the better, either. There was a shift away from the old heroic mold for protagonists, away from the ideals for a better future in science fiction, away from the aspirational, away from tales of blue-collar working class spacemen and interplanetary small businessmen triumphing over evil. The Wichita Lineman is still on the line, but while he is, his wife may be sleeping with his supervisor!