Thursday, 13 September 2012

The World of Null-A

A.E. van Vogt The World of Null-A (1948)
Just to get this out of the way before we begin, quite aside from the peculiar mention of someone called Tharg on page thirty-one of the Berkley edition - possibly the earliest albeit non-canonical reference to the editor of the galaxy's greatest comic - chapter thirty-two concludes with:
Gosseyn nodded absently. A few moments later he watched the three guards ease the vibrator into the elevator, and then Prescott motioned him to enter.

This vibrator seems to feature prominently towards the end of the novel, you may be interested to know. Snurf. Snurf.

I bought this because it's van Vogt and I've developed the habit of buying his books on sight on the grounds that it would be stupid not to even with a minor risk of brain damage. The World of Null-A proved irresistible through its reputation of being one of his weirdest, which is probably also why I'd put off reading it for so long.

The author's own introduction provides a testy defence against Damon Knight describing the novel as one of the worst allegedly-adult science fiction stories ever published in his essay Cosmic Jerrybuilder, although said defence comes across a little like Salvador Dali's later and less coherent ramblings explaining in third person how only Dali can do this because his thoughts are made of many golden circuits, with circuits pronounced cir-kweets as he rolls his eyes at the camera; but on the other hand:
There was in van Vogt's writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null A. All the parts of that book did not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think that's sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else's writing inside or outside science fiction... Damon feels that it's bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor. It's like he's viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he's building your house. But reality really is a mess, and yet it's exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe which is not to be feared.

Well, if Philip K. Dick thought it had something interesting going on, then chance is it's probably worth a look, I reasoned.

A.E. van Vogt had a thing about evolved humans, new modes of thought and the like, a fixation which even took him so far as a brief period of flirtation with L. Ron Hubbard's dianetics, for one example. The World of Null-A and its two sequels were inspired by and serve to somehow demonstrate Alfred Korzybski's theory of general semantics and non-Aristotelian logic, this being the Null-A of the title. General semantics actually looks a hell of a lot like plain old lateral thinking from my own admittedly uninformed standpoint, only revolutionary in context of more staid perspectives inherited from certain nineteenth century tendencies, but it seems like it made Alfred Elton happy so what the fuck?

Like much van Vogt, the language is demanding, dramatic to the point of absurdity, and dense; the narrative is often bewildering, not least when our main character is killed at the end of one chapter, then revealed as safe and well and living on Venus in the next; and the story is carried by an unsettling sense of drive, constant motion which never once lets up, or allows its reader to pause and wonder what the hell is happening or why. Imagine Patrick McGoohan breaking into your home, grabbing you by the shoulders and shaking you for fourteen hours solid whilst growling the scripts of all seventeen episodes of The Prisoner from start to end, possibly with The Residents covering John Barry in the background.

It can be hard fucking work at times, and it's certainly not for everyone, but it's undoubtedly unique, and probably in a good way. Of the now surprisingly numerous van Vogt novels I've read and enjoyed, The World of Null-A is possibly more coherent than Quest for the Future - if not quite so weird - and heavier going than either The Weapon Makers or The Mind Cage, but it certainly delivers in its own peculiar way. I still don't really get what the deal is with non-Aristotelian logic but it was fun not getting there.

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