By A.E. van Vogt
and Kevin J. Anderson
“There are, by now—
many science fictions”
—Thomas M. Disch,
“Dick’s First Novel,”
There are many science fictions. The new sequel version of A.E. van Vogt’s Slan, for example, shows how many science fictions can exist in one van Vogtian storyline.
One thinks of van Vogt’s The World of Null-A—and its sequels. The Pawns of Null-A, The Players of Null-A, Null-A Three and Null-A Continuum, a sequel by John C. Wright.
And so it’s tempting to think of van Vogt doing the same thing with Slan in the early ‘50s—or the possibility of a sequel being written like Kevin Anderson’s Slan Hunter.
In the first two versions of Slan (the 1940 Astounding Science Fiction serialization and the 1946 Arkham House hardcover), van Vogt alludes to how the true Slans will thwart the impending tendrilless invasion from Mars.
But then Van Vogt drops the explanation in the subsequent 1951 Simon and Schuster version. So this issue remains unresolved and may explain why many current-day reviews of Slan complain about its rather abrupt ending.
Among the many science fictions revolving around Slan, there followed the 1953 Dell paperback version (#696)—and now recently Slan Hunter (2009), a sequel by Kevin J Anderson and Lydia van Vogt.
If it’s true, as Thomas M. Disch say, that there’s many science fictions now—than surely it’s even truer that there are many science fiction lit crit possibilities that now exist to review and criticize contemporary science fiction as a genre that’s come a long ways since the pulp fiction days of Astounding Science Fiction and Ace paperback double novels.
The plethora of reviews and critical comments about van Vogt’s Slan amazed me when I first started browsing the Blogosphere in regard to Anderson’s new sequel version of van Vogt’s classic first novel. Just a brief glance through the Amazon reviews, for example, shows how intense the opinions are in regard to Slan even 50 years later after first being published. Which says a lot about—science fiction as a genre and van Vogt as a writer.
One reviewer says that “Slan Hunter is not a direct sequel to Slan. While Slan Hunter includes the cast of Slan, and the story begins only hours after the ending of Slan, events take place in a different universe—a parallel universe several 'clicks' removed from that imagined by A. E. van Vogt; where the technologies, time-lines, and explanations given in Slan Hunter are, at times, glaringly out of synch with those of Slan. Perhaps one could best describe the sequel as taking place in a re-imagining of the Slan universe.”
Another more critical reviewer gets rather trashy about Slan Hunter, saying: “For years now, Kevin Anderson has made a career of destroying established SF worlds with his own unique brand of arrogance, massive plot holes, and plain bad writing. Just before Slan Hunter he did this to H.G. Wells with The Martian War, writing as Gabriel Moesta. Since the late '90s, he's been decimating the Dune universe (unaffectionately called by me and others who enjoy Herbert's work the PseudoDune series) of Frank Herbert under Brian Herbert's watchful eye.”
“Now, working from the draft of an incomplete Slan novel by A E van Vogt, Anderson strikes again. Van Vogt's original novel Slan was hardly the greatest breakthrough in SF at the time, but it was ingenious enough to become a seminal piece of writing in that genre. Like the fan fiction writers of Edgar Rice Burroughs or L Sprague de Camp when alternately denigrating and imitating Robert E Howard, Anderson just can't match the verve and brilliance of van Vogt's work and produces a novel that reads more like an imitation of a bad Sci Fi channel movie based on Slan than on a draft of a story written by van Vogt himself.”
“Unfortunately thanks to PseudoDune, Anderson's name is out there for better or worse (mostly worse), and for that reason, he gets to bowdlerize the concepts of far better writers than he. Anyone looking at this book should avoid it and read or reread van Vogt's original. It's much better than any trash written by modern science fiction's version of L. Sprague de Camp.”
Other reviewers say:
“Major characters are so distorted as to be barely recognizable - their competence disappears.”
“Contradiction after contradiction with the previous novel occurs.”
“The very nature of the conflict between true and tendrilless slan - a major feature of both books - has changed (van Vogt states it was intentionally provoked to keep the tendrilless from sinking into complacency; Anderson doesn't know how it started). The governmental structure is changed—the world president in the original is the head of a council who got their positions through intrigue, assassination and sheer viciousness; in the new book, he is a democratically elected leader.”
“This sequel was an attempt to write in the 1940's style and science environment. It ends up being worse than the original book ("Slan"), which was very dated, and the plot is lame.”
"Kevin Anderson should have updated the science and complicated, rather than simplified, the plot. The object should have been to capture Van Vogt's intricacies, not the outdated science of the period."
“Mrs. Van Vogt makes a great deal of Van's diminished faculties towards the end of his life, when this project was conceived and executed. What a shame, then, that the resulting piece of tripe should see the light of day: on the one hand, as the record of a failing, once creative mind; on the other, as the effort of a mediocre stylist who could do nothing with whatever material may have been good in the master's sketches.”
“Van Vogt was, of course, an enormously important seminal SF writer; but it would be hard to argue that he was a good writer, in the mainstream sense. He had little flair for description, setting, or depth of character. What made him stand out in the field of early SF was the imaginative scope of his ideas.”
“Slan Hunter has all of Van's defects--wooden dialogue, flat characters, vaguely gray and unevocative settings; yet it has none of his strengths--clever (even mind-bending) ideas and interesting plot turns. But the plot of this book is pure drivel. Even the worst of modern, derivative, hack-work SF isn't this bad. In fact, the novel reads more like a tongue-in-cheek parody of 40's-50's pulp SF than the real thing.”
“On thing Van Vogt never did was to write long, drawn-out battle, chase, or danger scenes. This book, however, falls deeply into the trap of going on for many filler-stuffed pages depicting our heroes fleeing or fighting someone or something. Lots of explosions and crumbling infrastructure, but nothing to really engage the reader; lots of sound and fury, in other words, signifying nothing.”
”Also, the back story for the human/slan/tendril-less slan conflict is childishly simple, mawkish and unconvincing.”
”Yes, there is some charm in being returned to a world of 1940's technology, and its silly future-tech vision; but the novelty wears off quickly, and the whole story seems merely wildly naive.”
“I do hope Van Vogt will not be associated too closely with this garbage, because it displays none of the importance of his mature work.”
And last but now least:
“Let's just say I've been a big AE Van Vogt fan for 25 years and this "sequel" was a very poor effort. I was really hoping for at least a passable imitation of one of Vogt's books complete with his usual ultra competent loner type protagonists. This book had cardboard cutouts. If you *HAVE* to read it for goodness sakes get it at a library.”
Thus there seems to be many science fictions—and a whole spectrum of reviewer opinions about Slan. So that, perhaps, it’s time for bringing up the “gay lib” issue in regard to van Vogt’s novel Slan. Does it have a place—here in the distinguished realm of Planet Hetero? And the world of straight sci-fi lit crit?
The reason I mention the possibility of taking a little socio-cultural detour into this area of science fiction—has to do with the fairly recent suicide death of New York writer and critic, Thomas M. Disch.
In an obit piece in the Boston Review, John Crowley mentions in his opening paragraph something very insightful about Disch that probably many of his readers and critics weren’t aware of—and that has to do with his gay marriage to his domestic partner and fellow writer-collaborator, Charles Naylor:
“The poet and fiction writer Thomas M. Disch died on July 4, 2008, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was sixty-eight years old, had long been in poor health, and was threatened with eviction from the rent-controlled Manhattan apartment where he had lived for decades with his partner, Charles Naylor. (They had put the apartment in Naylor’s name, supposing that if Disch were to predecease him, Naylor, whose income was the lesser, would be able to stay on. Naylor died of cancer in 2005 and Disch had no claim on the place. One of the small, bitter consequences of the absence of gay marriage rights in New York State.)”—John Crowley, Boston Review, January/February 2009
Although Disch had been out of the closet since 1968 and had lived with Naylor for 30years—his choice of lifestyle and marital status didn’t come up in his fiction, poetry or criticism. At least not until the last few months of his life—when he used his blog to post his poetry, social commentary and thoughts about dying.
Of course, there was a bitchy edge to his criticism and there’s no doubt that a gay subtext was always there in his writing—for those that had eyes to see and ears to hear. This didn’t garnish much popularity among mainstream fiction straights—any more than Samuel R. Delany with Borders after Dhalgren came out.
Critics opine about why Disch wasn’t more successful than he was—Oh, he was just too intelligent or Well, he was just too critical, etc. But John Crowley in his Boston Review piece comes pretty close to why Disch didn’t become one of the Rich and Famous. It wasn’t because he was a science fiction author—it was because he was a science fiction queen.
The reason I detour this way into socio-cultural issues, is that Disch had a very high opinion of A.E. van Vogt—the supposed co-author along with Kevin J. Anderson of the Slan sequel: Slan Hunter (2009).
Anderson worked with notes left behind by van Vogt—when he was unable to complete a long awaited sequel to this first successful novel, Slan. He’d done this before at John Campbell’s bidding—when he published The Pawns of Null-A as a sequel to The World of Null-A years earlier.
But by the time van Vogt took up again the rewriting of Slan—it was too late. He was already in his 80’s and suffering from Alzheimer’s. The project was taken up by Anderson—and the result is Slan Hunter.
The first sentence of Anderson’s rewrite sets the tone for the rest of the novel: “The world was already falling apart when her first contractions hit.”
Anderson is no Delany or Disch—the resulting novel is, well, a rather boring rehash of the original novel. I got the impression reading it—that Anderson assumed that the reader had never read van Vogt’s original novel, Slan. The result being a sort of ho-hum “peanut-butter and jelly” rerun of van Vogt’s tight episodic pulp fiction narrative.
There’s none of the jouissance and jittery nervousness that van Vogt was good at portraying in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction. The kind of attention-getting grabbing-you and not-letting-you-go kind-of-reading action that Campbell himself said was the trademark of van Vogt’s science fiction.
Van Vogt mentions in Reflections, his autobiography, how he’d put aside his writing and sleep on it. Invariably he’d wake up every 90-minutes or so—and Bingo!!! he’d have a sort of surrealistic non-sequitur solution to a plot dilemma or storyline complication that needed to be worked out.
One can imagine van Vogt waking up during the night with some kind of dream-like oneric scenario coming to him from his unconscious—turning on the light and scribbling the new scenario in a notebook on his night table. Critics have commented on the quick sometimes quixotic as well as totally unexpected fragmentariness of van Vogt’s 800-word chapters—without knowing perhaps that perhaps the wish fulfillment process of dreams are important to writers as Freud mentions in his essay “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming.”
It’s interesting that this essay by Freud in Volume IX of The Complete Psychological Works—is a text sometimes felt to be as vulgarly orthodox within the psychoanalytical canon as Zhdanov in Marxism. But the critic Frederic Jameson relies on this central wish to be “fulfilled” as an important basis for science fiction writing in his chapter “Utopian Science versus Utopian Ideology” in Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions.
(The only problem with this writing method is that after the first 100 pages it seems like just a series of Jommy Cross (or Gilbert Gosseyn) incidents—waking up in new disorienting places or times or bodies and then someone spending an entire chapter trying to explain some new aspect of reality or metaphysics that too often turns out to be pointless subterfuge. The maze becomes the message. It becomes less like a science fiction novel reading experience—and more like slogging through Derrida.)
Whether or not there’s a certain amount of homoerotic libidinal subtext to Slan is a good question to ask—in regard to the sci-fi pulp era (1929-1956). The Astounding Science Fiction milieu was largely a male enclave. In fact, as contemporary feminists point out—all of literature from the time of Homer to that of Sylvia Plath has been a male enclave.
During the pulp era, sci-fi was so déclassé—that it was only a step above comic books. Mickey Spillane worked in the comics world—before moving on successfully to paperback fiction fame and fortune.
Disch in his essay “Can Girls Play Too? Feminizing SF” in The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World (1998) goes into detail about how that era changed—how men’s adventure magazines and hard-boiled detective stories gradually entered into new domains.
The world of mundane sci-fi and much of literature underwent a revolutionary change in 1959—which was felt even in the male worlds of SF and space operas. The Supreme Court lifted the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and soon the floodgate opened with books from Fanny Hill to Tropic of Cancer—creating new literary luminaries like Philip Roth, Erica Jong, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet.
According to Disch, the decision opened up the boom years of the ‘60s with reams of legal porn on automatic pilot:
“The real speed demons, like Robert Silverberg and Barry Malzberg, could produce entire books on a single weekend.”
Formerly sleazy, lewd and lascivious literature—opened up for the American public not for the “leer of the sensualist” but rather for the edification of the Pulitzer Prize, the Library of Congress and the New York Times Best Seller List.
This “technique of innocence by association,” as Disch terms it—opened up the subject matter of sci-fi for writers from Heinlein with Stranger in a Strange Land to Delany with Dhalgren. With Nebula and Hugo awards close behind…
Fifty years later and the issues of feminism and gay literature are still moving into new areas of violence, court intrigues and untrammeled humanoid android alien—even Slan!!!—sexuality.
Fantasy and science fiction—seem to be doing well in all the recognized sub-genres of sci-fi. Despite perhaps recalcitrant legislation and the so-called ethical demands of the academy’s political correctness qualms and the usual totalitarian propaganda.
Disch quotes Le Guin at the conclusion of his essay: “I wish science fiction were not as male as it is, but it isn’t as male as it was, not by a long shot. We have regendered a field that was, to begin with, practically solid testosterone.”
Disch mentions Joanna Russ’ The Female Man which he describes as “the best feminist science-fiction novel of all time”—though its philosophy is utterly at odds with Le Guin.
Women, feminists, Blacks, Chicanos, Indians, Asians, Third World people of color, as well as gays and lesbians—want to be empowered. And many see sci-fi literature as a strategy of hypothesizing humans in a world of the future.
Both John Varley (The Barbie Murders) and Samuel R. Delany (Triton)—have posited future cultures with elective transsexuality as commonplace as cosmetic surgery.
But Disch, as usual, seems to always have a cynical edge to these developments:
“In all these cases, the tropes of SF have been appropriated by intellectual hucksters who know that fiction can be merchandised with more success if it is repackaged as fact.”
The war between the sexes, as Disch says—is ageless, deep and inescapable. We enter and leave Women’s Country and Men’s Country—on a daily basis. The border—has its perils and inconveniences.
Sometimes, though, there’s a young outsider to both worlds—Slan boyz like Jommy Cross.
Perhaps van Vogt—was writing about him?