Sunday, May 15, 2016

Gene Wolfe and A. E. van Vogt on the Soul

I have a number of times made known my great admiration of the stories and early novels of A. E. van Vogt. My favorite of his works are the two Null-A books, The World of Null-A (1948) and The Pawns of Null-A (1956; a.k.a. The Players of Null-A). My love is not shared by everyone. Indeed, I am quite aware of their shortcomings myself. But to me van Vogt's best works are a kind of poetry, despite a prose style that is at times almost hilariously awkward. I'm drawn to their naïve earnestness, and also the fact that main plot-movers are philosophical principles (however inadequately digested by Mr. van Vogt) rather than gadgetry.

I remember finding The World of Null-A at a used bookstore (called Treasure Aisles, I believe) in college, and taking it home, and reading it. It was a refreshing, exhilarating experience.
Gosseyn was crawling frantically along the grass when the first bullet actually struck him. It hit one shoulder and sent him spinning into the path of a burning energy beam. His clothes and flesh flared in an insanity of flame; and then he had rolled over and the bullets were focused again. They began to rip him apart as he burned with an incandescent fury. 
The unbearable part was that he clung to consciousness. He could feel the unrelenting fire and the bullets searching through his writhing body. The blows and the flame tore at his vital organs, at his legs, his heart, and his lungs even after he had stopped moving. His last dim thought was the infinitely sad, hopeless realization that now he would never see Venus and its unfathomed mysteries. 
Somewhere along there, death came.
Curtains for Gosseyn I. But then, without a word of explanation, at the beginning of the next chapter:
A curious, heavy sound impinged upon Gosseyn's attention.
As I said, van Vogt's best novels tend to explore innovations, not in technology, but in ideas. That's one of the things I like about him. One thing that often comes up in his writing is the relationship between identity and memory.

In The World of Null-A, I think it's fair to say that identity is portrayed as neither more nor less than memory. The Games Machine explains the method of posthumous transference to Gosseyn II, saying that "the death of one body is recorded on an electronic receiver, which then triggers the new body into consciousness." Prescott later tells Gosseyn that if "two energies can be attuned on a twenty-decimal approximation of similarity [units???], the greater will bridge the gap of space between them just as if there were no gap, although the juncture is accomplished at finite speeds." He goes on: "How do you explain the fact that you have in your mind the details of what Gossen I did and thought? You must have been attuned, you and he; in fact, it is the only theoretically sure method of thought transmission – you have to do it with yourself."

Thus memory and identity in The World of Null-A: the "soul" (if we may call it such) consists of a certain set of memories and traits. Copy those into a new body, and you have the very person, continued.

Now, when I blogged about van Vogt's The Book of Ptath last year, I noted a number of resemblances to the world of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. Having just finished reading that work's sequel and coda, The Urth of the New Sun (1987), which is just as rich, profound, and delightfully elliptical as the rest, I'm struck by another parallel with van Vogt's writing. Several, actually, but we'll only discuss one here.

[Spoiler alert!!!]

The reader eventually discovers that the protagonist, Severian, is going through a Gosseyn-like succession of bodies. Each body is apparently formed by directed energies and converted into a substantial form through the subsequent consumption of stable matter.
"What we did here for you, Severian, the mighty Tzadkiel accomplished there, remembrance taking from your dead mind to build your mind and you anew." 
"Do you mean that when I stood before Tzadkiel's Seat of Justice, I was an eidolon Tzadkiel himself had made?" 
Ossipago muttered, "Made's too strong a term, if I have as much access to your tongue as I like to think. Made tangible, possibly." 
I looked from him to Famulimus for enlightenment. 
"You were reflected thought in your dead mind. He fixed the image, made it whole, mended the fatal wound you'd borne." 
"Made me a walking, speaking picture of myself."
They go on:
"But I'm dead – not even here, dead back there on Tzadkiel's ship."
"Your twin lies dead there," Barbatus told me. "As another lies dead here. I might say in passing that if he weren't dead, we couldn't have done what we did, because every living being is more than mere matter." He paused and glanced toward Famulimus for help, but received none. "What do you know of the anima?" 
I thought then of Ava, and what she had said to me: "You're a materialist, like all ignorant people. But your materialism doesn't make materialism true." Little Ava had died with Foila and the rest. "Nothing," I muttered. "I know nothing of the anima." 
"In a way, it's like a line of verse. Famulimus, what was the one you quoted to me?" 
His wife sang, "Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night, Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight." [The first line of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. – raphordo]
"Yes," I said. "I understand." 
Barbatus pointed. "Suppose I were to write those lines upon that wall – and then to write them again upon that other wall. Which would be the true lines?" 
"Both," I said. "And neither. The true lines are not writing, nor speech either. I can't say what they are." 
"That is the way of the anima, as I understand it. It was written there." He indicated the dead man. "Now it is written in you."
Perhaps I'm seeing allusions where there are none (I have a knack for that), but in these explanations I find a gentle rebuttal to van Vogt's low-minded mechanical transference of memory data, framed as a step up to the level of metaphysics. Ironically, one has only to read Aristotle's De Anima to see how far short A. E. van Vogt fell in understanding questions involved in the nature of what is commonly called the soul.

As for Wolfe, as always, I find him a rich source of ideas for writing about eternal questions like the immortality of the soul without veering into scientific reductionism on one side or outright religiosity on the other. His explanation here strikes me as being quite close to the Aristotelian (and Scholastic) idea of the soul as the "form" of the human person.

I do dabble in such philosophy from time to time, but for me the real lesson here is a stylistic one. With a little metaphysics, Wolfe is able to take his characters through mind-blowing experiences and transfigurations without violating their basic humanity.

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