J.G. Keely's Reviews > Slan

Slan by A.E. van Vogt
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Mar 22, 2011

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bookshelves: science-fiction, america, novel, dystopia, reviewed
Read from March 18 to 23, 2011

In Slan, Van Vogt (say: 'vote') combines a number of popular sci fi themes, some intriguing, others silly, to create a work that is interesting and influential, if sometimes ill-conceived.

The political tone of the work, focused on dictators, secret police, and shadowy struggles for power mark this as one of the earlier Dystopian works. Slan is a decade before 1984, though Brave New World and It Can't Happen Here are earlier.

Van Vogt's Dystopia is much more fantastical than most of the genre, relying heavily on telepathy and 'Tom Swift' gadgeteering. The use of super-gadgets is so pervasive that there are few situations our protagonist can't get out of with the use of lovingly-described technology.

There are some twists of the plot that are beyond the powers of his machines, but happily, all of these are solved by coincidence. The author has no trouble placing his protagonist in sticky situations, but can't get him out again without contrivance or Clarke Magic. Despite being told of our hero's brilliance and will, he remains passive, drifting where the plot carries him.

The writing itself is alright, but not impressive. Occasionally, Van Vogt tries for a flowery passage, and these do not serve him well. Likewise, his technobabble serves only to justify things that we, as sci fi readers, have already taken for granted. We understand that his use of Atomic Power allows him to make impenetrable steel, we don't need a speech about 'super bonding'.

Van Vogt is lost somewhere between the overt fantasies of pulp sci fi and the more reasonable predictions of harder science, like Heinlein's. When an author tries to justify a fantasy, all it does is cause the reader to question his own disbelief.

This especially evident in Van Vogt's explanation for telepathy, where he drags out that old gernsbackian chestnut about the evolution of the Future Man. Van Vogt demonstrates ably that the chief difference between hard and soft sci fi is whether the author has the least grasp of the science he's attempting to predict.

The use of evolution as 'magic plot fixer' is always laughable, and it's no wonder the layman has no conception of what the Theory of Evolution actually refers to (it has nothing to do with Nietzsche's 'Superman', and neither does eugenics).

His use of telepathy also highlights another of Van Vogt's authorial weaknesses. We often get long description of how characters feel, of how they are reacting, and of what they are thinking, which is usually a sign that the author feels a need to tell us what he is incapable of demonstrating with plot, character, scene, and dialogue.

At first, I thought that it made sense to live in the heads of telepathic characters, and was looking forward to seeing how Van Vogt would use telepathy to give us different insights into the characters and their interactions. Unfortunately, he rarely uses it this way. Indeed, most of the people have 'mind shields' which prevent the protagonists from having any such insights.

What I appreciate about sci fi is the greater scope and variability the author has to explore humanity and possibility. When a sci fi author fails to find all the interesting nooks that his alien world suggests, it is all the more disappointing.

I can also appreciate sci fi as a pure, tightly-plotted adventure, taking science as magic. Unfortunately, Van Vogt is stuck between these extremes, neither as psychologically interesting as Huxley nor as imaginative and unpredictable as Burroughs.

He does a fair enough job holding up both ends at once, but combines not only the strengths but also the weaknesses of both styles. He hits a lot of promising points here, and there is something unique about how he hybridizes ideas, but he never takes advantage the possibilities lying everywhere beneath the surface.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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J.G. Keely I figured if telepathic crystal hypnosis was good enough for our hero, it's good enough for me.

message 2: by Jim (new)

Jim I approve of your reviewing stance - which is to appraise dated works with up-to-date sensibilities. This helps us to determine whether to merely admire the work and recall the author's repuatation or to commit part of a too short life and dive into the work itself.

Van Vogt has always been a "name" - one that is widely admired and revered - but that does not necessarily justify the coin or the time.

As for "influential" A quick review of the wikipedia article:


shows that a number of SF heavyweights (Ellison and Dick for two) were turned on bv VV's flights of fancy.

Nice touch, Keely, to show how VV was himself influenced by that which had gone before.

J.G. Keely Van Vogt's reputation is what drew me to him; I know he's an influential author, and it's not hard to see why: he isn't afraid of combining disparate ideas. But this synthesis isn't always as graceful as it might be. This means that people who read his books will feel inspired to write about similar ideas, confident that these ideas have not already been fully explored by the original author.

I've seen this a number of times in authors notable as 'originators'. They are often defended as not 'aging well', but I've rarely found this defense reasonable. You can almost always point to earlier or contemporary authors who explored the same ideas and styles but who have stood the test of time, which is what I try to do.

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