Box Of Paperbacks: Slan
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 47.)
You are reading The A.V. Club a (hopefully wonderful and smart) site dedicated to providing its skeptically enthusiastic take on the pop culture-saturated universe in which we live. That's our agenda. Right? Or could it be that The A.V. Club, like so many publications you read, is actually one of many propaganda tools used by a race of superhumans whose shadowy underground organizations secretly pull the strings on much of society? There are those who rule and those who rule the rulers. Wheels turn, and within them turn yet more wheels. The secret dictators of the world hide their tracks so well you'll never know they're there. That rave of the new Walkmen album? Rest assured that in its own small way it's all part of the plan. True, you'd probably have to be some kind of crazy paranoid to think that way. And if anyone ever figures our secret out, that's exactly the story we can use to discredit our accuser. Since irony doesn't always carry that well through the filter of the Internet, let me state, for the record, that The A.V. Club is not controlled by a secret society of superhumans (so far as I know). But taking a moment to look at the world in front of you through eyes distrustful of the obvious makes for a useful warm-up to the world of A.E. van Vogt's 1940 novel Slan. First serialized in Astounding Science Fiction, Slan is typically hailed as a breakthrough for the genre, and coming off a bunch of less-than-stellar golden-age books, I can see why. Vogt's plays with a fair number of sophisticated ideas and marries them to a story that moves. That may sound like the least a science fiction novel needs to do, but having slogged through The Blind Spot and Armageddon 2419 A.D., I can tell you it's not. Beginning to think that science fiction novels that work as equally well as novels didn't really happen until the Eisenhower administration, I was happy to find myself wondering what happens next. That Vogt withholds some of the central mysteries much of the novel helps. We open in the middle of the action as a kid named Jommy (not a typo) visits the capital city of some future Earth with his mother. He won't leave with her. Realizing that they're being followed, Jommy's mom tells him to flee. Turns out they're both Slans and that's not a particularly safe thing to be. What's a Slan? That's one of the central question of the novel and one for which it provides a couple of different answers as it progresses. But as it opens we only have one: Slans are creatures who can, and sometimes do, pass as human, as Jommy and his mother have been doing by hiding the tendrils that jut from their heads and proclaim their Slandom. Slans are smarter than humans, mature faster, and they can read minds. They're hated because, after being created in a lab by Samuel Lann, they overran the Earth and have only been put down with great difficulty. And now Kier Gray rules the planet, in part by keeping the fear of Slans alive. And why shouldn't that fear persist? Slans could easily take humanity's place. (And, yes, I'm pretty sure Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had read this before creating X-Men. They probably read the later Box Of Paperbacks entry More Than Human, too.) Jommy doesn't quite buy it, however. He doesn't hate humanity or want to usurp it. And parts of the story don't quite make sense, like the tales of Slans trying to convert human babies into their own kind. What's more, in searching Slans while using his psychic powers to steal for the drunken old lady who's taken him in, Jommy's reached and touched a third type of mind: the tendril-less Slan. And they're everywhere. I'm going to stop there with describing the plot since we're already nudging into spoiler territory and I haven't even touched on the book's other protagonist, a female Slan kept alive at the command of Gray. But even stopping there leaves us plenty to unpack. Vogt's smart decision to begin the action after–maybe even years after–a lot of writers would have started the story contributes mightily to the intrigue. Never mind epic battles: The war is already over and the book forces readers to pick up the pieces of what's happened and what's going on behind the official story. It's a setup that lends itself to mystical and political themes, as later, doubtlessly Slan-influenced works like Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch (or most Dick, really) and John Carpenter's They Live would do. Vogt, on the other hand, doesn't seem too interested in such matters, just as he's not all that interested in his characters' inner lives. The story is rich; its players, however, are pretty thin. Fortunately, Vogt's fast-paced, and often surprisingly elliptical telling makes up for that thinness. It's a whisking journey through a world that keeps changing, behind the scenes if not before the eyes. One postrscript: Slan has had a weird afterlife. The specifics now appear lost to the ages, but it inspired the phrase "Fans Are Slans," a rallying cry for the innate superiority of science fiction enthusiasts. At least one fan took that too much to heart. An Indiana Slan reader named Claude Degler began to espouse the notion that science fiction fans were literally the next stage in human evolution and preached the gospel in fanzines and on the convention circle of the 1940s. He was ubiquitous then, hitchhiking from con to con. Then, in 1950, he disappeared. Maybe he's still out there. Slans live a long time.
Want to read past Box Of Paperbacks Book Club entries? All previous installments of The Box Of Paperbacks Book Club are archived here.
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"The great eye floated in space."