It was Descartes, when asked “How do you know you exist?” famously replied: “I think, therefore I am.” Other responses possible, it nevertheless is impossible to respond with any more rational certainty. Descartes’ proof empirical, any system of logic is bound to fail in similar fashion. In the world of science fiction, Philip K. Dick is the writer who has perhaps capitalized most on this subjective aspect of existence. But he had his predecessors. Defying Aristotlian logic in favor of General Semantics with the goal of laying hands on existence and identity, A.E. van Vogt penned The World of Null A in 1948. The “controversy” that resulted only distracts from the (unintentional?) mark it set for Dick and other writers wrestling with certainty.
The World of Null A is the story of Gilbert Gosseyn. Considering himself of superior intelligence in the workings of non-Aristotlian logic, he goes to the giant machine that rules Earth to be tested. The result, however, is catastrophic—not in physical terms, rather existential. Discovering that his memories are false, he sets about trying to rectify the situation—to get to the bottom of who he is and which memories are real and which are false. The search by necessity taking him to Venus, he there discovers that even death cannot satisfy his quest. Reborn with memories intact (‘reappearing’ the best descriptor), his quest revives itself anew with each dead end. A larger plot in the solar system revealing itself while Gosselyn is in pursuit of his identity, getting at the heart of who he truly is soon has implications beyond just himself.
Philip K. Dick is the recognized master of slippery realities in science fiction. Any reader confronting Ubik or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch for the first has their brain oiled and then twisted sidewise. Whether drug induced or just plain subjective to the senses, his imagination takes the reader on a ride that begins in the mundane but at some point—only Dick knows—enters another reality, or two. The World of Null A exists along very similar lines. While van Vogt invests a noticeably stronger pulp sentiment into the plot, on a scene by scene basis Golleyn’s experiences are anything but concrete in terms of reality common throughout the novel. The hero put through his paces, van Vogt continually tests his ability to analyze and come to conclusions when offered evidence which only General Semantics can make sense of. I will not get into a discussion of General Semantics vs. syllogism, but suffice to say the result in presentation is a continually evolving sense of unreality. Through the middle section of the book the reader is particularly never sure where the narrative truly stands, which makes for intriguing reading.
Though rendered with some ungainliness and clumsiness, The World of Null A is still one of the author’s most engaging works ideologically and better written, style-wise. The sentences are not always hurled off the page at the reader, and due to the more probing nature of the story, has layers beyond much of his pulp-ish short fiction and novel work.
At several points in extra-curricular reading about The World of Null-A I found the word ‘controversial,’ including the first sentence of van Vogt’s own (unflattering) introduction to the revised edition:“Reader, in your hands you hold one of the most controversial-and successful-novels in the whole of science fiction literature.” Peering between the lines one can see the controversy is not as large as the internet and van Vogt’s self-aggrandizement would have it be. Damon Knight, whose opinion is not always founded in objective analysis itself, made some strong negative statements about the novel, putting van Vogt and his fanbase in something of an uproar. While Knight is certainly correct to point out that van Vogt is not a prose craftsman and his characters are not 3D, he missed the boat when it comes to critiquing the novel’s plot, character interaction, and backdrop. In short, I would love to hear what Knight has to say about Philip K. Dick’s works. As they too are dodgy in terms of contiguous reality, character flaws, and seemingly misused plot devices, I can’t help but wonder whether Knight, so steeped in pulp science fiction to that point in the genre’s history, hadn’t been brainwashed into thinking the best novels are those which are transparent, follow logically along A-B-C lines, and do not attempt to play narrative games or complexify theme. (I am aware Knight more sophisticated work, which makes his critique all the more confusing.) Certainly most of van Vogt’s other works are written in this more 'standard style,' and certainly van Vogt did himself no favors by ending Null A in pulp form, but this should not detract from the manner in which plot and character ambiguity complements the ambiguity of existence and identity. Presenting the idea that reality remains a highly subjective element of human existence, and that Aristotlian logic may not always be the best manner in which to tackle the resulting uncertainties, the novel artistically (yes, not an adjective often used with van Vogt) depicts such a scenario. Thus, whether the reader agrees or disagrees with the ideology, one can’t fault van Vogt for representing the philosophy in a story. The concept on the page runs parallel to the ideology intended, and for that the novel succeeds. As such, Knight would seem to be judging an apple with the criteria of an orange.
In the end, The World of Null-A is one of the science fiction’s initial ontological examinations into the subjectivity of reality. Ahead of its time genre-wise, it pre-dates the numerous works which have since followed that question the reality of reality. A somewhat atypical work for van Vogt, it balances examination of a ‘high concept’ with pulp sentiment: a galactic takeover scheme overlays a search for an individual identity and existence. I have my doubts whether the successful presentation of fractured reality is intentional (exactly as I have doubts surrounding the intention vs. reality of Dick’s masterpiece The Man in the High Castle), but the words on the page remain, and for that van Vogt may have penned his magnum opus.