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April 13 , 2010

The Book of Ptath


In 1939, World War II had just begun and the Nazis were advancing on all fronts. Fantasy, as a literature, was a rare and not well understood form, mostly confined to short works of horror or drawn from mythology. In that year, the very successful science fiction editor of Astounding Stories magazine, John W. Campbell, launched a sister publication Unknown (later Unknown Worlds). He encouraged his top authors such as Robert Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, Jack WIlliamson, Theodore Sturgeon and many others to write for it. Unknown Worlds only survived thirty-nine issues; the final issue (October 1943) contained the complete novel, The Book of Ptath by A. E. van Vogt. 

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As one of the earliest American fantasy novels of the golden age of pulps, Ptath is an amazing work, perhaps better understood today than when initially released. One defining quality is sheer scope: the story takes place on earth 200 million years in the future. Unique for a tale set in the future from an acclaimed science fiction author, there's no space travel, aliens, or recognizable science. Nor are there any traditional fantasy beings, no vampires, ghosts, or mythical beasts. Instead, the story is driven by a handful of men and women who have become virtual gods and treat everyone else as mere pawns. Most are involved in multi-layer power struggles, as gods usually are. Enter Ptath, a man of two minds. Everyone knows of Ptath, except Ptath himself.

The protagonist, Peter Holroyd, Captain in the US 290th tank brigade, is either an American fighting Nazi forces in 1943 or the god Ptath, sometime in 200 million AD. Is Holroyd lying wounded and delusional in our time or is Ptath remembering a past life?  

The Book of Ptath is a strange story that displays amazing narrative skills and should be required reading for all aspiring novelists for its mastery of key fiction techniques: setting a scene at a glance, Point of View control and instantly engaging drama.

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