Sunday, December 12, 2010

Atom Age Classics: Slan

Fans are Slans! So went the popular slogan amongst SciFi fans in the Forties, most of whom did not have telepathic powers.  But what is/was a Slan and why would anyone want to be one?  Well, Slans are supermen.  They are possessed of super-intelligence and enhanced strength. They practice super science and they belong to another race entirely--they only look human.  Slans are cuckoos, very similar to the Midwish Cuckoos from John Wyndham's novel that was turned into the movie Village of the Damned, only Slans aren't necessarily quite as evil...or at least the main protagonist Jommy Carter isn't. We hope.
Why was he feared?...

His name was Jommy Cross, and to all appearances he was human and harmless. But the slim tendrils half-concealed in his hair identified him as a Slan. And to the men who ruled the world, naturally all Slans were freaks.

But Jommy believed that Slans were not the monsters men claimed. And though still a child, and alone -- and with only a secret weapon left him by his father -- he set out to find his fellow Slans, and, with them, to win a way to peace with men.
Slan is A. E. Van Vogt's novel about a secret super-race of beings arising from amongst normal humanity. A Slan is a telepathic mutant, a member of Homo Superior, which is a term A. E. Van Vogt first used in 1940, well before Stan Lee dreamed-up the X-Men. People fear the Slan. Persecute them. Hunt them down and try to kill them.  Slan are a threat to normal people's continued existence, their way of life and they must not be allowed to survive or else they might just destroy all the puny humans in their way.  Yep. It's that plot all over again, but this time it was done in 1940, so it was at least somewhat fresher then.
Slan is no Odd John, but then Van Vogt was no Olaf Stapledon either. Both were very gifted authors writing in very different styles and for all the superficial similarities of their characters, they each have a very distinct flavor that sets them apart. Slan took early SciFi fandom by storm. Stapledon's Odd John never quite caught on in the same way, which was really kind of odd, really. Odd John will be addressed in another post. So will Van Vogt (and his Weapon Shops of Isher).
Some Slan-nish Links
 The review of Slan at Sci Fi Dimensions really hit the nail on the head with this observation:
"Slan is more than super-science. It is also a super-hero story. It is the story of oppressed mutant-kind that probably influenced Chris Claremont’s tales of the X-Men. Claremont focused all our sympathy on the poor supermen who are hunted down by Hounds and Sentinels. He did a good job at it, but he forgot the corollary: super-heroes are scary."
Exactly--superheroes are scary. Like Odd John.  Like Doc Savage who lobotomized criminals instead of simply shooting them, like Frankenstein's creation and Nietzche's ubermensch--these super powered beings are not like us, they are not mere mortals, they are the modern equivalent of demigods.  Powerful.  They don't play by the same rules as the rest of us. They are mighty beings who think differently than the rest of humanity. They act differently. They are dynamic Individuals who not only stand apart, they may well be the vanguard of an entirely new species unto themselves, a species that could very well do unto us what our ancestors did to Neanderthals. Ayn Rand's self-important Architect would weep if he were ever to meet a Slan or Odd John; he would weep in the recognition of his unworthiness and inferiority. These are super-beings, not tight-wearing clods with delusions of grandeur and fist-fuls of sub-cutaneous silverware, but beings as far removed from us as we are from ants, sponges or the average pile of small rocks.

Slan are in some respects very similar to Bulwer-Lytton's Vril-Ya, except for those Slan who possess golden tendrils.  Like the Vril-Ya, the Slan are super-intelligent and are apparently destined to take over the Earth from the stupid people rest of us. It's presented almost as if it were some form of Darwinian mandate. They're superior, so they ought to take over.  Yeah, right.  Not. Going. To. Happen.

The Slan are super-beings but they are persecuted and oppressed for their powers, their difference, and the threat that they pose to normal humanity. This is a theme that has carried onwards from Slan to just about every mutant who has come along since, up to and including the X-Men and whomever is next in line for the homo superior crown. Theodore Sturgeon explored this imaginal territory very nicely in More Than Human, a novel that is perhaps one of the very best examples of this 'persecuted super-being' type tale done well. Henry Kuttner's Mutant likewise mined this theme with a 1950's post apocalyptic twist. It has been done to death and back again to the point of becoming a cliche, but even so, there remains something powerfully alluring to the idea of waking up and finding that you're a member of some super-race, a mutant who has super powers and a grand destiny and amazing adventures ahead of you. Sure beats working in a dead-end job and living in a trailer park, doesn't it?


  1. Glad you mentioned More than Human, too. It's a good one.

    It was Stapledon, in OddJohn that first used homo superior, I believe, in 1935.

  2. @Trey: Sturgeon's book is really one fo the best, though I'm very partial to Odd John by Stapledon personally.

    As for the first-coining of the term Homo Superior, you might just be right--I've run into some ambiguity and conflicting assertions and ran out of time to track down the original printing dates for the stories, especially since they often appeared in serialized form prior to the book's release.

    Tehre certainly are a lot and I mean a LOT of telepathic uber-mutant characters from the Forties onwards...


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