Slan – A. E. van Vogt

For years I have been telling people not to bother reading the classics. Most of them are garbage. I know this because I have read some of them. This is one of the most controversial opinions I hold. I get into arguments about whether people should bother reading Homer and the contrary position is defended by people who have never read him, and get a lot of the broad strokes wrong. It never ceases to amaze me.

But people wouldn’t have this problem with their contemporaries. If you were to ask someone if they think large swathes of people in 1000 years should be listening to Cardi B, they’d likely say ‘no’. Homer too (despite not existing) was once a contemporary artist. No one had perenniality in mind when that was fresh. But people love the idea of things lasting forever, and hence we find ourselves with today’s problem.

Every genre has its own list of classics, and on science-fiction’s list is A. E. van Vogt’s Slan. It’s a very old novel, and famously it defined a generation of fans for years after. The story follows Jommy Cross, who may or may not be the last of the true Slans, a race of superhumans with telepathic abilities and superhuman intelligence. Despite having the lion’s share of advantages, they seem to be losing a war against humans and are undergoing a genocide. Tied into this is a race of pseudo-Slan that maintain the intelligence but have lost the telepathy. The story follows Jommy Cross’ life as he navigates a world that is hostile to him at every turn, and his mission becomes to find out exactly what is going on.

Nothing about this novel has aged well, as I hope was demonstrated by the above description. I like to take things too far, so follow my reasoning for a bit: if writing is a form of technology that changes and progresses over time, so is specific forms of writing. Genres change and evolve over time. We see in this a lot of the things that were typical of the times of its release, and I struggle to find much in this that would hold modern audience for much long. Many of the para-texts around this talk about the affinity early science-fiction fans had with the main character. Apparently nerdy science fiction fans of yore, who saw themselves as pretty mistreated by society, likened themselves to the oppressed protagonist. Looking at it now, it seems like one hell of a stretch, particularly when we see what kind of texts are the most successful in modern culture. The para-texts seem to have one the game, and if fans were Slans back in the day, everyone is a Slan these days.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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