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The World of Null A

by A.E. van Vogt

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

When I tell you that The World of Null-A deals with
cultural conflicts over the validity of Aristotelian logic, you
might assume that author A.E. van Vogt has given us a
novel of ideas.  Nothing could be further from the truth.   
Rarely have I read a story in which so
little is happening at an intellectual
level, and where action is presented
with such meager assistance from
those vital handmaidens of narrative
fiction: psychology, perception and
intellection.   The Indiana Jones films
come across as positively Dostoevskian
by comparison.

But perhaps that is A.E. van Vogt’s goal
here.  His utopian vision is based on a
rejection of Aristotelian logic, partly
inspired by the theory of general
semantics formulated by Alfred Kor-
zybski—which in turn contributed to van Vogt’s buddy L.
Ron Hubbard’s formulation of Scientology.   Ideas
themselves are held as suspect here—not just bad ideas or
false ideas, but
any logical-conceptual framework that
tries to serve as a guide to comprehension and behavior.  
So should we be surprised that our protagonist in this
novel, Gilbert Gosseyn, rushes from scene to scene
without much help from inductive or deductive thought
processes, not to mention prosaic plot supporters such as
motivation or coherence?  In this novel, the bad guys are
the ones who act the most rationally and unemotionally.   
For van Vogt, that is an essential part of their badness.

Certainly our author has adopted the external trappings of
the novel of ideas, complete with pithy epigraphs to start
some of the chapters, and grandiloquent bits of dialogue.  
Instead of beating up the captive and taciturn hero, villains
here are likely to say things like: "Ah, silence…the null-A
pause, I suppose.  Any moment now, your present
predicament will have been integrated into control of your
cortex, and semantically clever words will sound forth."
Characters remind us, borrowing from Korzybski , that
"the map is not the territory….the word is not the thing."  
And if we forget these commandments from on high, they
will be repeated at a later point in the text.   

An early chapter of the book even opens with an extended
world-historical diagnosis taken straight from Korzybski:
"Our tragedies began when the ‘intensional’ biologist
Aristotle took the lead over the ‘extensional’ mathematical
philosopher Plato, and formulated all the primitive
identifications, subject-predictivism…into an imposing
system, which for more than two thousand years we not
allowed to revise under penalty of persecution."  And so on
and so forth.

By now you have probably figured out why Hollywood is
not clamoring to make this sci-fi book into a film.

Yet these rare attempts to create a philosophical context
for the action-packed pulp fiction tale fall flat.  If van Vogt
is trying to sell us on General Semantics here—just as, a
few years later, he was trying to sell people on Hubbard’s
Dianetics—then he hasn’t closed the deal, not by a
longshot.  His hero Gosseyn comes across as a
dunderhead—despite having an extra brain, according to
one of the many subplots here.  He rushes into fights, into
dark tunnels, into the line of fire, into enemy hands, into
almost anywhere….with the persistence of a moth heading
toward the flame—usually without rhyme or reasons (ah,
those stultifying Aristotelian bugbears!).  Even our hero
begins to fear, midway through the book, that he is just a
pawn being manipulated by some higher power behind the

Yet, I cannot deny a certain appeal to van Vogt’s “act now,
think later—or maybe never” approach to storytelling.   I
have rarely encountered a novel with so many big plot
ideas in so few pages—alas, very few of them are
developed, but most of them are captivating.   Time and
again, this author sets in motion some exciting story line,
only to abandon it a few pages later, as he moves into his
next phase.  

The opening of
The World of Null-A sets out one of these
grand van Vogtian schemes.  A thirty-day competition is
being held in the city of the Machine, and the results
determine nothing less than people’s future careers and
financial prospects.  Thousands of people are participating,
and each day the contestants are tested in a series of
games set by the massive computer that runs the city.  
With each passing day, more and more contenders are
eliminated, and only a small cadre remain, battling for the

Sounds intriguing, huh?  Too bad, we never find out what
happens in these games after day one—van Vogt is already
bored with the thirty-day games, and on to his next big
plot twist.   Now we are treated to a story about a man
who dies a violent death, and then comes back to life on a
different planet, with no explanation on how it happened,
except for a letter from an anonymous source saying that
the next time this person dies, he will come back again, in
an even more powerful third body.  This new organism will
represent the future evolutionary state of humankind.  
Sounds pretty interesting, no?  But don’t get too
interested, because you will never get to see that third
body come to life—van Vogt has moved on again.    

Another subplot deals with a periodic “legal holiday” in
which all laws are annulled—so citizens must defend
themselves until the policeman’s vacation comes to an
end.  Supposedly this social anarchy is imposed to
determine how well people might adapt to a more Utopian
future society free from institutions of enforcement and
punishment.  But since van Vogt never follows up on this
promising opening gambit, we never find out much more
than this.    And how about a story about a man whose
memories have been tampered with by a mysterious
higher power, and only after submitting to a lie detector
test does he realize that even the most basic things he
believes about his past life are untrue?   How about a story
about the daughter of the President pretending to be a
homeless woman living on the streets?   How about an
account of a devious global operative willing to betray his
evil genius boss in order to get his hands of the secret of
immortality?   All these plots show up—ever so briefly—in
The World of Null-A, but don’t expect to find any of them
fleshed out to any degree.  

Oh, did I mention that the largest war in galactic history is
taking place, and that the bad guys have the most
advanced weapons in the universe, but are defeated by
humans who are completely unarmed and almost as
wedded to pacifism as Gandhi himself?   That could easily
make for a whole novel in itself, but van Vogt tosses it off
in a few paragraphs.  Of course, it’s just a small thing of
five thousand spaceships and twenty-five million men
mounting a surprise attack.  But for this author, that is
hardly worth more than passing mention.  

Do you get the picture?   Has any author ever been more
profligate in coming up with curious stories and then
abandoning them in their infancy?  But at least give Mr.
van Vogt credit for the inexhaustible riches of his

The World of Null-A stands out as one of the best known
and most controversial novels of the so-called Golden Age
of science fiction.  Due to its prominence, when it was first
published in book form back in 1949, as the first significant
trade hardcover sci-fi release, the book found a large
crossover audience, and was probably the first work of
speculative fiction read my many of its purchasers.   It
developed an especially ardent following overseas, and was
the best-selling science fiction book of its time in France.  

But the book was also savagely attacked—understandably
so, given its many peculiarities.   In a famous putdown,
Damon Knight proclaimed that A. E. van Vogt was “not a
giant as often maintained. He's only a pygmy using a giant
typewriter."  Knight’s full frontal attack was so severe,
that van Vogt felt compelled to revise the book—and the
version we read today is substantially different from the
one that appeared in serial form in
Astounding Science
in 1945.   At every stage, the author took out
passages explaining plot elements and, especially, the
thought processes of his protagonist.   So the dizzying pace
of the novel in its current form is very much the end result
of a ruthless revision and compression, one that
intentionally created these periodic disjunctions in the
narrative and a prevailing tone of action without thought
or motivation.  

You can’t call the book a success, at least by any of the
conventional standards by which people judge novels.  But
it is a grand, even extravagant failure.   And, to van Vogt’s
credit (or shame), it comes dangerously close to realizing
the author’s dreams of a non-Aristotelian story, in which
our traditional notions of logic and coherence play only the
most marginal roles.   And that is an honor that even van
Vogt’s harshest critics would be hesitant to wrest away
from him.
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