Slan by A.E. van Vogt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How do I properly describe a novel that uses (incorrectly) atomic energy, but also addressing the fact that it was published in 1940?
Well, it's been 76 years since it came out, and its and integral part of the Campbellian SF revolution that said that we can have great Science in Science Fiction, but of course our understanding of these things change as we learn more, so I'm perfectly willing to let a lot of that slide. Still. The fact that it's 1940 when it was published, and he was talking about Atomic Energy as a resource and a weapon *is* also rather mind-blowingly cool. :)
That's one of the more noteworthy things about this adventure novel that strings up a ton of cool ideas for us to enjoy, being part dystopian future, part aftermath of a huge pogrom against alien "supermen" that the "supermen" lost, and partly a mirror to ourselves of the fact of insanely stupid prejudice.
The plot proceeds very quickly, which is an amazingly cool feature and expectation for this era's SF adventure books, moving at a nice pace for an Oliver Twist beginning all the way to find a macguffin that would save the benighted alien race of Slans, to learn the slightly surprising reveals about the Slan's origins, while putting us firmly in the hands of a few Slan MCs. Telepathy, strength, speed, and intelligence is all enhanced in these individuals.
That's no big surprise, of course. Nietzsche's insanely popular across the world in every continent at this time. Superman (comic) just came out. A war has just popped up over the ocean that bears a lot of identification with it. So much of our literature, and especially SF, has truly heroic super men. It's part of our zeitgeist.
What's most interesting is how these supermen are the most downtrodden in the novel, despite all their advantages.
But wait, you say, hasn't this been done a million times?
Well, yeah, but few before this time have done something quite as intelligently as Vogt. He's trying to send a global message and doing it across so many subjects with so much world building... and the point is, he's doing it with such economy of prose. It's a really short novel.
The only other novels that I know of that could pull this off only came later.
I'm thinking of The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, both by Alfred Bester, and probably these are probably the very best Golden Age SF novels that still hold up today.
I'm not going to judge this book by today's standards of SF, although it is superior in pacing and plot, if not characterization. It was also a phenomenon for about 15 years after it came out, being considered the best of the best. Popularity doesn't always mean quality, but this does have a lot of quality.
Unfortunately, it's also been copied a million times since then, diluting the effect and the enjoyment that we might have in it now.
At least we can point to it as one of the major supermen mythos stories with pride, and hopefully it won't be utterly forgotten in time.
View all my reviews