A. E. van Vogt and the Sanity of Anarchy

By John Andrews

It was Janasen who spoke first. 'The system on this planet sort of interests me. I can't get used to the idea of free food…The galaxy swarms with anarchistic ideas, but I've never before heard of them working. I've been trying to figure out how this non-arist … to…to - '.

'Call it Null-A,' said Gosseyn.

' - this Null-A stuff operates, but it seems to depend on people being sensible and that I refuse to believe.'

Gosseyn said nothing more. For this was sanity that was being discussed, and that could not be explained with words alone. If Janassen was interested, let him go to the elementary schools.'

Alfred Elton van Vogt (1912-2000) was one of the major new writers who created the 'golden age' of Astounding Science Fiction, the magazine edited by John W Campbell in the nineteen forties. A Dutch Canadian born in 1912 he was brought up in the wide-open spaces of western Canada in the early 20th century. He became first a pulp fiction writer, later a science-fiction writer for John Campbell and after the Second World War moved to California and became involved with Ron Hubbard and Dianetics.

In 1931 he was employed for ten months on the Canadian census in Ottawa, where he shared a room with a Scottish student who told him that the Scots controlled the British Empire, an idea that may have started van Vogt thinking about undercover governments and aliens. Shortly after finishing this job, van Vogt began writing short stories for pulp magazines and features for trade journals. Later he wrote plays for radio.

In 1938 Van Vogt read an edition of Astounding which included the story Who Goes There? by 'Don A Stuart', actually a penname used by the editor, Campbell. He was impressed by the story and quickly wrote two science fiction stories of his own; The Vault of the Beast and Black Destroyer which were published in Astounding the following year. This was the beginning of an association with Campbell that would last until 1950 and see just over one million words by van Vogt published in Astounding and its sister magazine Unknown.

During the first two years of the Second World War van Vogt was employed as a civil servant in the Canadian Ministry of National Defence. This severely limited his writing opportunities and in 1941 he quit his job and became a full time science fiction writer. In 1945, some time after leaving Canada and settling in California he wrote The World of Null-A.. It was published in Astounding in August to October of that year, beginning in the month that the atom bomb was used against Japan. The sequel The Pawns of Null-A (from which the quotation above is taken) followed three years later. Later, both serials were published in book form and reprinted many times. A third book, Null-A Three, appeared in the nineteen eighties. In his 'Null-A' novels van Vogt envisaged an anarchist culture, transplanted from Earth to the planet Venus in the year 2560.

The society envisaged in these books is the product of mental liberation through the system of retraining known as General Semantics. Unusually in science fiction, the system actually existed and still exists.

General Semantics was orignated by Count Alfred Korzybski, a Polish engineer and psychologist, living in the United States, during the period between the two world wars. His ideas were set out in two books 'The Manhood of Humanity' and 'Science and Sanity' (1933). He gathered a number of followers (van Vogt being one) and founded two organisations to develop and propagate his work; The Institute of General Semantics and the International Society for General Semantics. He also had an influence on later developments, especially what is now known as Neuro-Linguistic Programming. General Semantics is described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as, 'The study of language as a representation of reality.' and in material on the Institute of General Semantics website, as, '...the study of the relations between language, thought and behaviour; between how we talk and therefore how we think, and how we act.'

The motivation that drove Korzybski's work came from his experiences as an officer in the Russian Army during the First World War. The war led him to question the sanity of human beings and it is this question of sanity, and how it could be fostered, that forms the core of his work. His concept of sanity is that it is what exists when the conceptual world (in which we think and make decisions) parallels reality. His contention was that the systems of symbols we are trained to use in thinking, especially language and logic, have a defective structure that leads us into deluded beliefs, which in turn leads to disastrous actions.

Korzybski's ultimate aim was to transform human society. He advocated (in Science and Sanity) the establishment of Null A (General Semantics) departments in governments and the League of Nations to advise the authorities on dealing with all-important issues. Clearly, his hopes were optimistic, possibly naïve, in this respect.

Korzybski was concerned to get everyone moving towards perceiving the same objective reality in order to remove the causes of friction and conflict from the world. He wanted to move people towards a shared perception of reality.

The World of Null-A is part utopian novel and part a symbolic exposition of the anti-utopia in which we now live. The settings are Earth and Venus in the year 2560. There are a number of major characters; Gosseyn the null-A trained central figure, Hardie, the President of a United Earth, Thorson, the leader of a group of alien humanoids, agents of an interstellar empire, who have secretly taken control of Hardie and his government, Crang, a Venusian Null-A detective who has infiltrated the alien gang, and Patricia Hardie, the President's glamorous daughter.

At the opening of the novel we find Gosseyn in a hotel in the 'City of the Machine' whence he has come to take part in the annual 'games' in which candidates are selected for government offices and to qualify for emigration to Venus. At a meeting in the hotel, Gosseyn discovers that his beliefs about who he is are false. He visits the ' Games Machine' the giant sentient computer that conducts the 'games', but it cannot tell him who he really is, although it is able to detect that false memories have been implanted by hypnosis.

Soon after this encounter Gosseyn is kidnapped and, to his surprise, finds himself being interrogated by Hardie, the president of Earth, and the mysterious Thorson. They discover that he has a second brain, which is dormant, but may give him special powers if he learns to use it. Patricia Hardie helps him to attempt an escape, but this fails and he is killed.

In the following chapter, Gosseyn awakens on the planet Venus, inexplicably alive again in a new body. Exploring his surroundings he stumbles on a clinic run by two of the gang members and then is taken by a 'roboplane' (an automated aeroplane, another sentient machine) which tells him it is an agent of the Games Machine, to the home of Crang, the detective who has infiltrated the alien gang. Crang finds him there and, acting as a member of the gang, takes him back to Earth, where he is of even greater interest to Thorson because of his 'rebirth' in a new body. Here Crang, the double agent, ingeniously persuades the gang to release Gosseyn, arguing that Gosseyn has been 'reborn' once and if he is killed again or imprisoned a further Gosseyn may emerge without their knowing. He is released and finds, and removes, the 'distorter' (a product of galactic technology) that the gang have focussed on the Games Machine to corrupt its working and so ensure themselves victory in the games. The machine tells him that the alien empire has now invaded Venus.

While Gosseyn is examining the distorter it suddenly functions as a sort of teleportation device and he finds himself back on Venus. Here he is again captured and taken before Thorson, the gang leader. Thorson tells Gosseyn that the empire's attack on Venus is failing, because of successful resistance by the Null-A trained Venusians. He also explains that the attack is a violation of galactic treaties and was deliberately calculated to start an interstellar war, which the 'Greatest Empire' wanted in order to cement its domination of the galaxy. He (Thorson) has been given orders to exterminate the population of Venus, but has decided to disobey. Gosseyn's re-emergence in a new body has, to his mind, demonstrated that there can be such a thing as immortality and Thorson wants to have it too. He offers to spare Venus if Gosseyn will co-operate with him in tracking down the person who made the Gosseyn bodies and gave Gosseyn the false memories.

Kair, a Venusian psychologist, trains Gosseyn in the use of his second brain. As the training proceeds he begins to manifest powers such as teleportation, telepathy and the ability to control electrical and other energies. The search leads them back to the City of the Machine; from where Gosseyn started out, which has now been devastated because resistance to the gang has broken out on Earth as well as on Venus. They go to the General Semantics Institute and, after a battle in which Thorson is killed, Gosseyn finds himself alone in the deserted building with only a wounded bearded man, who reveals that he created the Gosseyn bodies by what we would now call cloning. Their apparent immortality comes from the fact they are kept in suspended animation and receive the thoughts of the one who is awake by telepathy, consequently ' when death strikes the body, the same personality goes on.' The same man also nurtured General Semantics in its earlier days. He dies and Gosseyn shaves the face of the corpse and finds that, 'Here beyond all argument was the visible end-reality of his search.

The face was his own.'

The utopia depicted in World and its sequels is very much in the background. Science-fiction writers often place important material in the setting. This is true of van Vogt; his plots are often contrived to lead characters into an important setting which he wants to show us. In describing the culture of the Venusian colonists van Vogt shows us a different world in more ways than one. For example aeroplanes are freely available for private use; you just telephone a central registry and ask for one. As we have already seen, these 'roboplanes' are also sentient machines. When Gosseyn's plane arrives it describes Venus to him in the following terms: - 'To understand the political situation here, you must reach out with your mind to the furthest limits of your ideas of an ultimate democracy. There is no President of Venus, no Council, no ruling group. Everything is voluntary. Every man lives to himself alone and yet conjoins with others to see that the necessary work is done. But people can choose their own work. You might say, "suppose everybody decided to enter the same profession?" That doesn't happen. The population is composed of responsible citizens, who make a careful study of the entire work-to-be-done situation before they choose their jobs. For instance, when a detective dies or retires or changes his occupation he advertises his intention, or, in the case of death, his position is advertised. If he is still alive, people who would like to become detectives come to discuss their qualifications with him and with each other. Whether he is alive or dead, his successor is finally chosen as a result of a vote among the applicants.'

This is easy to understand. The metaphorical exposition of our current reality - or that of 1945 - is less obvious. But consider: Gosseyn doesn't know or understand what is going on. This is the viewpoint of an ordinary person, who also doesn't understand or know what is happening to him. Gosseyn, then, is 'everyman'. Gosseyn doesn't know why the gang are so interested in him nor why they regard him as a threat. He doesn't know where they come from. He tries to influence events without understanding them and this represents the predicament of the ordinary person. Further, Gosseyn doesn't know who he really is. Van Vogt, wrote in his introduction to the 1970 edition of World, 'analogically this is true of all of us only we are so far gone into falseness, so acceptant of our limited role that we never question it at all.' It's suggestive that Gosseyn has false memories, a false identity implanted by hypnosis. This too is typical of us all. We don't know ourselves, in the sense of knowing what we really think or what we really want. We lose touch with ourselves, our beliefs and values, and take on those given us by authority. For the time being Gosseyn is facing the power gang, with only a few allies whose freedom to help him is limited. Again this is, in a sense, the situation that we all face.

In World the Earth is ruled by a secret gang who do not have the qualities they claim to have and are in power through corruption of the accepted process. Again analogically isn't this true of the world we live in? . The human race stands on the sidelines of life, helplessly looking on while the various ruling groups control its' world. And these groups work largely in secret, deceiving or attempting to deceive about their true intentions. In the novel, President Hardie says to Gosseyn "… we are men who would have been doomed to minor positions if we have accepted the rule of the machine and the philosophy of Null A. We are highly intelligent and capable in every respect, but we have certain ruthless qualities in our natures that would normally bar us from great success. Ninety nine per cent of the world's history was made by our kind, and you may be sure it shall be so again." This is the way things really are. Gangs of conspirators, ruthless men and women, only some of whom appear in public, constitute all ruling groups.

The gang is centred around aliens and their human collaborators. A common conspiracy theory now, but in 1945 when van Vogt was writing, it was very unusual and he was one of the first writers to use it. There is a certain analogical truth here too. No one can behave as a fully functioning human and hold on to power for long. People who take power, or even seek power, separate themselves from the human race at large and become dehumanised; like aliens in the midst of us.

If Gosseyn represents everyman, his a second brain, which he cannot use until the end of the novel, can be taken to symbolise the latent potential of ordinary people; either here and now or in some future time. The potential to wake up to what is going on and so become free. Also qualities such as rebirth and teleportation can be taken to symbolise the continuity and ubiquity of humanity.

The games machine resembles, in its function, an electorate (because it appoints people to positions of power). It is corrupted by the distorter broadcasting at it, which may be taken to symbolise the effect of media propaganda influencing the judgement of electors.

An important theme at the heart of the novel is that of social change coming about as a result of inner change. The human mind is seen as the theatre of progress. In The World Beyond the Hill Alexei Panshin tells us that this was typical of the state of thinking to which science fiction had evolved by the mid nineteen forties and van Vogt was the prime example of this. Interest in the potential development of mind had superseded at least in part, earlier concerns with technological change; nuclear power, robots and space travel, which are taken for granted in the Null A novels.

Van Vogt sees the key to this inner change in a development of General Semantics a system of mental training that already existed. In the novel, social progress is possible because everyone sees things as they really are as a result of their semantic training. Under these conditions there is an end of social conflict and the new era of co-operation can begin. Gosseyn, reflecting on the Venusians successful resistance to the alien invasion tells himself; 'As one man, Venusians had realised the situation and without agreement, with no pre-planning or warning, had done what was necessary. It was a victory for sanity that would surely leave its impress on every thoughtful man in the universe. Out there, on the planets of other stars, men of goodwill must exist in very large numbers.'

How are we to understand 'sanity'? There are two very different possibilities. Sanity could be adjustment to whatever is normally accepted in society - so if society thinks the world is flat, the person who says its round is not sane. Or it could mean adjustment to reality - a sane person faces reality, whatever society's norms may be and doesn't fool him/herself. This is an anarchist concept of sanity. Korzybski, the creator of General Semantics, thought that 'science' was humanity's best adaptation to reality (thus 'Science & Sanity') and that the findings of science showed that the symbols that we use - language mainly - to represent reality are faulty. They have 'structures' that conflict with the structures of reality.

Van Vogt did not consider himself an anarchist or a radical of any sort. In the introduction to his 1973 novel, 'Future Glitter' (also known as 'Tyrannopolis') he reveals himself to be a Democrat, 'without a leftist or rightist bone.' But was he, perhaps, an unconscious anarchist? The dream-like nature of van Vogt's writing is often commented on, and he really did dream his work. In a seventies interview with Charles Platt he described how he would wake himself at ninety-minute intervals throughout the night and think about a story until he fell asleep again. Next day he would continue writing with material that his dreams had given him. According to his friend and agent, Forrest Ackermann, he did this continually for over twenty-five years.

The key to the Null A books is that people must be 're-educated' in order to be anarchists, by some method such as general semantics training. Then, and only then, can they be admitted to the anarchist heaven (which in this case is literally in the sky - i.e. on another planet). Of course, one may see this as an expression of a repressed wish - as, no doubt so much of science fiction is - an urge to freedom and co-operation that may lurk, unknown, even in authoritarian minds, emerging only in dreams. Putting the utopian society in the far future and on the other side of an arduous process of training and selection makes it safe; it is not something we can have here and now so we do not need to do anything about it. But, at the same time. it may also be true. Perhaps most people really do need to go through some kind of inner change if they are to inhabit, or to help to create, an anarchistic world.

John Andrews
London, UK
November 2002


A.E van Vogt, The World of Null A (1948 - Street & Smith) The Pawns of Null A, (Street & Smith), both available from International Society for General Semantics - see below
Panshin, Alexei & Cory, The World Beyond the Hill, Jeremy Tarcher inc, Los Angeles 1989
Charles Platt, Who Writes SF? Savoy, 1980
A E van Vogt, Reflections of AE van Vogt, Fictioneer Books, Georgia, 1975
Alfred Korzybski, Science & Sanity, Institute of General Semantics , 1933

On the internet

International Society for General Semantics ; www.generalsemantics.org The Weird Worlds of AE van Vogt : www.icshi.net/worlds/

Site created by Magnus Axelsson
(No longer being updated)

Hosted on Icshi.net