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on 3 September 2010
This is one of the best bad books I know.

It was first published as a three-part serial in the pulpy pages of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine during the second half of 1945, just after what was then regarded as the science fictional end of World War II. Considering the economics of scratching out a living as a pulp writer and the physical necessities of magazine publication in the heyday of the great Street and Smith pulps, it was probably written in the spring of that year. A couple of references to atomic power were, I think, hastily edited in just before the presses turned. (I have always rather fancied the atomic-powered flashlight that the hero totes for a couple of pages before it is forgotten entirely.)

Van Vogt's hero is a man whose name may or may not be Gilbert Gosseyn. At the beginning of the book, the poor schnook just wants to take a test to qualify for a job. Then things begin to go wrong, really wrong. First he gets killed, shot to pieces by machineguns, then he....

Years later, Alfred (a name he loathed) van Vogt said that he had stumbled on the name "Gosseyn" as the chief of some obscure Central Asian tribe. He had liked the sound of it: pronounceable, a bit exotic and vaguely Indo-European. He was absolutely astonished when the fans knowingly informed each other that he had meant the name to be taken as "Go-Sane."

This "Go-Sane" business arose from Van Vogt's placement of puzzling quotes at the beginning of each chapter. The quotes come from several sources, including his own editor at the magazine, but the ones everyone remembered were hacked out of "Science and Sanity: an Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics" published in 1933 by Alfred (that name again) Korzybski.

Korzybski has his legion of followers even today. (They tend to use such terms as "unrecognized genius" when referring to him.) Whether Korzybski was reconstituting human consciousness or selling intellectual snake oil, it must be admitted that the man had a memorable prose style. Here is a passage that Van Vogt did not happen to quote:

"What we know positively about `space' is that it is not `emptiness', but `fulness' or a `plenum'. Now `fulness' or `plenum', first of all, is a term of entirely different non-el structure. When we have a plenum or fulness, it must be a plenum of `something', `somewhere' at `sometime', and so the term implies, at least, all three of our former elementalistic terms. Furthermore, fulness, by some psycho-logical process, does not require `outside walls'." [Page 229 of the International Non-Aristotelian Library edition; italics omitted in deference to Amazon's software limitations.]

Now that may mean simply "the universe is neither empty nor bounded." On the other hand, it might also--or even instead (or both, of course)--mean "the Gostaak distims the doshes." It's hard to say which. Van Vogt quoted a lot of this stuff. The fans ate it up!

The serial was hugely successful. Before long, there was a sequel, "The Players of Null-A," that was almost equally popular. In 1948, "The World of Null-A" was the first pulp SF novel to achieve the dignity of book publication and, if the blurb on the back of this edition is to be believed, it hasn't been out of print since. I gather that years later Van Vogt wrote a third Null-A book, one I have never run across.

A. E. van Vogt was one of the leading luminaries of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. (Of course, the golden age of anything is about eleven.) He wrote stirring and memorable stuff. While the war was still being waged in the Pacific, he wrote a series of novelettes for Astounding about a far-ranging space vessel called the Beagle, commanded by a sympathetically portrayed Japanese captain. (In those days, that was a brave act.) The stories were gathered together in a book called "The Voyage of the Space Beagle." Read it today and you will never again regard either the movie "Alien" or the first series of "Star Trek" as having the slightest shred of originality about them.

Van Vogt's specialty, and the thing the fans most wanted from him, was the plot of almost maniacal complexity, of enigmas wrapped in hidden agendas, of wheels within wheels within hidden wheels, of characters wearing whole wardrobes of masks for the purpose of discarding one after another. Take this passage as a typical example. The speaker is Patricia Hardy, daughter of the President of Earth, to whom Gosseyn (apparently) falsely believed he was married before her death, which took place before the novel starts--of course. She had helped him leave the presidential palace in the botched escape attempt that had resulted in him being killed ... the first time. This is their second meeting and, the thing is, he's a bit confused:

"The truth is that your lack of personal knowledge has puzzled all groups. Thorson, the personal representative of Enro, has postponed the invasion of Venus. There! I thought that would interest you. But wait! Don't interrupt. I'm giving you information I intended to give you a month ago. You'll want to know about `X.' So do the rest of us. The man has a will of iron, but no one knows what his purpose is. He seems to be primarily interested in his own aggrandizement, and he has expressed the hope that some use can be made of you. The Galactic League people are bewildered. They can't decide whether the cosmic chess player who has moved you into the game is an ally or not. Everybody is groping in the dark, wondering what to do next." [Page 110-111]

Oh, yeah!

And let it not be thought that Van Vogt had to depend on Korzybski for puzzling statements. He was pretty good at it himself:

"The problem," Prescott [Deputy Commander of the "Greatest Empire" invasion force] continued, frowning, "is greatly complicated by a law of nature, of which you have probably never heard. The law is this: if two energies can be attuned in a twenty-decimal approximation of similarity, the greater will bridge the gap of space between them just as if there were no gap, although the juncture is accomplished at finite speeds." [Page 173]

Pay attention! You WILL be tested on this.

Finally, Van Vogt finishes the book with a five word sentence that is one of the great pulp endings, comparable to his own "Poor superman!" in "Masters of Time" or to his friend L. Ron Hubbard's, "God? In a dirty bathrobe?"

The cover shows the original painting that graced the issue of Astounding Science Fiction in which the serial version began. It is by Hubert Rogers, one of the stalwarts of the era. He also provided black and white line illustrations for the interior pages.

This is the true look of the pulp era.
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on 14 October 2014
This is, we are told, van Vogt’s masterpiece. “Without doubt one of the most exciting, continuously complex and richly patterned science fiction novels ever written” effuses Groff Conklin on the back of my 1970 paperback edition. “This book changed my brain,” exults one reviewer. Of course, Damon Knight famously didn’t like it (“one of the worst allegedly adult scientifiction stories ever published”) and, on the whole, neither do I.

It’s not that it isn’t exciting. Gilbert Gosseyn, a man with implanted false memories of his past, a man who can die and return to fight again, stumbles upon an alien conspiracy to take over our solar system. The people of 26th century Earth have embraced the General Semantics of Alfred Korzybski and are now adept at non-Aristotelian thinking, which would seem to make them a logical target for a galactic empire, whose leaders aren’t quite such clever clogs. A convoluted chess game develops between hidden players, in which the pieces constantly switch sides and betray each other. What’s not to like?

First we need to remember that, even at his best, van Vogt was a fairly dire writer. Plot and action proceed independently of each other, the latter only occasionally helping to move the story forward. None of the characters display the faintest hint of a personality. There is very little description of the technological marvels of this future earth; van Vogt just mentions planes and cars and cameras and leaves you to work out how they were powered, what they looked like, etc (except every now and then when, out of the blue, everyday items are abruptly labelled “atomic-powered”). Conversely, we get far too much description of the protagonist’s frame of mind, usually in the form of exotic phrases like “His nerves were steady as lead, that stable element” and “Fear must derive from the very colloids of a substance”. And any modern author who voluntarily comes out with a sentence like “The thought in its implications was wide enough in scope to activate the integration ‘pause’ of his nervous system,” needs to be waylaid in a dark alley by half a dozen burly editors and vigorously set right.

The story started as a garrulous (or, to quote Knight again, “pretentious, foolish, wildly complicated and self-contradictory”) serial in ‘Astounding’. To turn it into a novel, it was savagely pruned back and rewritten, making it at times incoherent and hallucinatory. A second rewrite in 1970 resulted in a story that does at least make some sense, if only intermittently.

But the real problem is with this whole idea that null-A mental processes turn one into a cerebral superhuman. Gosseyn showcases his intellectual skills by constantly failing to spot the obvious, repeatedly getting captured (during which time his enemies helpfully bring him up to speed with what’s happening), occasionally tying up helpless women and being led around by the nose from beginning to end. If you’re going to have a super-intelligent hero, try not to make him such a nitwit. As it is, the only inhabitant of Earth that seems to have noticed the stealth takeover of the planet isn’t human but a computer: “I see you are trying to stop aliens from taking over all the planet’s senior administrative positions. Would you like help with that?” No, it didn’t say that; if only it had.

This novel may have stood out in the 1940s, when SF more usually took the form of pulp space operas. It suffers by comparison with the works of writers who flourished in the following decade – Asimov, Clarke, Pohl and Heinlein, et al. It wasn’t Knight who ended van Vogt’s career, as is sometimes claimed; the world of SF simply moved on and left him behind.
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on 14 August 2006
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.

Nearly sixty 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.

Interstingly, 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.
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on 23 March 1997
This book changed my brain. The story centers on the 'life' of Gilbert Gosseyn (Go-Sane), a man with a very special brain. As a contestant in the Game, a challenging test of one's ability to master Null-A (non-Aristotelian logic), Gilbert hopes to achieve one of the better prizes, citizenship on Venus or even the Presidency. But a conspiracy of shadowy players and public figures have other plans for Gilbert and his special brain. Gilbert is a surprisingly resilient challenge to their power. And a great surprise to himself, as well. As he discovers more about himself, he also learns more about a larger game being played by hidden masters who control whole galaxies.
At first a humble and unwitting pawn, Gilbert is quickly promoted as he progresses through the ranks in unorthodox and interesting ways.

In addition to the great pulp-style sci-fi story, A.E. Van Vogt adds a lot of interesting semantic theory by beginning each chapter with a quote for Alfred Korzybski's work SCIENCE AND SANITY. "The Map is not the territory it represents" is one of the shorter, and most easily understood. They get progressively more challenging, mirroring Gilbert's story. The Korzybski excepts are worth the price of the book alone. If you're interested in a good old sci-fi tale with conspiracies, space battle and other planets, as well as some thing which actually challenges your own mental processes, check it out.
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on 1 July 1998
In this book (and its sequel, "The Players of Null-A") you get twice the content for the price of one:
Sure, the SF story is pretty interesting, and the mystery of Gosseyn's 'true' identity is engrossing, too. But in addition to that, you get a fun introduction to a discipline that could change your life: general semantics.
Keep in mind how much Gosseyn had to study and train to even have a shot at scoring well in the Games. GS isn't easy. But you might find out that it's worth the effort.
Check out Korzybski's "Science and Sanity," for a Complete change of pace. The original source for van Vogt's ideas about general semantics, a lot tougher to read, and an invaluable guide for how not to be Nuts.
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on 13 January 2013
Original and amusing. Recommended for sci-fi readers or philosophy fans and an interesting lecture for anyone else. Adventures in a Non-Aristotelian world.
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on 3 April 2002
The world of null-A is a twisting thriller revolving around its central character Gilbert Gosseyn. Gosseyn finds himself caught up in the middle of a plot which could change the galaxy forever and which only he can stop.
This is the third book by A.E Van Vogt i have read and once again he has amazed me with his ability to bring the reader completely into his world. This book is excellent from start to finish and i find that with so many complex characters, plot twists and interesting environments, it is almost impossible not to feel immersed in this tale of inter-galactic espionage.
Very hard to put down, another Van Vogt classic
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on 15 December 2013
Purchased as a gift. As described.
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on 16 January 2016
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