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One from SF's Golden Age ... hooboy!
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]
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?"
A TRIFLING OBSERVATION ON THE ARTWORK:
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.