Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Here's a synopsis of the first eight pages of A. E.
van Vogt's novel
Slan:

We learn that an ostracized race, known as Slans,
lives in hiding from the police in a totalitarian
society.  Slans have telepathic powers, which allow
them to detect enemies at a
distance.   Despite this skill,
a Slan female cannot escape
her pursuers when she is
identified during a visit to
the capital city.  Before she
is killed, she tells her nine-
year-old son Jommy, that
he must go into seclusion,
complete his dead father's
unfinished project, and
then assassinate Kier Gray,
dictator of the planet.

The police capture and kill Jommy's mother.  He
grieves for the duration of one sentence.  Chased by
police, the boy evades them by jumping on to the
back of a passing car.  But this automobile carries
John Petty, sinister chief of police for the
dictatorship.  Passersby spot the youngster
precariously balanced on the rear bumper of the car,
and phone in reports to the authorities, who send
out an all points bulletin to apprehend him.  

Meanwhile Petty and his chauffeur also detect
Jommy, and chase him on foot through a rundown
residential area.  Jommy is injured by a stray bullet,
and seeks for a hiding place amidst a stack of old
crates. Here he find—a heaven-sent miracle!—a
hole in the wall, where he can escape from the
police and citizens who are chasing him.  

A ten thousand dollar reward is offered for the
capture of the youngster. The military is called in to
assist in the manhunt.

And we are only halfway through chapter one.  

No, the pace does not slow down.  Over the course
of the next twenty pages, you will encounter a
kidnapping, an attempted murder, a failed
government takeover, a secret midnight council of
leaders, a rapidly assembled firing squad…and on
and on and on.  

Welcome to the world of A.E. van Vogt, the
madcap storyteller who goes through plots faster
than an otolaryngologist uses up tongue
depressers.   If writing fiction were simply a matter
of setting up conflicts and resolutions, which lead
to more conflicts and resolutions…well, van Vogt
would have won the Nobel Prize in literature.  As
it stands, his books are more slapdash than sublime,
yet captivating in their sheer manic energy.  

If I had to sum up van Vogt's oeuvre in a single
phrase, I would opt for:  "never a dull moment."  
This might even have been his personal mantra.  No
author had less faith in his readers' attention span
than A.E. van Vogt.  He refuses to give them a
chance to get bored, inserting some death-defying
stunt or crazy galactic escapade every few
paragraphs.  Sometimes he must abandon other
lesser (on van Vogt's scale, if not yours) virtues—
coherence, character development, plausible
motivations, stylish prose—in the process.  But he
never, ever lets his story lag.   

At the time van Vogt came of age as a writer, the
serial film was at the height of its popularity. These
were adventure movies, broken into around a dozen
or so individual episodes.  Each week, one of the
installments would be shown at movie theaters
around the US as an interlude between the feature
films.  This chapter in an on-going story would last
roughly fifteen minutes, and invariably end with a
cliffhanger—some unresolved plot twist that would
entice the audience to return the following week to
see the next episode.  

Of all the science fiction authors of the Golden
Age, van Vogt came closest to transferring the
roller-coaster pacing of the movie serial on to the
printed page.  Before
Slan reaches its surprise
conclusion—and, yes, it’s fitting, given the
tendencies of this author, that he tosses out another
unexpected plot twist in the final sentence—van
Vogt has gone through more generations of
weaponry than a decade of Department of Defense
expenditures.  His story has taken us underwater,
underground, inside mountains, and off to outer
space.  Various love interests arrive on the scene,
but rarely last for more than few paragraphs.  Just
as a marathon runner can't afford to linger and
enjoy the scenery, van Vogt refuses to slacken his
pace.  No, he won’t even look over his shoulder to
gauge the competition. Onward the story rushes, in
a breathless race to the finish line.

What is the most outlandish plot twist here? I must
admit a fondness for the moment when Jommy
arrives at a top security space launch site just
twelve minutes before takeoff, with no specific plan
of attack, but with confidence that he will find a
way of hijacking the spaceship.  Of course, he
succeeds.  But even better is when Jommy shows up
at the highly fortified presidential palace stark naked
and ready to take on 10,000 opposing troops.   Yes,
he wins that encounter too. And if you like fight
scenes, you must savor the moment Jommy matches
up single-handedly against a fleet of spaceships
equipped with nuclear weapons, including a ten-
million ton behemoth of a mothership a half-mile
in diameter and chuck full of the latest assault
technology.  Hint:  bet on Jommy.

I would like to give van Vogt credit for the socio-
historical resonance of his work.  Published in
magazine form during the interlude between the
start of World War II in Europe and the attack on
Pearl Harbor,
Slan can be read as a cautionary tale
about the racialist demonizing that made the
Holocaust possible.  But I fear I may be giving our
author too much credit, and if anything the mutant
Slans who are the heroes of his book have more in
common with the Arayan self-proclaimed master
race than the Jewish diaspora.  Here, as elsewhere
in van Vogt's oeuvre, he shows an unhealthy
fascination with forceful political leaders who
trample on democratic institutions.  Yet if one peers
deeply enough into this novel, a theme of tolerance
and non-violence can be dimly detected—often
hidden behind scenes filled with intolerance and
gratuitous violence.  Let's hope that a few of the
many teenagers who have read this book over the
decades paused at least long enough to notice.  


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
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Slan
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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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Report on Probability A

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The House of the Spirits

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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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Time's Arrow

Apuleius
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The Foundation Trilogy

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I, Robot

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Crash

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A Case of Conscience

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Dandelion Wine

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The Illustrated Man

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

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A Clockwork Orange

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Ender's Game

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Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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Stories of Your Life and Others

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Childhood's End

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A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

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Little, Big

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The Fifty Year Sword

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Babel-17

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Dhalgren

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The Einstein Intersection

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Nova

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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The Man in the High Castle

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Ubik

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VALIS

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Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

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Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

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Neverwhere

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Burning Chrome

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Neuromancer

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Light

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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

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Time Enough for Love

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Winter's Tale

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Dune

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Brave New World

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Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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Gods Without Men

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Nine Hundred Grandmothers

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The Big Time

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Conjure Wife

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The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

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The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
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Magic for Beginners

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100 Years of Solitude

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Hell House

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Cloud Atlas

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Behold the Man

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Beloved

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Ada, or Ardor

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Ringworld

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At Swim-Two-Birds

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Love in the Ruins

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Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

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Snow Crash

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More Than Human

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Some of Your Blood

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Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

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Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

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Slan

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Around the Moon

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Cloudstreet

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Orlando

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The Bear Comes Home

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Lord of Light

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This Immortal


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The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
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Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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