Slan – AE van Vogt (1940)
Classic Pulp Fiction from one of the masters of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. I have to confess that ‘Slan’ has to be my all-time favourite Science Fiction novel if only for the fact that it is probably the one book which got me hooked on SF back in the early Nineteen Seventies.
AE Van Vogt, partly due to the quality of his later work and his involvement with Dianetics and the Scientology movement was, to a certain extent discredited by the SF community. Thus he was never really given the credit he should be due for his contribution to SF as a whole and the influence he subsequently had on the genre.
It’s high time that Van Vogt’s work was reassessed and I’m surprised that this novel at least has not been republished by one of the companies who tend to reprint classic works of SF.
‘Slan’ is the story of Jommy Cross, one of a race of telepathic superhumans – recognisable only by the tendrils on their foreheads – living in hiding within human society, a race which ordinary humans seem determined to exterminate. The novel begins when the nine-year old Jommy’s mother assists his escape from the police just before she herself is captured and murdered. Jommy survives to grow and slowly learn the secret of who and what Slans really are.
Obviously this is a novel which is bound to appeal to anyone who feels they have suffered persecution for their minority status. Certainly, as a gay teenager, I found many parallels with Jommy, who was forced to hide his true nature from the community around him and spent much of his waking time attempting to find others like himself, fearful of the repercussions should the truth emerge of what he really was.
It also says a lot about ignorance, misinformation and propaganda. There are chilling echoes of Nazi Germany in the cold and casual way in which John Petty and his Police Organisation (and indeed, seemingly ordinary and intelligent members of the human public) talk of killing the Slans, in terms of solutions and statistics.
It’s interesting that Van Vogt does not present this as a one-sided issue. The Slans themselves are a mysterious race who have allegedly been responsible for attacks upon the tendril-less Slans (a non-telepathic variant race), while the TL Slans themselves are building their forces on Mars in preparation for an invasion of Earth.
‘Slan’ also makes some very good points about the fallibility of history, and our tendency to accept myth as fact, something which both humans and the TL Slans seem to be guilty of in this novel.
It’s a flawed novel in many ways. Jommy himself, in contrast to the implicit idea of the Slan’s philanthropic nature, at one point imposes a form of mental slavery on the humans in the community in which he settles. His proposed ‘solution’ to the human problem is mass-hypnosis of the human race to remove their hatred of the superior species. One could argue he has little choice as the alternative would undoubtedly be inter-species war when humanity eventually discovers that the human race is becoming sterile and doomed to extinction. It’s a shame that Van Vogt never took the time to explore the ethics of either potentiality.
Overall, the novel – which covers a period of about fifteen years, following Jommy’s development from a nine-year old to an adult – is fast-paced, inventive and full of Van Vogt’s emotive imagery. One always feels that Van Vogt writes in Technicolor.
There’s his trademark futuristic city at the centre of which is the Slan Palace, built by the telepaths during their brief moment of ascendancy, and now occupied by the human regime.
The building is, of course, bigger and more beautiful than anything humans could build, and stands as a symbol of both human jealousy and impotence (the fifteen hundred foot central spire may or may not have phallic implications) since human researchers know that whatever they discover has probably already been discovered and developed by Slan super-scientists.
The novel also features some of Van Vogt’s idiosyncratic machines (something which, I think may have influenced Dick’s writing) such as the Porgrave Transmitters and receivers, a kind of thought recording and playback device.
The transmitters are used to direct telepaths to safe-houses and hideouts, while the receivers are used by their non-telepath cousins to guard the Martian cities against telepath infiltrators, whom they term ‘Snakes’. (Maybe it might be an idea for someone to examine the use of phallic symbols in the work of Van Vogt at some point)
Eventually, through unfailing faith in the essential ‘good nature’ of Slans, Jommy wins the trust of one of the leaders of the non-telepaths, and through her, finally gains access to the Slan Palace, where all is revealed.
The importance of this novel to me is in its emphasis on a society which blindly accepts rumour and unfounded belief as fact, something which is just as relevant, perhaps even more so, today than it was in the 1940s.
In the 1930s propaganda was used to turn public opinion against Jews in Austria and Germany, usually by having the media stating unfounded allegations as fact.
One only has to listen to a speech in The House of Lords to realise that little has changed. In order to try and scupper the abolition of Thatcher’s Section 28 (which prohibits local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’ in education) people such as Baroness Young and Thatcher have attempted to promulgate the idea that homosexuality is something one catches, like a disease, or else is a condition one is bullied into. Russia is, at the time of posting, promulgating a similar ideology.
Sadly, these arcane notions are seldom challenged.
In ‘Slan’ there is a general belief that the telepaths are somehow experimenting on human babies, attempting to create more of their own kind. This often results in malformed or mutated children. It is later discovered that that this is a natural process of evolution, a process which has produced the Slans, and one which spells an end for Homo Sapiens.
One might argue that the parents in the novel would see the illogic of such beliefs, but then, one only has to look at the real-life parallels to see that such absurd convictions are all too common, even at the highest levels.