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
scenes.

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
spoils.

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 imagination.  

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 Fiction 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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