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Null-A Continuum
John C. Wright
Tor, 448 pages

Null-A Continuum
John C. Wright
John C. Wright is a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor. He presently lives in Virginia, with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their two children. He has published shorter works in Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, one of which was selected to appear in Year's Best SF 3 edited by David G. Hartwell for 1997.

John C. Wright Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Titans of Chaos
SF Site Review: Fugitives of Chaos
SF Site Review: Orphans of Chaos
SF Site Review: Mists of Everness
SF Site Review: The Last Guardian of Everness
SF Site Review: The Golden Age
SF Site Interview: John C. Wright

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Let's be honest upfront. I am not a fan of A.E. Van Vogt. I can intellectually appreciate the influence he had on SF. I can, at some level, perceive, I think, what his fans see in his best work. I hope I may be forgiven if I suggest that encountering that work at one's personal Golden Age (12, as Peter Graham famously said) might help one ignore its faults. But for one reason or another, the only Van Vogt I read at an early age was his SF Hall of Fame story "The Weapon Shops." When I read such novels as The World of Null-A much later, I was decidedly unimpressed. I have to say I agree, for the most part, with Damon Knight's famous demolition of that book (in In Search of Wonder).

So why read Null-A Continuum? One reason -- I have enjoyed much of John C. Wright's other work. Another reason -- the book has by and large been well-received. A third reason: I figured, maybe my problem with Van Vogt is Van Vogt. Maybe another writer can make him work for me. (Though Damon Knight tried, in Beyond the Barrier, without much success. But clearly Knight wasn't really the right choice to out-Van Vogt Van Vogt.)

Did it work? Well, no. And, in a way, it's not Wright's fault. As far as I can tell, he has succeeded magnificently at what he tried to do. He has continued (and, pretty much, completed) the Null-A series in a way quite consistent with Van Vogt's style. (And for that matter, again as far as I can tell, he has nicely finessed the problems with the much-disparaged third book of the series, Null-A Three, written very late in Van Vogt's life.) I think it's fair to say that people who enjoy A.E. Van Vogt will not be disappointed by this continuation. But likewise, I suppose inevitably, people who don't get Van Vogt will not "get" this book either.

I don't know that there is much point summarizing the story. Van Vogt's plots are famously complex -- or, as we detractors would have it, incoherent. This book is no different. It opens with the superhero, the ultimately rational man, Gilbert Gosseyn, he of the two brains (but not to worry -- by the end he'll have three!), accused of murdering his good friend and fellow Null-A, Eldred Crang. To complicate things, Crang was the husband of Patricia Hardie, whom Gosseyn falsely remembers being his own wife. But of course the plot spirals out wildly from there. The main thread concerns the attempt of the evil and violent emperor Enro the Red to take over the Galaxy and to marry his sister, Reesha -- who is of course also Patricia. But more important things are involved -- it seems at one level Enro is the puppet of a species existing completely outside our universe that wishes to destroy our universe. At another level, Enro may be the puppet of Gosseyn himself -- or, dare I say, Gosseyn's evil twin. Or... But you can see what's going on. The stakes are constantly raised. The characters' powers constantly increase. Wonders never cease. And please be assured, that brief description conveys no real flavor of the plot, for good or ill.

One must be fair. There is no denying that the book displays an impressive imagination. Wright sends Gosseyn and the other characters around the Galaxy and outside it, into the very far future and the unimaginably distant past. The action is pretty much constant -- much of that action being mental. As I said, I believe that to one attuned to Van Vogt's notions, this book will work very well.

But, but... the thing is, it's all so blasted preposterous! No action is plausibly connected to a previous action. At any time I felt anything could happen. Most assuredly that included, at any point, the notion that the author could by fiat declare Gosseyn the villain and Enro, or Gosseyn's evil twin, or even the sinister alien Ydd, to truly be in the right. Now one never felt that would really happen -- but almost anything else might have happened, and been explained by some Null-A double talk. One of the things that makes plots -- even the most outré -- effective is some sense of connection between events, some sense that we got from point A to point Z by some internally consistent sequence of logic. That just doesn't apply here. (And nor does it, to my mind, in those of Van Vogt's own novels that I have read.) Likewise the characters do not convince. And here the book really fails, for at its center there is supposed to be a love story -- to my mind a potentially very affecting love story, and one hinted at from the first book, The World of Null-A -- and it just doesn't come through.

Copyright © 2009 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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