Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Unless I’m mistaken, I haven’t read anything by A.E. van Vogt, so this is me rectifying that. Reading so-called Golden Age is always interesting. Some of it holds up to the test of time; some of it … does not. Slan, while it has its moments, falls into the latter camp in my opinion. Nevertheless, for contemporary readers, Golden Age SF never fails to provide an invaluable view not of our future but of our own past. Slan was first published in 1940, pre-dating electronic computers as we know them and so many other technologies we now take for granted as the backdrop to our science fiction. Its chief novum is atomic energy, and even so this story predates the first atomic bombs and nuclear reactors. For van Vogt, what he was writing was cutting edge, even if it seems to us somewhat laughably naive. And the ways in which he envisions this technology and others being used tells us so much about the way we saw science and technology in this era.
Slan is set in our future. The world is ruled by an authoritarian but not particularly oppressive (if you’re human) regime headed up by Kier Gray. The slans are an offshoot of humanity, mutants with tendrils on their heads that allow them to read minds. As such, so the propaganda goes, they see themselves as superior to humans. Centuries prior to the story, there was a war between slans and humans. Humans barely prevailed, leading to a dark age, and now slans are hunted and killed wherever they have found. Our slan protagonist, Jommy Cross, watches his own mother hunted down in the middle of a busy city street when he is only nine years old. He narrowly escapes with his own life and spends his early adolescence educating himself and mastering his thought powers so that he can carry on the legacy of his parents—for, you see, his father invented an ingenious way to use atomic energy to disintegrate matter. But there are other powers out there, powers who are suspicious of Cross, and they might make a move first.
Some of the blurbs on this book praise van Vogt for Slan’s “headlong, breakneck pacing” and “electric, crackling paranoid tension” … and I … guess I kind of see it? I mean, the story does open with fugitives on the run—and this particular set piece gets a reprise several times throughout this fairly short novel. There are definitely instances where almost all seems lost, as Cross’ plans are foiled and he has to think quickly to regain the upper hand. Yet there are also moments where the tension seems to fizzle out, or where it never existed in the first place. Slan is, in many ways, a psychological thriller, yet some of its characters’ psychology is incredibly flimsy.
Perhaps not surprising considering its age, Slan has a dearth of good female characters. Van Vogt sets up Kathleen Layton as a secondary protagonist very early in the story, then pages after she finally crosses paths with Cross, he fridges her! I know she comes back at the very end—hello, cliffhanger—but that’s irrelevant. It’s a shock-and-awe tactic that leaves much to be desired. Granny is … helpful … I guess, but the extent to which she is willingly helping Cross and how much is the result of his mental meddling (more on that in a moment) is an open question. That leaves Joanna Hillory. Although in her first appearance she proves a fine match as antagonist to Cross, when she reappears towards the end, it’s to suddenly turn face and tell Cross that she (despite the gross age difference) is the only logical choice of intimate companion for him. Um … OK? So he sends her off to retrieve his magic spaceship while he returns to Earth, and we basically don’t hear from her again.
Don’t even get me started on the random council member who decides he wants to fuck teenage Kathleen so badly that he proposes using her for a human/slan “breeding experiment”.
Anyway, my issues with this book’s portrayal of women and with its characterization in general are actually wrapped up entirely in the plot. I wonder how much of this comes from Slan’s origin as a serial, and the way in which writing serial fiction sometimes leads to repetition and inconsistencies (though there’s no reason those couldn’t be corrected when it was finally published in novel form). But basically, the plot is a hot mess. It’s kind of your basic revenge plot, except Cross is also trying to protect the slans from genocide, except it also turns out the slans are secretly in control of everything anyway, except when they’re not. And most of the book is basically Cross building himself a really cool secret hideout with atomic technology, then posing as someone who looks like him so he can get himself caught. It’s … dull.
Cross himself is not a great or sympathetic protagonist. Indeed, I’m not sure I’m on board with Team Slan here. Don’t get me wrong … I don’t advocate genocide or oppression of the slans. But if you’re claiming you want to coexist in harmony and then go around hypnotizing and mind controlling people with crystals—well, yours is not a moral ground I want to stand on, because it’s liable to collapse at any moment. And keep in mind this is a dude who has access to atomic disintegration technology.
If it sounds like I’m hating on this book, then I apologize, because that really isn’t my intention. I’m just trying to catalogue its various flaws and critique the elements I find particularly unsatisfactory. Because there are many intriguing elements to this story. Aside from van Vogt’s use of the then-nascent prospects of atomic power, this is an early story to feature the spectre of genetic engineering on a mass scale. I can only imagine that the origin story of the slans has some inspiration in the eugenics movement that was mixed up in the fascism and Nazism of the day. The central “what if” here, “what if a strain of humanity involves that truly does have superior capabilities in some fashion?” is as pressing and interesting now as it was in 1940.
Indeed, I think it’s somewhat silly that so much Golden Age SF, from van Vogt to Asimov to Heinlein, is social/soft SF, yet somehow that only becomes a problem when women start writing it. So many of these famous male authors are ultimately writing stories about the future psychology of humanity, not our technological tribulations. Slan reminded me more of something from Nancy Kress than, say, Arthur C. Clarke. And that isn’t a bad thing—I just wish we would stop pretending that women writing SF is somehow problematic because of all the icky feels they supposedly mix in with the technology. Slan is much more about society than it is about science. Science fiction has always been socially conscious.
I’m glad this was as short as it is, because I don’t think I could have enjoyed 400 pages of this. At its present length, Slan is an adequate diversion. I wouldn’t say it’s a great novel, and I have zero desire to read the sequel finished by Kevin J. Anderson (though that has more to do with my opinion of Anderson, I’d wager). If, like me, you’re interested in delving more deeply into the back-catalog of Golden Age SF, then sure, this is a novel you might want to check out. For the neophytes or the readers with more particular tastes, I’d say there is little here. The themes van Vogt explores crop up, and are dealt with much better, in later works. This is a wonderful piece of history but not a compelling vision of our future.