Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Slan: A Critique

A substantive impetus for my consideration of the demographic analysis of science fiction readers and fans came from some discussions that I’ve had with Ben Sano about the nature of Creationism and the Intelligent Design “theory.” Considering ID as just another idea of speculative fiction is not an unreasonable thing to do, and that led me to an informal review of how science fiction has treated evolution and mutation. Yes, these are “just stories”, but how and why stories strike a spark in an audience can tell a lot about the audience.

One thing to bear in mind is that there is substantial overlap between the demographic that supports science fiction (bright children of working class families) and the demographic of ID and creationism (working class families). Moreover, the actual players in the ID drama, the “experts” who provide its main arguments and writings tend to be similar to science fiction fans, e.g., engineers, academics at lower tier colleges, professionals in the “practical” sciences such as medicine, geology, etc.

Let’s just say that there is something about the demographic that makes us suckers for a good story.

So we come to Slan. It was one of the first evolution-in-SF stories I reviewed, because of its obvious importance to the field. An entire generation of sf fans had “Fans are Slans” as a slogan. The publication of Slan just before WWII launched A. E. van Vogt’s writing career, and much ink has been spilled on its behalf. Now it’s my turn, in part, because, despite my having what turned out to be a very good memory of the story, nevertheless, re-reading it and thinking about it gave me some surprising notions. So let’s review the story.

Slan is about slans, a race of mutant supermen, possessing greater than human intelligence, strength, speed, endurance, and resistance to disease. They are also telepathic, with golden “tendrils” in their hair; the tendrils serve as antennae for telepathy. We are not told, though it certainly seems to be the case, that slans are all physically attractive. We are told that slans are kinder, gentler, and more moral than humans, though some events in the tale suggest otherwise.

The protagonist of Slan is John Thomas Cross, “Jommy Cross” to his mother, who is killed by genocidal humans shortly after the novel begins. Cross is nine years old. His father is already dead, having heroically allowed his own murder, rather than turning his great invention (a form of controlled atomic power) on his attackers. We later see the invention, which is in the form of a gun, a curious design choice from such a pacifist.

Cross escapes from those who killed his mother, avoids the police, and finds refuge in the abode of “Granny” a larcenous old woman who expects Cross to use his mind-reading abilities to steal for her—which he does. He uses the time during his refuge with Granny to educate himself and to later (on his 16th birthday) recover the prototype of his father’s invention. At this time, he also discovers the existence of “tendril-less slans,” who possess many of the characteristics of slans (e.g., higher intelligence) without the obvious physical characteristics that mark them for attacks by humans. The tendril-less slans have a separate (and secret) society, where they prepare for world conquest and the probable extermination of humankind. They also hate tendrilled slans as much or more than they hate humans, so Cross has two groups against him. His only natural allies would seem to be the “true slans” but, with the exception of a single girl (Kathleen) that is killed almost as soon as he meets her, he can’t find any! So Cross spends the rest of the novel trying to find the true slans, solve the mystery of their origin, and, by the way, get to the Dictator of the World, Kier Grey, and kill him. This last one is a quest laid upon him by his mother, another interesting interpretation of what “kind, gentle, and moral,” means.

Cross’s search for a solution to the “mystery of the slans’ origin” drives much of the story. Slans were born of humans, and once, briefly, controlled the entire world. But slans “continued making more slans” according to one human in the book, i.e. the mutant births continued, and humans didn’t like having mutants as children. So humans initiated genocide, and killed most of the slans. Cross doesn’t believe the Intelligent Design hypothesis (that slans are originally the product of a mutation machine). He can’t believe that such kind and gentle people would do such a thing.

Finally, near the end of the book, all is explained, first by Joanna Hillory a sympathetic tendril-less slan woman (who had fallen in love with Cross on their first meeting, such is the power of super-human attractiveness), then by Kier Grey, the Dictator of the World. Slans are actually natural products of evolution; humans were stupid to ever think that they were created by a mutation machine. Tendril-less slans, on the other hand, were created by slans as a way of preserving the race. They were then persecuted by slans as an act of “tough love,” in preparation for the inevitable clash with humans. Furthermore, Kier Grey turns out to be a slan himself! And he was Kathleen’s father!! And she is still alive, resurrected with slan super-medicine!!!

So all ends well.

Now let’s consider a few things about the way evolution actually works.

Realize first that large morphological changes rarely occur within a single generation, and when they do, there is always a substantial physiological price to pay. Giantism, for example, leads to early death. Down’s syndrome is a mutation, but the affected individuals are sterile. And so forth.

Next, the formation of a new organ never happens in a single generation. This is the “irreducible complexity” so beloved of the Intelligent Design theorists. There are cases where such morphological jumps appear to occur (e.g. blind cave fish becoming sighted when reared in the light), but this is the activation of a vestigial (previously evolved) trait, not a new organ. So the likelihood of the slan’s “tendrils” occurring overnight is about zero.

Finally, something like generally enhance resistance to disease would be so universally beneficial that, if it were in the evolutionary cards, it would have happened already (and microbes would have evolved to counter it).

In short, if slans were to appear, modern biology would immediately ascribe them to “Intelligent Design.” Fundamentalists might look to a supernatural origin, but most biologists would assume that there was gene splicing behind it. In other words, a Mutation Machine.

Of course, what is actually suggested by Slan is a process of teleological evolution, evolution that has a purpose and a plan. Many people have believed in teleological evolution; there just aren’t any modern evolutionary biologists who do. One reason why teleological evolution is so appealing is that it fits a narrative rather better than does Darwinian natural selection. In any case, Slan is hardly the only example of teleological evolution in SF. Indeed, teleological evolution is probably the norm, if one includes Social Darwinism, which basically holds that natural selection has the purpose of advancing and maintaining a particular social hierarchy.

The implication here is that science fiction readers know little more about evolution by natural selection than creationists. The main difference between the two groups would be that creationists are against it, while science fiction readers are in favor of it. But I digress, and I’ll leave the question of why these two groups have such different reactions to what is essentially the same misunderstanding for another time.

Getting back to Slan, suppose we remove the scientific blunder of teleological evolution from the book’s context. Does that destroy the book, or merely change the reading?

Remarkably, Slan becomes a much more interesting book if read from the modern evolutionary perspective, i.e. if the “mystery of the slans” is answered the other way.

For one thing, it brings forth the idea that, while the protagonist, Cross, is a brilliant physical scientist, he knows little about evolutionary biology. That’s not hard to swallow, is it? I can certainly think of a few very bright fellows with that profile (e.g. William Shockley). Also, it would appear that Cross is entirely willing to believe things that he wants to believe, despite evidence to the contrary. He continues to believe that slans are all kind and gentle, even after he hears about how they brutalized the tendril-less slans (all for the greater good, of course). His mother tells him to kill Kier Grey (ditto), but he does not attribute this to so low an instinct as a thirst for vengence. Finally, he continues to believe in the essential morality of slans, even after learning that the brutal Dictator Kier Grey is a slan. That, it seems to me, requires some truly super-human rationalization. Fortunately, Cross is super-human, so it comes easily to him.

It also would appear that everyone is playing Cross for a sucker. “Give us the secret to controlled atomic power, nearly invulnerable steel, and telepathic hypnosis, and we’ll assure you that all slans are as good as your parents, and no one will get hurt.” And Cross, searching for a place to belong, falls for it.

But how can everyone be lying to Cross? He’s telepathic.

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but maybe lying to a telepath is as easy as lying to yourself. It’s easy to see how Joanna Hillory, the tendril-less slan woman could lie to Cross; all that need happen is for her to believe what she’s saying, that is, she could be yet another pawn in the great game. As for Kier Grey, he’s older, more mature, in far better control of his mind. Couldn’t he be good enough to put on over on the youngster?

Still and all, it’s a happy ending. Lovers reunited and everything works out—provided you’re a slan. The outlook for mere human is more problematic. In any case, their fate is in the hands of the slans, not their own.

Historically, Slan is a wish-fulfillment fantasy that struck a chord with several generations of science fiction fans. Since their identification with the protagonist is great, they had little reason to pick at the flaws. What criticisms were made (Damon Knight, Alexi Panshin) went to the obvious holes in the plot, characterization, etc. or the general critique of the wish-fulfillment fantasy as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, not the sort of self-subversion that I’m describing here.

For me, however, the most interesting thing about Slan is that it can be read as a cautionary tale of how someone can be deceived, despite high intelligence and other advantages. As Tom Stoppard has his protagonist say in Professional Foul:” “You can convince a man of almost anything—provided he’s smart enough.”

I would add: provided he wants to believe it.


KateGladstone said...

Re Down Syndrome:
"the affected individual are sterile" —
False: http://www.google.com/search?q=down+syndrome+not+sterile

Zeno said...

Slan,like most of Van Vogt's work is not very accurate in the scientific details. It does not always hold together logically within it's own plot. Still ,if you can look over the facts and it is a interesting concept and a suspensful story.

Gary Farber said...

"An entire generation of sf fans had 'Fans are Slans' as a slogan."

Only in the satiric sense. If you think otherwise, you are misinformed and badly confused and wrong.

Claude Degler was universally mocked in fandom at the time he was active. He was rapidly recognized as mentally ill and generally described as such before he disappeared from science fiction fandom after a bare six years of activity, from 1940 to 1946. He was laughed out of fandom and never ever ever had been taken seriously by anyone, beyond a handful of people in his first few months of activity, and then only insofar as he tried to create organizations, not because anyone actually believed science fiction fans were in any way genetically superior.