Null-A Continuum

Reviewed: March 10, 2010
By: John C. Wright
Publisher: TOR Books
424 pages, $9.99

In this age of TV and movie sequels and reboots it should not come as any surprise that the work of well-known authors is getting the same treatment. Think of the continuing release of books under the names of Robert Ludlum and V.C. Andrews. Think of the recent mashups created by such works as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, or Dean Koontz’s reworking of the Frankenstein mythos.

Within the science fiction genre the recent prequel trilogy based on Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, or the continuing spate of Dune novels issued by Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, and his collaborator, Kevin Anderson, are recent examples.

Now we come to the works of Canadian born s,f, giant A. E. Van Vogt, whose visionary novels and short stories were at the top of a lot of reading lists from the 1940s though to the end of the 1960s. Van Vogt somehow managed to blend novels that seemed to be about ideas with plots that were fast paced and as convoluted as a maze.

His short stories, “The Black Destroyer,” and “Discord in Scarlet,” both of which became chapters of a fix-up novel (his term) The Voyage of the Space Beagle, was part of the inspiration behind the movie Alien, as 20th Century Fox basically admitted when they reached an out of court settlement with him.

Van Vogt’s World of Null-A and Pawns of Null-A were among his more famous works. Null-A stands for Non-Arisotelian thinking and is based on the real life theories of Alfred Korzybski. In Korzybski’s General Semantics, he stresses the idea that thinking based on the theories of Aristotle is two-valued, and that two-valued logic and reactions are insufficient for dealing with the multi-valued realties of human experience.

In the first novel a man called Gilbert Gosseyn (yes, it’s pronounced go-sane) is killed only to wake up in another body and find himself immersed in an intergalactic power struggle which he has to resolve through the used of his Null-A mentality. Oh - and it seems he has an “extra brain” which enables him to do a variety of amazing things.

In order to be able to appreciate what Wright was trying to do I had to go back and read the first two novels, which I originally read when I was in high school (Yes, I still had them on my SF shelves). They stood up surprisingly well after 43 years and even better when you realize that they were written 20 years before I first read them. They are still in print and available in half a dozen languages through any online book service.

There was a third book, written when the author was ill - he died from complications related to Alzheimer's Disease - and it is generally thought to be inferior. Wright would have read the original books when he was about the same age as I was, though about a decade later, and says it was Van Vogt’s work which made him decide he had to write SF.

Both he and TOR books have done a great job of recreating the look and feel of a Van Vogt novel. Even the cover art looks like the abstract Powers covers that were features of the 1960s. Wright has used not only the substance of the Null-A books, but worked in bits from a number of other Van Vogt works (The Book of Ptath and The Universe Maker come to mind)in taking this tale of interstellar war and political intrigue well beyond the point where his literary mentor left it.

Van Vogt liked to tinker with the nature of reality and humanity’s understanding of it. He liked to introduce a new plot twist with every chapter. He was so good at telling the tale that most readers would not notice how confusing his books were until they tried to sum them up after they had finished. Wright has followed this pattern, providing a faithful reproduction of Van Vogt’s style, tone and themes. He has done an excellent job here.

I do have a few critical observations to make, however. Van Vogt was, to my mind, at his best in the short story form. The longer the novel, the harder it was for him to sustain the pace and the sense of wonder. Since a lot of his novels were “fix-ups,” built of complete stories originally published in the pulp magazines of the day, only some of them (like Space Beagle) actually link up well without being shoehorned into place.

Wright’s novel is twice the length of any Van Vogt novel I’ve ever read, with the exception of his non-s.f. mainstream thriller, The Violent Man (also referenced in this book) which was set in Communist China. At that length the Van Vogt method becomes cumbersome and there were several points along the way where this time and space spanning adventure seemed like it bogged down, trapped by its own logic and like its hero, forced to wipe the slate clean and take a step sideways in order to continue.

For all that, I enjoyed it. Wright provided me with an excuse to revisit the kind of writing that set me on this road I’ve followed, and I appreciate that.