The Null-A Trilogy Critical Essays

A. E. Van Vogt


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

A. E. van Vogt began his career in “science fantasy”—his own label for his work—in 1939, when his short story, “Black Destroyer,” was published in Astounding Science-Fiction magazine. Van Vogt was mentored by John W. Campbell, Jr., editor of Astounding Science-Fiction. Campbell’s ideas concerning “similarity science” were responsible for van Vogt’s use of twenty-decimal similarity science, found in the Null-A trilogy. Alfred Korzybski’s general semantics theories of human communication, explained in Science and Sanity (1933), provide the major philosophical foundation for the Null-A stories. “A” and “Null-A” are shorthand for Aristotelianism and its absence, upon which general semantics is based.

The reception to the books from van Vogt’s critics and peers was mixed. The World of A and The Pawns of Null-A received a negative reception from Damon Knight, who found the first book dull and the second even more so. Knight lambasted the serial version of the first book in his first published review; that review may have prompted some of the revisions made. Donald Wollheim did not give Korzybski’s general semantics much credence, and Sam Moskowitz expressed bewilderment at both of the first two books. James Gunn thinks that van Vogt’s stories contain a fairy tale quality that makes them appealing. Isaac Asimov saw van Vogt as a gadgeteer writer but acknowledged that others place van Vogt in the social commentary category of science fiction.

Van Vogt did not at first intend to produce a trilogy. The third Gosseyn novel is not as action packed as the first two stories. It concentrates on sociological commentary and continues to maintain that general semantics is the only answer for humanity in interstellar space. The Null-A trilogy is the work of an intellectual writer who requires that people work at reading him.

These stories often provide scenes that are surrealistic paintings in words; they also contain some qualities— superheroes, time travel and space travel over vast distances, cliff-hanger endings for chapters or entire stories, and battles on a galactic scale—that are representative of writing during the “Golden Age” of science fiction from the late 1930’s to the early 1950’s. Van Vogt’s publishing history spans decades, but much of his best work was produced early in his career. His other important works include Slan (1946), The Weapon Makers (1946), The Book of Ptath (1947), and The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950).