Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/18/06
Slan is one of those Golden Age sci fi novels that while being dated, in terms of scientific jargon and ideas, is far more relevant than much of the hamhanded writing published in science fiction, or even literary fiction, these days. Given the civil rights issues involved in the ceaseless War On Terror, and things such as gay rights, the right to die, etc., Slan is as relevant as it was in the days leading up to World War Two, given its many and manifest Nazi parallels.
Slan is the legendary first novel, first serially published in four parts in 1940, by Astounding Magazine, and in book form in 1946, by Arkham House, of Canadian science fiction titan A. E. Van Vogt (1912-2000), who was a master of the sort of science fiction short stories that a couple of decades later would play weekly on such early television science fiction shows as The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, and The Outer Limits, as well as later derivative work such as Marvel comics’ X-Men.
The fast-paced and straightforward tale is almost pedestrian, at first glance, yet is really a classic bildungsroman with many symbolic characters and plot points. John Thomas ‘Jommy’ Cross is a young slan, a genetically bred type of superhuman- with telepathic powers to read minds, whose race was created by a doctor named Samuel Lann, long in the earth’s hazy past, which is the still to come 2070s, to aid humanity, but is now despised by normal humans. The precise dates the tale takes place in is never specified, for it could be six hundred years after the 2070s, or fifteen hundred years. Van Vogt is a bit sloppy in such lesser details. This is a typical cross to bear for serial novels- even the form’s master, Charles Dickens, suffered from it, for a naturalistic narrative flow always gives way to the tides of serial needs: chapters ending with flashes of insight, spectacular events, and details that are rarely cohesive, and always fuzzy. Yet the tale moves quickly, right from the book’s start:
His mother’s hand felt cold, clutching his.
Her fear, as they walked hurriedly along the street, was a quiet, swift pulsation that throbbed from her mind to his. A hundred other thoughts beat against his mind, from the crowds that swarmed by on either side, and from inside the buildings they passed. But only his mother’s thoughts were clear and coherent-and afraid.
‘They’re following us, Jommy,’ her brain telegraphed. ‘They’re not sure, but they suspect. Somebody reported us, and our house has already been raided. Jommy, if the worst comes, you know what to do. We’ve practiced it often enough. And, Jommy, don’t be afraid, don’t lose your head. You may be only nine years old, but a nine-year-old slan is as intelligent as any fifteen-year-old human being. Don’t be afraid, no matter what happens.’
Don’t be afraid. Easy to advise, Jommy thought, and hid the thought from her. She wouldn't like that concealment, that distorting shield between them. But there were thoughts that had to be kept back. She mustn’t know he was afraid, too.
‘Jommy, do you feel their hostility? Can you sense things over a distance yet?’
He strained. The steady wave of vagueness that washed from the crowds pressing all around grew into a swirl of mind clamor. From somewhere came the stray wisp of thought.
Slans may also be more than just superhumans; they may be mechanized, and they may be out to destroy humanity. They are the center of many human legends regarding their cruelty to human children, and not long after Dr. Lann bred the slans to take over the world, there was a World War, which resulted in a human victory, but at steep cost to the worldwide population. Now, slans live lonely lives, unaware of each other, and in fear of discovery, due to two yellow tendrils on their heads, the organs they use to read minds.
Thus, because of their difference, and their past antagonisms, most slans are shot on sight, by humans. Yet, Jommy’s mother brings him to the world capital of Centropolis, at the age of nine, for he is destined to meet Earth’s global dictator, Kier Gray. After she is killed, he is captured by a greedy old woman, known only as Granny, a rag and bone picker. He appeases her with stolen goods, so she does not turn him in, and he is able to educate himself as she gets rich. Jommy will have to wait for over fourteen years to claim the inherited knowledge left by his father, which turns out to be an atomic gun- many of the anachronistic sciencey stuff, like anti-gravity secrets, that the book employs. Another slan is Kathleen Layton, a science and cultural project in the custody of Keir Gray, who is designed to see how she interacts with regular humans. She witnesses a failed coup against Gray, and his violent response. She is also loathed by the racist anti-slan secret police head, John Petty- a prototypical Nazi-like villain if there ever was one.
Years go by and Jommy finds out more about the world situation, such as there being tendrilless slans, who have developed space travel and colonized Mars, which has water and continents (anachronism again), yet who have no telepathic powers, save the ability to hide their thoughts from true slans. They hate both the true slans, whom they call ‘snakes’, and humans. Jommy also finds out that many of the horrors attributed to the slans are true, unlike those falsely attributed to Jews by the Nazis, even as he cannot uncover any other true slans, for their telepathic powers deter his own mind in its probe. Yet, despite the slans’ advantages over normal humans, they are really pawns in a global game, for they are specifically a puerile race.
Thus, they aim to exterminate normal humans in a Mars-Earth war, even as they claim to be anti-war. But, that war will never come to fruition. This all leads into the muddled end of the book, which seems too much of a deus ex machine to be successful. Jommy finally confronts Gray, who, it turns out, is a master manipulator, and a tendrilless slan, who has controlled events to such a degree that the tendrilless slans will soon displace humans. That Gray- the putative villain- gets to state his plans in detail, gloat, and neatly wrap up plot ends, ala a Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie mystery, when confronted by Jommy, is a bit too neat and tacked on an ending, and the biggest flaw in the book. When he, glowing in victory, reveals that Kathryn is also his daughter, one is left puzzled, for, again, it seems wholly shoehorned in to rationalize her presence in the book, and give her relevance after her character’s sufferings give way to Jommy’s. Van Vogt admitted ending stories was his weakness: ‘I have no endings for my stories when I start them- just a thought and something that excites me. I get some picture that is very interesting and I write it. But I don’t know where it’s going to go next.’
The book is less than a hundred and fifty pages in length, and a quick read- it took less than two hours for me to breeze through it. Yet, despite its flaws, it is a superior story and far less dated than later sci fi novels like Dhalgren, which never comes close to hitting the universalist chords Slan does. It’s also much more relevant and thought provoking than the sci fi ideas that recent films like The Matrix trilogy regurgitate, and along with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, is just begging to be made into a Hollywood film.
Van Vogt does add some nice touches, though, such as referring to Jommy as ‘Cross’ rather than ‘Jommy’ after he reaches maturity, and does make some pertinent commentary on the human condition that is applicable in any age:
‘Yes, I said ‘mob’. That’s all people are these days. A mob, a
beast we’ve helped build up with our propaganda. They’re afraid, mortally
afraid for their babies, and we haven’t got a scientist who can think
objectively on the matter. In fact, we haven’t got a scientist worthy of the
name. What incentive is there for a human being to spend a lifetime in research
when in his mind is the deadening knowledge that all the discoveries he can hope
to make have long since been perfected by the Slans? That they’re waiting out
there somewhere in secret caves or written out on paper, ready for the day when
the slans make their next attempt to take over the world?’
Substitute slans for terrorists or jihadists and no more need be said on why this book still has import. Because of this, one can overlook its flaws, and take it for the pulse-pounding adventure it is, birthed from an era when serial fiction dominated writing and films. And, as long as one bears those things in mind, the tale will draw you in.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
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