A.E. van Vogt – The World of Null-A

Title: The World of Null-A
Author: A.E. van Vogt
Year: 1948

Reader, in your hands, you hold one of the most controversial and successful novels in the whole of science-fiction literature.

Thus A.E. van Vogt opens his preface to this revised edition of his allegedly monumental masterpiece, the World of Null A. He introduces us to the successes and some of the feeble and useless attempts to destroy his greatness. He explains some of the core concepts of general semantics (such as that the map is not the territory and other abstractions). Then he says:

I think I presented the facts of general semantics so well and so skillfully in Null A and its sequel that the readers thought that was all I should be doing. But truth is that I, the author, saw a deeper paradox.

This must be the worst imaginable way of introducing a novel. I think I’m quite well-read in the area of science fiction and though it’s true that A.E. van Vogt is quite well-known, I think it’s an outright lie to say that this book is generally seen as “one of the most controversial and successful novels in the whole of science fiction literature”, even taken into account that the book was written sixty years ago. Since it’s the author himself who says this, I find this statement boastful, despicable and made me dislike the book and the author even before I started reading the story itself.

In addition to this, after I’ve read this story about a man who strives to understand who he is (he participates in a game to choose the next leader of the world, but he soon finds out that he isn’t who he think he is), and all along hoping that general semantics would be made clear and/or relevant, I still have no clue either to why the book is deemed to be successful or why any reader thought that he was good at explaining anything. If I don’t understand what’s going on after reading 200 pages, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad (it might just be my being obtuse), but it’s definitely not the pinnacle of explanatory and illuminating writing.

Still, I’ll try to disregard my contempt for the foreword and remove at least one layer of subjectivity. The author isn’t incompetent and it’s clear that he has an original idea and tries to write a novel about it (which is more than can be said Greg Bear‘s The Forge of God, which has nothing in common with the World of Null A except that I read one after the other). The style is quite fast-paced, but without anything that will make me remember either the characters or the story.

Perhaps I’m missing something, perhaps sixty years have showed that this novel isn’t as good as some people once thought it was, but I really don’t understand either the book or why it should be considered great (or even worthwhile the effort). Damon Knight, who subsequently went on to a successful writer’s career, wrote that “Van Vogt is not a giant as often maintained. He’s only a pygmy using a giant typewriter.” I don’t think it will take me any closer to stardom, but I’m prepared to side with Knight on this. The World of Null A gets one and a half snail for competent writing and something which might have been a good idea. As a lesson for other authors, don’t ever write a foreword praising yourself and your accomplishments to the hills, regardless of how highly you think of yourself.

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  1. Xhakhal’s avatar

    Speaking of forewords, I think Asimov did a nice one to a collection of short stories (I think it was to my audio recording of Robot Dreams, but I don’t remember which – it was a very old recording anyway) where he bordered a bit on praising himself – but didn’t really do it. Mostly, he just summed up what things he had become famous for, and why he was proud of them – and why he was a bit ashamed that he hadn’t made certain predictions (the microchip for instance). At first I thought it would be boastful, but in the end it was just funny; Asimov has a very good sense of humour, and manages to pride himself and make a joke on his own expense at the same time. That’s the right way to do it if you’re going to talk about yourself, I think, because almost as annoying (but only almost!) as boastfulness and self-praise are self-loathing and nervous, spineless timidity.

    Another good foreword is by Ursula K LeGuin to her novel ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ (good foreword; bad book) where she in the edition from… 2000-something left in her foreword from the eighties, where she explained some choices she made while writing the book, but went through it with a red pen (well not literally red, she put her corrections in foot notes, but anyway) and updated her thinking. “I was wrong here, I should have done like this instead”, and “This was pretty stupid, but I went with it anyway because it was better” and “This was relevant because of [fact]” and so on. Now that book demanded a certain kind of foreword because of the subject matter and the way she decided to adress it, but it was still one of the best forewords I’ve read – and it made me happy and made me take the book home from the library immediately.
    And then I never finished it since it was so bad. Disappointment galore.

    But of course ideally you have someone else writing the foreword for you. Someone you like and who likes you back! :D

    (and yeah thanks for letting me know I don’t have to read this book ;))

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    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      Asimov is the king of forewords and I wish I’ll have the opportunity to read more of this. I’ve read a few short story collections (this, this and this one)

      Reply

      1. Xhakhal’s avatar

        Your links don’t work. But I read your Asimov reviews a while back :)

        Reply

        1. Olle Linge’s avatar

          My comment was cut for some reason, this is what I wanted to post:

          Asimov is the king of forewords and I wish I’ll have the opportunity to read more of this. I’ve read a few short story collections (this, this and this one) with short forewords for each story, written by Asimov. These are witty and elegant, making them perhaps the best I’ve read by him.

          Regarding Le Guin, I agree. The Left Hand of Darkness is a book which is more interesting to read about than to actually read, although I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s bad (although it’s likely I would find it worse if I read it today). Here is my quite antique review. It should be noted that it’s one of the best titles in the history of literature, though. If you want to read something truly good by her, try The Dispossessed.

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        2. Martin Ackerfors’s avatar

          Men han skriver ju att den är bra, och författaren har ju alltid rätt!

          Reply

          1. Olle Linge’s avatar

            Man kanske borde lägga ordentligt med tid på att skriva förord i fortsättningen, alltså? :)

            Reply