Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Are slans fans?

It's Wednesday again...

A couple of months ago, I re-read "Slan" by A.E. van Vogt.

It's an absolute classic of the golden age of John W. Campbell (the man who invented modern science fiction) and the Astounding magazine (where it was serialized, before it was published in book form).

The protagonist hero is a slan, one of a new breed of human, a sort of homo sapiens superior, a species gifted in all sorts of ways, being much more intelligent, stronger, more enduring, and with telepathy, the later facilitated via thin but quite visible golden tendrils that stick up from the hair on top of their heads. Apart from the tendrils, they look completely human.

And of course men still wear hats, and women... well, women presumably still wear headscarves, and sometimes hats, and so forth. Even though the story takes place many hundreds of years into the future. It is not clear whether van Vogt did foresee that bareheadedness was the wave of the future but deliberately ignored it, because he knew his world needed hattedness in order for his story to work, or if he was simply unaware of the great likelihood of changing social and fashion trends. For its time the novel can best be described as "reasonable" in its treatment of women. Not particularly progressive, but there is one female slan spaceship pilot.

While this novel has some flaws, there is much to like in it, and I definitely recommend it to everybody.

Jommy Cross is nine years old when the story begins, but as slans are a super-intelligent species, he functions mentally as a 15 year old. The slans emerged as a variant human species hundreds of years earlier, and being obviously superior in all ways, as well as visibly different (making them easy to find), it ended up with a war, with the normal humans hunting down and killing the slans. In the present time of the novel, Jommy and his mother are isolated, having no contact with other slnas, and very early in the novel, Jommy's mother is killed, leaving him to survive on his own.

He gets himself adopted by a not-too-interesting character, an old woman who thinks of herself as "Granny", and using his telepathy he steals some money and jewelry for her, in exchange for her supporting him (increasingly she functions as a mere cover). As he grows up, he tries to recover the scientific legacy of his genius physicist father (as well as developping or improve a science of his own, involving crystal-based brainwashing), and he tries to find other surviving slans for mutual support.

The Chick
Meanwhile, in the palace of the dictator of Earth, Kier Gray, a slan girl, Kathleen Layton, is allowed to live, kept as a test subject, although all they do is observe her (and occasionally, some try to seduce her). Apparently they don't need to do any physical examinations or psychological tests on her, which to me seems quite sloppy (further into the novel, this is shown to be sensible, though).

This being in some ways a typical mid 20th century novel, slan eventually meets slanette. Less typically, Kathleen gets killed soon after.

Or perhaps that isn't too atypical, after all? The readers of Astounding in the 50s probably had a limited capacity for how much romance they could tolerate, and Kathleen isn't a very interesting character anyway (I actually like Granny more, although that's not saying much). Characterization isn't van Vogt's strong point, but even then it is possible to have an interesting character that's not well characterized. Van Vogt just manages neither (Jommy himself is extremely generic, presumably because van Vogt and/or Campbell thought it necessary in order for readers to be able to identify with him).

"Slan" is good for other reasons. There's an epic scope to it, and a hint of mystery as it takes place far in the future. And of course having a genius scientist as the protagonist hero appeals to me, as it did to the readership back when it was initialy published. The palace intrigue is not given much attention, but seems reasonably well handled, and although the physics sound wrong, they probably were sensible guesses back when the novel was written, and the gadgets of Jommy's father are made use of consistently, instead of being treknological plot devices that are forgotten as soon as it is convenient for the author.

A boring species
  • Extremely intelligent
  • Greater strength
  • Greater endurance
  • Telepathic
Any one of the above is fine (and the dear reader should be well able to make an educated guess as to which one of them I prefer, by now). Any two is good as well. But having a species that is gifted in all ways, that is superior to humans in all regards, is bad worldbuilding. A single gifted character, or a group of such characters, can work fine, unless you overdo it, but not an entire species.

One aspect of worldbuilding, for fantasy or science fiction, is designing species that enrich the world, and this includes making each species different from humans in several ways, some of which makes them better, and some of which makes them inferior. That's pretty much a requirement for a re-visitable world. One that can be used again and again and again, for different stories or for different RPG campaigns.

Also, of course, psychological or behavioural stereotypes must be avoided. Slans aren't too good at this, tending to fall into the hyper-rational trench far too often. One author who did well here, Poul Anderson, will almost certainly be the subject of another, later, blog entry.

Hey dude, that's not quite how evolution works...
First of all, evolution doesn't "want" to move towards any one goal. And no, not even higher intelligence, even though we brainocentric homos do have an inclination to assume this. Evolution simply cares about fitness, about being good enough to survive (in one's ecological niche) so that one can produce a few offspring who will also survive (either you spam out a lot, of which a few survive, or else you produce a few, and then take really good care of them, to make sure some of your genes are perpetuated).

Being better tends to have a biological cost. I mean, think of our ginormous brains. Almost half the population of this planet are going to have to squeeze at least one babyskull out from between their legs, or have already done so, and contrary to popular belief, women aren't any better at coping with pain than we men are. We're the only known species where giving birth is at all dangerous (all other great apes are like totally "meh" towards this whole giving birth thing. It is no big deal for them). There's also the metabolic cost. The energy burned by our giant brains constitutes a significant fraction of our rest metabolisms. If we had smaller brains, we'd need less food.

Of course brains and brain cells can be better designed. There's a rather limited correlation between intelligence quotient and skull size, for instance. Smarter people aren't born with larger brains, but with better brains. Same goes for muscles, or the cardiovascular system. And apparently that old bearded guy up in the sky is an utter retard, because he designed our eyes bass-ackwards, with blood vessels in front of the receptors on the retina, so that the incoming photons are slightly scattered, instead of behind them. If he had actually used his brain while designing our eyes, we'd be able to see clearer, farther, better. How can anyone worship someone so droolingly incompetent?

A sequel by... WTF?
I once read that Kevin J. Anderson is on record as having said that he doesn't bother to properly research the worlds of other writers, before writing stories set in them. That he doesn't care about the facts established by the original author, facts about the characters and about the world created by the original author.

In spite of this, Anderson was given the task of committing a series of prequels to Frank Herbert's "Dune". And he was allowed to write Star Wars Expanded Universe novels. And it's not because such a thing cannot be done right. Timothy Zahn is an excellent example of what a competent and intelligent writer can do with somebody else's world. And characters.

I'm not going anywhere near "Slan Hunter". Much as "Slan" deserves a sequel, or even to be a brief series of novels, that isn't it. I have never heard anything good about "Slan Hunter". The reference earlier, about rape, seems apt to me. There really should be a law that protects talented world builders against having their worlds raped, for commercial gain, by incompetent hacks. Hacks who write so fast they literally don't have time to read up on the worlds they're violating.

Also, in the case of "Slan", and presumably the "Dune" prequels, but unlike the Star Wars EU, the deservedly poor reception of "Slan Hunter" means that there will never be a 2nd try, e.g. by someone like Zahn.

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

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