Friday, December 15, 2017

The World of Null-A - A.E. van Vogt

He waited till the blazing beacon of the Games Machine was like a raging fire below him, then slightly behind. He saw the vaguely shaped buildings of the presidential residence just ahead. When the plane was almost over the palace, he pulled the trigger of the exit door.

Instantly he was falling though the foggy darkness.

So, let me see if I can get this straight. I’m warning you now that you need to buckle in and hold on tight because this dang novel careens all over the place! And spoiliers ahead, so you may want to skip some of the stuff below.

Our hero, Gilbert Gosseyn, arrives at the city of The Machine, in the World of Null-A (the planet Earth), to participate in The Games. During the month-long duration of The Games, there is no police protection for citizens. All citizens can join in the Games, wherein their future roles in society are determined through an analysis of their performance level in The Games. Within his first day Gosseyn is accused of being an imposter by another contestant. Gosseyn’s memories of his dead wife, Patricia Hardie, are denied. It’s revealed that the real Patricia Hardie is alive and living in the presidential palace of The Machine with her father Micheal Hardie, the President of Earth. Gosseyn allows himself to be subjected to a Lie Detector (you’ll learn that there are no shortages of Lie Detectors in this novel) which reveals that his identity as Gosseyn is phony, but that his real identity is too embedded to reveal itself. Gosseyn is then evicted from the hotel where he’s staying. Wandering through the city he meets a young woman calling herself Teresa Clark, who tells him she’s unprotected and fleeing from her boss after refusing his advances. Gosseyn and Teresa spend the night in a park. The following day, they go together to The Machine to participate in The Games where it’s Gosseyn’s hope that his performance will earn him a position on the planet Venus. He sees Teresa sneaking away from the Games to enter the Palace. That night, they meet again in the park where he decides not to let on that he’s suspicious of her. It doesn’t matter because he’s suddenly arrested and taken by flying car to the Machine where he learns that Teresa is really Patricia Hardie, the President’s daughter! He’s taken into an interrogation room where he meets Jim Thorson and another strange, half-cyborg dude referred to only as X. An attempt is made by Thorson and X to penetrate Gosseyn’s memory blocks to discover his real identity. It fails and Gosseyn is confined to a cell, where he’s quickly sprung out of by a sneaky Patricia Hardie who hides him in her private chambers. There, she’s visited by someone named Eldred Crang. Teresa…er, I mean Patricia Harding, and Crang discuss some political intrigue while Gosseyn remains hidden, listening to them. A conspirator named Prescott is mentioned by Crang. Gosseyn’s eavesdropping is interrupted by guards barging into the chambers looking for him. He leaps over the balcony onto the palace grounds and attempts to flee but is blasted by flaming ray-guns and is killed. Next thing Gosseyn knows is he wakes up in a forest on the planet Venus!

Are you still with me here?

Gosseyn follows a light to a house which is conveniently occupied by Prescott and his wife. Yup, this is the Prescott who is in cahoots with Crang, back on Earth, or Null-A, or just…whatever. Gosseyn jumps Prescott and his wife, and tries to get the scoop from them on what the hell is going on. Prescott says that he needs to see a guy named Eldred Crang, who lives on the other side of the forest. Gosseyn leaves Prescott tide up and takes his wife with him as hostage, then lets her go, and finds Crang’s residence on his own. Crang is gone, so Gosseyn hangs around his place reading books and sleeping and eating. After a couple days Crang shows up with detectives and arrests Gosseyn. Crang wants to know how Gosseyn is alive on Venus after being killed on Earth. They all climb into a ship and travel back to Earth, to the Machine. At the Machine Gosseyn is returned to Thorson and X and is taken to a room where he’s allowed to see his own dead body. Also in the room is Prescott’s wife for some reason. Patricia Hardie and her father show up and everyone is agitated about a conspiracy and how Gosseyn plays into it, but things go no further than that because everyone collapses by an invisible gas emitted through the air conditioner by Prescott. But Gosseyn doesn’t succumb to the gas because he was given an antidote ahead of time by Prescott. Unfortunately, Prescott’s wife dies, so Prescott goes sort of berserk and blasts X, President Hardie and some guards, with his ray gun and is just about to kill Thorson when Gosseyn disarms him. They escape and leave the palace together in a getaway car. It’s determined that Gosseyn should see the brilliant psychiatrist Dr. Kair who may be able to get past all the blocked memories to discover who Gosseyn really is and how he fits into this whole plot. At Dr. Kair’s office, Gosseyn undergoes a battery of Lie Detectors (remember those?) that indicate he has a second brain that has untapped potential to alter the course of events. Gosseyn uses his Null-A training to figure out that Prescott never intended to kill Thorson, and just wanted to frame Gosseyn for the assassination of President Hardie. Knowing he can’t trust Prescott, Gosseyn and Dr. Kair tie him up and take off for Dr. Kair’s island retreat where Gosseyn can further train his 2nd brain. Halfway there Gosseyn decides he needs to return to The Machine instead, so he rigs Dr. Kair’s plane to reverse course while Kair is asleep and he steals a parachute and bails out midair. Before doing so, he leaves the sleeping Dr. Kair a note telling him to place an ad in the personals column should he need to contact him for any reason. Back at the Machine, Gosseyn hooks up with Patricia Hardie again and she informs him that Venus and Earth are under invasion by men from another star system and that he needs to work with Crang to somehow halt the invasion. It turns out that her father was a tool for X and Thorson, and that Thorson is leading the invasion. But in order to help Crang, Gosseyn has to commit suicide so that his third hidden body, Gosseyn III, can come to life and utilize the full potential of his 2nd brain. Gosseyn checks into a hotel and hypnotizes himself to commit suicide, but instead he receives telepathic messages from the Machine informing him that he must not kill himself because the Machine is under attack and Gosseyn’s hidden 3rd body has been destroyed.

Gosseyn and Crang return to Venus where Crang explains the whole invasion plan to Gosseyn and that Thorson is leading the charge to wipe out Venus and Earth. While on Venus they see the Venusians, who are really Null-A Earthlings, halt the invading forces using guerrilla warfare tactics. They return to Earth to discover the Machine and the Palace are in ruins, on the edge of total annihilation. Crang takes Gosseyn to see Patricia Hardie again where Gosseyn ties her up to find some kind of machine named The Distorter that blocks transmissions or something like that. Patricia Hardie tells Gosseyn that to halt the invasion once and for all he needs to go to a hidden chamber of the Machine and see a man with a beard. She doesn’t know the guy’s name; just that he’s old and has a beard. Gosseyn is captured by Prescott before he can get there and is used by Prescott to infiltrate the remaining strongholds of The Machine. Gosseyn pulls a trick play on Prescott, thanks to some handy telepathic communication from within The Machine. Gosseyn kills Prescott, gets inside The Machine and finds the man with the beard who turns out to be X whose real name is Lavoisseur. Lavoisseur founded the philosophy of Null-A back 500 years ago and has remained alive by living through several bodies after each body dies. Together, Gosseyn and Laviosseur beat the invasion by means of The Distorter, but Lavoisseur succumbs to injuries and dies before he’s able to tell Gosseyn who Gosseyn really is. Gosseyn mourns the death of Lavoisseur for a few minutes before thinking he recognizes Lavoisseur from somewhere. He gets a razor and shaves off Lavoisseur’s beard and recognizes his own face!

Gosh, the only thing this whole plot was missing was a dwarf in a top hat running around randomly kicking people in the ass! I guarantee you that I didn’t get some of that plot correct, and I just finished the book a day ago. It goes without saying that this book has a lot going on in it. Too much going on, actually. There is so much going on that you’re never really grounded in understanding anything. At least I wasn't. Maybe I'm getting old. I have no idea what Null-A means other than it’s Non-Aristotelian logic, I think.

But so what? That doesn’t mean anything to me. And I gave up keeping track of the double crosses and switcheroos performed by Prescott and Patricia Hardie and the rest of the gang. But whatever! The World of Null-A is considered something of a Golden-Age Classic and I’m not gonna be a jerk and shoot it down. Because, in the end, it was kind of fun reading the damn thing.  

It was first published in serial format in Astounding Science Fiction in 1945. At the time Astounding was edited by John W. Campbell who is credited by many as the main guy who oversaw what’s been called the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Campbell took science fiction away from pulpy, melodramatic space-opera type stories into more serious, science-based stories in Astounding. If you couldn’t meet his high standards, you didn’t get published by him. Certainly, there was plenty of space-opera still around. I have a few issues of Astounding from the 1930’s and completely dig them, but they were before Campbell’s time, mostly. Campbell brought writers like A.E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon into the field. He was a huge influence on Isaac Asimov’s early writing. He also got into Dianetics and published L. Ron Hubbard’s early articles on the subject. A.E. van Vogt also jumped onto the Dianetics field. Maybe someone with more expertise than me can say if Null-A is a response to Dianetics, since the novel was dedicated to Campbell.

My version of this novel was published in a hardback collection of 3 novels by A.E. van Vogt. The original owner of my book was kind enough to leave a note inside the cover informing me that he finished reading it on September 9th, 1963. My intent is to follow this post up with the remaining novels in the collection, Voyage of the Space Beagle and Slan. But who knows…I ain’t the most reliable kid on the block.


  1. I've read this novel twice and it is a fun read but a complicated mess that makes very little sense at all. Damon Knight wrote a famous article criticizing and poking fun at it. It's in his big book of criticism published by Advent.

  2. Hi Walker, Thanks for the comment! I've heard about that Damon Knight article and would like to read it. I had a good time reading Null-A, even thought it's all over the place. I typically have fun reading A.E. van Vogt's novels, flawed as they are.

  3. I read this and its sequel but in reverse. As you say fun but flawed. Self referential in a bad way overall. I don’t think it was a response to dianetics, which came later. Try his ‘The Mixed Men’ and Weapon Shop/Isher series. All started in Astounding. Novellas and short stories fixed up into novels.