“Slan” by A. E. Van Vogt
Review © 2022 by Doug Reeder
Regarded as one of the best SF novels in the 1940s, it fell into well-deserved obscurity. It manages a good balance between action and preparation by the super-science mutant hero. It touches on minority rights, albeit in a fantastic way, as normal humans have legitimate concerns about the super-powered mutants. It’s easy to see how SF fans of the 1940s would have identified with the hero. At the end, though, he abandons his gadgets for a risky plan, which brings apparent success thanks to last-minute infodumps changing the situation.
The characters are one-dimensional, albeit they’re not always what you might expect. The hero is sickened by killing some guards early on, and strives to prevail without violence thereafter, though mind-control and personality alteration are fine. The hero’s father was supposedly pacifist enough to not defend himself with violence - but bequeathed him a ray gun. The hero’s sainted mother charges him with assassinating the world dictator to avenge their deaths. Mass murder is not a bar to becoming an ally of the hero, if you’re a mutant like him.
The love interest is set up as a deuteragonist and manages to free herself from captivity on her own, but is immediately murdered, because the hero dawdles in a trap, and plays no further role in the plot. (She gets better at the end - this was 1940s SF.) An antagonist ready to murder the hero on sight later does a heel-face turn because of his sophomoric speech and expects to procreate with him. A bigoted murderer is the most believable character, as he appears to be the only character not a puppet of the author’s story-line.
The novel is riddled with plot holes. The “super-intelligent” hero with piles of money spends six years hiding with the slatternly old woman who he knows intends to betray him, but never sets up another place to hide. Then another three years after she does betray him. Mutants like the hero are easy to detect, except when they’re not. It’s not clear at the end how the invasion of Earth will be stopped. (Of course there’s an invasion of Earth. 1940s SF.) In this world, evolution has a goal of producing super-powered, mind-reading humans.
Today this novel is only of historical interest into the mindset of 1940s SF fans.