Slan by A.E van Vogt
Slan, by A.E. van Vogt, is considered a classic science fiction novel. Published in 1940, Slan, by nature, feels old-fashioned and obsolete, especially in the technological sense, but it tells a story that is entertaining and intense, at least until the end.
We meet our protagonist, Jommy Cross, when he’s a young boy who is running from the police who have just killed his mother. Jommy is a Slan, a race of genetically-engineered super-humans who are stronger and smarter than normal humans and who can read minds and speak to each other telepathically. They are identifiable by the gold-colored tendrils that hang down the sides of their heads, like antennae. At one point in our world’s history, the Slan had almost conquered humans, but their numbers were few and humans prevailed. Now the Slan are hunted down and killed. Jommy doesn’t know any Slan other than his dead parents, so when he is orphaned, he is on his own.
We follow Jommy as he tries to survive until his 15th birthday, at which time he will follow his parents’ instructions and attempt to recover a secret that his father, an atomic energy scientist, left for him. Then he hopes to get vengeance for his race by eliminating Kier Gray, the human who rules his country. He doesn’t know that this man harbors a Slan girl named Kathleen in his castle.
In fact, there are lots of things that Jommy doesn’t know… like, who are these other super-smart beings that seem like Slans but don’t have the tendrils and can’t speak telepathically? And what are they doing with secret space ships?
Most of Jommy and Kathleen’s stories are exciting — they are constantly in fear for their lives, but their extra intelligence and strength gives them advantages over their numerous enemies. Van Vogt gives us a few compelling mysteries, too. How were the Slan created? What’s with the tendril-less Slans? What did Jommy’s dad leave for him? Why does Kier Gray shelter Kathleen? All of these questions, as well as the plights of Jommy and Kathleen, perhaps the last of their endangered species, kept me reading with interest.
But about ¾ of the way through, just as the climactic events begin to occur, the story goes off the rails. The pacing becomes frenzied, the “science” becomes unbelievable (though this may be partly due to the age of the novel), and Jommy, who we were totally rooting for, becomes suddenly reckless and unlikeable. I was enjoying the novel up to this point, but the last quarter was unpleasant and then the book ended with a big reveal that I had seen coming and, finally, two glorious info-dumps.
Even with its problems, Slan is worth a read for those who are interested in the history of science fiction. Slan was originally published as a serial in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940, then published as a novel in 1946. In 2016 Slan was awarded the Retro-Hugo Award for Best Novel of 1941. Interestingly, it deals with themes such as racism, prejudice, war, eugenics, and the development of weapons of mass destruction — always timely themes, but especially in the 1940s.
The audiobook version of Slan was produced by Blackstone Audio in 2007. Oliver Wyman, whose performances I always enjoy, was a good choice for narrator. Also in 2007, Kevin J Anderson, who received A.E. van Vogt’s notes from his widow (van Vogt’s widow, not Anderson’s, obviously), wrote a sequel called Slan Hunter. I’ll be reading it next.