Born in 1912 in Winnipeg, Canada, the son of a lawyer, Alfred Elton Van Vogt grew up in a series of small towns in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, moving to Winnipeg when he was in high school. He discovered fairy tales at the age of 8 and was shamed out of reading them at the age of 12 but by then their lasting influence had been established. Unable to afford college, he worked at a series of jobs and then started writing true confessions, love stories, trade-magazine articles, and radio plays.
He entered the field of science fiction with the publication of "Black Destroyer", in the July 1939 issue of Astounding. The "Black Destroyer" of the title was an enormous, pantherlike creature encountered on a planet that has been ravaged by a nuclear war. A spaceship's human crew is pitted in what seems to be a hopelessly unequal battle against this creature, which consumes "id" and can teleport itself through space. The Earthmen triumph, however, thanks to their mastery of a new science called "Nexialism" -- the science of everything, and how it fits together. This first story displayed the principal characteristics that would characterize Van Vogt's fiction -- narrative excitement, unremitting tension, and original concepts pushed to their ultimate limits. This story was later combined with two other stories to make up the episodic novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950) and provided the (uncredited) inspiration for both It! The Terror From Beyond Space(1958) and Alien(1979).
Prior to the publicity resulting when he filed suit against the producers of Alien for plagiarism, Van Vogt's best known novel was Slan (1946), which was originally published as a serial in 1940. The story deals with super-intelligent humans who have tendrils hidden in their in their hair that permit telepathy. These people, the Slan, are a persecuted minority in the future world Van Vogt describes but they prove to be mankinds salvation. Like most of Van Vogt's work this novel immediately plunges the reader into highly exciting action without any prefatory explanation and follows with the revelation of one startling concept after another. The concept of the Slans created such excitement among SF fans in the Forties that many saw it as the perfect symbol for their own status and began calling themselves Slans.
Alfred Korzybski's theory of General Semantics, discussed in his 1933 book "Science and Sanity", formed the theoretical background for what is probably Van Vogt's most famous (and in my opinion, best) novel, The World of Null-A (1948). Null-A, or non-Aristotelianism, takes off from Korzybski's idea of the distinction between words and objects -- the word is not the thing, "the map is not the territory." Failure to make these distinctions results in mental confusion and keeps people from achieving mastery of mind over body and of mind over matter, according to Korzybski. Van Vogt explores these ideas by positing a world in which mastery of systems thinking is the one qualification for social advancement and leadership. In this imagined world, the leading intellects of Earth submit themselves for a month of testing by the Games Machine, a supercomputer, to demonstrate their right to join the Null-A thinkers on Venus. The losers get to be the top administrators on Earth.
Van Vogt's novel centers on one of the competitors, Gilbert Gosseyn (whose name is tellingly pronounced "go sane"). Gosseyn discovers that his memories are not his own. In seeking to find out who and what he really is, he finds himlelf caught up in a vast conspiracy. The reader is shocked when he is killed at the end of the first section of the novel. But death is only the beginning of even greater adventures. Over the remaining chapters the reader encounters Gosseyns second body, a second brain, aliens, invasion by a galactic empire and the response of the Venusian Null-A's. Most of all, however, the story is about Gosseyn's discovery of himself and his fascinating new powers through the discipline of Null-A. The story is so complex and fast moving that some readers may have difficulty following the ins and outs of it, but even if you have trouble following the logic of the story you will be carried along by the narrative excitement. In the end you will know much more about non-Aristotlean thought and the coherence theory of identity than you ever expected to.The World of Null-A was followed by two sequels The Pawns of Null-A (1956) and Null-A 3
both of which I found much less interesting or exciting.