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.”

Book Review: Dune

Book cover of Dune: the silhouette of a man walking across a series of desert dunes

Dune (Dune Chronicles, Book 1) by Frank Herbert

My first experience with Dune was watching part of the David Lynch-directed movie (1984). I didn’t see the movie in a theater; I watched part of it when it came to TV — which was in 1988, according to Wikipedia. I remember being confused by the story, and I didn’t last through the whole movie. (I was 16 years old in 1988.)

I didn’t get around to reading the book until this year, so it’s my second experience. And it lived up to the description of it as one of the masterpieces of science fiction. Actually, it’s a masterpiece of a story — forget about genre for a minute.

This is one of those books that I thought during reading, How the hell did the author create this? As a self-published writer who feels like an amateur, to me the experience was like watching a master magician’s show and scratching my head in wonder about how the tricks were pulled off.

Why do I say this? Because Frank Herbert invented a world with various forces acting upon each other, societies, and histories to form the story’s setting. This is akin to Tolkien’s inventing Middle-earth in which to place The Lord of the Rings.

“I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.”
Ernest Hemingway

However, Papa didn’t invent an entire, other-world for a story. Tolkien and Herbert created a huge mass of iceberg to support the tip that can be seen above the water’s surface.

I’m far from an expert in the Dune universe, but I’ll give it a go for the basics around this book…

At the start, House Atreides rules the planet Caladan. House Harkonnen rules Arrakis (Dune), a desert planet where “spice” is collected and shipped to all over. Spice is in demand for its ability to extend life, and to help see into the near future. The Emperor instructs House Atreides to leave Caladan and take over the rule of Arrakis. And, oh yeah, the Atreides and Harkonnens don’t care for each other.

House Atreides has Duke Leto, his “concubine” Lady Jessica, and his son Paul Atreides. Only 15 years old at the beginning of the story, Paul is the book’s main character. He is taught by his parents, as well as several mentors.

Lady Jessica is a Bene Gesserit, an all-female group that runs a school to teach keen powers of observation of others and control of their own bodies. Bene Gesserits act as advisors to the heads of Houses.

There are many groups, each with their own agenda to expand their power. The Houses, the Emperor, the Bene Gesserit, the Guild that controls travel among planets (they’re focused on commerce).

And there are the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, who have learned to live in the very harsh conditions of the desert.

That’s a tiny part of the iceberg. I won’t go further about the plot, since the delight of the book is experiencing events unfold. If you want a plot summary, there’s the Wiki page.

Also, in the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, episode 417 has a really good, in-depth discussion of the book — hosted by David Barr Kirtley with guests Andrea Kail, Rajan Khanna, and Matthew Kressel. The episode is available on Youtube, Apple Podcasts, and Spotify.

I’ll wrap up by saying that Dune has political strategizing, knife fights, careful walks over the desert, rituals and life of the Fremen, and trippy moments. And let’s not forget about those enormous worms.

I admired how much ecology Frank Herbert included about Arrakis. Not only does that planet have a delicate ecosystem, the same adjective could be applied to any ecosystem:

“A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche. A system has order, a flowing from point to point. If something dams that flow, order collapses The untrained might miss that collapse until it was too late. That’s why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences.”
— Planetologist Pardot Kynes, quoted in Appendix I: “The Ecology of Dune”

Herbert’s words were published in 1965, five years before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was established and the first Earth Day.

One almost-last thing! I never went back to watch the David Lynch movie of the book. Maybe I’ll check it out sometime. More importantly, there’s a new Dune movie directed by Denis Villeneuve. I don’t know when the movie will be released. I was excited seeing the trailer before I read the book, and reading the book made me look forward to the movie even more.

One last thing! The above swoon-worthy cover (yes, I typed swoon-worthy) was designed by Jim Tierney — and he created designs for the series. Please excuse my drooling.

Book Reviews: Tanweer Dar

Book covers for Neon Nightmares and The Man With No Name

I’m adding book reviews to my blog, since I love reading fiction in addition to writing it. I want to share the books I’ve enjoyed reading and talk about them here. I plan on reviewing self-published authors and traditionally published ones.

Today, the reviews are all about cyberpunk. Two books by Tanweer Dar that bring the reader into a society that’s heavy with technology and neon. But not all is fun and sparkling in those lights.

Neon Nightmares

In the blurb for this book, there’s the phrase: “What could possibly go wrong?” Well, lots of things. And this book tells stories of what could go wrong with technology. It gives us fuel for the nightmare of rats that become resistant to a virus engineered to wipe them out. And the nightmare of a robotic pet dog that isn’t cuddly. And the nightmare in Neon Dreams, a nightclub where you’re supposed to dance the night away — not dance to your death. These are just a few of the 13 stories in this book. When someone says a smart apartment would be so convenient, that you could tell the system to dim the lights, change the music, change the temperature, etc. Yes, that would be convenient. But Tanweer Dar is here to tell us those conveniences have dark sides, too.

The Man with No Name

Tan expands the cyberpunk vibe into a longer story with this novella. It’s dark and gritty and full of action.

The man with no name is the loner type of hero, similar to Western movies. He’s got a gasoline-powered muscle car instead of a horse (people in the city travel in electric vehicles). Flashbacks allow the reader to understand why he has no name and add depth to his character.

The environment is vibrantly described, so I could easily imagine the city of skyscrapers, rife with advertisements, as the characters zipped from one area to another — all the characters with individual agendas.

And when those agendas intersect, there’s a lot of action. Some characters want to keep control, some want to regain control, some want escape. Tan keeps them rushing toward those goals. Hold on to your seat or reading device or paperback book: this story is a fast-paced ride.

Emergence Published

I’m very happy to that my short story “Emergence” is published on 365 Tomorrows! It was actually published on May 31, so this announcement is several days late. Please check it out when you have a few moments. It’s a flash fiction, at just under 600 words, so it’s not a long read. It’s a science fiction story about a woman who escapes to a bunker during a missile attack.