Landmark 1940 science fiction novel by A. E. van Vogt. * * (explanation)
"You live for one thing only -- to make it possible for slans to live normal lives. I think you'll have to kill our great enemy, Kier Gray, even if it means going into the grand palace after him. Remember, there'll be shouting and confusion, but keep your head. Good luck, Jommy."
Jommy Cross is orphaned at nine years of age when his mother is gunned down on the street by the secret police of dictator Kier Gray. Why? She is a SLAN, and slans are to be killed on sight.
Kathleen Layton is a prisoner in Kier Gray's palace. The dictator keeps her around to observe slan behavior. But at his council's insistence, he has agreed that she should be terminated on her eleventh birthday. Why? She is a slan!
The Slans are a race of superbeings created by scientist Samuel Lann in the distant past. Although a slan appears as human as anyone, his physical and mental abilities are far above those of ordinary humans. She is stronger, smarter, and live longer (if they can escape the secret police). What's more, he can read minds, due to golden tendril-like organs that protrude here and there from his hair. A slan's tendrils make him recognizable on sight.
Slan abilities send the rest of humanity into gibbering terror. Centuries ago, horror stories of slans manipulating babies' minds to turn them into slaves resulted in a terrible war between humans and slans, one the slans lost. Since then, humans have enforced a policy of slan extermination.
Although the story occasionally switches back to the Palace to check on Kathleen, for the most part, it follows the career of Jommy Cross. Jommy is apprehended by an old beggar woman, who begins sending Jommy into department stores to steal things for her. But as Jommy can tell from her mind. "Granny" is always on the brink of turning him in to the secret police.
In the course of the story, Jommy discovers a race of "tendrilless slans" who can't read minds, but have the other slan physical and mental abilities. These are no allies of the true slans -- tendrilless slans hate the beings they call "snakes" with, if anything, a ferocity greater than that of the ordinary humans. It's hard to find a character who's not genocidal. Well, for 1940, that would be appropriate.
In the meantime, Jommy works towards fulfilling the mission impressed into him by his mother's dying thoughts: to obtain the secret atomic weapon developed by his father, find the secret organization of true slans, and free them from persecution.
Fans are Slans!
Although science fiction fandom had existed for decades, the 1940 serialization of Slan in Astounding Science Fiction created the first true frenzy over a particular story. Long before there were Vulcan ears, there were slan tendrils.
Slan is written close to the archetypes, filled with ideas that would reinforce the self-perceptions teenage science fiction readers: the feeling of persecution, made all the more unjust by a feeling of specialness. The feeling of being surrounded on all sides by lesser beings whose only intention is to break you. I definitely remember that part of being 16.
Slan also deals with topics ideas no-one else would treat with at the time. It held a mirror to racist propaganda and policies then rampant throughout the world, especially the regime that decided a war of global domination was its moral duty.
And so, "Slans are fans!" became the rallying cry for thousands of readers. Legendary fan kook Claude Degler created dozens of fan clubs with this as a motto, and terrorized the con circuit for decades.
You're thinking to yourself, "How can he pan a work he calls a 'landmark'?" Many older fans probably remember Slan with fondness; I cannot. Although the plot is compelling, it is executed so poorly as to be excruciating. Poor word choices and awkward constructions appear throughout. Plot lines are picked up in the middle and then left to wither. Plot lurches are interspersed with pages of technobabble. It reads as if van Vogt frequently dropped the current plot line to begin writing about the latest thing that popped into his head, without bothering to work it in. Perhaps we should blame editor John W. Campbell instead.
As I began to read Slan, I tried to be patient. I've begun to recognize the prehistoric feel of pulp science fiction stories from the 40's and 50's, and this clearly had that feel. But when I finally reached the fateful meeting of Jommy Cross and Kathleen Layton:
She had flashing eyes, this girl, and a finely molded, delicately textured face, and because his mind was always held on a tight band of thought, she came out thinking he was a human being.
And she was a slan!
And he was a slan!
my heart sank. I lost all hope of gaining something from reading this novel. And so, landmark or not, mythical or not, van Vogt's writing turns Slan into something I cannot assign even a mediocre rating.