by A. E. van Vogt

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding Science Fiction, Sept-Oct-Nov-Dec 1940

revised —
Simon & Schuster: New York, 1951

247 pages November 2001

Can we imagine a superman?

Slan is A. E. van Vogt's first novel, a four-part serial in Astounding Science Fiction in late 1940. His first stories had appeared only the previous year. This novel is one of the acknowledged classics of science fiction.

Slan is the story of a mutant variety of humanity, the slans: higher men, physical and mental supermen. They are bright, brave, and telepathic. The chief exemplar is Jommy Cross, a boy nine years old as the story opens. His father already has been killed by the planetary dictatorship, and his mother is about to be killed. The other slan whose fortunes we follow is young Kathleen Layton, a girl being raised for observation in the palace of the planetary dictator.

Slander and pogroms

Although van Vogt provides a derivation from a man's name (Samuel Lann: slan), it is clear that slans have been slandered systematically by ordinary humans: misrepresented and defamed; and as we discover later, even by themselves. I suppose that slander is van Vogt's principal inspiration for the word for his super-humans.

Centuries before, slans had reached for world control and held it briefly. Then had followed backlash and pogroms, a chaotic Dark Ages of centuries. No wonder slans are hunted and killed; no wonder slans are paranoid.

Careful writing, breathless pace

The novel hurries the reader along like a wood-chip in a torrent. There is little time to reflect. The combination of onrushing action with so many surprises has a downside, though: there is not much suspense. The reader rarely has quiet moments to build up worry, and because of the rapid plot turns into unexpected territory, straight-line anticipation can't accumulate momentum.

The breathless pace and constant inventiveness leads some readers to assume that van Vogt wrote hastily. On the contrary, he labored long and hard over his science fiction, especially the complex novels. Although Slan is set many centuries in the future, the story possesses an odd sense, frequent in van Vogt, of being both timeless and dated: it still is timeless; and what seems anachronistic to the reader now, was equally so when it was written.

Heedless of history & psychology?

To the thoughtful reader, it is discouraging that slans have not educated themselves in history or psychology. Slans of course are vividly and proudly aware of the advantages they have over and beyond their human cousins. But aside from the two viewpoint characters, are not introspective. They've gained some technological advantages over ordinary humans, but without acquiring much psychological awareness of themselves. Slans in general are petty, paranoid, vicious, scheming, manipulative. They also are easily manipulated on a grand scale. — Self-styled higher men! All too human, as Nietzsche would say.

In the solitude of his mountain cave Zarathustra has a dream:

Why was I so startled in my dream that I awoke? Did not a child step up to me, carrying a mirror?

"O Zarathustra," the child said to me, "look at yourself in the mirror."

But when I looked into the mirror I cried out, and my heart was shaken: for it was not myself I saw, but a devil's grimace and scornful laughter. Verily, all-too-well do I understand the sign and admonition of the dream: my teaching is in danger; weeds pose as wheat. My enemies have grown powerful and have distorted my teaching till those dearest to me must be ashamed of the gifts I gave them. I have lost my friends; the hour has come to seek my lost ones.

Friedrich Nietzsche
"The Child with the Mirror"
Thus Spoke Zarathustra. II.1  (1883)
translated by Walter Kaufmann
in The Portable Nietzsche

All the traits of humanity?

Young Jommy Cross' mirror shows slans to be carrying forward all the traits of humans, quite a mixed bag. Are slans a new kind of weed, or perhaps new wheat? (More subtly, from Nietzsche's viewpoint, is Slan itself weed or new wheat?) I suspect that often strong weeds pose as super-wheat. From the farmer's viewpoint, this is bad. The wheat's viewpoint — well, they're not asked. And the weeds' viewpoint — they may challenge whether farmer or wheat is competent to understand the ecology.

Jommy Cross and Kathleen Layton are clear thinkers and good people, although they make misjudgments. By narrating the slans' story through the eyes of two young, likable, and unjustly persecuted individuals, van Vogt is able to predispose us toward slans as a race — even as the coming race. Certainly the adult slans portrayed don't give much encouragement that way. The hope and promise of slans lies in their being such a young offshoot, still in their childhood as a race.

Slan is quite a novel. Read, be swept along, and enjoy it. And then reflect a little. How difficult it is even for a van Vogt to imagine and portray a qualitatively superior being. If and when superior beings appear among us, will we recognize them? Will we approve?


© 2001 Robert Wilfred Franson

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