Anarchism And Null-A
"Who am I?" That question may or may not have a definitive answer, and is the central question that spurs protagonist Gilbert Gosseyn on an interplanetary adventure in the novel "The World of Null-A".
As you may know, I'm a huge fan of science fiction, especially the more "cerebral" kind. My favorite book of all time is "Dune", as it is as grand in its scope as it is deep in its examination of the human condition and critiques major aspects of human society, cultural evolution and governance through the lenses of philosophy, history, economy, politics, morality and religion. This is what science fiction's supposed to be: our current predicaments reflected in a mirror from the future. If you watch an episode of Star Trek, you'll come away with the feeling that ordinary human, political, cultural or philosophical issues have been portrayed against a futuristic background, and how those issues are resolved by humans who have, hopefully, evolved in the direction of our best abilities, in a way that unlocks our hidden potential to create a better world, not just a more technologically advanced one.
A.E. van Vogt's "The World of Null-A" ranks up there with my favorite books of all time, as it tries to describe a humanity that has unlocked its hidden potential to create a seemingly perfect society without any form of government or other forms of institutional coercion; this novel is a complete validation of communist anarchism if there ever was one. "Null-A" is shorthand for "Non-Aristotelian" or "Non-classical logic" logic, which is the new way of thinking at the base of A.E. van Vogt's perfect human society. This new way of thinking involves general semantics as originated by A.E. van Vogt's contemporary Alfred Korzybski, who launched this field of study in 1933 with the publication of "Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics". "The World of Null-A" was first published in 1948, two years before Alfred Korzybski's death.
In linguistics, semantics is the study of meaning; it addresses how meaning is created through, and derived from the levels of words, phrases, sentences or larger units of discourse. General semantics adds another layer to this abstraction of meaning:
General semantics is concerned with how events translate to perceptions, how they are further modified by the names and labels we apply to them, and how we might gain a measure of control over our own responses, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. Proponents characterize general semantics as an antidote to certain kinds of delusional thought patterns in which incomplete and possibly warped mental constructs are projected onto the world and treated as reality itself.
In the novel, our protagonist Gilbert Gosseyn (pronounced Go sane) is in a hotel in the "city of The Machine" awaiting the start of "The Game", a contest in which contestants are filtered according to their mastery of non-Aristotelian logic and behavior. It's a contest of 30 days, during which the city is completely without police or any kind of law-enforcement, and contestants are regularly questioned by and inside the Machine, a metal monstrosity located near the presidential palace. Depending on how far contestants progress, they win jobs, starting at the lower end of janitors, going all the way up to becoming the next president, ensuring that people are always governed by non-Aristotelians. The grand prize however is not the presidency. If you want to read the book yourself without heavy spoilers, you'd best stop here and skip to the below linked video where you'll find the audio-book.
No, the grand prize is permission to go live on the planet Venus which is populated by the grand-masters of non-Aristotelianism, so to speak, and where there's no government at all. The Venusians are the perfect society, the 100 percent egalitarian communist anarchist society that will be put to the test near the end of the novel. This society consists only of individuals who simply do what's necessary for the good of the whole society, without instruction or direction. This society is, according to the novel, the result of people making completely rational decisions in a democratic framework. Venus is a lush paradise populated by the perfect human society. Back to Gosseyn.
Gosseyn discovers in the first pages that he is not who he thinks he is. He believes that he had been married to a woman named Patricia Hardy, who had died some time ago. But during the enlisting-process of the Game, he discovers that Patricia Hardy is very much alive. Not only that, she's the daughter of the current president and lives in the presidential palace near the Machine! This is the start of Gilbert Gosseyn's quest to discover who he really is, and who is behind the false memories that are clearly implanted in his brain. This quest will lead him into a grand conspiracy and a plot to conquer Earth and Venus by a hitherto unknown Galactic empire that's ruled under Aristotelian principles and philosophy. In the process Gosseyn is killed and comes back to life in another body, further focusing on the question what exactly constitutes a "self".
Gosseyn, so it's revealed, is the latest in a series of bodies and brains that's been resurrected for some 500 years, since the Machine was first built and non-Aristotelian logic was made mainstream with its help. Somewhere along this line of succession however, a mistake was made resulting in Gosseyn not having all the memories of the previous incarnations. Only at the end of the book he encounters the master brain behind the opposition to the intended Galactic takeover; an old bearded man who has his face, and is the last "version" of himself with all previous memories intact. The Venusians react perfectly to the Galactic invasion as they, without any kind of central authority and without any weapons, except wooden clubs, manage to overcome and overthrow the technologically vastly superior invaders. They move as a single entity, each individual acting in the exact manner that's needed to protect this Venusian paradise.
Gosseyn, in the end, never discovers who he really is, as all his memories from previous incarnations are lost to him. But that's exactly what's to be expected in the non-Aristotelian way of thinking because the map isn't the actual terrain. This is a central axiom in general semantics; what we perceive as "self" is the description of something we'll never fully comprehend, just like science can give a general map of reality that's limited by our inability to see things as they really are, to see reality in its full glory. It's a brilliant novel in my opinion, one that's highly underrated. If you listen to the below linked audio-book, you'll hear some of the criticisms leveled at it, and how A.E. van Vogt revised several aspects of the book in light of that criticism. Whatever may be, I recommend you take the couple of hours needed to absorb this brilliant story...
A E van Vogt The World Of Null-A Audiobook
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