by A.E. van Vogt
This is another classic science fiction book that has been sitting on my TBR pile for too long. Slan is one of the classic stories of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. For many years after it’s publication, it was seen as one of the most influential books in the genre, with slogans like ‘fans are slans’ developing in the American Science Fiction Fandom. This book kickstarted A. E. van Vogt’s career, and is still his most famous novel. In 2016 Slan was awarded the Retro Hugo Award for Best Novel for 1941. In short, Slan is a big deal. There is just one question that a lot of readers today may have at this point.
What the hell is a Slan?
Despite Slan being a big deal in the 40s and a huge influence on the genre, it seems that nowadays it has fallen out of the public consciousness. In a super legit professional survey I conducted on the matter (ermm… okay, I asked one person) 0% of respondents had heard about Slan. There has never been a Slan movie, comic, game, or anything. There wasn’t even a sequel to the book until 2007, seven years after van Vogt’s death. Eighty years after it was originally serialised in Astounding Science Fiction, Slan has been forgotten. At least amongst the somewhat numerous subset of the population not fascinated by 1940s science fiction pulp stories.
This isn’t unusual. There were a lot of stories written in the 40s that have been largely forgotten. Some of them deservedly so. Yet there are so many amazing stories from this era that are completely unlike anything being written today. A few months ago I reviewed Clifford D. Simak’s City, which is made up of stories from the same era and that blew my mind. So is Slan another one of those forgotten gems that I need to tell the world about?
Well, I liked it a lot. It’s a fun adventure that mostly holds up and it is an interesting example of pulp science fiction adventures at the time. It works both as a story, and as a time capsule.
Slan is set on a far-future atomic-powered Earth that has been rebuilt following a war between regular humans and mutants called Slans. Slans are telepathic, highly intelligent, and super strong. They can be distinguished from regular humans by the telepathy tendrils growing on their head. Whilst the actual history of the Slan war is covered up and few people understand what happened, a deep hatred of Slans exists everywhere in this society.
Enter Jommy Cross, a nine-year-old Slan walking with his Mother through the capital city. They’re on their way to see the catacombs, so Jommy can learn more about the work his father was doing. Whilst walking, Jommy’s mother figures out via her telepathy that they have been identified as Slans and that hunters are coming to kill them. She tells him that he must run, find a way to continue his father’s work, and that he has a mission to kill Kier Grey, the Dictator of the world. What follows is Jommy’s journey over the next few years, as he grows up under the ‘care’ of a wicked junk woman named Granny and tries to learn the truth about Slans and his father’s work.
The story contains many of the standard tropes of adventure stories of the time. Jommy is OP and gets a super weapon, there is a beautiful damsel being held captive by the world dictator, and complications are solved by developing new powers or abilities with little to no foreshadowing. And also gadgets are everywhere. Despite that, there is more complexity added to this formula. The damsel in distress is never rescued; instead she makes her own escape. Jommy kills some hostile guards after he gets his super weapon, and he feels so horrified by what he’s done that he tries to solve all his problems non-violently from then on.
Slan has all the elements that would have appealed to boys and young men at the time. Yet it seems smarter and more ‘modern’ than say, the Lensman series. While reading Slan I ended up comparing it to Galactic Patrol, the first (in publication order) of the Lensman books, due to them being written for a similar audience around the same time. Both were serialised in Astounding within four years of each other and both were a really big deal at the time but now forgotten. The difference is that Galactic Patrol is a grand Space Opera, whilst Slan is mostly an Earth-based superman story. With that in mind you’d think I’d like Galactic Patrol more, but no, I really did not like Galactic Patrol. It was a chore to get through that book and I was constantly rolling my eyes. (I’ll still go back to that series though. Something about that crazy galaxy is pulling me back.) Slan has a lot of the same issues with unbelievable plot developments, terrible dialog and info-dumps and Jommy pulling solutions to his problems pretty much out of his arse, but I was much more forgiving of these issues in Slan.
I think a big reason why Slan works so well for me is that van Vogt is able to provide enough characterization to make us care about about Jommy himself, not just the cool gadgets and action. Jommy has mixed feelings about the evil woman who raised him, he doesn’t just shrug off killing bad guys and go about as normal, and when presented with evidence that the Slans have been doing terrible things, he is horrified and changes his opinion. He isn’t an infallible cut-out. Well, he does edge into that category at times, but he was enough of a character that I wanted to follow him on his quest to find the truth even when I sometimes had trouble following or caring about the action.
Speaking of the action, there are some really good scenes here. As mentioned before, we start with nine-year-old Jommy having to run away from hunters in the futuristic capital city. I was initially turned off by how clunky the dialog from his mother was, but I got into it pretty quickly. My favourite sequence was Jommy breaking into a spaceship with Granny and then having his first confrontation with pilot and later military commander Joanna Hillory. (Yes, a woman in a position of authority. This doesn’t seem unusual amongst Slans). Joanna is a member of a tendrilless sub-species of Slan that hate True Slans as much as Humans. And whilst maybe this scene had a bit too much talking and ‘why don’t you just shoot him?’, I liked this because it revealed a lot about the plot, the world, made Jommy rethink everything he thought he knew about Slans. Plus, whilst Jommy ended the confrontation with a cool and unexpected gadget play, Joanna and Granny both did cool stuff as well.
I could ramble about some of the gadgets a bit more, since my favourite ones – the hypnosis mind-control crystals – were also the ones that made Jommy feel too overpowered. And also they made Granny into a, urgh, decent person. So, yeah, a lot of mixed feelings there I could talk about. But I should probably wrap this up. If someone ever makes a Slan movie, it would be cool to see what they do with Jommy’s car. In fact, I’d be happy with a Slan movie. An action-packed atompunk adventure, with a mutant boy and his drunk granny robbing shops and dodging mutant hunters. And well, the rest of the plot with the mission to kill the world dictator and the war between True Slans and Tendrilless Slans. It would be a fun, though probably not a critically acclaimed or timeless movie. Like the book.
Until next time, Happy Reading.