My life in outer space

Posts tagged “Amnesiac Hero

The Sun Smasher – Edmond Hamilton (1959)

The Sun Smasher


“It can’t be true! It must be some kind of hoax!” These were the words that went spinning through Neil Banning’s mind when the Greenville authorities told him that the house he had grown up in, the aunt and uncle who had raised him, had never existed.
So Banning found himself in jail, charged with disturbing the peace – and maybe insanity. But when a stranger from outer space came to his cell at midnight and hailed him as the Valkar of Katuun, then Banning decided that maybe the authorities were right, maybe he was crazy. Because the only alternative was to believe the impossible explanation of the Outworlder – that he really was the exiled ruler of a remote star-world, and the personality of Neil Banning was an elaborate fraud.
It didn’t really matter, though, who was right. Banning was on his way to Katuun whether he liked it or not. And as Banning – or the Valkar – he would have to save that star-world from the terror of THE SUN SMASHER…or perish with the loyal subjects he might never have known!’

Blurb from the 1959 D-351 Ace Double paperback edition

Young Neil Banning, on a business trip, decides to take a detour to his old home town. On reaching there however, he finds that not only is his childhood home a vacant plot, but that there was apparently never a house existing there. Getting more and more frustrated by what he sees as a deliberate attempt by the townspeople to cover up the past he is eventually arrested and thrown into a cell.
During the night, a stranger arrives and stages – in Banning’s opinion – an unwanted rescue. The stranger is Rolf, who tells Banning that his past life is a fiction, that he is in fact Kyle, the lost Valkar of an interstellar Empire.
Kyle is needed to reclaim the throne from those who altered his memory and exiled him to Earth, and locate The Hammer, a weapon of interstellar mass destruction whose location only Kyle/Banning knows.
This is one of those odd romantic flights of fancy that imposes a medieval feudal culture on an interstellar civilisation. It features the literary devices of the amnesiac hero and the Maguffin which in this case is a device (as can easily be deduced from the title of the book) capable of triggering a nova in any sun.
Banning has to come to terms with the fact that he may not be who he thinks he is, while leading an army of loyal followers across the galaxy in search of a lost and terrible doomsday weapon.
Added to that, we have a feisty princess, a sundered love affair and a race of deadly telepathic spider people loyal only to the Valkar.
It is explained early on that Earth is a lost part of the Empire that has not yet been reclaimed as we are a fringe world and somewhat retarded.
One day we’ll be really advanced and united under an unelected hereditary galactic monarchy. Can’t wait.


Time to Live – John T Phillifent (as John Rackham) (1966)

timetolive copy

‘To conquer death, learn to live again.


To the man in the weird bubble-car, its design was only part of the nightmare. He dabbed and pulled frantically at strange things like paddles, saw the winding road swinging and twisting in front of him, tried to turn a corner, but didn’t make it.
When he awoke, the Earthan remembered the madness of that speeding chase – yet he knew the worst of it was his inabiity to recall who he was, where he was, and why he was being chased.
Then a lulling voice spoke inside his head: ‘You are on Kalmed; I’m Aporia. Your people say you’ve killed one of my fellow Kalmedans…’
Somehow the Earthan knew he was no murderer – but he sensed something chillingly unfamiliar in the interaction of his mind and the body it inhabited…’

Blurb from the 1966 Ace doubles G-606 paperback edition.

A young man finds himself at the wheel of a speeding vehicle on an alien world, not knowing how he got there or, more importantly, who he is. When he crashes, he is found and rescued by one of the indigenous humanoids: Aporia, an artist of sorts. The world is Kalmed, where a small community of humans live.
The young man, a spacer called Jim Hart, has it seems been accused of murdering one of the native inhabitants.
The Kalmedans have certain psi-powers and Aporia senses that there is something not right about the man she has rescued. Not only can he remember nothing of what he has done or who he is, he seems to have a personality that does not belong in the body it is inhabiting.
The plot thickens when the young man is taken in by what serves as the Kalmedan authorities, is sprung by his former shipmates who he does not recall. He and Aporia then go on the run. She has realised that she needs to take him on a journey across her planet in order to prove her suspicions to herself and her people.
Phillifent employs the device of the amnesiac hero cleverly here as the alien planet is seen through the eyes of someone who has – to all intents and purposes – forgotten all he has experienced of it. The reader and Jim Hart are therefore introduced to this world together.
It’s also a murder mystery of sorts, although the concept of murder and the question of who, if anyone, has been murdered, become somewhat fluid by the time one reaches the denouement.

The Quantum Thief – Hannu Rajaniemi (2010)

The Quantum Thief (Jean le Flambeur, #1)

This was nominated for the Locus Award, and was runner-up for the Campbell Memorial award, and rightly so. ‘The Quantum Thief’ exists on the same level as the work of John C Wright in a future where definitions of the words ‘alive’, ‘real’ and ‘identity’ become very fluid indeed.
Jean le Flambeur, a famous thief, is incarcerated in a Dilemma prison of glass cubes where the inmates while away the day shooting and killing their immediate neighbours, only they don’t die permanently.
Jean is very soon busted out by Mieli, a young lady with a sentient ship. She has been sent on this mission – whose ultimate purpose is somewhat vague – by a powerful female entity. Jean is meant to do something in the Oubliette, a city which peglegs its way across Mars like some vast Wellsian war machine. The problem is doubly difficult since Jean has very little memory of his own past and must reclaim his memories from where they are concealed in the Oubliette before the mission can be accomplished.
Meanwhile, Isidore, a somewhat retro detective and architectural student, who relies on his own powers of deduction, is called in to help the Tzaddikim (the mirror-masked police of the Oubliette) to help solve the murder of a chocolatier.
It’s a colourful, complex and joyful piece of work, despite not being an easy read.
While not going entirely to the lengths of Burgess or Russell Hoban by writing in a contemporary dialect, Ramajieni nevertheless throws in a gallimaufray of invented terms and expressions that the reader needs to learn by a process of osmosis. Tzaddikim, zoku, phobois and exomemory are the more common examples. All becomes (fairly) clear eventually, but it does necessitate some concentration.
This is not of course a bad thing. Definitions arise from context, and Ramajieni is quite clever at doing this.
The structure is also quite ingenious as the narrative, which broadly follows Jean in first person, is interspersed with the lives and actions of other – sometimes quite baroque – figures, all of whose lives intersect in some way.
At first one could be forgiven for comparisons with John C Wright’s ‘The Golden Age’ as they both feature an amnesiac hero who appears to be on a mission possibly orchestrated by others.
This novel is one of a number of books (almost a subgenre in itself) attempting to address the question of whether the individual is merely the sum of his or her memories. There is also the very Dickian concept of an entire City/community having had its collective memory i.e. its history, changed, and the question is asked in the book as to whether the inhabitants should be told.
There is much in this book that stays with you. Odd philosophical niggles about the rights of copies of oneself that have accumulated new sets of memories and don’t have access to their older experiences. Which can claim to be the original, for instance?
It’s fascinating, colourful and, if not original, very compelling.

Picoverse – Robert A Metzger (2002)


‘In the early twenty-first century, a team of scientists has done the impossible – ripped apart the fabric of space-time and created a brand new universe… one million-millionth the size of our own. Now they’re going to see where it takes them.


A big bang of and adventure’

Blurb from the Ace 2003 paperback edition.

Despite a cover filled with the usual plaudits and glowing praise from various quarters, Metzger’s novel of universe creation and alternate worlds ends up being a bit of a mess.
If one could imagine a story by Robert Reed being re-written by Gregory Benford then one might conceivably wind up with this.
Katie McGuire and Jack Preston are working alongside Professor Horst on a device called the Sonomak – a central gizmo into which forty-eight miniature particle accelerators are aimed. Horst is desperate for further funding for his research which is ostensibly aimed at creating nuclear fusion. However, at a demonstration, Horst decides to go for broke and runs all forty-eight accelerators. The resulting chaos, recorded on video, shows not only that the equipment has tied itself into a Carrick knot, but that odd things have happened on a subatomic level.
Horst is then approached by the mysterious Mr Quinn and a woman calling herself Alexandra Mitchell. These two are in fact immortal entities from the universe of The Makers; the beings who created our universe.
Meanwhile, Katie’s seemingly brilliant but autistic son Anthony seems oddly aware of the research experiment, which is an attempt by the immortal agents of the Makers to create a universe of their own and escape their masters.
So where does it all go wrong? The science, it has to be said, cannot be faulted. Several critics have praised the science. Gregory Benford, of all people, has provided a glowing review, from which one can only deduce that either Metzger is one of Benford’s pen-names or he has Benford’s children locked away with some sort of bomb and a digital timer.
The characterisation is very bad, and the motivation of the characters gets either so complex or so basic you want to shoot them.
When a new universe (or a picoverse) is created it is a duplicate of ours, but a lot smaller. Thus, in the first picoverse (where time moves much faster than ours) there was a duplicate Anthony who somehow made himself immortal, and then went insane. He calls himself Alpha.
Alpha then kidnaps the original Anthony and traps him in yet another universe. His mother gets such a maternal rage on that she is willing to kill billions of people to rescue her son. Metzger does not question the morality of this.
In the second picoverse, Alexandra (or one of them. It gets difficult keeping score) enlists the help of Stalin and creates a Soviet Communist world. Metzger thinks that the way to make us see the evils of communism is to show them as a people obsessed with ugly architecture, boots and bombing people. It’s very much a shallow one-sided debate. Like Benford’s woeful ‘Artefact’, one really shouldn’t waste a lot of time criticising the shallowness of this book, and one wouldn’t, had this not been nominated for awards.
Later, our heroes board an asteroid shuttle containing a functioning biosphere peopled by Neanderthals (why is not made clear). Initially the travellers discover that the Neanderthals are vicious and aggressive cannibals, but soon after we are expected to believe that these particular specimens are highly evolved creatures, far superior to homo sapiens. Two of the Neanderthals turn out to be alternate versions of Anthony, one of whom is the genetically re-engineered Alpha.
The denouement (just before which our amnesiac hero Jack remembers that he is an immortal from another universe) is sadly, just as confusing.
To be fair to Metzger, the scientific elements are handled in an exemplary fashion. This could have been an excellent piece of work had not the author attempted to combine the disparate elements of extra-universal superbeings and multiple copies of far too many central characters. This, coupled with the bafflingly swift changes of scene conspires to produce a work which annoys rather than excites.
One can only conclude that Metzger bit off rather more than he could chew. No doubt, in another smaller universe somewhere, a very good version of this novel is a best-seller.

The Werewolf Principle – Clifford D Simak (1967)

The Werewolf Principle

‘In the middle-distant future, Andrew Blake, discovered on a distant planet huddled inside a capsule, is brought back to Earth suffering from total amnesia.
Over 200 years old, he thinks and acts like a man but becomes frighteningly aware of two alien beings that lurk within his body – a strange biological computer and a wolf-like animal. With the latter in control he breaks out of hospital to look for his past…’

Blurb from the 1977 Pan paperback edition

Several hundred years hence, Man has colonised the nearer stars. A political debate is in progress in which Senator Chandler Horton is proposing to abandon long-term and expensive plans for terraforming in favour of adapting humans to fit the planets. His rival, Senator Solomon Stone is taking the exact opposite view, suggesting that standard humans would regard such adapted people as abhorrent monsters.
Into this world Andrew Blake awakens, a man with no knowledge of his past, and whose worldview seems to be two hundred years behind everyone else’s.
In this somewhat surreal future, men wear kilts and robes, houses fly about to settle in whatever plot takes their resident’s fancy and (quite annoyingly, one imagines) the various rooms have different personalities and argue with each other over what is best for their occupants.
Blake soon becomes aware of blackouts, after which he finds himself naked in the countryside. He subsequently meets a Brownie (a small rodent-like alien whose species has taken up residence in Earth’s countryside) who asks him how many of him there are.
The question only makes sense to Blake when he is exposed to the realisation that not only does he share his mind with two aliens, but that he is also a shapeshifter and can transform into their alien bodies.
These three distinct personalities are called Changer (Blake himself), Quester (a large wolf-like creature) and Thinker (an amorphic sexless entity which seems no more than an emotionless biological computer).
Unable to control the triggering of his shapeshifting, Blake goes on the run after his Quester form is seen and travels through an unfamiliar America two hundred years ahead of the background knowledge he has in his mind.
It’s interesting that Simak has chosen these archetypal personalities which seem to relate to classic views of the consciousness divided into Id, Ego and Superego, the wolf element being the subconscious, Blake being the conscious and Thinker being the level at which rational logic and calculation process facts. Quester also has the ability to ‘sense’ life on other worlds but lacks the intellect to analyse what he finds.
This is late Simak and for the time it was written, seems somewhat dated, having a flavour and style more suited to the Fifties. It is not short of ideas, however. Simak engages in the debate over terraforming versus humanforming and we are introduced to the Mind Bank, a repository of worthy human minds, which have been uploaded into a storage device and exist as both individuals and a gestalt consciousness.
Indeed, the central theme is one of identity and (in the Dickian sense) what it means to be human.
Blake ultimately discovers himself to be just a copy of a human mind, long dead. Quester and Thinker also deduce that their original bodies were destroyed since Blake is an android designed to scan and mimic alien species for Research purposes, one of only two constructed and sent out to alien worlds two hundred years ago.
Later, he finds that another copy of his consciousness exists in the Mind Bank. There is a strange anachronistic scene near the end where his disembodied self rings Blake up on the telephone. The denouement is satisfying although one suspects that Simak is trying to explore an idea which should have been introduced earlier.
The three personalities begin the process of assimilation in order that Blake can exist as one consciousness. Blake returns to space to search for something that Thinker discovered from Quester’s ‘sensing’ of space while they were (tellingly) in a country church; a thing Blake describes as ‘a universal mind’.
One cannot see that Simak is using this final chapter as some kind of Christian metaphor, although it could be read as such. Blake collapses into his Thinker form (behind a natural force field) in a church, and remains as good as dead until Elaine Horton (the senator’s daughter) comes to speak to him, generating a resurrection.
After a few days he ascends (in a ship) in search of God.
Despite its flaws it remains a book full of colour, atmosphere and wonder.

The Planet Savers – Marion Zimmer Bradley (1962)

The Planet Savers

‘One body, two minds, and a world in the balance

Austere Dr Allison was a surgeon specialising in the parasitology of the colony planet, Darkover. Antiseptic hospital walls were the limits of his world, and the virgin ranges of the planet and the human clashes of Terran and Darkovan were abhorrent to him.
Headstrong, impulsive Jason, raised by the semi-human aboriginals, loved Darkover as his only known home. Its forests, its mountains, its varied peoples were his own, and he chafed for freedom from the confines of the Terran trade city.
Now an epidemic raged the planet, destroying Terran and Darkovan alike. The cure lay somewhere in those mountains, known to the natives as The Wall Around The World. And the doctor and the adventurer had to cooperate to find that cure.
But it was impossible for them to cooperate. For they shared only one body between them.


Doctor Allison

The surgeon could save a world, if he could close up the gaps in his past.


The death of the body held no terrors for him, but what he faced was the death of the mind.

Regis Hastur

Because his mind held the power to save or kill, he was a walking legend.

Kyla Raineach

This Amazon guide scaled cliffs without fear, until Terran science taught her otherwise.

Buck Kendricks

The care and feeding of aborigines was not the realm of a Spaceforce man.

Randall Forth

How many minds did he find expendable in the fight to save an alien world?’

Blurbs from the F-153 1962 Ace Doubles edition

Bradley here introduces us to her Darkover series. In Bradley’s universe, humanoids evolved on various worlds and on Darkover were variegated between the ground-dwelling Darkovans and the Trail folk, who are arboreal in nature and seldom if ever spend any time on the ground.
Jay Allison was orphaned and brought up by the Trail folk as their own until it was felt that he should return to his own people.
It seems that Allison’s return to humanity had an adverse effect on him in that the man that became Dr Jay Allison has no recall of his life with the aliens and is clearly hostile toward them.
Dr Forth, however, manages to uncover a second personality called Jason, a personality that is needed in order to negotiate with the hostile tree-dwelling natives.
A disease is spreading among the human population, one to which the Trail folk are immune, and the one hope is to persuade some of the natives to return with an expedition to provide blood from which to make a serum.
It’s an interesting concept, that a dual personality could be used to perform separate functions, and Bradley handles it competently, although the rationale for the buried personality is a tad weak.
This appears to be Bradley’s first ‘Darkover’ novel, and I will be interested to read how the exploration of this world develops.

Chasm City – Alastair Reynolds (2001)

Chasm City

‘Tanner Mirabel was a security specialist who never made a mistake… until the day a woman in his care was blown away during an attack by a vengeful young postmortal named Argent Reivich.

Tanner’s pursuit of Reivich takes him away from his homeworld, across light-years of space, to the Epsilon Eridani system. There he descends into Chasm City, the domed human settlement on the otherwise inhospitable planet Yellowstone. But Chasm City isn’t what it used to be: the one high-tech Utopia has become a dark, Gothic nightmare, victim of a nanotechnological virus which has corrupted the city’s inhabitants as thoroughly as it has the buildings.
Now the city is a place of steam-driven machines, shadowy factions and deadly new games.
And before the chase is done, tanner will have to confront disturbing truths, not only about his own past, but about Chasm City itself: truths which reach back centuries, towards deep space and an atrocity history barely remembers.’

Blurb from the 2001 Gollancz paperback edition.

‘Chasm City’ is set long after the events in ‘Revelation Space’ and begins with mercenary Tanner Mirabel, engaged in a manhunt for Argent Reivich, the killer of his lover, Gitta, who was herself killed as an act of revenge for the death of Reivich’s family.
Tanner, trapped on a sabotaged space-elevator, manages to escape, but is injured and wakes up in a space-habitat run by Ice-Mendicants, a religious order who tend to those newly resuscitated from the frozen sleep in which travellers are transported between stars.
Much is told in flashback in this multiple first-person narrative novel, although oddly, some of Tanner’s memories are not his own.
They were, he believes, transmitted to him via a virus disseminated by a religious cult who worship Sky Haussmann, one of the founders of their planetary culture, and whose episodic life of madness, mass murder and manipulation is being transmitted to Tanner in his dreams.
Tanner’s real past is also seen in parallel with the virus dreams as he follows his nemesis to the twisted and hazardous Chasm City on Yellowstone.
However, all is not what it seems as the reader gradually becomes aware, being time and again surprised and enthralled by unexpected revelations and inventive wonders.
The theme of the novel is redemption and Reynolds manages to examine the concept via a convoluted and complex story of pursuit, revenge and counter-revenge, while examining the very nature of Self and Identity.
How long, it is asked, does someone who has committed an evil act have to live before their philanthropic actions atone for their past transgressions? Can one really be held accountable for crimes if one’s personality and memories are over-written or suppressed by the memories of someone else entirely?
It’s not a new idea of course. It was, for instance, the central premise of an episode of Babylon 5 in which a serial killer had his memories replaced and was invested with a new identity as a member of a religious order, a kind of psychological community service if you like. Reynolds, however, by setting up a dual timeline structure in which double sets of memories begin to increasingly disturb the narrator, creates a brilliant interweaving narrative which culminates in a thrilling showdown.
It’s good to see an author thinking seriously about the ethnic composition of future society. Where authors such as Heinlein and, more recently, Jack McDevitt envisage a galaxy populated by white Americans, Reynolds provides a thoughtful and intelligent extrapolation.
The populations of the ships of Haussmann’s flotilla speak a future variation of Portuguese and (at least in the case of The Santiago) have Hispanic names with notable exceptions such as Schuyler and Titus Haussmann.
It has elements of Shakespearean tragedy in that ‘The Man Who Kills The One He Loves’, by doing so, triggers an inevitable series of events which culminate in revelation, redemption and transformation.
It suffers only perhaps from a surfeit of characters, some of whom seemed far too thinly drawn – such as Chanterelle the Huntress and Sister Amelia, the Ice Mendicant – and some forced dialogue here and there, but these are small quibbles.
I don’t know if Reynolds means it as a homage but there are references in the text here and there to music of the Nineteen Seventies. The ring of space habitats which surrounds Yellowstone is (or was) called The Glitter Band. There is a also a gas-giant called Tangerine Dream and a later book which comprises of two novellas set in the same Universe is called ‘Diamond Dogs/Turquoise Days’
Cleverly, the slowly emerging revelation that Tanner is actually Tanner’s employer, Cahuella – rebuilt by the masters of augmentation, the Ultras – forces the reader to reassess Mirabel’s character and indeed Cahuella’s, since what we learn of Tanner from the outset is actually Cahuella working through Tanner’s persona. We are led to suspect that Tanner might actually be Sky Haussmann, but the final explanation of the full sequence of events is both ingenious and surprising.
The theme of identity seems to be a common thread in Reynolds’ work since in Revelation Space one of the revelations that the protagonist had to come to terms with was that he was not his father’s son but his clone; added to which was the nightmarish concept of the digitised father blackmailing his son into allowing him occasional possession of his mind.
Despite its deceptively slow start, Chasm City is an impressive achievement and leaves one pondering rather deep philosophical issues. Not many SF writers attempt such a thing, and few who do succeed so demonstrably.

The Lunar Eye – Robert Moore Williams (1964)

the lunar eye


The year was 1972 and on rocket bases in the parched deserts of California and the vast wastes of Siberia, the race for the moon entered its final, frenzied lap, Both America and Russia were ready to step out into space and all that seemed in doubt was which country would set foot on the moon first.

But unknown to both nations, a third force – a power far more insidious than any evil ever devised by a human mind – was plotting the destruction of any rocket that tried to touch the moon’s pitted surface.

The key to overcoming this plot against mankind was contained in the mystery of THE LUNAR EYE – and unless its secret could be unlocked, mankind would be forever shackled within the bounds of this planet.’

Blurb from the 1964 Ace Doubles paperback edition F-261

Just predating the moon landings, this piece is interesting in that it is written against the backdrop of the Russian/American race to reach the moon.
Art Harper and his brother Gecko run a gas-station which serves the traffic visiting the desert rocket base from which the US rocket will leave for the moon. Odd delays and accidents have occurred though, and the launch is behind schedule.
While in a diner, chatting to a tyre-salesman, Art receives a call from a mysterious woman who speaks in a foreign language and is surprised that Art has ‘not woken up’. The woman wants to delay a truck delivering vital supplies to the rocket base. Art refuses to help, and the truck subsequently crashes.
Art then discovers that he is not Art Harper at all, but a member of part of the human race that left Earth thousands of years ago and now live in a vast city on the dark side of the moon. Art’s people do not want anyone from earth landing on their world.
Art and his brother Gecko are subsequently taken to the Moon, where they (and the rest of the Earth) are put on public trial, and where the brothers have to convince the whole of the Lunar race that welcoming the people of Earth would be the best thing for everyone.

Rebels of The Red Planet – Charles L Fontenay (1961)

Rebels of the Red Planet

‘Dark Kensington had been dead for twenty-five years. It was a fact; everyone knew it. Then suddenly he reappeared, youthful, brilliant, ready to take over the Phoenix, the rebel group that worked to overthrow the tyranny that gripped the settlers on Mars.
The Phoenix had been destroyed not once, not twice, but three times! But this time the resurrected Dark had new plans, plans which involved dangerous experiments in mutation and psionics.
And now the rebels realized they were in double jeopardy. Not only from the government’s desperate hatred of their movement, but also from the growing possibility that the new breed of mutated monsters would get out of hand and bring terrors never before known to man.” (Summary from Project Gutenberg text)

This is a sadly under-rated novel, based on a Mars, which although colonised for some time, is in the grip of the Mars Corporation who control imports to sell to the dome-bound colonists. A revolutionary group, The Phoenix, attempted to break their monopoly some years back, both by genetically engineering humans to adapt to the Martian climate, and developing telepathic and telekinetic powers.
One of the Leaders, Dark Kensington, disappeared, while ‘Goat’ Hennessey, the scientist in charge of genetic engineering, was captured by Mars Corp. and now works for them.
Twenty-five years later, Dark Kensington appears to have returned, looking no older, and being pursued by Martian Government Agent S. Newell Eli, and the Terran agent, Maya Cara Nome.
Somewhat noir-ish in tone, the deceptively short novel rushes along at a breakneck pace, combining such disparate elements as Revolutionary groups based in a Martian barber’s shop, an ancient Martian race very reminiscent of the Bleakmen of Dick’s ‘Martian Time Slip’, suave revolutionaries, telekinesis, romance, breakneck chases across the Martian desert and strange human mutations.

The World of Null-A – AE van Vogt (1948)

The World of Null-A

‘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.