Slan: A classic and Retro-Hugo winner

Slan by A.E van Vogt classic science fiction book reviewsSlan by A.E van Vogt classic science fiction book reviewsSlan 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?

Sequel

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.

Published in 1940. From its first publication as a serial in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1940, Slan was acclaimed by readers as one of, if not THE, novel of Golden Age science fiction. Telling the story of Jommy Cross, a young slan, and his quest to discover his father’s legacy as well as to find others like him, while fleeing from a repressive dictatorship, Slan was both a ground-breaking SF novel, and perhaps the first Young Adult paranormal adventure. At the opening of the novel, Jommy is just a kid, but, like all slans, can read minds, which helps Jommy survive when slans are hunted and killed by the government. A novel of racial conflict set in a disrupted culture that delivers relentless action, super science, and high adventure.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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9 comments

  1. Hmmm. Maybe not for me.

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    When I was in high school, there was an English class in science fiction that I took, and Mr. Miller made us read this book. It was thus one of the earliest sci-fi books that I ever read, and I remember liking it a lot. Guess I need a refresher read now, as high school for me was a very looooooong time ago….

    • Not necessarily. Sometimes a re-read of a favorite book is not the best thing; we’ve changed, and the book, for better or worse, hasn’t.

    • Paul Connelly /

      High school seems like the ideal age for reading books whose protagonists belong to an elite group of superior individuals, often one that is hidden from public knowledge (or in hiding because of persecution). It can be borderline SF/mainstream too–Atlas Shrugged was big with the aspiring superior kids at my high school. Not much difference in literary quality between that and Slan, but Van Vogt managed to get it done in fewer pages.

      • This comment made me chuckle.

      • I think it’s a variation of “the chosen one” theme; many adolescents don’t know where they fit in yet; they are both uniquely brilliant and completely misunderstood by a dull and rule-driven world, am I right?

        • Paul Connelly /

          It’s scary when they never outgrow that idea of being one of the “superior individuals”…like if you listen to some of the quotes that came out of the masterminds of the Iraq invasion, they still believed in that stuff! Probably still had Atlas Shrugged under their pillows too. Most kids gain a more realistic understanding of the world, willingly or not. (And Slan goes to the used book store or ends up in a box in the attic.)

          • Paul, did you read the sequel? The ending was rather horrifying (though I don’t think the authors meant it to be). It speaks to your concern about superiority. My review is coming soon.

          • Paul Connelly /

            No, I wasn’t even aware there was a sequel.I read a lot of Van Vogt in junior high and early high school, but not much of it was memorable–The World of Null-A and his two book riff on I Claudius (Empire of the Atom etc.) probably stand out the most. His characters were pretty much cardboard, so I only read him for the wild and crazy plots. Then I found Charles Harness and Philip K. Dick, who had wild and crazy plots and at least some amount of character depth, at which point I forgot about Van Vogt.

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