Van Vogt is a pretty exciting writer, even if the wrong kind of scrutiny makes his books at times feel a bit sloppy. I've read a good many of his short stories, but this is the first of his novels that I've decided to uncover.
The time is thousands of years from now, and humanity has apparently achieved total superiority, accomplished all that it desires to in the physical world so has retreated behind an artificial barrier to live out comfortable lives of contemplation and intellectual undertaking. As the book opens some startling discoveries have been made about human history: namely, that humans once walked on their own two legs, ate their own food, copulated and gestated their young, and deficated too! Hardly anyone believes the scientist who's uncovered this revelation, but he has also fabricated an experiment to grow a human being to the former, comparative giant size and release him into the world outside the barrier, to see what's been going on in the thousands of years since mankind has left the Earth to its own devices. For this, Modyun, our protagonist, more or less volunteers, helped along by the fact that an attractive female has also volunteered, and the book dispenses with the years that pass by as he grows to "full" size, taking us right to the moment where he steps out onto the highway, leaving the little enclave of humans and their insect servants behind.
Now, at this point, you probably think you've got this book more or less figured out. I certainly did, even though the fact that all the events summarised in my opening paragraph occur in the first chapter of the book should have warned me that it wouldn't be so easily done. Van Vogt really epitomises what I would call "breathless" writing. So much happens in such short order, and occasionally he will throw completely unexpected curve-balls at the reader that cause a pause, a baffled look, and a rereading of the previous passage to make sure it's been fully absorbed and coped with before moving on to the next upending revelation. With Van Vogt, nothing is ever quite as it seems, and preconceptions or predictions must be tossed aside as you simply let yourself be taken wherever he wants you to go, which in this case, is an Earth populated by animals who've been modified by man centuries ago, walk on two legs and attend committee meetings and get to ride on massive spaceships that may or may not be exploring uncharted star systems. That's not quite right either, though, for as it transpires, while humanity has remained more or less isolated from everything around it, complacent in its philosophy of existentialism taken to a rather horrific extreme, the Earth has been conquered by aliens ... who are also not really what they appear to be. Modyun has a lot of decisions to make, and centuries worth of conditioning to overcome, when he's lucid enough to want to overcome it.
The eponimous battle here is not a wopping great space chase, but rather an internal struggle of every intelligent being in the universe to overcome its natural state. Humans have achieved near-godlike powers and have the ability to perceive the thoughts of others, overcome barriers and destroy, all with the "indication system", which they cannot properly use because this would violate their philosophy: that any action, event or outcome is as good as any other, and that nothing is inherently more valuable or desireable than anything else. Modyun's internal struggles are fascinating, as he attempts to juggle his ingrained philosophical "programming", concern for his new animal friends and the woman Soodleel who accompanied him beyond the barrier, and the realisation that the two of them may in fact be the last humans left alive as a direct result of this intellectual apathy. It's really intriguing to see Van Vogt getting inside Modyun's head as it works, and there are times when you feel like screaming "no, no, you're going down the wrong path entirely!!"
There are a lot of absurdities in this book, and the ending is pretty abrupt. We get the "battle of forever", and a feeling that perhaps Modyun has won it, but don't actually get to see the physical battle that might result. We never learn whether there are any adverse consequences to Modyun's being expanded in size, or much of anything about Sooddleel. I've a feeling that the novel might exhaust and frustrate a good many people with its dodgy science, sketchy characters and unanswered questions, but I certainly enjoyed it a great deal. Van Vogt is fun to read, because he's so damn good at keeping you guessing and in the dark, yet still delighted, until the end, and the philosophical commentary delivered here in varying degrees of clarity is really interesting. I really like the way he ends his chapters, too: whereas most writers would end off with some momentous event having just occurred, Van Vogt gives you a hint that a momentous event is about to happen (or is in the midst of happening) but doesn't actually reveal what it is until you start the next one. The effect is really electrifying and keeps you reading chapter after chapter, because it's difficult to put the book down and withstand that level of suspense for long. I definitely recommend this to fans of quirky science fiction, and those who love the tropes of the genre but also enjoy seeing them summarily tossed on their heads.