Introduction to The World of Null-A

1995 The Easton Press

In 1945 the magazine Astounding Science Fiction announced the forthcoming publication of The World of Null-A with a great fanfare. No wonder. It was the ultimate science-fiction serial of SF's Golden Age, it had been written by one of the authors who had combined their talentswith those of editor John W. Campbell to create that Golden Age, and it pushed the concepts of the human species and it's undiscovered potentials as far as they would go.

It was not A.E. (for Alfred Elton) Van Vogt's first success in the field. Born in 1912 in Winnipeg, Canada, the son of a lawyer, Van Vogt grew up in a rural Saskatchewan community. He discovered fairy tales at the age of 8 and was shamed out of reading them at the age of 12. Without money for education (his father lost a good job at the start of the Depression), Van Vogt did not attend college. He worked at a series of jobs and then started writing true confessions , love stories, trade-magazine articles, and radio plays.

When he broke into SF in 1939 hed had already developed writing skills and theories. His first published story, "Black Destroyer", in the July 1939 Astounding (in the same issue as Isaacs Asimov's first Astounding story, "Trends"; Robert Heinlein's first story "Lifeline" would be a month later; THeodore Sturgeon's "Ether Breather" a month after that) was immediately recognized as the work of a master. It's alien menace - a big, black, enigmatic catlike creature that consumes "id" and can teleport itself through space - was matched against the humann crew of the visiting spaceship. It seemed like an unequal battle against the fearsome Coeurl, but the Earthmen had the use of a new science caled "Nexialism".

Here was a writer who could produce one startling concept after another, who could match and sometimes surpass Heinlein in the polls for top story and favorite writer of the period. Over the next ten years (he would emigrate to Los Angeles in 1944), he produced for Astounding and it's companion fantasy magazine Unknown almost 50 stories in lengths ranging upward to the 100.000- word serial. In 1940 the serial Slan, built around the concept of super-intelligent humans with tendrils in their hair that permit telepathy, and their persecution by the rest of humanity, created such excitement that fans began calling themselves Slans: Here was the perfect symbol for their own status - the persecuted elite.

The principal characteristics of Van Vogt's fiction was narrative excitement, unremitting tension, concepts pushed to their ultimate limits. To a 1947 book of essays titled "Of Worlds Beyond", Van Vogt contributed a chapter on "Complications in the Science Fiction Story" in which he described his practice of writing in 800-word scenes, and then coming up with enough ideas to fill out each scene. He also developed a habit of putting every current thought into the story he happened to be working on; if it seemed to have no relevance, he could usually find an approach that would make it usable.

Some of the ideas that fascinated him that he incorporated into stories were Oswalds Spengler's ideas of history that he used as background for "Black Destroyer" and "The Voyage of the Space Beagle" (1950), of which it became a part, the Bates eye excercises that provided the background for "the Chronicler" (1946), and General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski's theory of non-aristotelian systems discussed in his 1933 book "Science and Sanity", which formed the theoretical background for Van Vogt's "The World of Null-A". Van Vogt also became fascinated by L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics, the psychological theories that preceded Scientology, and dropped out of writing SF for several years to become a Dianetics practitioner.

Null-A, or non-Aristotelianism, takes off from Korzybski's idea of the distinction between words and objects. The word is not the thing, Korzibski says; the map is not the territory. Failing to make these distinctions results in mental confusin that keeps people from achieving the mastery of mind over body and mind over matter that is it's potential.

Van Vogt's quotations from Korzybski, which he uses as epigraphs for several chapters, and the discussion of non-Aristotelian thinking within the book popularized General Semantics in a way that Korzybski and his followers never did, and perhaps helped create a significant intellectual discipline that is still studied in colleges. S.I. Hayakawa, former president of San Fransisco State College, former U.S. Senator, served as president of the International Society for General Semantics. But the novel is not simply a dramatization of a theory; the theory has created a fascinating new world, governed by a Games Machine to whose tests the leading intellects of Earth submit themselves for a month to demonstrate their right to join the Null-A thinkers on Venus. The losers get to be the top administrators on Earth.

Throw into that situation a man, Gilbert Gosseyn (pronounce it "go sane"), who discovers that his memories are not his own, who must find out who and what he is, who finds himlelf caught up in a vast conspiracy, and who is killed at the end of the first section of the novel - and that is only the beginning. Before the novel is over, we have a second body, a second brain, aliens, invasion by a galactic empire and the response of the Venusian Null-A's, and most of all Gosseyn's discovery of himself and his fascinating new powers through the discipline of Null-A....James Blish, writing as a critic, called Van Vogt's technique "the intensively recomplicated story", and readers may have difficulty following the ins and outs of it. But they will have no problem being carried along by it. They may wish to be carried on to it's sequels, "The Pawns of Null-A" and "Null-A 3".

Perhaps the best explanation for the appeal of Van Vogt's stories and novels is to go back to his early fascination with faiy tales. His stories are the stuff of fairy tales, wish-fulfillments every one of them. That does not make them fantasy, however, because our world is a product of wish-fulfillments: that machines could be made to work for people and perhaps even think for them, that people could fly, that people could have ice in the summer and heat in the winter, that people could talk to each other from a distance, that people could have artificial light in the darkness, that pictures could be made to move, that sounds and pictures could be brought into our homes.....Science is organized, systemized wish-fulfillment, and Van Vogt's stories are wish-fulfillments treated as if they were sciences. In another context I have called them "fairy tales of science": the cloak of invisibility, seven-league boots, the cat with eyes as big as saucers, shape changing, mind reading - here they are treated as the products of science, or the discoveries of time and distance.

John W. Campbell once wrote: "Fiction is simply dreams written out, and science fiction consists of the hopes and dreams and fears (for some dreams are nightmares) of a technologically based society". More than anyone else, Van Vogt summed up the hopes and dreams and fears that are science fiction. His characters are larger than life, supermen facing situations that would deter the most intrepid ordinary characters, or super-realistic characters confronting super-menaces. Van Vogt's stories have all the authenticity and all the logic and all the abrupt shifts of dreams and nightmares, but his characters can cope with them.

And his readers can enjoy them.

James Gunn
Lawrence, Kansas
August 1987