My Favourite Character
an article series began by: GF Willmetts
This is more of a gauntlet opening time to get you telling who is your favourite character and why in our genre. We’re going to have to avoid repetition or we’re going to have far too many Spocks, Buffys, Winchesters and O’Neills.
Picking out just one character is difficult, especially for someone like me, so to get the pot rolling, I’ve started it with the lead character from my favourite pair of books.
If you like the idea of this, you can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org – as I haven’t added the link, all you have to do is paste this into your send address to contact, and I avoid spam at the same time. Remember, you can’t just say you want to write about your favourite character, a draft is preferable and whoever gets in first on that character will mean no one else on the same character. Hopefully, we should get plenty of variety. Check the guidelines for any problems that I usually encounter and let me have a free hand sorting them out where they exist. With the way, SFC is right now, they can be on reasonably quickly.
My Favourite Character: Gilbert Gosseyn
an article by: GF Willmetts
Picking out a favourite character when I like so many is tough and as I want to use this first one as an example and not to hog someone else’s favourites, I thought I would select the lead character from my favourite pair of AE Van Vogt books, ‘The World Of Null-A’ and ‘The Pawns Of Null-A’: Gilbert Gosseyn. Strictly speaking, he only has a brief appearance in the third book, ‘Null-A Three’, because another of his bodies is accidentally woken and it was his own tale and a separate set of memories. Years later, I also discovered that poor Van was on the verge of Alzheimer’s and was questioning his own mortality at the time of the third book and characters he really did kill in the previous books were brought back when they shouldn’t have and was even questioning this form of immortality which he favoured earlier that memories create personality.
There’s going to be some spoiler disclosure here but I hope you decide to pick up the books themselves because, as I’ve pointed out in the past, Van Vogt made four significant contributions to Science Fiction when he released these books and as the names we call them weren’t established, he gave them alternative names but the descriptions match what we call then today. I should point out the fourth was something I discovered when I was prepping this article and checked the dates meant he did more than the hat-trick.
Van Vogt describes the terraforming of Venus by the bombardment of the planet with ice meteorites from around Jupiter, taking a couple centuries to transform it. Back in 1948, it was known that Venus was an inferno, just not the toxic nature of the atmosphere. Van Vogt turned it into a very high tree jungle interspersed with hidden tree homes and cities for the people who had won the Game Machine competitions to determine who was the most sane as trained in General Semantics. A slightly odd contradiction in elitism as those who practice General Semantics, called Non- or Null-Artistoleans and hence Null-A, treated everyone so trained as equals. More on that further down. It wasn’t strictly an elitist culture as many returned to Earth to practice their professions.
Van Vogt had a process where a personality’s memories could be transferred through a series of cloned bodies and thus continue to exist designed for one particular personality. In his introduction, Van Vogt explained that the personality was the composite of memories creates a person’s identity so immortality could be achieved if it could be copied to another body. As the term ‘clone’ hadn’t been thought of back then, he called them ‘extra bodies’. Created in age batches and after the third in a series, Gosseyn was told that the next batch was only eighteen years old and to stay alive a little longer until they turned thirty. Outside of the much later ‘Terrahawks’, I can’t think of anyone else considering this method of mind transfer or type of immortality.
The third was teleportation only the term didn’t exist so Van Vogt called it ‘similarization’. Initially, it was shown possible as an off-world device called a Distorter which could link to a similar device at the preferred destination and by close attuning would create a transfer, the greater would move to the latter. For Gosseyn, once practiced with his extra brain, he only had to recall his memorised destination point and the same thing happened. SF writers have used teleportation since but no one explained the process quite like Van Vogt.
The fourth was only something I realised as I wrote this article and then had to check while doing a re-read, mostly because, as with the above, there was something else that wasn’t given a name at the time. The Games Machine used to test people for their level of integrated sanity is sentient and a scan through some Netsites is ignored but appears to be the earliest Artificial Intelligences in SF. Added to this were sentient lie detectors and even robo-planes that could work independently. Quite how lie detectors became a common use technology was never explained but it was a great tool to verify truth. At the end of ‘The Pawns Of Null-A’, Gosseyn’s examination of the computer systems of the Sleeping God tomb aren’t described in terms of valves as on Earth and Venus, but looks distinctively solid-state by inference simply because they were so much smaller.
If you added galactic empire battles and the use of a super-human, it might even be more unique, although by 1948, someone else must surely have done them. Saying that, Van Vogt’s ‘Slan’, being originally written in 1940, probably holds that distinction for super-humans. One should not underestimate Van Vogt being one of the true pioneers of early Science Fiction creating not only tropes we take for granted these days but for practical application to move the story along.
Van Vogt was also a true geek, taking an interest in anything that intrigued him and he did that with the logic system behind the books, allowing Null-As to adjust to the situation they are in and act accordingly. Semantics is to do with the meaning of words. General Semantics is to do with what the words represent. ‘The map is not the territory, only a representation.’ Things are not the words that describe them in other words. It’s a bit more complicated than that in terms called levels of abstraction where you could step back from a situation and look at the event as a whole. There was also a matter of integrating your intellect and emotions so all decisions made were rational than emotional reactionary.
Being called a Null-Aristotelian or Null-A meant you weren’t beholden to Aristotelian two-way thinking where Aristotle’s theories had held sway for a couple thousand years without being questioned and something was or it wasn’t. Null-A stands on the multi-ordinal way of thinking which gives more options to consider on any subject and gives a level of sanity. It makes a writer like me formidable simply because I cover all bases before giving an opinion.
Van Vogt had picked up on the subject after reading Alfred Korzybski’s book ‘Science And Sanity’ and employed the practice for his future reality. Although it got junked a little by being put in the category of pseudo-philosophies when it is more to do with the thinking process, the practice of understanding their way does have a certain amount of validity in realising that nothing really fits a simple word definition amongst other things. You need to learn the aspects of it when young so it becomes second nature and although I haven’t kept up with recent developments that way, things I learnt from reading the original book and the fiction did sink in.
So what about Gilbert Gosseyn? In the introduction, Van Vogt says his surname was pronounced ‘Go-Sane’, a reference to the sanity process employed in General Semantics. If anything, he was chucked into the plot, believing himself to be one thing and slowly seeing it being stripped away and having to sort out just who and what he was. To other people, this would be total insanity. For Gosseyn, he adjusted his sense of reality with everything he discovered to seek out the truth and where it would lead him.
In ‘The World Of Null-A’ (1945 serial in ‘Astounding Science Fiction’ to novel in 1948) Gosseyn arrives at the city to play the annual games to determine his level of Null-A but fails to find somewhere safe to stay when his memories of his past are declared false and he gets evicted. From there he finds he’s been placed in a position to be captured by the gang who run the presidency of Earth by thwarting the Games Machine the previous year and gets killed when he escapes. Conspiracies like this were quite new back in the 1940s as well.
He wakens on Venus, convinced initially that he had been healed until he is captured again and is shown his original body and that his brain carries a nascent extra brain. Gosseyn also discovers that the plot is being orchestrated by Jim Thorson, a human from the stars working on behalf of Enro The Red, the dictator of The Greatest Empire, who was using this as a means to take on the Galactic League. Thorson’s war against the Null-As on Venus with an off-world human army and couldn’t understand how against impossible odds and deaths, the Null-As were winning without any leadership, simply because they all drew the same conclusions as to how to battle.
In the meantime, Thorson was intrigued by Gosseyn’s immortality and wants to find who’s been manipulating him and seeing it as its own means for greater power for himself. It is this distraction that also ensured Thorson was losing his war against the Venusian Null-As. To find the player behind events, Gosseyn must have his extra brain trained, more so after his third body gets destroyed before his personality can be transferred to it by its death. Thorson has no choice but to order Gosseyn to be trained to use his extra brain, which isn’t for intellect, but as a means of similarization and energy manipulation as a means to achieve this.
Obviously, I’m glossing over the sub-plots and characters in the above but Van Vogt created a finely thought-out reality where everyone had a significant part to play. All of which had significant personalities that were hinted by what they’d done to achieve what was needed. Significant of these was Patricia Hardie, apparently the daughter of World President Michael Hardie, but all things were deceiving. Equally was that of Eldred Crang, a Venusian Null-A detective who went to the Greatest Empire to find out what was going on and using their own methods to rise up through their ranks to become second-in-command of the invading force so he could subtly manipulate Thorson to achieve his defeat.
With ‘The Players Of Null-A’ (also called ‘The Pawns Of Null-A’ in the UK – 1948-49 serial in ‘Astounding Stories’ cumulating as a novel in 1956), Earth and Venus are back in Null-A hands but those waiting to get Gosseyn off Earth to take part in the war against Enro The Red’s Greatest Empire, are forced to leave without him before the distorter link is cut off, hoping to return for him later. In the meantime, Gosseyn has been trapped in a different way by a literally shadowy figure called the Follower. While his body has been sent to another world by a hidden Distorter, his personality has been imposed in the young body of Prince Ashargin where he learns about Enro close up as until then he has been kept as a slave to subdue his own people. Enro sees showing a disheartened and broken Ashargin as someone to show around to keep some of his various planets people under control. However, under Gosseyn’s control, Ashargin regains his emotional self-respect and is taught aspects of Null-A. Well, some of the time, until Gosseyn while moving by Distorter awakens in his own body where he is imprisoned on a planet of predictors who can see the future. Well, until he uses his extra brain which somewhat unnerves them because they can’t predict what he’ll do next and even he finds some of his own actions that way.
In many respects, when Gosseyn’s personality is transferred into Ashargin’s body, I used to be somewhat disappointed. Up until that point in the story, seeing Gosseyn similarizing from place to place he memorises was something you wanted to see more of. As I got older, I appreciated the manipulation of the hidden player and the skill Van Vogt had in laying down clues but not drawing attention to them showing his skill as a storyteller. Although it’s only implied, the longer Gosseyn’s body is unconscious between bodies, the more enhanced his extra brain is when he recovers, so it is no wonder that his abilities begin to grow. With the help of Eldred Crang while in Ashargin’s body, he learns how to improve his technique of taking a ‘picture’ with his extra brain to enable him to similiarize there quicker.
For a time, Gosseyn isn’t sure if it is the Follower or some other player that is manipulating him. From wherever and whoever he’s in throughout the story, Gosseyn seeks to achieve his aims of defeating Enro and the Follower as well as finding out more about himself and who is manipulating his activities. This positive aspect against all odds propels him to keep going. Gosseyn is a true hero, even if the Null-A definition would have you believe there is more to it than a single word. Indeed, Null-As would see resolving such problems as a way of life and take everything in their stride.
In many respects, as can be seen when Gosseyn is compared to other Van Vogt lead characters, he is the archetypal character. His ethics are purely Null-A and Gosseyn clearly adapts to whatever is chucked at him with whatever he has to hand. It is also a lesson in development as Gosseyn’s abilities and he discovers their range. Stories by other authors who have used teleporters have never gone to the detail Van Vogt did, although might have been to avoid looking too similar (sic).
The appeal of Gosseyn is the manner of his coolness. Although he is very much the archetypal super-human and with a form of immortality which means he can continue, much of the time, it is the need to stay in his older body than awaken in an eighteen year-old body which would have yielded less authority in communicating with others. Also, he isn’t a reckless person, willing to take chances that would kill his current body. He is also a problem-solver and something I’m rather akin to myself. If I was Gosseyn, I would probably make the same choices and who wouldn’t want to be super-rational with such marvellous abilities?
As pointed out in the introduction, Van Vogt used four rather commonplace SF tropes before they have their established names today and just treated them as matter-of-fact rather than the point of the story. A lesson for all aspiring SF writers out there. If only writers could be so creative today.
Gilbert Gosseyn is inspirational because he is prepared to keep on going against the odds and sees obstacles as something that needs to be overcome. How could such a man not be a favourite?
© GF Willmetts 2012
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