Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Null-A Continuum

Perhaps I shouldn't admit this, but I'm usually more given to reading the books of dead authors than live ones. Recently I broke with habit, and read a novel by an author who is very much alive and active; in my defense, however, the novel was the sequel and conclusion to two works by an author who is dead.

I speak of Null-A Continuum by John C. Wright, and I found it "slightly terrific" (as a certain other author would put it). Immediately after I finished it I wrote him a piece of fan mail – such is the novelty of reading living authors! – and he was kind enough to respond. This review is largely a rewrite of that letter.

To begin with, Null-A Continuum is meant as a sequel to A. E. van Vogt's World of Null-A and Pawns of Null-A, two of my favorite science fiction novels. (It ignores Null-A Three, an inferior installment written by van Vogt in the eighties, when his powers were failing.) Now, the great works of van Vogt are to me a kind of poetry. Here's a post I wrote about it a while back. I don't know what it is about them. They have this slightly weird naïveté and incoherence, indissolubly tied to an astounding scope. Though short, they end up being more than the sum of their parts.

They're often about human potential, a potential released, not through gadgetry or alien minds, but through humanistic philosophies, e.g., non-Aristotelian logic (The World of Null-A), Nexialism (The Voyage of the Space Beagle), the principles of the weapon shops (The Weapon Shops of Isher). These are the "technologies" he was really interested in, and his enthusiasm and earnestness make up for his faddishness. There's also beauty, and arresting strangeness; he shows a sensitivity to affect often lacking in other sci-fi authors.

The null-A books (the first two, anyway) are my favorites, and Mr. Wright's addition brings the arc to a satisfying, fitting, "sane" conclusion. I recall reading on his blog at some point that the plot outline had to be submitted to Mr. van Vogt's widow for approval, and that he was more or less bound to this proposal as he wrote. This strikes me as a difficult way to write a novel, but nothing about the action felt contrived or ill-considered. Null-A Continuum is, on the contrary, an absorbing, almost mind-blowing read.


Looking back over it all, I find that it answers the questions raised by the originals, and confirms one's sense that the inexplicable appearance of Gilbert Gosseyn is truly just the tip of the cosmic iceberg. Like the originals, it's a narrative with an impossibly huge scope and countless twists and turns that nevertheless somehow works itself out in a logical way. Plus, while saving the universe is great and all, I'm most pleased that Gilbert ends up with Patricia at last, and that their life in Cress Village together wasn't just an illusion. I also appreciate it that X makes another appearance – he was too big, somehow, to dispatch with a mere bullet in the head. The peculiar disparity between the fossil record and the existence of an ancient galactic civilization is also (to me) satisfyingly explained, as are numerous other seeming inconsistencies and loose ends.

It's obvious that writing this novel was a labor of love. The tone is convincingly in the "van Vogt" style; I was so much under its spell that I found the references to Hawking and Weinberg rather jarring, like anachronisms. The science itself is nicely done and convincingly grounded, though of course rather absurd – as it should be. I happen to be a math professor who as a grad student specialized in the applications of null-E geometry to null-N physics, though now I'm just a glorified teacher in a rather obscure part of the country, and I appreciate good science-fictional science.

I was first drawn to Mr. Wright when I read his Ten Commandments of Writing, a quote from which appears on my sidebar. His appreciation for the things I like, such as Ballantine fantasy paperbacks, A. E. van Vogt, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Great Books, and Mortimer Adler, made me look further. I thank him for having given me some pleasurable reading, and salute him for completing the saga of Gilbert Gosseyn.

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