A.E. van Vogt – The World of Null-A (1948) Review

There is a bit of crazy history behind this book that must be told. The reason is that it explains the book’s existence and what it tries to do. 

So, A.E. van Vogt was a science fiction writer in the 1940s and hung out with people like John W. Campbell, the famous sci-fi editor, and writer L. Ron Hubbard. Campbell was very taken with Hubbard’s ideas about psychology, and the two of them collected a whole group of like-minded people around them who wanted to experiment with the science of the mind, with new ideas about unearthing embryonic memories and hypnotism and so on. Campbell and Hubbard reached back to a body of theoretical work called General Semantics, a theory put forth by Alfred Korzybski in 1933. Korzybski basically said that humans are limited in what they know by the structure of their nervous systems, and the structure of their languages, and therefore cannot experience the world directly. All they can see is symbols and hallucinations.

On its own that is not a strange concept. Campbell influenced the authors who wrote for his sci-fi magazine Astounding to take a look at General Semantics, and take it up in their stories. Writers like Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert were influenced by Korzybski’s ideas, but none more than A.E. van Vogt, and The World of Null-A heavily incorporates the tenets of General Semantics. For many readers, this book was their first introduction to the ideas. Later on, L. Ron Hubbard used General Semantics to develop his pseudoscience of Dianetics, which later became the foundation of his Scientology cult. Van Vogt stuck with Hubbard as he developed his ideas and became a proponent of Dianetics in California. Leaving aside that sorry history, let’s look at the novel.

Gilbert Gosseyn (Go Sane, get it?) is in the city to compete in a month of special Games, a series of tests run by a huge and imposing Machine, that tests if your brain can handle General Semantics (Non-Aristotelianism, the activity is called here, or Null-A as in the title) and see the real world, instead of what your brain wants you to see. Those who come up on top win a job. As Gilbert stays in the city, he enters a world full of confusion about reality and about his own identity, which feels very much like a Philip K. Dick novel. He thinks his wife is dead and that he comes from a small Florida town, but that all turns out to be false. Just hallucinations of his subconscious, or maybe his brain has been tampered with. With non-Aristotelian techniques he overcomes the hallucinations.

So, this entire society revolves around the effort of teaching people Null-A thinking. The Games teach it and winners get jobs. Gilbert is good at it but it also makes him paranoid. He questions his own reality constantly. Sounds like a recipe for neuroticism. And it influences how he looks at other people: “She had suave thalamic reactions, this girl.” I’m not even sure if Van Vogt is making a joke. The novel really seems written to espouse a way of thinking – to show us a society based on teaching people General Semantic enlightenment. “Men were becoming more brave, not less, as their minds grew progressively integrated with the structure of the universe around them.

The story is entertaining, feels a bit like Total Recall, even though the premise and the entire world-building are based on a pseudoscientific thought experiment. I had some trouble taking it seriously, therefore, but the plot zips along nicely and is quite intriguing. It doesn’t feel too dated either; might as well have been written in the 1960s or 70s. 

Sometimes Van Vogt gives exposition in a way as if he is regurgitating the philosophical writings of Korzybski (or others for all I know) and it feels totally out of place in the story. At one point, Gosseyn is captured and bound in a chair. Gosseyn is afraid, and thinks about how he might live on for a while in the memories of others, were he about to die. Instead of writing something like that, Van Vogt begins a rambling lecture about “fear must derive from the very colloids of a substance” and human beings being a “psycho-chemical structure whose awareness of life was derived from an intricate nervous system. After death, the body disintegrated; (oh really, Van Vogt?) the personality survived as a series of distorted impulse-memories in other people’s nervous systems.” Yeah, so he thinks about how he might live on for a while in the memories of others. From whom did you copy this quasi-intelligent claptrap? And why did you totally deflate the emotional journey of your main character with it?

Clunky writing like that isn’t Van Vogt’s only problem. As Gosseyn runs from location to location and the plot twists and turns in all directions, his motivations get more difficult to follow. In the second half of the novel, Gosseyn’s journey began to lose me because he only seems to act on impulse, basic questions of motivation are hardly explained and his interactions with other characters are puzzling.

The greatest problem of this novel is that Van Vogt cannot fully explain what Null-A thinking entails. The integration of minds with the universe remains a vague idea. He builds a superhero story on top of it, but cannot explain why it makes our hero so powerful. Neither can Van Vogt explain the tests of the Machine, nor the greater conflict between those who support Null-A thinking and those who do not. If Van Vogt could, then he would have become an eminent psychologist, but instead he joined Dianetics. And the result is that the novel fails on real fundamental levels of storytelling. The conflicts aren’t explained. We don’t understand their import. We hardly understand what the main character is good at.

It’s still worth a read. I did not expect to get such a high-octane story of action and mystery. The thing is that the whole Null-A thing could easily have been replaced with some other handwavey sci-fi concept like psy-powers and Van Vogt could have written the exact same story. The Null-A thing has no real additional value to the story. So, if you can keep your eyes from rolling over the whole Null-A part of the plot, then this is an exciting sci-fi adventure. 

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10 Responses to A.E. van Vogt – The World of Null-A (1948) Review

  1. Bookstooge says:

    Wow, I really wish I hadn’t learned that about van Vogt and Dianetics 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul Connelly says:

    The Panshins said that van Vogt got much of the structure of his plots from dreams (I think this came either from van Vogt’s own words or according to his wife), which explains to some extent why the plot seems to zig and zag all around a somewhat unknowable central idea or image. Van Vogt would write a chapter, sleep on it, then use what he dreamed about to steer the direction of the next chapter.

    His science is also very Campell-derived, so it’s what an intelligent but perhaps unwise person would get from wide but superficial reading in areas where science still had large gaps in both its theory and body of high quality evidence. In this book, the thalamus as a “lower” sensorimotor system in the brain lacks the cool null-A reasoning capability of the cortex, so Gosseyn is always doing his momentary “thalamo-cortical pause” to integrate the higher and lower subsystems before he leaps into action. I don’t think contemporary neuroscience looks at things as being localized that way, since it seems many brain functions are distributed through different anatomical regions. And the idea of “higher” and “lower” functions here is more conceived in a Great Chain of Being sense (like the Reptilian Brain theory that came along a decade or two later) than based on sophisticated experimental evidence.

    Philip K. Dick was an admirer of van Vogt, I believe. Alfred Bester, van Vogt, Charles Harness, and Dick all seem to subscribe to an everything-but-kitchen-sink aesthetic of piling as many oddball features into one story as possible. Dream logic is good for that too. Brian Aldiss called that style Widescreen Baroque.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very interesting comment, Paul, thank you. I believe I also read somewhere that Van Vogt used his dreams for his novels but I didn’t make the connection with the zig zag nature of it. That was my favourite aspect of the novel, actually.

      What you say about the science is also what I noticed. A wide but superficial reading of scientific fields. He would sometimes say things about neurology or about physics, atoms and so on, that sounds like he didn’t understand some things all that well.

      I will look up that Aldiss term of Widescreen Baroque. That sounds interesting. Thanks for commenting.


      • Paul Connelly says:

        The sequel (either Pawns of Null-A or Players of Null-A, depending which printing you get) is not bad and finishes the Enro plot. But the third one, written much later, I found unreadable.

        This one was my favorite by van Vogt (had previously read Space Beagle, Slan, The Mixed Men, the Weapons Shop series, and his riff on I, Claudius). Serendipitously, I read it right before (back in 1964) reading The Simulacra, my favorite Philip K. Dick book, which exuberantly piles every wild and crazy concept on top of the previous one: multiple conspiracies (plotting assassination, coups, civil war), a human-looking robot President who recites the speeches his programmers code while his seemingly immortal Jackie Kennedy-like First Lady runs the country, time travel, Nazis, impoverished colonists on Mars, Big Pharma outlawing psychotherapy, two formal castes based on information access, surviving Neanderthals, a powerful but mentally ill psychokinetic getting ready to come completely unglued, an emotion-amplifying primitive Martian creature, and, most presciently, the Theodorus Nitz machine (a mosquito-like nanodrone that follows you around spouting targeted advertisements at you, which I’m sure the Internet of Things will get around to in the near future). Critics don’t seem to think much of it, but I loved it. It’s definitely baroque.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I am almost certain I read this one in my misspent 😀 youth, but it seems I have retained no memory of it (after 40+ years it’s hardly surprising). Still, I’m not sure I could keep my eyes from rolling big time now…
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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