Null-A Nitty-Gritty:
An Interview with John C. Wright

Since we discuss everything vanvogtian in detail, this entire interview consists of one gigantic spoiler after another.

In particular, if you haven't yet read Null-A Continuum, don't read this interview. Seriously. Just don't. You'd kick yourself afterwards.

The following interview is Copyright ©2008, 2011 by Isaac Walwyn. It was conducted by email over a period of several weeks, then edited together into a more streamlined form.

John C. Wright is the author of the recent novel Null-A Continuum, a sequel to van Vogt's famous Null-A trilogy. He's written many other books besides, including the highly acclaimed Golden Age trilogy and the Nebula Award finalist Orphans of Chaos. He was kind enough to take the time to strap himself into the Aurora Chair and let me learn everything he knows about sevagrams (and a few other things besides).

A lengthy podcast interview with John C. Wright — conducted by another John C. by the name of Snider — was available on the Sci Fi Dimensions website, though this website was taken down in 2010. However, I've uploaded the podcast so you can download it here. Mostly related to van Vogt, it contains much material of interest.

Wright's blog can be visited here.

Section I: Plans & Preludes

What was the most challenging thing about writing Null-A Continuum?


The greatest challenge was the negotiations between the publisher and the estate of van Vogt to get the permission to write it. Indeed, the manuscript was written long before the negotiations were complete. I will not bore you with the details of the legalisms; but I am thankful for the patience shown by all parties involved.

That is not a fair answer to your question. The answer is I had no difficult in writing this book at all. I was "in the zone," feverish with inspiration, riding hide high on the tide of wild and wonderful ideas, mining a motherlode of rich storytelling resources. Since I felt free to draw upon everything van Vogt wrote for inspiration, and since van Vogt is the most imaginative writer in Science Fiction (I hurl down my gauntlet at any who says otherwise) I had no lack of ideas.

The framework of a van Vogt tale, his storytelling technique, allows great flexibility in conceit: think about it! Since Gilbert Gosseyn is shot to pieces in the first third of the first book, and wakes up in another body on Venus, what in the world could happen to him that would be ruled out by the plot logic? Since he does not know who he really is, who could he really not be?

In such a rich atmosphere, against such a wondrous backdrop, can I be blamed if I allowed my writer's imagination to soar so high the air got thin? There was no question of holding back; the only question was whether the wing muscles on my muse could stand the strain.

No, this book was a delight to write. The only challenge was trying to reach the high standard set by van Vogt. Whether I am equal to the task or not, the kind readers must decide.


When did you begin seriously pursuing writing a Null-A sequel? And what were the various stages involved in such a complex project?


I began the project by looking up the name of van Vogt's literary agent and sending him a letter: Dan Hooker of Ashley Grayson Literary Agency. The stages consisted of persuading the agent; persuading my editor, David Hartwell; persuading my publisher, Tor books; persuading Van Vogt's widow, Lydia; writing the manuscript, Null-A Continuum; and persuading the agency and the publisher to come to an understanding concerning copyrights and royalties.

The second easiest part was persuading the widow. Lydia van Vogt, who is perhaps the most charming person I have ever met, was delighted with the manuscript, and expressed such faith and confidence in the work, that one could never lose heart. She told me she thought her husband, may he rest in peace, would approve.

The easiest part was writing the manuscript. Indeed, I had it completed before the legal negotiations between the publisher and the literary agency were finished.


Was Null-A Continuum approved by van Vogt's estate before or after Slan Hunter? I remember reading the announcement to Continuum just a few weeks before Anderson's book was likewise announced. I got the impression that Continuum was at the first draft stage at that point, whereas Anderson had just been signed up to finish the Slan sequel. The latter struck me as a sort of bandwagonish thing, or as if some national park agency had announced the opening of Sequel Season, but not knowing all the facts I could well be mistaken.


I am not sure. I think Slan Hunter was already in the works before I approached the literary agency.

The fact that both books came out in the same season was a happy coincidence, not anything that was planned (or could have been planned) by the publisher, or the agency, or me.


Being such a big van Vogt fan, I expect you had probably been plotting the outline to a van Vogt sequel in your head since you were a boy. How did the earlier "drafts" in your head compare with the final result?


Sorry, there were no earlier drafts in my head, and nothing to compare.

The closest thing I have to an "early draft" is that the Weapon Shops of Isher as well as Enro the Red have appeared as characters in a Zelazny-Amber-meets-Moorcock-Chaos-meets-Star-Trek role playing game I once ran.

As I recall, in that game, the evil emperor from Star Wars was not Palpatine, but Enro, whose control of the "force" allowed him to see through walls and get visions of distant worlds. The Greatest Empire was trying to use its armored Battle Station, the Death Star, to defeat the United Federation of Planets. Enro was married to Innelda Isher, who was secretly in love with the one immortal man, that enemy of the state, Gilbert Gosseyn, who, in turn, was running an organization called the Weapons Shops which allowed anyone on Trantor, Enro’s throneworld, to own a private energy weapon.

The other amusing things in that game included that the Lensmen of the Galactic Patrol were attempting to stop the "zwilnick" trafficking in the highly-addictive geriatric spice from planet Dune, and meanwhile the Bene Gesserit Witches were trying to organize a Butlerian Jihad against their deadly enemies, the machine-man organization known as the Borg. At one point in the game, the Death Star squared off against the Borg Cube, so it was two giant simple Euclidean solids in space. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide whether the Borg could survive the initial blast of the primary beam and find some way to adapt a defense. (Then the reader can debate whether Logan's claws could penetrate Steve Roger's shield.)

The other thing I recall is from that game is that Corwin was annoyed that Elric kept calling Corwin's home city "Tanelorn" instead of "Amber."

So, this role playing game I ran was a "fixup" from several sources; but, aside from this, no, I had no imaginary drafts of the story.

There are number of ideas I lifted from van Vogt (see, for example, the character of Victor in my book Orphans Of Chaos — he is practically the same as a Space Silkie), but I never planned a sequel until the day when, beyond all hope and all expectation, I received permission to write one.

Section II: Composition

Even when an author writes a sequel to his own works, he often ignores certain "inconvenient" facts established in the previous books, in order to allow him to write the sequel as he sees fit. Are there any aspects of the first three Null-A novels that, for whatever reason, you've decided to not carry over into Null-A Continuum?


Some of the events in the third book do not fit well with the established continuity of the first two. I will mention four examples:

  1. Much of the third book is concerned with a fatuous courtship between Gosseyn and a windowed Queen, a neurotic woman who should not hold any attraction for a man like Gosseyn. Players says unambiguously that Gosseyn cannot be attracted to a woman who has no Null-A training. The scenes where Gosseyn babysits an annoying youngster, and his motivation is given as "save the kid and you'll get the mother" cast him in a less than honorable light.
  2. On Earth, gangsters and businessmen conspire to prevent the creation of a second Games Machine, but the notion that business would cooperate with crime is contradicted by the first book, where it is stated management and ownership positions in the business world are not available to any but those who pass the initial round of the games, i.e. highly sane and well-integrated individuals.
  3. When Enro says that he has never known if his visions are visible to others, this is contradicted by the first description of his use of the power in Players: the women are bathing him when he uses the power to spy on Ashargin in the next room, and it would have been obvious whether they could see the clairvoyant image or not.
  4. The assumption that the Shadow Galaxy could still hold habitable planets conflicts with the description of the Great Migration away from that galaxy in the second book.

For this sequel, I have taken the license to disregard these and other inconvenient events.

Where I refer to the events in the third book, I assume that a fleet from the dead galaxy was distorted by accident to the Milky Way, provoking a crises. Gosseyn's third body was prematurely quickened, so that Gosseyn Two and Three were awake simultaneously. Enro conspired to seize control of the alien superfleet, and Gosseyn pre-empted this by teleporting Enro to confinement in a distant prison-asteroid. The other galaxy has no habitable planets. Instead of a scene where Gosseyn Three and the alien queen distort back to her fresh green world, I assume that an experimental ship has only just begun the expedition back to the primal galaxy.

The main inspiration in this book was based on one throw-away line in a scene in Null-A Three where we see Enro use his powers to see across spacetime. He warns the people in the room not to step between himself and the image his power is creating: he hints there could be a dangerous energy reaction.

Because I thought: Enro the Red is a ruthless dictator. A killer. He could use that side-effect to kill people at remote distances. The thought would surely occur to him.

How far does his range extend? For the purposes of my plot, I assumed it roughly equal to the limits given in the second books to Gosseyn's distorter range, 20 light-hours. Because Secoh uses a system of distorters to cast his shadow-image across interstellar distances, I speculated that Enro, who has access to the same technicians and Greatest Empire labs, could do likewise.

The first book took place on Earth and Venus, The World of Null-A; the second had a galactic scale; the third, despite its other flaws, moved the action up to an intergalactic scale: I determined mine should move onto a stage the size of the whole continuum.

Van Vogt's richness of ideas certainly gave me no lack of possible plot-hooks and plot-twists. In order to keep the readers guessing, I had to assume that some of the things established as fact in the first two books may be lies or misinterpretations. Gosseyn Two really does not know who he is, or where Lavoisseur came from.


What elements in the serial of World did you find particularly enlightening or useful when writing your novel?


  1. In the magazine version, but not in the novel, Thorson says that someone deliberately confused the question of the origin of man by planting on several worlds the cousin species (apes and Neanderthals) to make it appear as if man is native-born. In my sequel I invented who that someone was and what his reasons were, and made this an additional motive for Enro's Cult of the Sleeping God.
  2. In the magazine version, but not in the novel, Patricia Hardy (actually Patricia Gosseyn) is established as being Gosseyn's wife. I had deduced it from the surrounding clues (not very hidden clues: she says it to Gosseyn's face at one point and he scowls at her for joking around) and decided this must have been what van Vogt had in mind from the first. It was tremendously gratifying to have my guesswork confirmed.
  3. It was useful to have the names of other Venusians, James Armour, Karl Mahren and Peter Clayton.
  4. In the novel version, the mysteriously powerful cripple in the wheelchair introduced himself as "X quantity." In the magazine version, he uses the more provocative phrase "an X quantity, where X equals infinity." Since "X" is later revealed to be a wounded duplicate of Lavoisseur, who, in turn, is Gosseyn, I decided, or deduced, that he must also know the secret of serial immortality, and have duplicate bodies of his own. In that case, since he is immortal, and will live forever, the comment that "X equals infinity" becomes meaningful: and so I used it.
  5. The magazine version, but not the novel, mentions a Venusian Games Machine, a concept I thought fascinating, and wondered what it was used for, since everyone on Venus is a Null-A before they emigrate from Earth. I found what I hope is an obvious answer to that: it controls immigration to Earth. This leads to the curious question of how Prescott's gang could operate on Venus without being discovered, and, indeed, infiltrate the detective organizations and judiciary? Why, on a world of perfectly sane men, is the third person Gosseyn meets a thug named Blayney, who slaps him for a neurotic reason. I decided on a more logical explanation: the Games Machine of Venus was also being interfered with by a distorter, but that the Venusian had been aware of it, and prepared for galactic invasion long in advance. The battle that Gosseyn later sees, where a group of unarmed Venusian overcome an armed camp of Galactics at night, and the effective resistance of the Venusians to invasion, was not the impromptu affair it was deliberately masqueraded to be, but the outcome of long planning.
  6. Oddly, the physical description of Eldred Crang (he is an energetic man of olive Mediterranean complexion, perhaps a Greek) is absent from the book. I included the description from the magazine version in my novel.
  7. The magazine version, but not the novel, mentioned a possible explanation for Patricia Hardie's background: she was an amnesiac adult like Gosseyn, apparently also able to die and be reincarnated. While I did not use this idea precisely, I did use an idea much like it: she is from the shadow-galaxy, like Gosseyn's precursor Lavoisseur himself. This led to a logical explanation of why she was always found in crucial spots in the drama, the palace of President Hardie, or the Palace of Enro the Red.
  8. The magazine version, but not the novel, says explicitly that there are no alien beings in the Null-A universe: no Rull, no Couerl, no Ezwal, no Kibmadine, no Utt: nothing but homo sapiens. Note that a similar pan-humanism exists in Isaac Asimov's Foundation galaxy. In End of Eternity, and later ret-conned into his Foundation continuity, Asimov invented an idea similar to mine to explain this unlikely peculiarity.
  9. I used the idea that the original Patricia Hardie died in a plane wreck in my novel, though, in this case, I decided that was a false memory implanted by the "Chessplayer" as part of the deceptive background information of Gosseyn's life in Cress City, Florida.
  10. The idea that the gang had a way to falsify the readings of lie detectors is a crucial bit of information. Without this the takeover of the Earth government by conspirators is impossible: but this was left out of the novel version.


And what's your appraisal of the serial in relation to the book version?


The novel is far superior to the magazine version, which reads like a first draft. If this was the version that Damon Knight famously criticized, I would say that some of the barbs were justified, and van Vogt was right to do a thorough rewrite.

The idea of an "alien presence" on Venus, that Gosseyn dreams about, and is several times hinted at, is a plot thread that is utterly pointless and utterly forgotten.

The scene with the retarded people on Venus I found creepily unpleasant and the idea that they be used for factory work I found repulsive.

The idea that Patricia is Gosseyn's wife is one I found fascinating, but then nothing is made of it. The idea that all worlds are seeded with cousin species to falsify the evolutionary record likewise is a fascinating idea but nothing is made of it. The long pointless scene of Gosseyn wandering aimlessly on Venus, or the likewise aimless attempt of gang members to pretend to be legitimate private detectives, both have the quality of being a first draft idea, not integrated with the plot.

The scene were Gosseyn slips out of his handcuff, walks through walls, and otherwise rages through the palace of President Hardie is interesting as an isolated scene, reminiscent of some of van Vogt's early "monster" stories, like "Black Destroyer," told from the point of view of the monster: but the scene is again pointless and isolated, not only does nothing come of it, but it does not fit in with what is later established about the neural progression of the Gosseyn I and II and III. According to what the Games Machine later tells him, it is not possible that Gosseyn I could have tapped into the organic distorter of his secondary brain.

Worst of all, the scene where Hardie tells Gosseyn who he is, and the reader is not told the information, and Gosseyn II cannot remember it, and the Games Machine says the information is not important, forget it... well, all this is merely cheating. This is an example of an author putting a clue he really does not know where it will lead, and hoping to improvise an explanation later, but stumbling and not being able to come up with anything good. It is cheating the reader and van Vogt was very wise to leave that particular pointless red herring out of his later novel version of the story.

There is not a single editorial decision van Vogt made with which I would disagree, with one tiny exception: the plot logic required that the gang have a way to fool the lie detectors which otherwise would have immediately uncovered their conspiracy.

Now let me say one speculation, a hunch, I have about the magazine version. I have no facts to back this up, but this is the way the story seems to me:

I get the impression that van Vogt when he wrote the first installment of the serial meant Gosseyn to be a stunted member of a superior superhuman species: someone from the next step of evolution, unfortunately raised among humans and therefore unable to use his full superhuman capacities. Note the several reference to a boy raised in the jungle by apes, and being a mental cripple, which litter the magazine version. This was a set up that should have been followed through with the revelation that the "alien presence" on Venus was the true superhumans, whose child Gosseyn had been lost in the cortical thalamic "jungle" of Earth, raised by the "apes" of unintegrated mankind. I have the hunch that this idea was dropped by the time van Vogt wrote the third installment of the serial in favor of making Gosseyn a mutation caused by improper cloning techniques. Then in turn this idea that was dropped in the novel version, and Gosseyn was the product of a galactic scientific discovery by Lavoisseur, who turns out to be a man from the stars.

In the Players of Null-A Lavoisseur turns out to be an older being, from the destroyed Shadow Galaxy, whose technology was superior to that of the Milky Way. You will have to read my book to find out who and what Gilbert Gosseyn really is.


Why did you decide to use Ptath as a prominent name in a Null-A novel? Won't this confuse and irritate readers familiar with van Vogt?


I did think that the name "Ptath" might confuse some readers, since the name is used in another van Vogt book: but I decided to take that risk, because the revelation that the Reesha of Gorgzid, was actually the bride of an ancient, godlike being named Ptath, named Ptath-Reesha, was too useful a coincidence to pass up: Ptath-Reesha is Patricia, of course.

So I needed a name that (a) sounded alien (b) sounded like a van Vogt name (c) sounded like "Pat" (d) sounded very ancient, perhaps Egyptian and (e) sounded godlike, a name with a majestic ring to it.

Those characteristics limited my choices. The only ancient Egyptian god whose name sounds like the name of a van Vogt character and starts with P is "Ptath."

Yes, confusing. But I did not have many other options.


If Null-A helps integrate control of the nervous system and eliminate unsanity, how can a warped form of Null-A — that does the exact opposite — possibly exist? I personally think this was a great aspect of the novel, but there are some out there who will wonder how you can explain this away.


To warp any philosophy, all one need to do is to teach part of it, suppress part of it, and distort the part you teach. If the linguistic relationships between reality and man's nervous system actually have such a definite relationship that psychology can be reduced to an exact science (which is the premise of the Null-A books) then a distortion of the findings of that science will allow you to distort the psychology that science controls.

One might as well say an engineer cannot misuse his knowledge to build a faulty bridge. Certainly he can. It simply will not stand long.

Indeed, I would argue that it is unrealistic, nay, impossible even in theory to know how to cure neurosis without knowing how to cause neurosis. Anyone who can build a lie detector, or a machine that teaches languages in one brain-imprint taking only a moment, can build a machine to detect and suppress sane thoughts and encourage neurotic emotional identifications.

Keep in mind, in the novel, when the characters speak of "A warped form of Null-A" they are referring primarily to Games Machines that have been mis-programmed to inculcate neurotic behaviors in people. These machines are not teaching people "the map is not the territory"; they are teaching them "unquestioning obedience to the state is the highest form of human behavior." In other words, the "warped form of Null-A" refers to the techniques, not to the science.

I took the trouble to add a scene where the "warped Null-A" process was described step-by-step: Gosseyn had the loyalty machine imprinting "set" impressed on his brain, which he, as a Null-A, was able to observe and resist. An unobservant person would not be so lucky. The Null-A knowledge of human psychology can theoretically detect the difference between shallow false-to-facts associations and deeply-rooted ones. Nothing in theory would prevent a misuse of this knowledge to attempt to instill deeply rooted false-to-facts associations. It would form propaganda of a particularly glib and persuasive type.

The Null-A knowledge is being used to create a mass of unthinking neurotics; the Null-A knowledge is not being passed on, because anyone who knew its principles could not long be fooled by a distortion of its conclusions.

Indeed, a main plot point in the novel is that what the villains are attempting is illogical, self-destructive, and self-corrective in the long run.

Ah, but in the short run, a little knowledge, as they say, is a dangerous thing.

Our own science of economics is something like this. Marxism is a distortion of economics, based on false axioms, and coming to false-to-facts conclusions by chains of reasoning that are distorted by emotion. Marx knew the work of Adam Smith. Marx erected a distorted version of Adam Smith, and taught a doctrine that was antithetical to sound scientific thinking. Like the engineer who uses wrong principles of engineering to erect a bridge that eventually must collapse, an imperium, like the late unlamented Soviet Union, based on the principles of anti-economics, since it is false-to-facts, must go broke. If Marxism actually were sound, if it had been economics rather than a warped version of economics it would have produced wealth rather than poverty. Had it been based on sound political science rather than a warped version of political science, the Soviet system would have produced life, liberty and happiness as promised, instead of cheating the promises, and producing misery, slavery, and death.

So, you are basically correct. A warped version of Null-A cannot exist, not for long. Reality itself applies, in the long run, the needed corrective. Which is exactly what the novel proposes.

Section III: Vanvogtiana

I was astonished by the purely vanvogtian ideas that appeared throughout Continuum. If I didn't know better, I'd guess that an electric ouija board specially built for "ghostwriters" had a role to play in creating the plot.

Seriously, though, what did you do to "train" yourself to write like van Vogt, aside from re-reading his books? Did you put yourself into a hypnotic trance, slide into a superhot bathtub, and listen to the audiobooks of Voyage of the Space Beagle and World of Null-A over and over and over again until you came out babbling in Non-A Nexialist phrases like some Gosseyn-Grosvenor hybrid? ;-)


What I did took longer and was much more thorough: I have been a die-hard and devoted fan of van Vogt and all things van Vogtian since late childhood. I read not just Space Beagle, but everything van Vogt has written (except his nonfiction and his early confession magazine pieces). I went to the Library of Congress to track down his out-of-print books. His work formed my idea of what science fiction is supposed to sound like.

I have been waiting to write this book my whole life.

Now, in all modesty, I also have a good "ear" for impersonation. I can notice particular phrases and techniques and copy them. That is just a knack, not something I developed or can take any credit for.

This is a difficult question to answer, because, on the one hand, you could say I have been training my whole life. On the other hand, the book practically wrote itself under the drive of pure inspiration. The ideas that came to me seemed very van Vogtian. I hope you agree with that. Where those ideas ultimately came from, I cannot say.

The ancients believed in goddesses called muses, to which they ascribed divine powers. Moderns believe in an undefined entity called the subconscious mind, to which they ascribe divine powers, and do not admit it. Both are two different words for The Unknown. That is where story ideas come from.


Even though Continuum features elements from more van Vogt stories than you can shake a stick at, why a Null-A sequel specifically? Why not a Weapons Shop, Space Beagle, Linn, Rull, or Mixed Men sequel? Heck, why not another volume chronicling the continued financial adventures of Artur Blord?


This is an excellent question, and I am not sure of the answer. I do not recall if I even entertained the notion of other sequels, much less coming to some decision that could be justified with a reason.

I can, if you wish, speculate what the muses, or my subconscious mind (depending on where you think story ideas come from) may have been thinking, but I warn you this is like asking an archeologist what a Brontosaurus looked like. It is a reconstruction of what might have been a thought process I do not recall going through. Had I had a reason for not writing other sequels, this is what that reason might have been:

First, World of Null-A is one of van Vogt's most famous novels, if not the most famous. Certainly it has always been a favorite of mine.

Second, the ending of Players of Null-A leaves wide room for a sequel. Only a certain type of story has the kind of ending that allows for a sequel: there must be at least some unanswered questions, some plot threads left dangling.

The sequel to Hamlet, for example, concerns the reign and fortunes of Fortinbras, the new lord of Denmark. Who is Fortinbras, you ask? What does he have to do with the revenge of Hamlet against the schemes of King Claudio? Exactly my point. Some tales do not allow room for sequels.

A Hitchcockian intrigue-tale, where no one is who he seems, on the other hand, allows wide latitude for a sequel, especially if everything is not nicely wrapped up last act curtain fall. What happens to Gilbert Gosseyn after the coup which ousts Enro the Red from control of the Greatest Empire? At the end of World of Null-A we discover Gosseyn is Lavoisseur. But who is Lavoisseur? The possibilities are limitless.

Weapon Shops of Isher does also allow room for a sequel, though I doubt I will be the one to write one. It would be easy enough to brainstorm ideas for it: The spread of the Terran Empire to the stars, now that the Infinity Drive has been released, will increase the tensions between the corrupt, totalitarian Imperial government, and the Weapon Shops, with their odd political philosophy of minimal individual rights. The one immortal man, Hedrock, is now known to the Weapon Shops; and Innelda Isher has died and been returned from the dead. Did the spider beings restore her to life, or did they repair her with a body similar to Hedrock's? What happens when mankind, destined as we are to rule the Sevagram, run across whatever ruthless enemies — let us call them, for the sake of argument, "The Rull" — had routed the spider beings? Will the Weapon Maker sell guns to the aliens, creatures like the Coeurl and the Irsk, to be sure their rights are respected? If a movement among the star-colonies for democracy began, on which side would Hedrock be? Remember, he is also the First Emperor, and we must assume he is generally loyal to the status quo.

Space Beagle could admit of any number of sequels, merely because the episodes are episodic. The difficulty here is that, once you have defeated a Coeurl, an Ixtl, a race of telepathic birds, and an angry galaxy, what is left? I can imagine Grosvenor the Nexialist facing off against the H.R. Geiger alien from Alien, the predator from Predator, and even the E.T. from E.T. or the illusionists from Talos IV. The problem here is that those movies have already been done, and been done to death. But I, for one, would be interested in Dr. Korita's theories about the culture and history of the Predator race.

The Linn books do not admit of much room for sequel. Once Clane Linn has a secure throne, and he can awe or destroy any space-Huns with what seems to be (if memory serves) a microcosmic universe under his telepathic control, the story is over. What is he going to do? Fight more Riss?

The Rull also do not have much sequel potential in them. The short story ends when the biological weakness of the Rull is discovered, whereupon the Rull are eager for peace; the novel ends when the Rull (or the Yevd, take your pick) have conquered the galaxy, and the gigantic ship described in "The Sound" will act as a space ark to carry the remnant of mankind to a new galaxy. I suppose if he had wanted, van Vogt could have fix-upped "The Expendables" or Rogue Ship onto the end of "The Sound" and portrayed the space ark as the multigeneration ship Hope of Man. Of course, a multigeneration ship being pursued by a multigeneration coast guard cutter filled with slimy, wormlike Rulls has story potential to it.

A sequel to The Mixed Men also has some potential, but, honestly, the main plot tension there was the attempt of the Dellians to remain hidden. Once they are found, the plot tension is over. Even the mind powers of Maltby and his tiny race of supermen is no match for the technology of the Terran Empire, who can casually control minds and resurrect the dead. On the other hand, I am sure van Vogt could have fix-upped a sequel to the Weapon Shops with the Mixed Men: the Terran Empire described in the Maltby books could easily be the Empire of Isher. Grand Captain Lady Laurr of Noble Laurr is clearly a second cousin or niece of Innelda Isher. It would be quaint if Captain Hedrock turned out to be the first Dellian "robot"; after all, the Dellians are said to have been created by the teleportation process of early vibration plates — and Hedrock's accidental creation as an immortal was a teleportation accident. Hedrock clearly has the 500 point mental stability described characteristic of a Dellian. Maybe before his wedding night to Lady Laurr, Maltby can find a weapon shop and buy himself a telepathic energy pistol. The right to buy weapons is the right to be free!

Arthur Blord, I am sure, by now, has tamed the financial pirates among the Ridge Stars. Again, the problem is the same as with the Space Beagle. Blord's efforts were too episodic to admit of any really interesting extension. I noticed that the love interest in the first chapter, a kidnapped girl Blord rescues, is reduced to being his secretary, a forgotten non-entity, for the remainder of the book: that is a sign of being too episodic.

The short answer is that van Vogt's other books either are so episodic that a sequel would present no new challenges — in this week's episode, the Space Beagle runs into yet another energy-controlling space monster — or all the plotlines are so well wrapped-up that a sequel would be too much of a challenge, because none of the new drama is related to what happened before, (those problems are solved), making what happens next arbitrary — in the exciting sequel, God-Emperor of Linn, Clane successfully rules a peaceful interstellar empire, and turns into a giant sandworm or something.


When I was reading Null-A Continuum, I was greatly impressed by your in-depth knowledge of van Vogt's entire corpus of works. Do you have any special favorites among his books and stories? What are they, and why? And which works do you find yourself reading more often than the others?


Certainly I have special favorites among my huge A.E. van Vogt collection! How could I not? Let me list them in no particular order:

  • PLAYERS OF NULL-A: In my opinion, the best of the three Null-A books. The Follower makes a sinister equal enemy for Gilbert Gosseyn's superhuman powers, which Thorson and his gang, frankly, do not. The plot hangs together better than World (if that is a criterion for a van Vogt extravaganza, which is questionable), and the stakes are higher. The ending of Players is a clever reverse of the ending of World: in the first book a man discovers who he really is when he discovers the source of the memory-patterns printed in his brain; in the ending of the second book a man's false beliefs about the world create such a psychic shock, that the lost of his memory involves the loss of his identity.
  • THE WEAPON MAKERS: Once again, I liked the sequel better than the original. The first novel, Weapon Shops, was a fixup of three disjoined stories, involving time-paradoxes to resolve the action: it is still a good book (to my taste) but not van Vogt's best work. Weapon Makers put the mysterious immortal Robert Hedrock in the center of the action. The first three chapters are among the most tense of anything van Vogt penned: in the first paragraph, we discover our hero is facing a death sentence from the dangerous but beautiful Empress Innelda Isher, he escapes by his wits, only to be threatened by the Weapon Maker's Council, and escapes again, only to be attacked by a giant rat escaped from one of his own automatic experiments. One of my favorite scenes in any science fiction thriller, is the scene where Hedrock escapes from the Imperial blockade closing in on the superstarship disguised as a skyscraper in the middle of a city. He flings over the lever labeled INFINITY DRIVE, and wakes to find himself ... elsewhere. Innelda Isher, instead of being a cardboard pulp villainess, or a carbon copy of Ayesha She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, comes across with some complexity. I notice that the superhuman Captain Hedrock is superior not just for his intelligence, but in every aspect of his personality, including his morals and his sense of altruism. Van Vogt's concept of the next step of human evolution was not power-hungry and amoral like Nietzsche's concept.
  • SLAN: Picked-on orphan super-boy holds the key to the future, in a world locked in the grip of a hopeless totalitarian dictatorship. (Harry Potter, you come from the van Vogt tradition, like it or not.) How could anyone not like this book? Jommy Cross sneaking into the Air Ministry to discover it secretly controlled by the Tendrilless Slans, with spaceships that have colonized a partially terraformed Mars — this breathes wonder. When I was thirteen, I wanted to own an armored limousine like Jommy Cross, and to marry a girl like Kathleen Layton Gray: a highly intelligent girl of more than human moral character. Everything from the Porgrave thought-transmitters to the description of the sub-atomic workings of Jommy's atomic raygun is fascinating.
  • "THE MONSTER": This is a short story rather than a novel, but it contains one of the most poignant science-fictional paeans to the unconquerable human spirit I have read.
  • THE BEAST (aka THE MOONBEAST): In my opinion, van Vogt's most successful fixup. The wild sense of paranoia that surrounds the amnesic totipotent superman Jim Pendrake allows van Vogt to blend in scenes from "The Great Engine" and The Changeling — one of the few examples of the fixup being better than the component short stories. Big Oaf is one of van Vogt's most memorable villains, and the secret Nazi conspiracies, cabals of Venus-colonizing superscientists, the fascinating mystery of the torus-shaped Great Engine itself, is the stuff of dreams. All this, and a smilodon too!
  • THE WAR AGAINST THE RULL: A weak fixup novel. In the original short story, the Rull ends with Jamieson, the scientist, discovering the hideous biological secret of the Rull, the weakness that drove them to their paranoid warmaking, and he uses that the threat of exposing their secret to end the war. In the novel this brilliant idea is dropped, and instead an awkward idea of using a friendly disembodied electromagnetic beastie to help Jamieson escape is substituted: a bad call on van Vogt's part. Why did Jamieson not use the electromagnetic enemy during his War of Nerves when trapped on the mountaintop with the Rull, his enemy? Also, "Cooperate or Else" hangs together better as a short story, as does "The Sound" (which is one of my personal favorites). In the original short, the little boy overcomes the aliens due to his training, and the pistol smuggled to him; in the novel version, the aliens discover and smash the whispering radio passing information to the boy, and yet this has no purpose, except to make it possible to introduce the telepathic Ezwal as a deus-ex-machina. Nevertheless, the sheer strength of the inventiveness of all these stories makes War Against the Rull worth many rereads.
  • THE SILKIE: This is my favorite van Vogt book, bar none. Normally, the great writer added one new jaw-droppingly wild idea every page or two, so that the reader has to make a shocking mental leap to grasp the science fictional concept and orient himself. In this book, he outdoes himself: van Vogt introduces shock or mental leap every paragraph, practically every sentence, and I defy anyone to point to an ending more fantastic and unexpected and unearthly than when Ned Cemp destroys and recreates the entire universe. From the cannibal Kibmadine, to the ghastly Glis (a failed star from the pre-material stages of cosmic evolution) and finally to the dreadful Enemies of the Silkie, the Nijjans, whose life processes involve the fabric of timespace itself, each segment in this smoothly-worked fixup novel brings the action to higher stakes and larger stages, from astonishment to astonishment, from wonder to wonder. The terse descriptions of the biotechnology involved in the Silkie body, or the casual hints that ordinary words, like "computer," do not mean to us what they mean to the men of Ned Cemp's era, or the mind-boggling description of the philosophy of "logic of levels" elevate this to my most prized favorite of van Vogt's many brilliant works.
  • SUPERMIND: Another fixup. No other author, with the possible exception of Ted Chaing, has ever successfully portrayed what more-than-human intellect might truly be like. Add in space-vampires. I have never read a story that was not improved by the addition of space-vampires.
  • VOYAGE OF THE SPACE BEAGLE: This one started it all. How can you not feel sorry for the poor Black Destroyer, ruthless super-beast? Move over, Anne Rice: van Vogt was telling stories from the point of view of the monster long ago.
  • THE MIXED MEN (aka MISSION TO THE STARS): I have always been impressed by the gigantic superstarship Star Cluster helmed by Grand Captain Lady Laurr of house Laurr. How can half-human half-Dellian Captain Maltby hope to overcome the terrifying might of Imperial Earth merely with the hidden powers of this three-dimensional hypnosis? How can he fight an enemy he is hypnotically conditioned to love?
  • RECRUITING STATION (aka MASTERS OF TIME, EARTH'S LAST FORTRESS): The sinister Dr. Lell is still among my favorite van Vogt villains. The concept of the endless war between the Glorious and the Planetarians, so that all the soldiers of the past must be recruited to spend their lives fighting it, is Wagnerian in its grandeur.
  • THE UNIVERSE MAKER (aka THE SHADOW MEN): This is a gem of a work, with time paradoxes as intricate as a Celtic knot.
  • TWO HUNDRED MILLION A.D. (aka BOOK OF PTATH): Van Vogt's only out-and-out fantasy. The setting of Gonwanlane, the supercontinent that will one day gather all the land masses of the world to itself, the staggering billions of that far future, all controlled by pitiless and suffocating theocracy — a for-real theocracy, since Ptath and his wives are gods! — makes this work of wonder and intrigue worth many re-readings. And yet again, Peter Halroyd prevails over his foes, not because he is more ruthless or quick, but because of his uncompromising moral nature: he is not willing to be a merciless god.

I could go on, but need I? I think I have enjoyed practically everything van Vogt has written, including his one and only mainstream novel, The Violent Man.

My taste is for the superhuman rather than the subhuman: it is with slightly less enthusiasm that I read books like Man With A Thousand Names or Earth Factor X or Cosmic Encounter, where the main characters are trolls with dim or dead consciences.


Every author writes a few rock-bottom mind-boggling stinkers, though some produce more than others. Which of van Vogt's works do you consider to be in that inauspicious category?


This question cannot be answered without offending somebody. I have found that, no matter how bad a book is, somebody will have read it at just the right moment in his life, on just that particular rainy day, and it unlocks for him a treasure horde of imagination, which no one else can see. So, with apologies to somebody, here goes.

I hope you do not mind a long answer, because it takes longer to dispraise than to praise, if one takes the time to explain one's discontent. Here is my list of least-loved van Vogt:

  • MATING CRY (aka THE HOUSE THAT STOOD STILL aka UNDERCOVER ALIENS): A conspiracy of aliens anciently crash-landed in California protect the secrets of an old Spanish villa where their wrecked spaceship is hidden.

    This book has an uneven structure and an unconvincing ending. There are scenes which have no point, except to create an artificial tension, such as one where our hero is gassed, and losing consciousness while his car speeds toward a cliff... And then he wakes up in the next chapter, with the lame explanation that the girl gassing him just wanted to avoid an argument, or something dumb like that. The hero is taken on a spaceship ride to overfly a thinly-disguised version of Russia and destroy their nuclear missile production plant, and it annoyed me that van Vogt did not simply say it was Russia. At the last minute, the hero helps the good aliens get the mysterious house away from the bad aliens, by means of a special chemical isotope that for some reason did not exist in any of the previous chapters.

    When I first read it, I was under the impression that it was some very early period before van Vogt learned how to write. To my surprise, I found out that World of Null-A was his first novel, and that this waste of paper was one of his later ones.

    I dare not be too harsh on this book, much as I disliked it. The same things that bugged me about it are the things I liked so much in The Moonbeast: the dreamlike plot-logic, the sudden surprises and reverses, the secret conspiracies and so on. Hard as it is to believe, even a van Vogt plot can be too disjointed.
  • EARTH FACTOR X (aka THE SECRET GALACTICS): This unpleasant little novel is a follow up on van Vogt's story "The Sound of Wild Laughter." A brain in a jar in an electric wheelchair has a wife he thinks is cheating on him. Meanwhile a group of aliens disguised as human beings live and move among us, trying to figure out our psychology. There is no real plot and nothing really at stake.

    This book is a later-period van Vogt and reminded me unpleasantly of later-period Heinlein, with the only difference that sexual predation in van Vogt is portrayed as villainous rather than (as in Heinlein) heroic. I like van Vogt when he depicts superhuman characters; and grow bored when he depicts subhuman characters. His attitude towards sex is here depicted as unromantic and unrealistic: the erotic impulse, in this book, is a psychological malfunction of predatory males and self-destructive females.

    The "X factor" in the story turns out to be that Earth Girls Are Easy. Or something like that. The atmosphere of the book, the author's message, I find creepy and noxious.
  • MAN WITH A THOUSAND NAMES: Despite some good old-fashioned van Vogtian weirdness, body switching, and so on, this is another "subhuman character" van Vogt. I just wanted the spoilt brat of a main character to be beaten to death with a baseball bat and be done with it.
  • "DON'T HOLD YOUR BREATH": a short story rather than a novel, but same problem here. When you portray an unsympathetic character, the reader still has to have some sort of emotional connection with him. You can portray a man whose flaws are similar to the reader's flaw, or portray an evil that is either cured or punished. But a writer cannot afford a merely clinical description of an otherwise boring and evil person, or there is no story.
  • COMPUTERWORLD (aka COMPUTER EYE): Remind me never to write a story in first person present tense from the point of view of a character who does not have a point of view and is not a first person. Terrible.
  • RENAISSANCE: Yet another book with a less than admirable main character, a hostile and clinical attitude toward sex, and a confused ending. This time the antihero is a serial adulterer. The sexual predation is "Sadie Hawkins" style, now with females chasing the males, but only when the men are, or seem to be, violent.

    Once again, sexuality is the mutual psychosis of violent males and self-destructive females: the fact that our anti-hero not once contemplates self-control in matters sexual makes me long for the victory of the alien Utt.

    And once again, the work is crowned with a confused, nay, a foolish ending. The main character Grayson implants weapons in his body, nonchalantly making himself an invincible superhero. One wonders where this technology came from, or why he is the only one who has it. Grayson, armed with nothing but a hypnotic drug, mesmerizes a single alien from the conquering species, and frees the Earth from alien dominion, presumably after all the arms and intrigues and organized might and genius of the rest of mankind had failed. The aliens scanned and neutralized the hypnotic weapon involved, but, for some reason, it worked any way.
  • CHILDREN OF TOMORROW: In this story, a captain in the space navy returns to his home after a long tour of duty, to discover his home town now run by youth gangs. The youth gangs held a trial in his absence and decreed him to be an unfit father due to a psychological tendency to violence, not because of any specific violent act. As best I can tell, the captain is supposed to be the bad guy of this piece, and the youth gangs the good guys, but the perversion of justice and the Heinlein-esque levels of contempt displayed toward the nuclear family are so great, that I cannot suspend my disbelief enough to take the work seriously. Imagine a story where Child Protective Services are the good guys, and run by smug, self-righteous teenagers. On several levels, a hateful book.
  • NULL-A THREE: I hate to say it, but this one was one of van Vogt's weakest works. I know he wrote it when he was in ill health, but I did not know that when I read it in the 1980's. All I knew was that the long-awaited sequel to the seminal World of Null-A, my favorite book of all time, was a crushing disappointment. It was like reading a sequel to Dune.

    It begins with a strong premise (what if one of Gilbert Gosseyn's duplicate bodies was wakened prematurely?) and soon degenerates into laughable weirdness — he outsmarts an evil princeling by challenging him to a breath-holding contest. Huhn? He seduces the alien widow of a man he just killed, why, again, exactly? Enro the Red, once the terror of the galaxy, does nothing aside from try to befriend the alien fleet commander; and for that Gosseyn teleports him to Planet Brumbfrack or something? And then there was that long scene, almost a chapter, of Gosseyn walking down corridors and opening doors. The alien invaders turn out to be goofy-looking mutant humans. This, when I was expecting a threat as significant as the Kibmadine, the Rull, the Zouvgs, or the Black Destroyer.

    After nothing happening for scores and hundreds of pages, nothing being threatened, nothing being at stake, Gilbert ends up with this space dame whose name I cannot even remember, instead of with Patricia Hardie.

    There is an unpleasant smugness to this late period Gilbert Gosseyn; a condescending smirk simply not present in the early versions. If, in Null-A Three, van Vogt fell into the trap of trying to be ironic, or to poke fun at his own earlier works, the jest, as far as I am concerned, is condescending, unfunny, and unwelcome. However, I will not attribute to malice what can be attributed to exhaustion and age: I think the book is bad, not that it is postmodern.

    When Null-A Three was published, I had the same reaction many a fan had to late-period sequels to Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, and felt as if someone had trifled disrespectfully with my childhood.


And, on a related note, how do you think his later work compares with his early work? Most seem to favor his early period by a wide margin, but I myself tend to think his later works are grossly underrated, despite the Dianetics and gender-issues material. Although they lacked the surreal dream-like atmosphere of his early work, his later novels tend to feature more sophisticated ideas, and by and large he made better use of them throughout the story. His prose style also improved noticeably, making for a more readable experience. I view his output from the '40s and '50s as works of sheer inspiration, whereas his output from the '60s and '70s are more works of calculated skill. What's your take on all this?


I am with the majority view: I think van Vogt's later work is inferior.

To make a case for late-period van Vogt, you have to argue that his most famous novels, World of Null-A, Empire of Isher, and, above all, the monumental Slan, are somehow less noteworthy than the creepy, pointless stories like "Sound of Wild Laughter" and "Femworld." You would have to argue that Gilbert Gosseyn or Jommy Cross are less interesting than the confused anti-heroes in tales like Man With A Thousand Names or the complex silliness in Cosmic Encounter. This is a tough row to hoe.

On the other hand, my favorite book of van Vogt, by a wide margin, is The Silkie. This was a fixup of his three Silkie short stories, "Silkie," "Silkies in Space," and "Enemies of the Silkie," which (unlike most of his fixups) were written with one narrative background in mind. What van Vogt does best, his ability to introduce a wild, mind-blowing concept every scene, he here as ratcheted up to an ultimate level, so that practically every sentence contains a plot-twist or an idea lesser writers would have used for their whole novel.

Although the protagonist is considerably sillier, Battle of Forever, which concerns a totally incompetent pacifist superman being slowly provoked into recovering his long-lost humanity, also contains the same level of intense and rapid-fire sense-of-wonder.

Perhaps the ideas in the later books were more profound than in his earlier, and perhaps not. I would be hard pressed to argue that, for example, the idea of non-set theory thinking in Darkness on Diamondia is more profound than the idea of non-Aristotelian logic in World of Null-A. One seems almost a reflection of the other. Again, The Silkie, with its idea of "Logic of Levels" seems to be prime van Vogt, a sparkling bit of wonder-smithing and idea-crafting.

So, my take is that van Vogt's early works show much, much more power and invention than his later works, and are rightly regarded as classics. Some of his later works I grant you show more skill, a more polished craftsmanship. I think the crest of both strengths, his early power and his later craft, overlap in only one book: The Silkie. But, on the whole, when he descends into merely psychological portrayals of psychopathologies, as I reader, I am unmoved and unimpressed.

Section IV: Submitted Questions

Although my invitation for questions submitted by visitors to this website was open for almost two months, the response was far less than I expected. But what they lacked in quantity, they made up for in quality. And since the turnout was so limited I waived my original allowance of only one question per person.

Michael McKinney:

In H. L. Drake's book A. E. van Vogt: Science Fantasy's Icon, there is an interesting quote:

"[...] Van Vogt told me that perhaps after his death a writer would contact his wife, Lydia, and contract to do another Gosseyn novel featuring eighteen year olds! (Interviews, 1985)"

Were you aware of this quote, and did it have any influence when you set out to write a Null-A sequel?


I was not aware of this quote, and so it had no influence. I selected the age of "X" as seventeen because this is the figure (if I recall correctly) the Games Machine lists for the age of the yet-undecanted duplicate bodies of Gosseyn in World of Null-A.

Michael McKinney:

Several Van fans have remarked that Null-A Three reads in large part as it were ghost written. The opening sequence seems to be authentic van Vogt, but much of the novel is uncharacteristic — and not in a way one would necessarily expect from dementia, but more like the product of other, fully cognizant, hands imperfectly imitating Van's style.

It's somewhat surprising you were given permission to essentially write an alternate ending to the Grandmaster's classic series; but it would be more understandable if the original third volume was not entirely van Vogt's work. What have you learned of the genesis of Null-A Three, and are you free to discuss it?


I have learned nothing about the genesis of Null-A Three, aside from what is already publicly known: van Vogt was in failing health at the time, suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. As for the style, it does not seem to me remarkably different from that used in his later works, Computerworld or Darkness on Diamondia.

Yves Levy:

What is the added value of a fourth Null-A book (except in terms of marketing, of course)? And could we imagine a second sequel to Gilbert Gosseyn's adventures?


Added value? I am not sure I understand the question. I wrote the book to entertain. If you are entertained, all is well. If not, then not. This was my homage to van Vogt. It is more to honor his memory than to add some sort of value to the commercial value of his name; though if his books attract more interest, and gain market value, due to my book, I will say I have done well by him, naturally.

I have no plans to write a second sequel to Gilbert Gosseyn, since I provided an end with no loose plot-threads. Once the action of the book encompasses all of time and space, both of this and all parallel realities, there is not much territory left to cover.

Section V: Wandering Abroad

A while back you recommended I read The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson, and I'm very glad you did. I found the setting to be a work of unparalleled imagination, and was staggered that such a thing was written almost a hundred years ago and languished in obscurity for so long. I'm always eager to read more of the neglected giants of yesterday, so are there any other such gems that you would recommend?


I can think of very few books both as impressive and as thoroughly forgotten as The Night Land, but, here is my list of some books that fall into both camps:

  • A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay. This is the most imaginative book in all imaginative literature, bar none. It is more like a vision than a science fiction story, and even those of us who look askance at the strange philosophy of the author, can be amazed at the strangeness and wonder of the work, the almost hypnotic power of its simple, masculine prose.
  • THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY by G. K. Chesterton. This one is better known. It concerns the adventures of a "Poet of the Law" who crosses wits with a "Poet of Anarchy," and one of them turns out to be a police detective working for an invisible chief, who is sending him to his death. Whether this counts as science fiction or not, I leave to the reader to decide, for I cannot: it has that same weird blend of spy fiction and otherworldly fiction as one sometimes see in British television shows like The Avengers or The Prisoner. It is weird, funny, memorable, surprising, and surprisingly deep.
  • I wish I could recommend one of the works of William Morris, for I find certain aspects of his imagination to be refreshing and quaint. Alas, in my opinion the quiet majesty and magic in his titles THE WELL AT THE WORLD'S END, or THE SUNDERING FLOOD, are not bourn out in the work itself.
  • THE WORM OUROBOROS by E. R. Eddison. No book has more lavish or more powerful poetry. Every line, every expression, is perfect. This work is a paean to everything noble, romantic, warlike, fierce, and unbowed in the spirit of the mighty men of old. No damsels are fairer and no king more majestic than those we meet here: from the Sorcerer-King Gorice the XII, who dies and cannot die, to the smiling and poetical arch-traitor Lord Gro, to the dastards and tipplers Lords Corund and Corinius, even the blackhearted villains are bold in emprise, ready for acts of valor, deadly in land-fight or sea-fight. Whether climbing the unclimbed mount of Koshtra Belorn, where vile Mantachores roam, to walking the paths of the dead to retrieve an enchanted brother, or wandering the uncrossed and enchanted deserts of Moruna, or crossing the wide Bhahavanan river on the back of tame crocodiles, or wrestling with an evil king for the dominion of the world, the cousins Lord Juss, Lord Spitfire, Lord Gouldry Blasco and Lord Brandoch Daha have few parallels in literature, and few in life. A worthy read.
  • I would also hasten to recommend the quaint and curious short stories of Lord Dunsany, especially the collections in THE SWORD OF WELLERAN and THE LAST BOOK OF WONDER, or better yet, BEYOND THE FIELDS WE KNOW.
  • Clarke Ashton Smith holds less appeal for me, but I can recommend the novella "The City of Singing Flame."
  • I am not sure if this counts as a gem, but anyone who has not read the pulp space opera masterpiece of the Lensman series by E. E. "Doc" Smith is missing a seven-sector callout of the book, a blinding flash and dazzling report of a book, a real thionite sniffer's dream! Start with GALACTIC PATROL. QX and clear ether!


Having now worked in settings created by A.E. van Vogt and William Hope Hodgson, are there any other authors whose works you'd like to expand on?


Jack Vance. I am honored to have been invited to contribute a short story to an homage anthology edited by the mighty Gardner Dozois, Songs of the Dying Earth. My Jack Vance pastiche will appear alongside the offerings of some of the most famous names in modern fantasy, from Neil Gaiman to Tanith Lee.


It's my belief that every writer has something unique to contribute to the field they work in, whether it be an idea, a fascinating setting, a writing style, memorable characters, a brand of humor, a way of looking at the world, or any of a vast number of things. Do you feel that you've brought something unique to science fiction, and, if so, what might that be?


I do think my work stands out from the crowd, but I am not sure I can put my finger on one element that makes it unique. Like all science fiction authors, I try to think through the ramifications of a counter-factual premise. I am more interested in philosophy than technology, so I can only with difficulty write hard sf; this gives my work a different flavor, but I would not call it unique. Van Vogt was also interested more in philosophy than nuts and bolts, for example.

I would say that I am unique because I am so much like G.K. Chesterton. No one else copies his approach as closely as I do! Hm, wait a minute...


Is there a question you were looking forward to answering, but that I was inconsiderate enough not to know to ask? :-)


None I can think of. Thank you for asking.

Section VI: The Wider World

Near the end of my high school years, as I looked over the colleges available, I briefly toyed with the idea of applying to St. John's, which is one of your alma maters. As a history student, I've always felt very strongly about learning from the original sources rather than gaining such knowledge second- or third-hand through textbooks. In the end I went to a different college, but just out of curiosity would you mind sharing some of your experiences there?


St. John's College in Annapolis was simply a positive experience for me. Indeed, St. John's is my dream college, and one I recommend wholeheartedly and with zeal to anyone seeking liberal education.

There are no tests and no grades at St. John's (except for the purposes of transfer). Instead, the tutors (there are no "teachers" at the school, nor professors; all the staff are "tutors") give each student a face-to-face critique of his performance for that semester. There are also no electives; every student follows the same course of study.

And what a course! We read the Great Books of Western literature in chronological order, starting with Homer, and moving on to Socrates, Aristophanes, Euripides, Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Thucydides; in the Sophomore year, we read the Bible and Virgil, and other Latin authors, from Plutarch to Seneca to Livy; then the Renaissance greats, from Descartes to Pascal to Shakespeare. And so on up to the modern age, reading Hobbes and Hume and Kant and Marx, the writings of the Federalist Papers, Freud, Nietzsche, Darwin. The students learn Greek and French in language tutorial, and study mathematics, philosophy, music, science, astronomy, grammar, rhetoric and logic.

If you have ever read C.S. Lewis, there is a scene in one of his books where the old professor laments, "Logic! What do they teach children these days!" Well, at St. John's they do still teach logic, along with the trivium and quadrivium. Students are not indoctrinated at St. John's with any modern politically correct agenda: they are taught to think and reason and to support their thinking in writing and speaking. Every class is a discussion class. All ideas are open to exploration; all topics open to question; all questions welcome.

Let me tell you what such an education does for you: you become like the one-eyed man in the country of the blind. You are like a man with a memory in the land of the amnesiacs, who recall nothing older than just-yesterday. No one can live without a philosophy, without a code of values or a set of judgments about right and wrong. No one has no conclusions about human nature, or is completely neutral on the question of how best to live.

Here is the rub: if we don't take the time and trouble to think about these deep questions each man for himself, if we do not lead "the examined life," whence do our ideas and conclusions arise?

They arise from the random flotsam of the culture around you; from headlines and wisecracks and television and maxims and magazines; from the example of parents and peers; from the schoolhouse and pulpit and schoolyard and street-corner and tavern and gutter. Our ideas and opinions, ideals to which our ego and self-esteem are tied with bonds that, being made of dream-stuff are tighter than iron, are merely random junk.

That is the price, that is the punishment, of leading the unexamined life, and of letting your deepest values and highest thoughts be prey to whoever and whatever you happened to have stumbled across back during your innocent youth, when you were too green and innocent to know whether you were being fed a line of bunkum, or being seduced by cynical propaganda. (I do not speak hypothetically here! For many a long year, I was seduced by a false world-view, lured in by bait and fed a hook, and I escaped having my life ruined by a false philosophy, a belligerent modern libertarian sexual-revolutionary hooey, only by blind luck, or by the providence of God, take your pick.)

All the great ideas, the values and beliefs we hold, the ideals on which our society is based, all arose from somewhere. Some genius wrote them down. He was arguing against or agreeing with, improving on or belaboring, the ideas written down from some earlier genius. All the Great Books of the Western World are players in a massive dialogue that echoes down along the centuries.

For example, much of the pain and horror created by communism in the Twentieth Century A.D. could have been easily avoided, had only the people heeded the warnings of Aristotle in the Fifth Century B.C. against the dark conceits of Plato. He knew the error involved in holding all property in common: he knew the injustices of Sparta.

These ideas that seem so new and so modern are old. If we do not know where these ideas arose, who first said them and why, we do not really know them. We can parrot them, but we cannot add anything worth keeping to the great dialogue of human progress.

Without education, each of us is like a man who walks in on the last five minutes of a conversation that started hours ago, and, without bothering to find out how the argument stands, or what has been discussed, ventures an opinion. A man without education is like a juror who only wakes up to hear the most recent witness, and does not know any of the evidence presented in the days and weeks before. How is such a juror going to make a just decision?

A classical education puts the world in perspective, and allows the student to escape the parochialism of the age in which he happens to be born. He becomes a citizen of eternity.

Nothing promises that students who read the Great Books will reach the right conclusions, or use their knowledge well, but at least they will be making informed and well-thought-out errors, rather than merely drifting with the tide of common opinion. Succeed or fail, they will be men, and free men at that; and the responsibility for their thought and their character will be their own.


Even though I'm a born-again Christian who believes God sometimes directly intervenes in individuals' lives, I must be perfectly frank here and say I found your account of the visions you experienced in the hospital a few years ago to be, shall we say, rather peculiar and a little difficult to believe. And if that was my reaction, I can only imagine what your reaction must have been, being a hard-core atheist at the time. What was it like having your whole worldview turned topsy-turvy? And how are you adapting to your new life in Christ?


The experience of being shown wrong about the things which were both of paramount personal importance, and which were the subject of years of daily thought and meditation is profoundly humbling and profoundly disorienting.

As to how I am adapting, I must confess that it is considerably more difficult to be a humble, joyful Christian, since I have sins whose dominion over me, even with the aid of daily prayer, I cannot seem to break, than it is to be an atheist mesmerized and benumbed by brittle pride, and nonchalant, nay, actively pursuing my various vices and bad habits.

Back in the day, I simply told myself my bad habits were not so bad, and that everyone else had just as bad, or worse. Those excuses sound familiar, don't they?

I can tell you from experience, that it is easier, far easier, to make up an excuse why not to resist a bad habit than it is to take up arms and try to cure it. Temptation does not seem to rule your life when you give in: but one who gives in to his bad emotions is a slave, all the more degrading because one does not realize or admit it.

The long and the short of it is that I am happier with the universe, which is a larger and more magical place than herebefore, but less happy with myself, who has a higher standard to reach.

Was it peculiar and incredible that I received a visit from the Savior, or of the Blessed Virgin? I suppose so. I would not have credited it, had it not happened to me, even if the most honest and alert observer had so testified, because I did not think the Savior or the Virgin were any more real than Sauron or Voldemort. Those who think these persons are real, on the other hand, must ask themselves why they think these persons do not act in the modern world with a power as miraculous as honest ancient eyewitnesses reported?

Christians believe what the world thinks foolish. If you believe something as foolish as the idea that the Holy Spirit dwells in all believers, and moves through the earth seeking the salvation of souls, it is not incredible to believe something as pragmatic and hard-headed as the idea that this same dread and potent Spirit decided to save an worthless atheist. We can be astonished at the mercy of the act, I suppose.


There are many people who might have had the exact same experience you did, but who would have immediately gone to great lengths to rationalize it as a fit of delirium, regardless of how real they knew it to be. I think it speaks volumes for your own character that you were actively seeking the truth, and willing to accept it, no matter the cost to yourself and to your beliefs. It's incredibly rare, though, for God to ever step in and treat someone to an experience like yours, and I hope you realize what a special gift you were given.

I have two concluding questions regarding all this, mainly to satisfy my own curiosity. Firstly, every fellow Christian that I know came to Christ through reason and faith, and didn't need the red-carpet five-alarm Ebenezer Scrooge treatment. Why do you think yours was a special case?


I am embarrassed by your compliment. I assume any man of ordinary integrity, having at last seen proof beyond a reasonable doubt on an issue he doubted, would change his mind. An intellectually honest man cannot do otherwise, atheist or not. I would believe this were a dream or hallucination or fit of madness if that explanation fitted the fact pattern. It does not. I do not think I merit any compliment for drawing this deduction.

Let me say in the loudest voice I can that I am not a special case, unless by special you mean especially pigheaded or especially blinded by pride. The blessing mentioned in the Book of John that comes to those who believe without seeing is one I have lost forever.

Nothing was shown to me that I could not have learned simply by taking the books I had read, the people I knew, and the world around me seriously. Everything from human nature to the nature of the stars points to a Creator. I was so stubborn I had to be dangled over the brink of death before I opened the eyes of my soul. Once they were no longer tightly shut, and I saw my own soul, and life everlasting, and saw as well the Light by which such insights come.


And lastly, I read somewhere that you were considering writing a work comparing your world views as an atheist and as a Christian, and the reasons for both sides. Is this true, and if so, have you started it yet?


Funny you should ask about that book! I was planning to start writing it tonight, but instead I decided to answer these questions of yours. Unless I can think of something snappier, the title will be The Tomorrow Letters, and it is to be published by Benbella Books. Glen Yeffeth is the editor.


Well, Mr. Wright, I've enjoyed this interview tremendously. I'd like to offer you my sincere thanks for agreeing to it, and for providing such wonderfully comprehensive answers to my sometimes difficult questions. Aside from the honor of being able to ask detailed questions of a noteworthy SF writer, it's been a real pleasure to speak with such a knowledgeable and ardent van Vogt fan and the author of the very impressive Null-A Continuum.


I am not sure how noteworthy I might be, and I am very pleased to get such interesting and detailed questions about van Vogt, who is my favorite author. The pleasure has been mutual.