Wednesday, July 15, 2009


A. E. van Vogt's novel Slan is one of the classics of the Golden Age. Originally serialized in Astounding Science-Fiction (Sep.-Dec. 1940) it tells the story of young Jommy Cross, a member of a new breed of telepathic mutants known as slan. On a trip into the capital city of Centropolis with his mother they are discovered and must run for their lives.

Long ago humans and slan had clashed in a terrible war, and to this day slans are feared and hated. This hatred is kept at a fever pitch through propaganda demonizing the mutants put out by the government of Keir Grey, dictator of the world. He also keeps young Kathleen Layton, a slan, under house arrest in his palace, much to the chagrin of John Petty, the slan-hating head of the secret police.

Jommy and his mother separate, and as he flees she is brutally gunned down. Jommy manages to hide from a murderous mob of humans, but is captured by the cunning and depraved old Granny, who hopes to exploit the young slan. Jommy's keen young mind recognizes that this is an opportunity in disguise, as he can use Granny's home as a hideout as he attempts to recover the secret of his murdered father's great scientific discovery, which lies buried under the city.

And so begins Jommy's difficult road to adulthood, as he seeks to discover other slan, fight against a sinister secret organization hostile to slan and human alike, and evade death at the hands of the dictator's secret police.

Slan doesn't rise above its pulp magazine milieu, and the coarse prose is reminiscent of many stories of that era. van Vogt's strengths are not the deftness of his writing, but in his unhindered imagination and borderline surreal plotting. Jommy's mother is no sooner introduced in the first chapter than she is killed off. These kind of abrupt turns of events occur throughout the novel, giving the plot an erratic dynamism.

Broad swaths of time pass during which Jommy grows up, which is apparently very important. Jommy is convinced he must wait until adulthood before he takes consequential action, though in the meantime he accomplishes things that many adults could only dream of achieving. And humans come off badly in this book, being portrayed as a vicious lot with no redeeming qualities. Never once do we encounter a human who sympathizes with the slan or objects to their treatment. As a result the mutant slan can't help but look like an improvement.

The climactic plot twist will leave your head spinning. It results in several pages of exposition that, while not entirely airtight, manage to bring things to a surprisingly neat conclusion.

Slan is not van Vogt's best novel, but it is the one for which he's best remembered. And it is representative of much of his output. Although a somewhat dated work that's a bit rough around the edges, it has something of the vitality of those heady days of the Golden Age during which the genre was catching it's stride. Even after all these years it's a reminder that a wild imagination and wild twists of plot can still transport readers into strange worlds, and maybe just cause then to mutate.

Slan is available from your public library, or for purchase at your local independent bookstore.

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