Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Ace Double Reviews, 76: The World of Null-A, by A. E. Van Vogt/The Universe Maker, by A. E. Van Vogt

Time for another resurrected Ace Double Review from almost two decades ago. This one is a pretty significant Ace Double in SF history.

Ace Double Reviews, 76: The World of Null-A, by A. E. Van Vogt/The Universe Maker, by A. E. Van Vogt (#D-31, 1953, $0.35)

a review by Rich Horton

This is an early Ace Double that qualifies as a particularly important one in that it reprints one of the most famous of 1940s SF novels, backed with another apparently new (though based on a shorter novella) novel by the A. E. Van Vogt. The World of Null-A, in this edition, first published in 1948 by Simon and Schuster, is about 67,000 words long -- apparently this is slightly shorter than, and in other ways considerably revised from, the original 1945 Astounding serial. The Universe Maker is about 50,000 words long. It is an expansion of a novella published in the January 1950 issue of Startling Stories: "The Shadow Men". (I will note that the title of The Universe Maker is given as simply Universe Maker on the cover and spine of the Ace Double, but The Universe Maker on the title page, and also on later editions.)

Oh, wow. I'm in Damon Knight territory now. The World of Null-A is one of those SF classics that I had never read. I suspect, as with many such, I missed my time -- I might have loved it at 14. But having read it first at age 46 I must confess to being more bothered by the preposterousness than thrilled by the audacity. For all that it must be said that there is considerable audacity to the telling -- it is an exciting story, and based on interesting but to my mind mostly silly ideas. Quite often I simply snorted to myself: "That's ridiculous!" -- had I approached the novel earlier I might instead have whistled to myself "Wow, that's cool!".

The novel opens with Gilbert Gosseyn in a hotel room in the City of the Machine. He is planning to participate in the Games the Machine runs every year. These games determine how well integrated one's brain is according to Non-Aristotelian principles -- or Null-A (or A with a bar over the top). The top winners get to go to Venus to join the colony built on Null-A principles established there. Gosseyn's wife Patricia Hardie has just died ... or so he thinks. Then another man accuses him of lying about his identity -- in particular, everyone knows that Patricia Hardie, the beautiful daughter of the President, is alive.

Before long Gosseyn is on the run. His allies seem to include the Machine, and a mysterious girl he meets while hiding out. But this girl turns out to be Patricia Hardie ... and the Machine is suspect. It seems some Game winners have cheated. Then Gosseyn is killed.

And ends up on Venus -- how, neither he nor the reader knows. He is still in peril on Venus, a target of, it now seems, aliens who feel threatened by humanity's potential power if Null-A really becomes generally accepted. They have infiltrated Earth's government, and are ready to attack Venus. It seems there are some resistors, possibly including Patricia and her boyfriend Crang. But the most important man of all is -- of course -- Gosseyn. Not only is there the mystery of his reincarnation, there is the anomalous structure in his brain ...

And so it goes -- Gosseyn returns to Earth -- people are assassinated and Gosseyn is blamed -- Patricia Hardie either is or isn't an ally -- the Games Machine is destroyed -- Gosseyn learns more of the aliens and of the way Earth society has been undermined -- and Gosseyn gets closer to learning who has been pulling his strings all along.

People sometime accuse Van Vogt of just making stuff up as he goes along. I don't think that's really true, and indeed by the end some of the sillier early stuff almost (but not quite) makes sense. Certainly the story is ambitious -- it's just that its ambition is in the service of kind of silly stuff. Gosseyn, notably, is nearly powerless throughout (as even he notes): he never knows what he's doing or why, which makes the final revelation a bit cute. This revelation, to be sure, is echoed at the end of the other novel in this set.

The Universe Maker is accompanied by a brief introduction from Forrest J. Ackerman, in which Ackerman, ever clumsy with words, notes that in this book Van Vogt "fictionizes some of the startling concepts of Scientology". It seems likely that the Scientology bits were added in the revision, as Hubbard's first Dianetics article appeared a couple of months after "The Shadow Men", but I haven't seen the earlier version, so I can't say for sure. (Van Vogt was a fairly early adopter of Scientology.)

In The Universe Maker, Morton Cargill, driving while drunk, causes the death of a young woman he picked up in a bar. Suddenly he finds himself centuries in the future. Apparently he has been sentenced to be killed, as part of the psychiatric treatment of the woman he killed, or perhaps a descendant.

He manages to escape, with the help of another young woman. But he doesn't trust her either, and escapes again, only to be enslaved by a rather trailer-trash couple of people, a man and his daughter who are "Planiacs" or "Floaters": they live nomadic lives in airships. He gains the upper hand soon enough, partly be an implicit promise to marry the daughter, and he learns that there is a conflict between three elements of this future society: the Planiacs, the Tweeners, who live in cities, and the Shadow Men, who can take on other forms and who seem sinisterly to be in control. He begins to work to foment a revolution, when he is snatched back in time again, to the day before his scheduled murder.

Escaping again, he this time stays with the woman who helps him, who turns out to be a Tweener involved with their war against the Shadows. He is also visited by what seem dreams of the future, in which he is urged to save the world by helping the Tweeners beat the Shadows. And indeed he helps them plan an attack on the Shadow city, but he has misgiving. And when at last he reaches the Shadow City, he is in for a surprise ... not to mention a revelation about the real person in charge of all this gadding about in time ... who is -- revelation after spoiler space at the end.

This novel has ideas pretty much as wild as those in The World of Null-A, but not quite as interesting. Nor are there quite as many new developments. I'm sure that's why The World of Null-A is more famous -- and indeed, I liked it a lot more than The Universe Maker. But there is no mistaking that the two novels are by the same author!

Now, the revelation at the end of both novels ...


The unseen hand pulling all the strings, in each case, is the protagonist himself (without his point-of-view self knowing, to be sure!)


  1. I wish I could remember who it was that said something like “the most interesting problem in SF criticism is explaining the appeal of A.E. Van Vogt.”

  2. Null-A is an absolute gang you head on the table book. There's nothing to do but gape in wonder.