The World of Null-A – AE van Vogt (1948)
‘Who was Gosseyn?
Gosseyn himself didn’t know his own identity – only that he could be killed, yet live again… But someone knew who Gosseyn was – and was using him as a pawn in a deadly game that spanned the Galaxy!’
Blurb from the 1974 Sphere paperback edition
In his introduction to the revised edition of this somewhat controversial novel, Van Vogt is refreshingly effusive and proud of one of his most famous works. Among other things, Van Vogt claims that this novel (published in translation around the globe) kickstarted the French Science Fiction scene. He is also magnanimous in his praise for Damon Knight who famously published a review of this book, so damning that the review became almost as legendary as the book itself.
Sixty-odd years later, we should ask the question ‘What was all the fuss about?’
van Vogt’s appeal lay in his futuristic settings, the incredible buildings, machines and landscapes. He would no doubt be the first to admit that dialogue was never his strong point. His stream of consciousness approach to plot was also an issue for some readers. Here, however, van Vogt seems to have given some thought to structure, and although the dialogue is excruciatingly stilted, one can still find much pleasure in this Noir-style adventure.
Several centuries hence, Man has adopted the philosophy and logic of Non-Aristotelian thinking (the Null-A of the title). van Vogt at the time was an advocate of General Semantics and hoped for an age where Humanity would adopt a philosophy of logic and reason (rather Vulcan-like in its conception).
Every year, aspirants would travel to the City of the Games Machine to be tested for suitability to join the Human Society on Venus. Only totally integrated Null-A minds are allowed to live on the planet, which has become a pastoral paradise filled with vast trees a quarter of a mile in diameter.
van Vogt uses one of his motifs, the great phallic structure, in that the Games Machine is a self-aware supercomputer, housed in a vast spire of a building.
Gilbert Gosseyn goes through the first of the Games Machine questions and is surprised to learn from the machine that he is not who he thinks he is. It would appear that all of Gosseyn’s memories have been faked.
Subsequently, Gosseyn – in the process of attempting to discover his own identity and purpose – is gunned down in the street and killed. He later awakens, alive and unharmed on the surface of Venus, where he begins to unravel the details of a plan by an extra-solar Galactic Empire to take over the Solar System, beginning with Venus.
With the help of a Venusian scientist Gosseyn manages to outwit the agents of the Galactic ‘gang’ and return to Earth. He then discovers that he has an extra ‘brain’, as yet undeveloped and whose powers – it is deduced – will be activated when he is killed and the third clone is automatically awakened.
Gosseyn decides to end his life in order that the third body can be awakened, but is stopped just in time when it is discovered that Gosseyn III has been discovered and destroyed. However, renegade parties within the Galactic invaders decide to help Gosseyn train his undeveloped brain – which gives him powers of teleportation.
Once more Gosseyn escapes his captors and manages to warn the Venusians who – being sane and logical Null-A adepts – manage to easily repulse the invasion fleet.
In most of van Vogt’s work there is a logical, rational hero, and this is no exception. Gosseyn is the embodiment of Van Vogt’s obsession with quack mental-development programmes. General Semantics may have been a beneficial training regime, but later the author’s involvement with Dianetics and L Ron Hubbard’s ‘Scientology’ religion did damage to his writing and indeed his reputation.
The ending is a little rushed, but the explanation for Gosseyn’s existence is cleverly thought out. The central premise however, of the nature of identity and the question of whether Gosseyns I and II were in fact the same people is the thing which raises this novel above the level of pure Technicolor Space Opera. It addresses the fundamental question of whether we are merely the sum of our memories.
Philip K Dick, who has been recorded as claiming van Vogt as one of his influences, was to take this concept and explore it in multifarious ways.
Above all, van Vogt was not only writing a fast-paced action adventure, full of colour, weird science, mile-long spaceships and giant thinking machines. He was postulating a rational future, where we were gradually weaning the race away from irrational beliefs and acts of violence.
Interestingly, around the same time, Asimov was doing essentially the same thing with Hari Seldon in his Foundation Trilogy, whose tenet ‘Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent’ could apply just as easily to Gilbert Gosseyn.