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


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Gilbert is playing a game where the winner gets a chance to either lead the planet Earth or migrate to the utopia of Venus. Unfortunately for him, he soon realizes his memories are invalid and he’s just a pawn apparently working to battle current leaders and an array of shadowy puppeteers.

PROS: Excellent breadth of thinking, strong presentation of ideas.
CONS: Dated in some ways (colonization of Venus, for example).
BOTTOM LINE: One of the better sci-fi works written.

Centuries in the future, the world of man described by van Vogt can only be described as aspirational. There are still human frailties like greed and power-mongering, but many people have advanced beyond that. Eschewing Aristotle’s beliefs, the Null-A movement instead focuses on people who operate for the good of the global society at all turns. For example, when society lacks a doctor, people nominate themselves and the planet votes on the potential candidates. It is this idea that is van Vogt’s most interesting – a total selfless society that manages to work towards everybody’s overall success. And although it sounds communistic to me, van Vogt describes it as the height of democracy.

This book was written in the 1940’s and it is really enjoyable to read it remembering that many of the ideas presented here were new and fresh at the time of the writing. Massive supercomputers, robot-controlled planes, nuclear weapons, and the now hackneyed blaster weapons. The fact that it’s unlikely we’ll ever terraform Venus to the point where it is a near-utopia doesn’t bother me at all (unlike some others.) I guess it’s just easy for me to suspend my disbelief for stories like this – ones where I know the writer is being honest (in this case because he was imagining without knowing the truth.)

I enjoyed this book a lot and I would recommend it to any fan of classic science fiction.

12 Comments on REVIEW: The World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt

  1. Funny you mention the colonization of Venus. Van Vogt was the first author, in this book, to present the idea of terraforming (albeit he did not call it that). He does not propose that we go to Venus and find is a delightful arbor; he proposes that ice asteroids were orbited to collide with the lifeless planet to give it a hydrosphere and lower its temperature.

  2. My problem with Null-A was the premise being based on Aristotelian thought vs. non-Aristotle, and I don’t think the book did a very good job of making that premise clear, or easy to understand. I kept trying to read deeper into the plot and situations, to perhaps grab some philosophical bits or symbolism out of the premise, and there didn’t seem to be much. So then why base the premise on that at all?

    Too muddled and unclear for me. Slan was excellent though, I enjoyed that much better.

  3. I thought that Olaf Stapledon was the first to present the idea of terraforming, in “Last and First Men”. Oddly enough (IIRC), Venus is also the planet in question.

    Jack Williamson was the first to use the term “terraforming”, circa 1942 or thereabouts.

    Hmmm…I wonder if we could make the case the Jules Verne, in the “Off on a Comet” tales was actually the first?

  4. A suggestion for SF Signal reviews at large (and I’m trying to do this myself, at my site). How about the publisher and ISBN? That would help to follow up, at least we can tell how easy it is to get the book.

    Just Yet Another Annoying Thought.


  5. Hmmm…interesting idea, Fred. And more work for us! Great! 😉

  6. Ah, you are correct (or, at least, your recollection agrees with mine) Stabledon is before Van Vogt, and he did have his earthmen (The Fifth Race of Man? Or the Sixth?) terraform and colonize Venus, at the expense of the original inhabitants, an intelligent race of fish creatures who lived off of the decay of internal radio active atoms. The genocide of the Venereals afflicted the Sixth Men with a racial guilt.

    The little paragraph blurbs at the heading of each Chapter of NULL-A gives a short description of the general idea of general semantics: the blurbs Van Vogt wrote for the chapter headings of the sequel, PLAYER OF NULL-A (also called PAWNS) were a bit clearer.

    The basic idea is that the awareness of the innate limits of speach and abstract thought is necessary to avoid simplistic confusion. Keep in mind that every word and sentence is an approximation, and that two things that seem identicle in your model of the world in fact differ in many invisible respects, and this will prevent thinking in stereotypes. Most of the action of the book is presented as Gilbert Gosseyn overcoming each particular set of stereotyped and false pictures of reality with which he is confronted. At the end of the book, almost like an Oriental Boddisatva, his ability to overcome the illusion of timespace allows him control over teleportation, energy, and, as we discover in the very end, perhaps even death itself.

    It is a great book: if not the best SF ever, at least in the top ten. Even books that are better written and more famous, say, DUNE, for example, are not actually about the scientific method, not about the process of doubt and learning, which is the core of this book.

    But WORLD OF NULL-A can also be read as a thrilling noir style adventure story: mysterious amnesiacs, crippled superhumans, gangsters taking over the world government, hypnotic drugs and galactic invasions, super-powerful thinking machines, immortality, and a sultry femme fatale armed with an energy gun.

  7. That’s interesting. I try to keep spoilers out of a review and had a hard time with this one because I wanted to talk about some aspects of my interpretation of the work. Ultimately I decided that a review is not a critique, and as a result I pulled the commentary below.

    *** SPOILER ALERT ***

    I initially thought that the 3 incarnations of Gilbert were going to end up having meaning – that each of the 3 would tackle some obstacle of thought or advancement down the path to Null-A thinking. When it was determined that the third Gilbert would never show up, I lost track of that. At the very end when we learn of Gilbert’s real heritage, I never figured out if that growth of consciousness was intended or in fact realized in the book. I seriously considered reading the book again, however I was tempted away by another book (sadly, nowhere near as engaging as van Vogt) and didn’t.

  8. Please read the sequel! PLAYERS OF NULL-A is, in my opinion, a better read than WORLD OF NULL-A. Patricia Hardie turns out to be someone other than one might expect, and we learn more of ‘perfectly ordinary’ Venusian detective Eldred Craig, as well as the origin of the immortality technology.

  9. I recall the second sequel being kind of blah.

    Unfortunately, Players does not appear to be in print. Unless this Tor/Orb edition is an omnibus made up of the first two books?

  10. jeff lawrence // February 15, 2008 at 6:57 am //

    Could anyone discribe for me the Watcher, who or what would you say he is in Pawns of Null-a.:D

  11. Completely agree with Eric. Only after some hours of internet research into general semantics and aristotelian logic did I get an idea of what the book is about. It’s great when a book makes you go digg deeper into its philosophy or science. But it shouldn’t be necessary to understand the book. And even then, null-A is nonsense. Just know yourself and keep an open mind.

  12. I agree with one of the previous statements — the actual “Null-A” philosophy is NEVER made clear — it’s some amorphous way of thinking with no specific tenants or benefits… a mini-lecture on WHAT the philosophy is would have helped the reading experience….  The constant betrayals really annoyed me…

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