Slan: A Novel
by A. E. Van Vogt
Review by Sam Lubell
Orb Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780312852368
Date: 26 June 2007 List Price $13.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
There's a shameful secret to many of the great classics of science fiction – they were written at a time when the genre prized imagination and ideas over literary quality. But since science fiction novels build off one another, with each generation responding to issues in books by the previous generation, a reader almost has to read the earlier works to fully understand later ones.
This is certainly true of A.E. Van Vogt's Slan. Published in 1940, Slan is one of the earliest science fictional treatments of the superman. Slans are stronger, faster, and smarter than ordinary humans. In addition, slans, at least those with tendrils, have the ability to read minds. Naturally they are hated and feared by the other humans (note: this predates the X-Men by more than 20 years). Slan takes place years after the humans won the Slan Wars and routinely execute all the slans they find, save one slan girl kept for observation in the fortress of the Earth president Kier Gray. The book's hero, Jommy Cross (yes, authors in the 40s were that blatant in their symbolism) escapes when slan hunters kill his mother. He survives due to the greed of Granny, an old human woman, and grows up with the mission of trying to find the hidden slan community and make it possible for slans to live normal lives. Instead, he finds a secret group of tendrilless slans who hate both humans and regular slans.
Van Vogt weights the dice heavily in favor of his hero. Not only does Jommy have all the powers of the slans, he also has his father's prototype disintegrator gun, near-invulnerable 10 point steel, and hypnotizing crystals. A true early SF hero, Jommy is not plagued with self-doubt as he confidently plans to infiltrate the tendrilless slans in order to find the slans he concludes must be ruling them behind the scenes. Even when proven wrong, he retains his confidence and moves on to plan B. Strangely, the other main slan character, Kathleen Layton, doesn't show anywhere near the intelligence and ability of Jommy, but of course she's a girl and in the 1940s that usually meant pretty much playing the damsel in distress. There's a bit more to Kathleen than that, as she does save her virtue from a councilor, fight off a human would-be suitor, and escape from the humans, but she's still essentially just here to be Jommy's love interest.
The book is of enormous historical importance, early SF fans coined the expression "fans are slans," as many fans felt isolated and more intelligent than their non-fan neighbors. But the book is not just a historical artifact, it holds up fairly well as an entertaining read without needing much historical perspective. The book's action starts from the first page and seldom lets up. The narration is plain, simply to communicate the plot, but it does the job. There's never any doubt in the reader's mind that Jommy will succeed, but how he does is exciting. These days, the book should be considered more of a juvenile novel, and it feels much like a Heinlein juvenile. The ideal audience for the book would be boys 11 – 15; the expression "The golden age of science fiction is 12" certainly applies. Readers encountering the book for the first time as adults will find a decent, but straightforward action story. They may wonder why this seemingly undistinguished book, essentially a comic book without the pictures, is considered a classic. But the idea of good guy superhuman mutants, that is now so familiar to us from countless comics and cartoons, had to be invented and this is the book that did it.