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Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped?
by Neil Walsh
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped? columns.]

Too many late nights too close to the wire?

One thing that I'm a little surprised about is that nobody read my last Overlooked/Over-hyped piece and contacted me to say "what the hell?" I'm buzzing along nicely for almost half of it, when all of a sudden I go on this wild tangent about book burning. I guess I had the news from some years ago rattling in the back of my brain about the Harry Potter books being burnt by ill-informed nutters, and I was writing very late at night, already technically past my deadline. I can only imagine readers either followed my leaps of (il)logic, forgave my left-field rambling, or shook their heads in wonder at what kind of drugs I must have been on. (Only caffeine, honest.) I meant to get back to the movie thing I raised at the beginning, and tie it all up nicely with that idea, but there were flames in my head and I just had to get them out. So I apologize to anyone out there who might have been wondering "what the hell."

Or maybe I'm just writing to myself. Maybe nobody noticed anything odd last time because nobody's really all that interested in what I have to say. Maybe I'm all alone here. Hello?

Is there anybody out there?

And that brings me to the theme for this month. My selections this time are Slan by A.E. Van Vogt, in which a young man who is more than human takes on pretty much the whole world as he quests for others (or even one other) like himself, and A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright, in which a dying man takes a time machine to the future in hope of finding a cure for himself and a way to go back to the past to cure his now dead former lover, and he leaves a manuscript behind which may or may not ever be read... by anyone.

Maybe every writer feels this way at some point (except, probably, Terry Pratchett).

Slan (1940/1946)
A.E. Van Vogt

Slan - first edition A.E. Van Vogt was born on 26 April 1912 in Edenburg, Manitoba, Canada. He got his start in writing for the pulp magazines in the late 30s. By 1941, he was writing full time, and he built quite a fan base during SF's Golden Age. Throughout the 40s, he was a prolific writer especially of short stories; by the 50s he was going back to his earlier stories, reworking them and cobbling them together into fully fledged novels. His best-known novel of this period is Slan, which had first seen publication in Astounding Science Fiction in serial, starting in September 1940. In 1944, Van Vogt took up residence in Hollywood, California, where he spent the remainder of his life. He died on 26 January 2000.

Slan - new Orb edition Van Vogt received various special awards for his contribution to science fiction. His novels include Slan (1946), The Weapon Makers (1947), The World of Null-A (1948), The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950), The Weapon Shops of Isher (1951), The War against the Rull (1959), and dozens more, in addition to numerous collections of his shorter works.

A.E. Van Vogt is one of those larger-than-life names from golden age pulp SF. He's also a fellow Canadian. And yet, somehow I managed not to have read any of his work before now. Previous to my degree in English Lit, I read an awful lot of Canadian Lit in high school. I still read some now, and, believe it or not, I still enjoy it. (Not Margaret Atwood, though -- haven't read her in years; haven't missed her at all.) And in my leisure reading, I've covered at least a moderate amount of golden age pulp SF adventure material. And I can still enjoy it, too. But today you have to read pretty much any pulp-era story for what it was, as well as what it is. This is certainly the case for Slan.

As golden age SF novels go, this one was fairly monumental in its impact. And like many such works, I have a strong suspicion that today it is far more talked about than it is read. Much like, say, Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+. On the other hand, Slan is a far more mature work and therefore much more readable to a 21st century reader than Gernsback. As Ralph suffers from too too too many ideas crammed into each page, Slan suffers -- to a lesser extent -- from too many plot twists. Not that there isn't a plethora of ideas -- some of them are pretty cool, some are just odd, and some just make you smile at the naïveté of the 40s. Most importantly, the overall madly galloping plot is at least interesting, even in its frenzied writhings.

The story is that of a young boy, Jommy Cross, who is a slan. Slans are outwardly almost identical to humans, except they're stronger, faster, smarter, and can read thoughts. Hundreds of years in our future, slans are a persecuted minority. When Jommy's parents are killed by the state secret police, he is forced to grow up in secret, living amongst the enemy, so that he can carry on his father's life work -- although he doesn't yet know what that is. As he matures, he never ceases in his quest for others of his own kind.

Van Vogt's writing style has a certain degree of sophistication, although he seems to have had a compulsive desire to keep one step ahead of his readers at all costs. Every few pages there's something that makes you perk up and wonder "what the hell?" And yet, somehow the frenetic plot twists and rampant paranoia (I can see this must have been something of an influence on Philip K. Dick) keep you reading compulsively right through to the surprise ending. Some of the twists, in retrospect, seem rather illogical. And paradoxes abound. For instance, Jommy is adamantly opposed to taking any life, even chastising his adopted "Granny" for killing an insect. However, he has no compunction about committing mind rape by his hypnotic control over people who rage inwardly but are powerless to resist. The author takes great pains to explain the (pseudo-)physics of why someone in an invisible spaceship can still see out the "visiplates" and yet you get the impression people are walking around unprotected on Mars, but there's no mention of how any kind of breathable atmosphere is sustained. Putting down Slan at the end is kind of like waking up from a dream -- there was a kind of internal logic that maybe made sense at the time, and even though the logic rapidly fades you still can look back on it with fondness. But if you analyze it too much, you risk losing the charm and wonder of it.

Van Vogt probably made a wise decision in not trying to envision vast technological or societal changes in the future. His job as a speculative fiction writer was, rather, to extrapolate on specific ideas; in this case, human evolution, and ruthless persecution of those who are different. The result is that Van Vogt's future is, on the surface, largely unchanged from the world he would have known in the 40s. While space travel, for example, is now (although unbeknownst to most of the world's population) a common occurrence, on the other hand an attendant is still required to operate an elevator. It seems paradoxical, or even mildly amusing, but strangely it kind of works.

On the whole, I would say that Slan is a novel definitely worth reading if you're the kind of reader capable of appreciating a work for what it was, as well as what it is. If you're not, then it might still be worth reading if you just want some light entertainment, jam-pack full of adventure, that you don't have to think about too seriously. If you're likely to be frustrated by things that don't quite make sense, then this probably isn't the book for you.

Of course the obvious complement to this book for my present purpose would have been Slan Hunter, the manuscript left by Van Vogt at his death and completed by Kevin J. Anderson. Apparently in his later years, Van Vogt decided to return to the world and adventures of Jommy Cross, but unfortunately he wasn't able to complete the project. Anderson accepted the daunting commission to finish the work, and the result, Slan Hunter, was released this summer by Tor (Tor's imprint, Orb, also released a new edition of Slan to coincide with Slan Hunter -- see cover at left). But I didn't choose Slan Hunter as the complementary book for this article simply because I haven't read it yet. Although now I'm curious to give it a go.

A Scientific Romance (1997)
Ronald Wright

A Scientific Romance 1997 Ronald Wright was born in London, England, in 1948. He now lives in British Columbia, Canada. Wright studied archaeology at Cambridge and at the University of Calgary. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by U of Calgary in 1996. As a writer, he first made his name writing history and travel books. Stolen Continents was a bestseller and won the Gordon Montador Award. A Scientific Romance was his first foray into fiction, a successful venture which won the 1997 David Higham Prize for Fiction, and book-of-the-year distinction by The Globe and Mail, The Sunday Times, and The New York Times.

A Scientific Romance 2002 Ronald Wright's novels are: A Scientific Romance (1997) and Henderson's Spear (2002). His non-fiction books are: Cut Stones and Crossroads: A Journey in Peru (1984), On Fiji Islands (1986), Time Among the Maya (1990), Stolen Continents (1993), Home and Away (1994), and A Short History of Progress (2004, based on the CBC Massey Lecture).

And, of course, the obvious choice to complement A Scientific Romance would have been H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. The reasons I didn't choose Wells are because 1) I've already read it; 2) I've already spoken about it elsewhere on the SF Site; and 3) I didn't like it all that much.

So why, then, did I pick A Scientific Romance at all? Well, as my potentially overlooked work, it is one that has been rescued from the annual garage sale on several occasions and, in spite of my bias against Wells, it did sound intriguing. Once I did finally get around to reading it, I liked it well enough to feel I had something to say about it. Not sure just what that is yet; bear with me...

First of all, the story. David Lambert is an expert on Victorian machinery living in London in 1999, when he finds out about a letter from H.G. Wells, allegedly left after his death with instructions not to be opened until the eve of the new millennium. It seems to be a genuine letter, and therefore is likely a hoax by Wells himself. It can only be a hoax, because the letter instructs the reader to go to a specific address to await the return of the actual time machine on which Wells based his fictional novel. Meanwhile we learn that David is dying of the same incurable disease that killed his former lover, Anita, an eminent Egyptologist. The first section of the novel is written as an epistle from David to his estranged friend, Bird, also a former lover of Anita. Of course, the time machine turns out to be real. In hope of travelling to a future in which a cure can be found, David recklessly flashes ahead 5 centuries. His plan is to obtain the cure, and then return to his past -- to a time when Anita is still alive, and they are still lovers -- and save her too. The remainder of the book is written as a journal, largely addressed to Anita, although David is no longer sure she or anyone will ever read his leavings.

It makes a good contrast to Slan in many ways. Slan is non-stop action from the get-go; its crazy corkscrew plot makes only a moderate amount of sense; and its characters are only partially fleshed out. A Scientific Romance, on the other hand, is rather slow moving and graceful; its plot unfolds in a logical sequence (even if future events are as implausible as anything Wells may have envisioned); and you spend so much time with the character of Lambert, that you feel you probably know him better than he knows himself. The character of David Lambert is a romantic, at heart. He's also unbearably solipsistic and self-pitying (not too unlike the best Wellsian characters).

Like most time travel stories, A Scientific Romance addresses the mater of the strange loop paradoxes. It also has a moment of the narrator/protagonist discovering how his meddling with time travel has in fact had repercussions. The future is, as the reader may expect, not at all what the character expects. And finally, the hat-tipping to Wells is superbly done.

Toward the end, when David begins to accept that his time travelling may be all in vain, he wonders idly if anyone reading his journal will think him merely mad. I suppose that would depend on the circumstance of the discovery of said journal. However, I suspect the question he's really wondering is not "will anyone take me seriously" so much as it is "will anyone even read this at all?"

....Is there anybody out there?

So is Slan still considered a classic? Has it been over-hyped? Maybe, by some. And maybe, in its day. But its day is long gone; even Slan Hunter, the last posthumous work from A.E. Van Vogt, will not likely revive the hype that once buoyed up his most famous work. Today, Slan is one of those all but forgotten classics. Today it's not a terrific read, but it is still fun. It's not great literature or great art, but it did play a great part in SF history, and for that reason I think it deserves some respect. It deserves to be read, as well as just talked about.

And what about A Scientific Romance? Has it been overlooked? Not really. It sold quite well, won an award, has seen several subsequent editions, and is still in print a decade after publication. But it was marketed more to the "mainstream" and has probably been quietly ignored by the majority of genre readers. I almost overlooked it, but I'm glad I didn't. It's a very well written novel.

When my wife asked me which two books I was writing about this month I told her both titles and authors. She hadn't heard of either of them. And she reads more than I do.

Copyright © 2007 Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh once lived alone in a mud hut on a mountain in Africa. Later he was mercilessly persecuted by the Portuguese police in Lisbon. He regularly travels through time, but only ever in one direction. In addition to the books above, in the past month he also read Helix by Eric Brown (2007), Tea From an Empty Cup by Pat Cadigan (1998), Baltimore, or the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden (2007), Children of the Night by Dan Simmons (1992) -- those last two to satisfy his annual seasonal craving for creature of the night fiction -- as well as some non-fiction, to whit If a Pirate I Must Be by Richard Saunders (2007), being a biography of the real "dread pirate Roberts," The Duelling Handbook by Joseph Hamilton (1829), and re-read The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell by Aldous Huxley (1954-56).

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