Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review: Slan

Haven’t done one of these in a while; been reading more short stories than novels, lately. So I'm jumping in the time machine, back to the golden age of science fiction, for A.E. Vogt’s novel Slan.

Quick summary: The psychic mutant Jommy Cross is under constant persecution from humans. From a young age, he’s forced to live with a wretched old woman, till the day he’s old enough to take on his father’s legacy. But it’s not only the humans he has to fear, but also another new twist in the evolution of mankind.

I make it a point to read the classics of SF, mainly for the tropes since the writing is usually lackluster *coughAsimovcough* but Slan took me by surprise. There’s—gasp!—an actual character in this story. What I mean by this, is that pulp SF often focuses on the tech and plot, and the character is just a piece to be moved from scene to scene. Granted, Jommy is one-track minded, but he does live in fear, struggles to get out of tight situations. Even the little bit we see of Kathleen, the young slan girl living under the president’s protection, is interesting—mostly in how she has to deal with constant harassment and the threat of death, even rape. Though the most intriguing background figure has to be the world president, Kier Gray. Despite is coldness to Kathleen, he always defends her against the council, even when he’s outnumbered. But why and what for?  

That’s a key feature about Slan: how it produces these mysteries, one question compounding another. Where are the true slans? Where did these tendriless slans come from? Why so much hatred for the slans? A.E. Vogt also isn’t afraid to throw in a few shocks.

The psychic aspect is very well done; it’s not simply speaking through a wire, but rather, Jommy is able to see and hear through other people, as well as transmit images. Or how a slan can be overwhelmed when too many thoughts come at them.  I especially like the scene when Jommy and Kathleen meet up, and how their thoughts become interlaced, so smooth that it’s like their thoughts were made for each other. Thought that was cute.

Unfortunately, there are no relationships formed. Jommy’s only relationship is with the vile Granny, who uses Jommy for her own gain. Though I have to admit, Granny grew on me. She seemed to be the one entertaining character with some history to her. Everyone else has sort of a blank slate for a past. Even as Jommy grows up, all he does is learn. He doesn’t play, watch movies, go to the park, etc. Nor does he even complain about missing out on these pleasures. What does Jommy do for fun, exactly? It’s those sorts of things that make him feel flat—he’s still a character, but one that lacks a lot of personality.

But I attribute those problems to the fact that this is pulp SF, which, once again, doesn’t concern itself with the interpersonal aspect of characters’ lives. Then there’s the laughable belief that it only takes a month to travel to Mars, and that Mars has a breathable atmosphere and oceans. Ah, good old golden age.

But the biggest failure of this story—and you can’t blame the pulp style for this—is that the ending is oversimplified, silly, lacks a real conclusion. The story leads up to a massive infodump that reveals all, then just… ends. What about the space armada that’s coming to destroy the humans? To me, that was more important than how Jommy’s atomic disintegrator works.

There is, fortunately, a sequel… but it’s written by Kevin J. Anderson, based on A.E. Vogt’s rough draft. I’ve read Anderson’s collaborative work with Brian Herbert, and was not impressed. In fact, I warn people against reading the Dune prequels because they’re just god-awful. However, the copy of Slan I picked up does come with the first two chapters of Slan Hunter, and you know, they weren’t bad. The annoying part is that I have to hunt down a copy at the library to finish the dang story.

Overall rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars


  1. See, and I thought I was the only heretic who's unimpressed with some of Asimov's work. But even he was unsatisfied with his earlier stuff, from what I've heard (aren't we all?). Slan sounds intriguing. Might have to add it to the ol' reading queue.

    1. Haha, nah, I've heard others not care for much of the golden age stuff, purely on the writing. You can give Asimov credit for his ideas, though I've also heard Asimov wrote the same story over and over.

      I'd read Slan as a good study on how to portray psychics; which is probably the best aspect of it.

  2. If you want something from that era that holds up well, try Clifford Simak's "Way Station." Like "Slan," it's short, but it's got soul.

    (Always wondered why no one made a film of that one--no major edits needed...)

    1. Thanks for the rec, sounds like an interesting read. Though egads, it's spendy!

      I'm sure everything will be made into a film one day--that, or be rebooted 2-3 times. :P