Slan by A.E. Van Vogt
It can be difficult for some modern audiences to remember at what point in American history science fiction began to be taken seriously as a subgenre. Many works are credited as early classics of “serious” science fiction, from Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, but they are all predated by A.E. Van Vogt’s thriller Slan, originally published in 1940. Combining a fascinating mystery with an allegorical narrative about intolerance and human evolution, Slan established the tone and themes of many science fiction works that followed it, and remains a compelling read today.
Slan is about a city on Earth in the far future where the police force hunts down the “Slan”, a race of mutated humans with the ability to read minds and incredible longevity and physical durability. Most of the Slan have been exterminated at the beginning of the novel and the few remaining are forced to hide and wear elaborate disguises to cover the gold tentacles in their hair. At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, Jonathan Thomas “Jommy” Cross, is forced to flee throughout the city’s vast underbelly after his mother sacrifices herself so he can escape, entrusting him with an important mission: kill the leader of the humans, Kier Gray, who has persecuted the Slan for countless years. As Jommy evades his pursuers and tries to unravel the labyrinthine conspiracy behind the origins of the Slan and plan the assassination of Gray, a parallel narrative plays out within the palace that Gray rules from. There, Kathleen Layton, a young Slan, is kept in captivity by Gray as he researches her, and she struggles with her conflicting loyalty to Gray and her desire to escape a civilization that fears and distrusts her. Kathleen and Jommy’s search for truth, answers, and a better world forms the backbone of the novel.
Slan represented a key point in the transition of science fiction from simple tales of heroic space cadets and mad scientists into a modern literary world full of morally ambiguous characters and impossibly vast cityscapes. Much of the novel was designed to subvert the expectations of an early 20th Century audience, to the point that one of the most memorable characters in the novel is “Granny”, a black-hearted alcoholic elderly woman who kidnaps Jommy early on in the novel, who seems to have been created specifically to shock an audience used to “kindly old ladies” in fiction. Other content that was shocking for its time within science fiction includes adults who have no reservations about firing on children, interracial marriage, and genocidal violence. These elements made it very popular with adult science fiction fans of the time interested in edgy novels, and Slan became associated with the emerging identity of science fiction fandom, as the catchphrase “fans are slans” became popular. Early science fiction fans identified with the persecuted but brilliant main characters and their struggle to survive in a hostile, unpredictable world.
Some of the impact of Slan is lost on a modern audience, as many of its storytelling devices have become co-opted by many other science fiction works. Its use of a large, dangerous city where policemen hunt down “aberrant” characters is likely more familiar to modern audiences in Ridley Scott’s classic film Blade Runner. Slan was also the first science fiction work to use mutants as a metaphor for persecution and racial intolerance, and was a major stylistic influence on the portrayal of the mutants in the X-Men comics and films, particularly in the association of mutants with psychic powers. If some of the inherent unique qualities of the novel have been copied, it remains an exciting and well-told tale, and a fascinating look back at how science fiction came to be respected as literature. Slan remains a great novel for any science fiction fan interested in secret origins, dark conspiracies, and suspenseful chases.