Astounding Stories #8: The World of Null-A
Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here.
If you were going to invent a pulp science fiction writer who went on to become the founder of a worldwide religious movement, working solely from first principles, you’d probably end up with someone less like L. Ron Hubbard than like A.E. van Vogt. And the lives of the two men paralleled each other in surprising ways. They were born almost exactly one year apart, and they both entered science fiction relatively late, after working extensively in other genres—Hubbard in adventure and western fiction, van Vogt in confession stories. (Van Vogt later said: “When I wrote confession-type stories, every sentence…had to contain an emotion in it. For example, you don’t say, ‘I lived at 323 Brand Street.’ You say, ‘Tears came to my eyes as I thought of my tiny bedroom at 323 Brand Street.’”) But the different paths by which they ended up in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction are revealing in themselves. Hubbard wandered in because he was invited to contribute stories by the upper management, and he wasn’t about to turn down a new market, although he had little instinctive feel or love for the field; van Vogt was galvanized by the release of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, the first half of which he read, unbelievably excited, while standing up at a newsstand. From the beginning, you can see the difference: Hubbard is professional but mercenary, falling back on the same easy formulas and twists, while van Vogt writes the way he does because he can’t seem to help himself.
This isn’t to say that van Vogt lacked a working writer’s pragmatism: he structured his plots in chunks of eight hundred words, with new developments or complications arriving like clockwork, and he carefully studied such manuals as John Gallishaw’s The Only Two Ways to Write a Story. Without that kind of scaffolding, his stories would disintegrate or fly apart out of centrifugal force into their component pieces, as they constantly threaten to do. Van Vogt was simultaneously the crudest and most advanced of the science fiction writers of his generation, and his work is often bewildering. Stories like “Black Destroyer” or “Vault of the Beast” leave you feeling as if you’ve lived through an experience that you can’t entirely explain, and it’s hard to tell where a simple lack of polish shades into a deliberate tone of alienation, or an agonized attempt to work out ideas that can’t be expressed in ordinary ways. Hubbard’s acolytes like to say that he used his writing to fund his serious research, and that his work reflects his ongoing interest in the mind, a claim that isn’t sustained by the stories themselves: he never shows much of an interest in ideas beyond what he needs to get from one sentence to the next. (The most generous interpretation is that he wanted to keep his theories to himself, out of fear that Campbell would try to take them over—a concern that was more than justified by what actually happened with dianetics.) But other writers seized on the opportunity that science fiction afforded to explore tangled philosophical concepts in a popular setting, and none did so more feverishly than van Vogt.
It all culminated in The World of Null-A, a serial published in 1945 that looks more or less as you’d expect an attempt to incorporate elements of non-Aristotelean logic into a pulp context to look—that is, like an utterly insane mess. To say that the plot defies summarization isn’t just a figure of speech. It opens with its hero, Gilbert Gosseyn, preparing to enter “the games,” a series of tests that will determine whether he is mentally advanced enough to join a colony of enlightened citizens on Venus. (Gosseyn, like the other members of the upper classes, has been trained using the general semantics of Alfred Korzybski, who in the world of the story is revered as something like a prophet.) In a succession of chaotic developments, Gosseyn discovers that he isn’t who he thinks he is; that all his memories are false; that he’s the target of a conspiracy that involves the President of the United States and his daughter, designed to destroy the machine that keeps civilization on its course; and that whenever he dies, which he does more than once, he’s resurrected in a new body. And this is all before he also realizes that Earth is a strategic planet in a struggle between two competing factions of the Galactic Empire, that he himself contains both a supercharged “extra brain” and the secret to immortality, and that he can only learn the whole truth if he tracks down a mysterious figure called X. There is much, much more, and the result, by any measure, is the weirdest story ever published in Astounding. As Campbell wrote in a note to readers: “Two days after you finish the story, you’ll realize its size more fully.”
In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Peter Nicholls and John Clute refer to van Vogt and Hubbard as “the two rogue members of the early Campbell pantheon.” This is correct, up to a point, except that Hubbard’s stake in the genre was rarely more than opportunistic, while van Vogt was closer to an inspired madman who drew heavily on his own dreams. He was the single greatest influence on Philip K. Dick, which puts him near the heart of science fiction’s main line of development, but, like E.E. Smith, he’s a major figure who remains largely unknown outside the field. It’s possible to link his relative obscurity to Hubbard as well: in 1950, the Los Angeles branch of the Hubbard Dianetic Research Foundation was all but thrust into van Vogt’s hands, taking him out of science fiction for most of a decade in which writers like Asimov and Heinlein were making incursions into the mainstream. If his career hadn’t been derailed, he might well have attained the cultural prominence that he deserves—although he may also have been too weird, too intense, and too unclassifiable to fit comfortably within conventional boundaries. In The World of Null-A, van Vogt writes: “Countless billions of people had lived and died without ever suspecting that every word they spoke, or that was spoken at them, had helped to create the disordered brains with which they confronted the realities of their worlds.” And for all his flaws, he came closer to any writer of his era to revealing a reality unlike the one we take for granted, and to affording us a glimpse of our own disordered minds.