A.E. van Vogt

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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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