Dense, Ornate, Pretentious, Frustrating and Intimidating

Book Review for NULL-A CONTINUUM from Ain’t It Cool News.
It is not exactly a negative review. It is sort of a grudgingly good review. The reviewer (Adam Balm, I think) seems to admire my gumption, even if he thinks my writing can not mesh the elements I was trying to juggle. He calls it “brilliant , brave, and boundary-pushing”, but I think he sees the weakness of my headstrong, half-mad attempt to write a 1940’s tale of superscience in 2008. I make no apology. I was drunk on writer’s ink.

Why did I write this book? Oh, I can tell you that!

I really wanted to write the scene where the dread shadow-being known as Follower is in a Null-A psychiatry institution, where the Venusians are trying to rebuild his amnesia-shattered brain. I wanted to see Enro the Red, ruthless space-dictator of the Greatest Empire, kill someone just with the space-distortion side-effect of his clairvoyance. I wanted to find out what happened to “X” the Uknown, even though he seemed to be dead. I wanted to find out where Gilbert Gosseyn actually came from, and what might be his ultimate destiny a billion years from now. And, yes, I wanted to know who the Chessplayer was, the mysterious being who plucks down Gilbert Gosseyn like a pawn of the chessboard of cosmic events, and drives him into strange battles with unknown foes. I especially wanted the cool-eyed and beautiful Patricia Hardy to pull out her small and deadly electron-gun, glittering like a jewel, and cover the man who may be her deadly enemy or her long-lost lover. That is a woman like they don’t make any more these days.

If you had the chance to write a book with characters like that, ideas like that, a wild, labyrinthine, van Vogtian plot like that, in the name of sanity, wouldn’t you?

In any case, the tough-but-fair reviewer here does not say that if you like Van Vogt you’ll like my book, but he does say that if you are confused and enraged by Van Vogt you’ll be confused and enraged by my book, which I suppose was what I was trying to achieve. Fair enough. He’s got  a point.

by John C. Wright

This is why they keep making sequels to dead people’s novels. This is the second time van Vogt has received the treatment. I reviewed SLAN HUNTER around the same time last year. Kevin J. Anderson was a safe choice, his DUNE sequels didn’t even try to reach the heights of Frank Herbert, they just tried not to be boring. SLAN HUNTER, the sequel to van Vogt’s SLAN, was more of the same. It was faithful to a degree, but not terribly inventive in its own right. John C. Wright on the other hand, also doesn’t try to reach the heights of A.E. van Vogt’s Null-A series, (THE WORLD OF NULL-A, THE PLAYERS OF NULL-A, NULL-A THREE) he tries to surpass them.

Outside of THE TIME SHIPS, this is probably the most ambitious ‘sequel by another hand’ to a science fiction book that I have ever read, and that’s saying a lot. Van Vogt was dense, ornate, pretentious, frustrating and intimidating. He lived by the maxim that you should have a new mind-shattering idea at least every five hundred words, which doesn’t make for the easiest night table reading. He was denounced loudly in the pages of Astounding for being incomprehensible and deliberately obfuscating. Damon Knight wrote his famous repudiation, which didn’t stop THE WORLD OF NULL-A from becoming the first modern science fiction released in hard cover and one of the biggest sellers of its time. WORLD OF NULL-A probably single handedly set the stage for Philip K. Dick, Sam Delany and pretty much the entire New Wave. Every time you see a hero who wakes up with no memory of who he is, unaware of what in his life is illusion and what is reality, you are seeing van Vogt. He pioneered the exploration of innerspace, and he suffered the familiar curse of a man too ahead of his time. A prophet is never accepted in his own country.

The word ‘NULL-A’ itself refers to “non-Aristotelean logic”, which was supposed to do for logic and philosophy what the non-newtonian and non-euclidean revolutions did for physics and geometry respectively. But it didn’t really turn out that way. It was a fringe school of thought, when General Semantics came on the scene, rejected by academia, nearly laughed out of existence, and interestingly, became the main inspiration for L. Ron Hubbard’s dianetics, and the Church of Scientology. If not for van Vogt, no one would even remember it today, and the phrase “The map is not the territory” wouldn’t be common vernacular, if not a cliché.

Each book in the NULL-A sequence raised the stakes. What began on a planetary and then interplanetary stage soon expanded to interstellar, and then intergalactic with van Vogt’s final, and largely disregarded effort. (It’s possible that by NULL-A three, van Vogt’s Alzheimer’s was already beginning to have an effect.) NULL-A CONTINUUM enlarges the canvas to a universal scale, from before the big bang to alternate pocket universes and false realities, to the final epoch of the universe eons in the future, with a sentient cosmic mind at war with itself for its own sanity. It becomes more Stapledon than van Vogt.

But that’s not always a good thing. One of the big problems with the old Superscience stories in the footsteps of Doc Smith and Edmond Hamilton is that you can only take so much ‘billions and billions’. With Sunsawunda, like all drugs, the second hit is never as good as the first, and you soon become numb as characters become gods and timescales stretch to infinity. Probably everything after the first 150 pages seems like just a series of Gilbert Gosseyn waking up in a new disorienting place or time or body and someone spending an entire chapter trying to explain some new aspect of reality or metaphysics that too often turns out to be pointless subterfuge. The maze becomes the message. It becomes less like a science fiction novel reading experience and more like slogging through Derrida, or listening to some obnoxious humanities major who slogged through Derrida. You almost pray for Alan Sokal to walk into the room and call bullshit on all the pseudo-intellectual posturing.

It’s also at times an inconsistent hodge-podge of 40’s pulp pseudo-science, new age transhuman pantheistic mysticism, and modern day hard science that doesn’t always quite mesh together. There’s one moment where a scientist remarks in awe about Gosseyn “that the number of neural interconnections in Gosseyn’s second brain exceeded the number of estimated particles in the universe!”, which is less impressive considering that the same is already true about the human brain.

But at the same time, I just can’t bring myself to give this thing a negative review. It honestly is brilliant, it’s brave and boundary pushing, it’s byzantine and awe inspiring and, yes…dense, ornate, pretentious, frustrating and intimidating. The same people who threw down van Vogt in a fit of rage and confusion will thrown down this for the same reason. As it should be.

The map is not the territory, the word is not the thing it represents. And—I’m guessing I’m not the only one who’ll make the joke—John C. Wright isn’t A.E. van Vogt. But he’s similar enough. NULL-A CONTINUUM is his distortion effect, he’s bridged the gap between the two.