Book Review: The World of Null-A, A. E. van Vogt (published as a serial in 1945, revised in 1948)

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…

Final Thoughts

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

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19 thoughts on “Book Review: The World of Null-A, A. E. van Vogt (published as a serial in 1945, revised in 1948)

    • A lot of assuming happens in reading this work… What that title means (hehe), what exactly the plot is, if it has one which is actually logical/comprehensible within the world he creates….

  1. Have you read any other Van Vogt? A.E.V.V. is kind-of a special writer for me – I bought a used copy of ‘The Voyage of the Space Beagle’ when I was eleven or twelve and gobbled it up. No, I did not read the publication date inside the cover. I was too busy watching Star Trek re-runs after school. 😉
    Yes, it’s clearly episodic, I noticed that even back then. But it wasn’t until I had a wider experience with SF (and life) that I realized that the Space Beagle was an ‘old book’. Now, I find it a fascinating time capsule of thirties-forties assumptions: just men on the voyage – taking sex-drive-inhibitors no less; and mechanical ‘machines’ will be the weapons in a show-down.

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      Hmm, yeah, I read The Mixed-Men (there’s a review on my site). I’m not a fan so far — I have a few more on my shelf including The Voyage of the Space Beagle which I’ll get around to reading soon. He’s interesting but I’m much more interesting in social sci-fi — I’ve found his works more in the adventure/political machination vein.

      • Voyage of the Space Beagle is a fixer-uper. The stories in it were published between 1939 & 1950. I have it in an SFBC single volume, with Null A & Slan, published sometime in the mid to late 50’s.

        This was one of the reasons that I was always annoyed with STOS. STOS is a straight derivative of Space Beagle with Spock coming from the SB science officer. Also, the lead story in SB is STOS-“Man Trap”. van Vogt was never credited in STOS.

  2. For allot of us early devotees of A.E. Korzybski’s book Science and Sanity who later (1998-2011) discovered the writings of Tom Bearden
    on Precursor Engineering and Scalar Waves Warfare, the early Book
    titled The World of Null-A appears to be an early introduction to all the Subjects associated with Sourcing Energy From The vacuum (See Tom
    Bearden and John Bedini Website) which covers a wide variety of Advanced Electrodynamics Sciences, all of which fit-in with the General
    Framework of The World of Null-A. All of the brightest Math & Science
    Kid’s should be given this book (Null-A), Science and Sanity, and all the
    paperback books in the Earth Chronicles, starting with The Twelfth Planet. The Kingdom of the Future is the Kingdom of the Mind. Teach your Children well!

  3. Started on this a few years ago and lost my copy. Found a new one and plan to finish it. Do not know if you know this but Van Vogt often used his dreams as inspiration for plot twists in his books and stories. Especially his work in the 40s. That why the fell so surreal.

    • At a certain point they are no longer “plot twists” with reason and cause and cohesion but rather random ramblings. Although people claim he’s surreal I do not think he has any actual control over his material, stuff is spewed out….

      • Yes,he was using subconscious it was in control. The French loved him because the intellectuals in the country are really into surrealism. Or at they were. The movement itself was founded in France. Though I doubt Van Vogt ever even heard of surrealism it let alone followed it. What people saw in America as “slapdash” plotting they saw as surreal. The ironic thing in their way they are both correct.

  4. Having finished this last week I must say it was decent. Some criticisms of the Damon Knight’s are reasonable. The ending makes one wonder “did he have to got through this make the plot work?”.

    It is still a enjoyable work. Not as incoherent as some people would claim. Have you read Parado Men by Charles Harness? It is definitely influenced by Null-A. Harness is sort of a more logical version of A.E. Van Vogt. It is worth reading.

    Aslo wanted to ask if you plan to read the sequel Pawns of Null-A. I think I will.

    • Finished the sequel last week. Though it had a abrupt ending this was a better book than the first. Just wanted to say for others who might read this.

    • Many Knights criticisms were for the early version in the magazine. Despite Van Vogt changing them and the original version no longer available to readers when Knight had has article reprinted in his book of criticism in In Search of Wonder, he did not update the article. A few of the problems apply but not nearly as many.

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