Book Review: ‘The World of Null-A’

Cover of The World of Null-A, with the illustration of a head partially covered in shadow. In the background are drawings of a man and woman, as well as rocket ships and very tall trees.

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

I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. The set up for the book is large … The blurb on Amazon includes the bold sentence: “The entire careers of Philip K. Dick, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Charles Harness, and Philip Jose Farmer were created or influenced by The World of Null-A, and so it is required reading for anyone who wishes to know the canon of SF classics.”

Talk about lifting your expectations.

I enjoy Philip K. Dick’s (PKD) stories, and I can see the influence of A. E. van Voght’s book on PKD’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” That story was made into the movie Total Recall (1990) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, adding more action to stretch the story (which makes sense if you’ve got Arnold in the driver’s seat).

Back to The World of Null-A … I liked how the story started, with Gilbert Gosseyn about to join the games of the Machine, an immense structure comprised of 25,000 “electronic brains.” Winners of the games get to take a trip to Venus, which in this book is a forest planet. And if you do well in the games, you are chosen to be among the leaders on Earth.

A lie detector surprises our main character by saying he is not Gilbert Gosseyn, then adds that no knowledge exists in his mind about his true identity. So who is this guy? Through the rest of the book, the character is still called Gilbert Gosseyn as he searches for clues to his hidden identity.

The plot expands to include a cast of characters who are interested in Gosseyn, some of them thinking he has a role to play in an invasion from an empire that wants to take over Earth and Venus. Gosseyn jumps a couple times between those planets in his hunt for his true background. 

“Null-A” means “non-Aristotelian logic.” Some people in the book have had Null-A training and are supposedly able to think more rigorously and more nimbly than others.

A story around the novel is interesting … 

Back in 1945, author Damon Knight heavily criticized the book. Then, jumping to 1974, he offered context that softened his earlier criticism and gave a reason why some readers scratch their heads about odd jumps in van Vogt’s plots:

“Van Vogt has just revealed, for the first time as far as I know, that during this period he made a practice of dreaming about his stories and waking himself up every ninety minutes to take notes. This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.” Source: Wikipedia

I’m good with “dream consistency” — it’s part of why I enjoy Haruki Murakami’s stories. As for confusion: PKD’s plots also can be confusing at times, but they keep my interest. World of Null-A didn’t do that so well.

Scott Bradfield has an informative video about Null-A on YouTube. A broader discussion of van Vogt and this book is found in Dr. Gregory B. Sadler’s YouTube channel. He and a group chat about them as part of his “Worlds of Speculative Fiction: Philosophy, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.”

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