3.5/5 (Above Average)
A. E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A is a frustrating but worthwhile experience. This is in part because of the trite introduction inserted in my edition of the work by A. E. Van Vogt defending his work against the notorious (and career making) critique by the sci-fi writer Damon Knight. In the introduction van Vogt writes that he received very few complaints about the confusing nature of the work and goes on to say that the study of General Semantics, on which the work is heavily influenced, skyrocketed with the publication of the The World of Null-A. That might be so, however, my entire reading experience was influenced by Damon Knight’s critiques. And on some points, especially related to the secondary characters, I agree with Knight…. That said, this work was published in the 40s and thematically it’s way ahead of its time. The World of Null-A is definitely worth reading and should be included in the classic sci-fi repertoire of that decade.
(note: the work was revised twice since the 1945 original publication in serial form)
Brief Plot Summary
Earth is ruled by a large machine. The Machine runs games which select members of Earth society for emigration to Venus, which has been terraformed. The games test the people’s philosophical understanding of the tenants of Null-A (non-Aristotelian logic) — think Vulcans controlling their emotions.
Gilbert Gosseyn discovers, when attempting to take a test at the Machine, that he is not who he seems and that his life appears to have been completely different than he remembers– the other applicants claim that his story is completely fabricated… And most shocking, his wife is not his wife but the daughter of the president.
He soon discovers after he “wakes-up” after he dies that his mind can transfer to different bodies. And of course, there’s a great cosmic chess player at work manipulating the entire situation.
The plot balloons outward (back and forth between Earth and Venus) from Gilbert Gosseyn trying to understand his own situation to the machinations of a great galactic empire attempting to wipe out the followers of Null-A.
Tens of underdeveloped faceless characters betray each other and collude with others and betray each-other again. No one is who they seem to be… And of course, there’s Gilbert Gosseyn and his strange mind…
Two things really impressed me about the work. First, A. E. van Vogt’s utilization of a Philip K. Dick sort of “basic motivating problem” — the question of identity. Gilbert Gosseyn’s actions throughout the entire work are entirely motivated by his overwhelming desire to understand his role in the world — why is his brain unusual? Why does he appear to be immortal? What is his “real” past? Do memories construct self? What is the role of the body in understanding/constructing the self? Gosseyn’s motives are fully realized. He’s a peculiar character for his mindless pursuit of understanding and thus, a very appealing one.
Second, Gilbert Gosseyn always REACTS to the situation and never (except, one could argue at the end) directly influences the situation himself. The external forces (the numerous other names which enter and exit willy-nilly from the narrative) are the only actors. Gosseyn’s decisions are rarely decisions but impulsive reactions against these forces. If he does act his action is usually immediately shut down and he’s presented with one or two choices which aren’t really choices…
These two points highlight the plight of Gilbert Gosseyn and make him (at least to me) a sympathetic character. However, this could be very frustrating to many readers used to sci-fi characters acting, changing the world, and going against what is expected. Gilbert Gosseyn tries, often valiantly, but always follows the expected path or a path laid out for him.
The problems are manifold and manifest. The characters other than Gilbert Gosseyn are non-entities. Damon Knight counts 12 points where betrayals happen. One feels that the secondary characters exist solely to spice up a narrative where nothing is actually known. Another plot ploy is equally annoying, at least five or six times secondary characters say, “Oh, I thought you knew your role in things.” As a result, it’s virtually impossible to keep them straight. I stopped trying and mentally categorized them as “____ = interchangeable name which usually stands for malevolent external forces.”
The galactic empire bit reduces the power of the world and mutes the hard-boiled qualities of the narrative.
I’m still shocked that the work was published in the 40s — I would have guessed the the early 60s or really late 50s. The work rarely feels horribly outdated.
The World of Null-A is a worthwhile read especially for its integration of philosophical concepts and themes about self and memory. A regular reader of sci-fi will easily predict the end — however, all the twists and turns in the middle are beyond comprehension since most of them occur in a rather muddled manner… The first quarter and the last quarter are very well done. And how many times does a main character die one third of the way through?
The best covers of the work’s glorious publication history