A. E. VAN VOGT - GRANDMASTER OF SF SUPER-HUMANS
A.E. Van Vogt is to super-humans what Issac Asimov was to robots. Each created an impressive niche that other authors take note when creating similar stories. Neither would claim to have been the first to tackle either subject but they caught the SF reader's imagination by being at the right place at the right time with right ideas.
It is to Van Vogt's credit that he gave his super-humans not only worlds but galactic empires to roam or flee from persecution. His realities were also liberally incorporated with various super-sciences enabling his heroes to take command of the most difficult situations eventually. His aliens were creatures to respect and be wary. You always feel his characters had a life outside of the current story they're in. Unlike some of his other prodigious contemporaries, Van Vogt was not a slave to a single reality, invariably creating a new one for each story. Only two of his realities went beyond one book, Linn and the earlier Null-A novels.
Largely unrecognised by the SF reading population, Van Vogt also holds the distinction of being the first author to use teleportation, cloning and terra-forming and that was in one story! The terms weren't called that because those distinctive recognisable labels weren't commonplace in 1948. That's when he wrote his novel and this year's Retro-Hugo nomination, "The World Of Null A".
In World, the main protagonist, Gilbert Gosseyn, is killed but finds himself alive once more in a spare body. He discovers later that his memories, and therefore his personality, carry on in a new body after death. In other words, he continues life in a series of clone bodies. Even Gosseyn doubted this until his enemies show him the remains of his previous body. This unique demonstration of immortality became a crucial element for giving Earth's conquerors pause to consider how this process could prolong their own lives.
The science of similiarisation insisted that when a similarity connection was achieved between two objects to 20 decimal places, the greater would move to the lesser. In other words, they teleported between the distance. This information made it possible for an empire using a distorter device capable of similarising individual people or great starships almost instantly across the galaxy. It was later discovered that the second Gosseyn body had a rudimentary organic distorter within his own brain. With his third body accidentally destroyed, Gosseyn's enemies train him to discover its full potential and locate the player ho is manipulating him. Gosseyn discovers he could imilarise himself or others to anywhere he had been and mentally photographed' with his extra brain. Similiarisation must (have) been created from seeing something developed from nature rather than some instant mad scientist discovery.
The references to terra-forming could almost be missed in the complexity of ideas in this book. Venus was made habitable by having ice-laden meteors from jupiter driven to the planet and over the centuries gave rise to an Earth-like atmosphere lush with over-grown jungles. Terra-formin by today's definition. Some authors would have made this the entire novel whereas Van Vogt applied it matter-of factly for the Venus colonisation, realising in 1948 that the planet would otherwise be uninhabited.
In L. Sprague de Camp's book, "THe Science Fiction Handbook" (1953; revised 1975), Van Vogt explained he was never afraid of running out of ideas and incorporated anything pertinent while he wrote. This way, he never feared any writer's block. Ideas were there to be used and more would always be available. This fertile imagination hinted at things beyond the main story, providing a strong infra-structure to his realities.
All of this was incidental to the main thrust of this reality: General Semantics. Van Vogt had become interested in mathematician Alfred Korzybski's book, Science And Sanity. Korzybski believed that muddled thinking was caused by confusion by believing words and reality were the same thing. The map is not the territory only a representation. From this he thought the Aristotelian 2-way system - something either was or it wasn't - should be replaced with a multi-ordinal - allowing a greater number of choices he called a Non-Aristotelian or Null A system. Van Vogt embraced and created a world adhering to General Semantics. Gosseyn and the Null A Venusians applied logic before emotion when dealing with the problems countering empires they saw as neurotic and psychotic in its demands.
In the war to conquer Venus, the Null-As independently decided what actions should be taken. Under the cover of darkness and unarmed, they simultaneously attacked the Empire's resting troops to get weapons. Despite enormous casualties they succeeded.
The scene was portrayed through the confused enemy leader, Thorson, to Gosseyn who had never before seen such combat techniques.
General Semantics is still around today. It's seen by its effects in the way we think than consciously applying it. If you continually decide from a multiple selection, then you're certainly applying some aspects General Semantics. Scientists have become less inclined to uphold old beliefs when presented with new information. It's certainly evident in computer programming where multiple decisions are made. Korzybski always saw General Semantics as an applied discipline rather than a subject that had to be studied for itself.
Science Fiction, amongst other things, is a genre of thought-provoking ideas. Van Vogt is often mentioned for conveying a sense of wonder in his stories. Explanations were brief but sufficient to let the reader fill the gaps without breaking the novel's pace. This latitude is unique compared to other SF authors who tend to focus purely on the events they depict.
The World Of Null A was originally published in 1945 across 3-installments in Astounding Stories. According to some letters its editor received, readers were confused as to what was going on. The amnesiac hero dies, comes to live again as a developing superman educated in a technique giving greater sanity faced off against the machinations of an emperor intent on ruling the entire populated galaxy. The sentence doesn't cover a fraction of the ramifications of the plot, characters and detail in this book. This wasn't an easily digested pulp fiction plot!
One critic, a fledgling Damon Knight, condemned "World" in Larry Shaw's 1945 fanzine Destiny's Child in no uncertain terms. It had such an effect that the SF community thought it would ruin Van Vogt's reputation. Not so. Van Vogt replied publicly believing that Knight was going to have a long life as a writer. He also did some adjustments before World was released in hardback.
Without access to the relevant Astounding editions, it's difficult to compare in depth how the original was changed. Comparing the review to the book, it is obvious that Van Vogt agreed and removed one piece making little sense to the narrative flow. This was a dream sequence about the previous inhabitants of Venus that Gosseyn has as he revives in the second body. Whether Van Vogt would have deleted it himself without Knight's comments can only be speculation.
Damon Knight's critique was reprinted and updated in his book, In Search Of Wonder (Advent 1967). Knight's criticisms targeted what he saw as Van Vogt's disregard of real science, odd society development period and bad writing. With Knight treating Science Fiction to the same criteria as mainstream fiction, there are bound to be areas of contention. I doubt if any SF author considered any of their work as being masterpieces at the time. In the wake of World War Two, they were all in the process of kick-starting their careers again and making money from writing. It was important to be productive and interesting for the editor to select their work. Van Vogt never failed to get his readers involved with his stories. Knight, at the start of his career, ambitiously decided SF as a whole needed up-marketing and picked Van Vogt as his target.
It's obvious when reading In Search Of Wonder that Knight had his favourite and hated authors based on their grasp of Science Fiction. Those he didn't like were pilloried. He positively glows over Robert Heinlein while condoning Ray Bradbury for even considering to be an SF writer. As his first critical review, Van Vogt probably took more flak than he deserved. Knight generally disliked this style of writing and would categorise and condemn any SF writer who followed the Van Vogt technique school. Condoning a style should never rnean that it should never be used. Later writers like Larry Niven and Frank Herbert took note of Van Vogt's scale when conceiving their Known Space and Dune realities.
Was Knight right in his appraisals? Did Van Vogt do a poor job of detailing his reality sufficiently for his readers? With Knight's critique known more by reputation than being read, let's examine some of the key points.
The technology of Earth science was hinted at through the ever-present verbal lie detectors, in-gravity parachutes, the artificial intelligence Games Machine that evaluated sanity. Knight deplored the lack of explanation for how a society evolved to this state with so few technological marvels. How many SF authors do you know who detail their entire reality? Van Vogt's technology was explained in context and used with consistency, centring on what was essential for the story.
In a world of half truths, a convenient lie-detector makes an excellent tool to verify anything. The in-gravity parachutes were used as a convenient way to demonstrate that sanity didn't stop creative thought. In the late 40s, artificial intelligence computers were considered a dream. The computers here were depicted as assisting not enslaving mankind. The fact that he made their uses limited indicated that he didn't want this society totally machine-dependent.
Knight comments that technological advances in Van Vogt's reality appears to have been rather slow over a 600 year spell overlooks the fact that we only saw a brief sample of achievements. I would have thought that terraforming Venus and developing computer artificial intelligence demonstrated a rather advanced technological base developed over a long period. The focus on General Semantics clearly illustrates that Man was moving towards sorting himself out sociologically than scientifically. Knight's criticism of Gosseyn's memories about his wife and himself being poor fruit farmers neglects how one defines poor besides forgetting that these were false memories.
Social advancement was open to all wha were capable of sane decisions. Van Vogt only indicated that there were certain sections of the public who had not accepted Null A but did not dwell on the point. People with the greatest sanity held key positions only for short intervals. Society was allowed rather than forced to choose the discipline and could emulate them as they wished.
Of historical importance, The World Of Null A holds the distinction of being the first hard-cover SF novel after World War II and won the Manuscripters Club Award. It also gave public recognition to Korzybski who allowed himself to be photographed reading Van Vogt's book. Clearly not everyone was swayed by Damon Knight's opinion, as Warld sold well world-wide and been reprinted many times.
If this is your first encounter with The World Of Null A and intrigued to know what happens next, then you'll need to pick up the sequel, "The Pawns Of Null-A" (USA "The Players Of Null-A"). "World" Ieaves you hungry for more and you aren't disappointed. In many ways, I liked it more because it develops the scope of the first book. There is a progression in Gosseyn's abilities and how he fares against the most dangerous trap set for one human. "Null A Three" uses the characters in a different conflict and was written years later.
"The World Of Null-A" and A.E. Van Vogt's contribution to Science Fiction have been sorely neglected over the years. His short stories, Black Destroyer and Discord in Scarlet (both fix-ups into the novel The Voyage Of The Space Beagle), were major influences behind the film Alien. With the 1946 Retro-Hugos at this year's LA Con III, it is time that this Grandmaster of Science Fiction finally gets the recognition he deserves. A.E. Van Vogt is truly among the ground-breaking, ideas merchant of Science Fiction. The World Of Null A is a classic of epic proportion.