Monday, October 19, 2009

The World of Null-A: Gosseyn or Go Home

The World of Null-A by A. E. Van Vogt is a classic Sci-Fi novel. It was awarded a Retro Hugo Nominee and is considered one of the founding books of the golden age. Van Vogt is a master of the genre and wrote another classic Sci-Fi novel, Slan. He does so many things so well. The novel was published in 1945 in one of the pulp magazines. For 19-freaking-45, the novel is in so many ways ahead of the curve. However, the book also suffers from major flaws that severely denigrate the overall health of the plot and the novel.

The plot revolves around one Gilbert Gosseyn (pronounced Go-Sane) who is a practitioner of Null-A (or non-aristolean thinking). He is on earth and in the city of the machine in the hopes that he can make a move to Venus, a utopian-like world where everyone who lives there practices Null-A and thus makes sane, logical decisions that reinforce the utopia. I will briefly point out one the considerable flaws in the novel; we are never given a handle on what the philosophy of Null-A is and thus have a difficult time understanding why it is so essential to the novel. More on this point to come.

While in the city Gosseyn learns that he isn't the person who thought he was. The machine confirms this and sets Gosseyn off in trying to figure out who he is and why he doesn't know his own identity. We are introduced to diabolical characters whose basic intentions are to take over Earth as well as Venus. Gosseyn is central to this evil plot. Muahhahahahahah! For those who are going to read this one I don't want to give away too much of the plot for fear of spoiling the journey so I will stop the description of the plot here.

Let us now focus on what is wonderful and good about this classic. Van Vogt is a master at projecting very cool, very futuristic set pieces. The novel occurs in the year 2650. His descriptions of RoboPlanes, a machine (The MACHINE) that determines your place in society, and getting from one place to another instantaneously are so 2650 and seem to me a little Brave New Worldish. The
descriptions of Venus with it's skyscraper-like trees with whole mansions carved in the root system and the concept of moving and killing with your mind are incredibly imaginative. Van Vogt shines in his intense and pin-point descriptions. Reading the book, I really felt connected to the vistas he creates. These descriptions are the base that so many future Science Fiction authors stand on.

Another strong point of the novel is the philosophical discussion through out. Despite the fact that there is no description of Null-A, there are themes in the book that make us ponder the basic question of who is human and who is not. Gosseyn's character drags us into discussions about the definition of consciousness and even the possibility of cheating death (which Gosseyn does literally and physically again and again). There is also a compelling side-plot about how memory determines how we process reality. How would you react if you remember being married to some one but then discover that the person is actually the president's daughter and certainly not your wife. This question is totally Philip K. Dick before Phillip K. Dick graduated from high school. It is very easy to see why this book is so influential.

I also loved the way that Van Vogt finishes this one up. We are left with a cliff-hanger that at the same time wraps the novel perfectly. The payoff of last paragraph alone probably makes the book worthwhile reading.

Now moving on to a little criticism. As I continued reading the book, the thought kept popping in my head, "Man, the dude who wrote this was ADHD." Following the plot and interaction between characters is like being strapped to a chair and being forced to watch a movie on fast-forward and cut by a monkey on amphetamines. Random and more random. The plot bounces between Earth and Venus and back to Earth and, boom, back to Venus. If all this movement drove the story forward I can probably accept it. But it doesn't. All it is is a change of scenery for changes sake.

Gosseyn gets captured and escapes. And.... Gosseyn gets captured again. Bet you can't guess what happens next. Winner! He escapes again. This repetittion occurs again and again. This is a major problem with the novel. They don't drive the plot and they certainly don't enhance character building.

The biggest problem I had with the novel, and I hope that this is not due to any mental defect I have, is that one of the most crucial aspects of the novel is left totally unexplained; NULL-A. What is it? I am still not sure. I gathered that it was a new way of thinking, different then the way humans have evolved to normally think. But I certainly don't understand how it is different or what that difference means. A majority of the plot is driven by this concept. It is hard to accept major plot points centering around Null-A without understanding why it is so damned important.

Overall, I liked the book. It had great action without the crappy dialogue and production problems that plagued the film industry during this period. It's not campy, thank Jah. The influence that this book alone has had on Sci-Fi makes it important to read if you want to know the history of the genre. One of my favorite authors, Phillip K. Dick, stands on the back of Van Vogt so I am grateful that I was able to read this one.

By the way, if any one is interested in an eBook version, feel free to email me at

3 out of 5

1 comment:

  1. Null-A stands for Non-Aristotelian, and refers to the system of evaluation called General Semantics developed by Alfred Korzybski in his book "Science and Sanity".

    "The Map Is Not The Territory" meaning that words are not things.

    The difference between a Null-A and an Aristotelian would be "Conciousness of Abstracting". An A identifies words with objects, descriptions with inferences, whereas a Null-A can differentiate different levels of abstraction from his environment, Event, Object, Description, Inference. Gosseyn had been trained in Null-A evaluation, which meant that he would be conscious that he only abstracted the part, not the whole, so even having false memories did not prevent him from correctly analysing his situation, correcting his own internal map or model to fit the facts, not vice versa, trying to shoehorn facts into a flawed view of the world, a common trait of the old A type of "thinking".

    Null-A's would be good at agreeing how the world really behaved, just like scientists can agree how things behave by looking at the facts first, then building theories. So Null-A applies the scientific method to everyday evaluation.

    Null-A's would be concious that the words they used would have different meaning for different people, which would hinder communication when trying to reach agreement, but being aware of this they would have a greater chance of reaching agreement.

    A method of universal agreement would generate universal peace, a sane utopia, hence Venus, and "Science and Sanity".