In my recent traipsing about the golden age of science fiction, I have, more often than not, been surprised at the quality of what I have been reading. I have to constantly bear in mind that I am often reading the rudiments of the science fiction I grew up on, so I need to be aware that I am reading for the beginnings of ideas and movements. Given that I am also generally reading collections of short fiction, I have to bear in mind also that the constraints of space also affect the power of the writing.
One of the names that has come up often in my reading journey through the Great Science Fiction anthologies is A. E. van Vogt, who appears some eight times between 1939 and 1945, more than any other author than the Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore collaboration. However, the same author was not given a Best of anthology by Ballantine Books in the mid-70s, and a later Best of by a different publisher doesn't include anything in the Great Science Fiction anthologies up to 1945. It might be that a lot of van Vogt's early work was eventually novelized, but that isn't entirely true; one of the great classic science fiction stories, "Black Destroyer" has never been novelized. Another possibility is that van Vogt's work has just not aged very well.
I set about to find one of his novels to give his longer work some attention. I was astonished to discover that I had a copy of Slan on my bookshelf, as I had no particular memory of reading it. I readily admit to advancing forgetfulness as I grow older (which is why I keep a list of everything that I read now), but van Vogt has always been held up as an icon of the golden age. I'm sure that reputation and the reputation associated with what is considered one of his best works, Slan, are what led me to buy it and read it in the first place. And as I read again, I found that it live up to the reputation it has.
At this point I have to insert a caveat, which is based in part on my supposition on writing and editing in 1940, but please bear with me. It may not be fair to judge van Vogt on Slan alone because it was published in four parts in Astounding in 1940. I don't know the nature of the task—did van Vogt write a novel and editor John Campbell broke it into four pieces? Or did van Vogt write it in four chunks? Given the structure of the novel, I'm more likely to believe the latter, although it may well be that van Vogt wrote it all as one piece but was aware of it being used in four parts and so modified his narration to provide natural points at which the story could be halted until the next month. The problem is that the quarterly ebb and flow of storytelling in Slan is much more marked than in pretty much any other serialized novels I have read, imposing a sort of drag and mechanical nature to the whole story that makes it nearly tedious to read.
The plot is classic science fiction, a shining example of what was going on in the golden age. Slans appear to be human but are in fact mutations, possessing greater physical strength and endurance and superior intelligence (the narration makes the strange comparison that a 15 year-old slan is as intelligent and capable of critical thinking as a human 30 year-old), and having the ability to read and manipulate minds. Slans are easy to identify because of golden tendrils that grow from their forehead, appendages used to aid their telepathic powers. When the novel begins, the slans have been hunted for 500 years following a disastrous war between humans and slan, based on fear that the slans were trying to take over the world. Even as the narration starts, rumors and stories of ongoing slan atrocities go on, inciting hatred among humans against the remaining slan.
On one hand the story follows the adventures of nine year-old Jommy Cross, a slan, as he is hunted and persecuted by humanity for being different. On the other hand, the narration follows Kathleen Layton, also a slan, as she is raised in the home of the world's executive power, nominally so she can be studied by humans in order to provide insight in how to fight the slan threat. As you might expect, the narration alternates between the two stories, but the action in them at first appears to be wildly different. Jommy is out in the world struggling to survive, learning the history of his race and growing into the inheritance his murdered father has left for him. When he can disguise himself, Jommy spends his time trying to adapt to his surroundings or better yet, to find more and more ingenious ways to hide. Kathleen, on the other hand, is openly a slan, but she moves in the circles of power in her world, often a pawn in games she cannot understand. She too must learn to adapt, in her case by learning the political game and to bring her special resources to bear against those that threaten her. Jommy proves more successful, growing in strength and intellect as he questions more and more the history that the humans tell each other about the slan and then uncovers a vast conspiracy that threatens both humans and slan. Kathleen, however, fails repeatedly, usually such that she is often moments from execution, but she is rescued time and again by the world's supreme leader, Kier Gray.
So while the general thrust of the story has potential, it falls short of that potential. Part of the issue is the strange divides in the text that I mention above. We turn a page and Jommy goes from nine to 15 years of age, but then the narration has to flashback to describe important events that occurred over the interceding years. Kathleen's story doesn't move at the same pace, so when we come back to her from Jommy's story, the reader is rather lost about where in time her story is in comparison to Jommy's. It's somewhat powerful for a narration to have different time rates for elements of its narration, but it needs to be done in such a way that the reader can't mistakenly assume the same time rate and then have to scrounge around when it becomes clear that they aren't the same. This narrative shortcoming is exacerbated by some generally clunky writing: descriptive passages are few and far between, while action rushes the story headlong until the next chapter, when it doesn't. The result is wickedly uneven, causing the style itself to counter the desire the plot inspires in the reader to get to the end of the story.
As the story moves on, it alternately reveals plots within plots in both narrative threads as the two main characters, predictably, head toward one another. What happens at that meeting is again predictable and acts as the final spur to push the story to its climax. Unfortunately, that climax is about ten pages of exposition explaining all the various discoveries along the way, culminating in a horrendous deus ex machina in, of all things, the final two paragraphs of the novel. It is not much of an understatement to criticize that ending as supremely unsatisfying.
And here is where I have to look back at Slan with historical lenses. Perhaps in 1940, that kind of ending would have been sufficient. Or, if I were the age of the target audience for a lot of that fiction, say in my teens, perhaps I would not have as much of a problem with the conclusion of the novel. (I am reminded here that the literature of adolescent difference has gone on for perhaps as long as there has been literature—most obviously in the Marvel comics of the 60s, such as Spider-man and the X-men. One might even argue that the current rabid fanhood for the Twilight novels and movies is not so much an expression of desire for vampires but as desire for adolescent separation from the mundane and average.) In either case, it doesn't work now, and indications are that Slan hasn't been working for some time. At best it seems that the works of van Vogt continue to act as a touchstone for the science fiction world of the golden age, but what power it might have had has been lost in the much larger and much more mature breadth and depth of current speculative fiction.