Reading van Vogt’s Slan

I’m just about to start teaching the second term of a first-year course in science fiction. Coming up is a seminar on fandom (I am also giving the lecture on fandom as subculture), and listed as secondary reading is A E van Vogt’s Slan (1940). I am of course familiar with the slogan, ‘fans are slans’, but it suddenly occurred to me that I’d never actually read Slan. So, being a conscientious academic, I fixed that last night.

First reaction: hmm, hasn’t aged well, has it?

Second thought: I wonder how it was regarded at the time. That is, other than as some sort of rallying cry for young bookish adults of the early 1960s, who perhaps saw themselves as outsiders, smarter than the people around them but with their mighty intellects having so far gone unrecognised.

Exceptionality of some sort or another is a theme that figures over and over in certain strands of sf, appealing to the disaffected reader. In particular, I found myself thinking about how many stories I’d read that featured telepathic abilities: it is easy to see how telepathy seems particularly attractive if you can’t figure out how the world works and are not picking up clues. To be able to figure it all out by searching someone else’s mind – well, who wouldn’t want to?

I recall being very taken with James Schmitz’s Telzey Amberdon stories when I was young – Telzey Amberdon was everything I felt I wasn’t: attractive, cool, wealthy, omnicompetent, and above all, clever. As a gawky, confused post-adolescent, I very much wanted to be Telzey Amberdon. What I did not notice at the time was just how insufferably smug Telzey actually was. Anne McCaffery’s Menolly, protagonist in one set of her dragon stories, sweet and innocent, and constantly amazed that everyone admired her skills, is nothing more than Telzey without the ego; one might indeed see the Menolly stories as being about developing an ego. All very life-affirming for the teenage reader

I was similarly devoted to The Tomorrow People on British tv, 1973-79, which focused on a group of young people who are supposedly the vanguard for the next stage of Homo sapiens, known inevitably as Homo superior. In adolescence, they develop special ‘psionic’ powers, such as telepathy and teleportation, and an equally smug attitude. Homo superior pretty much says it all. Ordinary humans, that is, you and me, are known colloquially as ‘Saps’, with that nicely judged mixture of affection and disparagement. Looked at from an adult distance, one notes again the smugness of the ‘superior’ adolescent, now coupled with disdain for our failure to be like them.

I read Zenna Henderson’s ‘The People’ stories as an adult, but while I found them very attractive in their way (a distinct flavour of Ray Bradbury lingers around them) the glamour of wish-fulfilment no longer exerts itself over me in the way I suspect it might have done when I was younger.

And of course, lurking behind all this is Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, published in the United Kingdom and the United States in the mid-fifties, the now-classic text on alienation, and before that, L Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, which first came to the attention of science fiction readers in 1950, when he published an article about it in Astounding. What I had forgotten was that van Vogt himself was involved in Dianetics, and was briefly Hubbard’s head of operations in California in 1950.

But to go back to Slan. I’m not sure what I expected of it, but now I’ve read it, I mostly feel a sense of … disappointment? Actually, no, not even disappointment so much as mild surprise at just how banal plans for world domination through nuclear weapons and telepathic hypnosis can turn out to be. And that’s not something I ever thought I’d find myself saying.

The story opens with a young Jommy Crosse and his mother entering Centropolis. The city’s name immediately suggests that we are in some sort of tightly structured future setting; how far into the future is never made clear, so far as I can recall. We also learn that Centropolis is the capital of the world, so clearly political structures have changed considerably, yet one can’t help thinking too that this feels like a US-centric future and that this mysterious world capital is probably somewhere in North America, below the 49th parallel.

We quickly learn too that Jommy and his mother are telepaths, though Jommy being only nine, his skills are still rather limited. On the other hand, being a slan we learn he is already nearly twice as intelligent as any human child his age. The expositional lump already sits heavy in the gut; almost immediately the reader comes to realise it will be with her from now until the end of the novel.

Yet, in its own strange, broken way, there is something oddly compelling about this novel’s beginning. Thrown into the deep end, weighed down with information, on one level the reader still has no idea what is going on. Slans are not a good thing, that’s for sure, even if we don’t yet know what they are. Van Vogt’s opening has a flavour of Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer about it as Jommy samples the thoughts of those about him, particularly once he is forced to flee, after his mother is murdered.

Jommy’s flight across the city is very well-handled; it’s tense and exciting, particularly as Jommy learns to make sense of the mind-traffic around him, and use it to help him, and then manages to conceal himself within the walls of a building. Likewise, van Vogt does well with his uncertainty as he comes to realise that someone else knows about his hiding-place and is certain he is still there.

That’s the problem, though – after this brief tour de force there is nowhere else for the story to go but down. Jommy finds himself in the hands of Granny, mad and devious but also canny enough to figure out how she can exploit a young slan; at the same time, Jommy himself, despite his comparative youth, realises quickly that he needs Granny as camouflage for the next few years. They become locked in an unhealthy relationship, like Fagin and Oliver, as Jommy uses his skills to thieve for Granny and she … well, she gives him the space  to transform himself into a miniature Count of Monte Cristo, educating himself, reconstructing her home, building himself an escape tunnel.

Jommy’s relationship with Granny is one of the oddest aspects of the novel. He hates her, he uses her for his own ends, abuses the relationship, and yet, in the end, she seems to represent family for him, no matter how warped the relationship might be. He can never quite bring himself to discard her and her presence, malign and resentful, at least until he hypnotises her, persists throughout the novel.

Jommy himself seems to be implanted with all sorts of strange mental imperatives. Almost immediately after he finds himself on the run, he discovers that there are slans in the city; he hears their thoughts but realises that they cannot detect his presence, although they can communicate with one another. Unlike ‘true’ slans, by which Jommy presumably means people like himself, these slans do not possess the mysterious tendrils in their hair which are the marker of the slan. When he reveals himself to them, he is puzzled by their response, which is to attempt to capture him, the understanding being that few if any true slans still exist and they represent a danger to whatever it is the ‘tendrilless’ slans are up to.

The political dimensions of this relationship between true slans and the other sort is not made entirely clear, at least not until the end of the novel, and even then it is facilitated with a lot of hand-waving. For now, Jommy’s task is to find other true slans who, according to his parents, must be in hiding, as they were, preparing for the time when they assume the task of running the world. The question becomes, who is in charge of the ‘tendrilless’ slans. Or, rather, that’s one question. Another is why Kier Gray, ruler of the world, hates slans so much, and why John Petty, his chief of police, hates Gray and slans in about equal measure. The biggest question of all is where are the other true slans.

The novel returns to Jommy at intervals, as his search continues, as he retrieves his father’s scientific secrets and makes use of them, as he battles with the ‘tendrilless’ slans, who appear to have infiltrated the world monarchy to a very high level. In the end, it comes as no surprise to discover that Kier Gray is himself a slan, a fact that has been heavily signalled throughout the novel, if only by his peculiar behaviour every time slans are mentioned.

Along the way we gather some sense of why it is the slans are so feared; propaganda has it that they are a machine-made mutation, created by Samuel Lann at some point in the past. Their super-intelligence is apaprently causing all human enterprises to wither away, because no one can be bothered to do anything knowing that slans have either already done it or will do it better hen they do get around to it. The revelation that slans are the result of natural mutation makes everything fine (though the fact that their continuing survival is down to incest, as Lann begins his ‘breeding progam’ with a boy and his two sisters seems not to be considered a problem). Likewise, the ‘tendrilless’ slans are an intermediate developmental stage, created in order to allow the mutation to persist undetected until such time as acceptance of their presence allows the full tendrilled version to reappear. So that’s alright then.

The novel works from the presumption, unsurprising, given the author’s background, of the right of the slans to assume control of the world and contains very little in the way of reasoned discussion about the continuing engagement between slans and humans. The human response is, invariably, one of great hostility, historically based, reflected through the constant hunting and killing of slans, or so the reader is told. Van Vogt is very vague about this and in fact the only instance we ever see of a slan being hunted is the relentless pursuit of Jommy Cross himself. The only other slan with any significant presence in the novel is Kathleen Layton, ward of Kier Gray himself, who from the novel’s opening pages is in a constant state of jeopardy, threatened by Gray’s lieutenants, who variously want to find out whether slans and humans can interbreed (the received wisdom is that they cannot). Clearly, she is intended to eventually become Jommy’s love interest though she does possess a certain level of agency, when the plot demands it. One wonders why she chooses to stay given that she is quite capable of leaving if she wants.

The novel becomes increasingly absurd as the story unwinds. The science is nonsensical, Jommy’s motives are ever more confused, his disregard for humans ever more pronounced. Yet the situation is resolved in his favour and could even be regarded as a happy-ever-after of sorts, no matter how repugnant the novel seems to a human reader.

I’m not sure whether one is supposed to walk away from the novel with the message that it’s okay to be a complete shit so long as one is part of the brave new world of superhumanity but this seems to be, in essence, what van Vogt is suggesting. Jommy Cross’s behaviour is excused because he is a slan and thus, by definition, better than everyone else (and for reasons that are not entirely clear, that includes other slans as well – Jommy is nothing if not messianic in his aspirations). <

I’m left with one question. In the light of all this, why on earth would fans want to be slans? Yes, of course, I see the appeal of being Homo superior, slan, outsider, disaffection, smarter than the rest of humanity, whatever, but van Vogt’s vision of the future makes it quite clear that slans, at least as personified by Jommy Cross, behave in a staggeringly high-handed way, with no regard for others. While one might tolerate the superior smugness of Telzey Amberdon and the Tomorrow People, given their comparative youth and lack of experience, Slangoes far beyond their earnest endeavours to make the world a better place. The idea that humans and slans might co-exist peacefully is given very short shrift; this is apparently only ever going to be achievable if humans are hypnotised, with all that implies. On the other hand, I suppose, if you feel the world is against you, this is an entirely admirable approach.

I’m now wondering if any of my students will have read it by Thursday, and what they will make of it.

1 thought on “Reading van Vogt’s Slan

  1. Bob Webber

    I believe that you are correct in your supposition that it was the sense that the world was against them which led Slan's fannish readership to overlook, or even approve of, the book's message that the slannish strong must rule the sappy weak.A survey of the fanzine content of that time might cast more light on the attitudes of the people who adopted the notion that "Fans are Slans" to help them understand why they were disliked, unhappy, and unable to find recognition for their putative high intelligence.It is also possible, though, that the less attractive aspects of these narratives escaped their view. I think that their enthusiasm for van Vogt's incoherent "fix-up" novel based on his various short stories speaks volumes for his readership's proclivity for rapid but microtomically shallow reading of genre fiction.

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