Introduction to Slan
© The Easton press 1994
There was a time fifty years ago and more when science fiction was a disreputable and marginal literature. Although it presented itself as foreseeing scientific process to come, the stories that it actually told were more likely to be about wild adventures on Venus or Mars, or the vulnerability of humanity to cosmic catastrophe, or our evolutionary inferiority to cool, brainy and pitiless invaders or successors.
These fantastic and unsettling visions weren't published in respectable hardcover books. They appeared only in a handful of cheap rough-papered gaudily-covered magazines which were all but lost amongst racks and racks of pulp story magazines of every kind. In those days before TV and paperback books, these pulp magazines, issued every other month or every month or even more often, were a major source of popular entertainment.
For the most part, pulp fiction was hastily written and poorly paid. It was held in low esteem by the cultural establishment of the day. And science fiction may have been the pulp form that was most despised. It was thought of as crude, unrealistic, and weird - and much of it was.
And yet, if today classic science fiction books can be published in leather-bound, gilt edged, illustrated editions with respectful introductions, it is primarily because of the intellectual and imaginal foundation that was laid down during those days of pulpish obscurity. One man in particular is responsible for this - John W. Campbell, Jr., a leading SF writer in the pulps of the Thirties who became editor of Astounding Stories in September 1937.
With only few and partial exceptions, science fiction as Campbell had first come to it as a writer had been simple, boyish, scientific wish-fulfillment stories, half-fascinated but also more than half-paralyzed by apprehensions of future doom. Under Campbell's influence as editor of Astounding (and Unknown, a short-lived companion magazine devoted to stories of rationalized fantasy), SF would take on focus, breadth, and rigor that it had never had before. It became a wondrous modern myth in which men wit a flexible and capacious command of scientific knowledge, who were willing to learn, to overcome their limitations and solve the problems they encountered, and to assume greater and greater cosmic responsibility, were imagined as extending the hegemony of mankind from present-day Earth to the future and to the stars.
Campbell found many writers who were wager to make contributions to the envisionment of his Twentieth Century mythos of potential human scientific power and achievment - the great fictional Universla Works Project within whose compass and authority all subsequent SF has been imagined and written. But five of his authors stand out, one of them from an older generation, the others new young writers schooled and groomed by Campbell.
The older writer was E.E. "Doc" Smith. The other four were L. Sprague de Camp, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and A.E. van Vogt, the author of Slan. These five writers, working seperately but with a keen awareness of each other's accomplishments, scetched out the imaginal parameters of modern science fiction.
But van Vogt was not quite the same sort of writer as Smith, de Camp, Heinlein or Asimov - or anyone else. To properly appreciate van Vogt's difference, let's briefly look at Campbell's other major mythmakers and their projects:
"Doc" Smith was a professional food chemist who wrote SF as a leisure activity. Back in the late Twenties, his pioneering novel of interstellar travel and exploration, "The Skylark of Space", had been the stimulus which first prompted john Campbell to take up science fiction writing when he was as freshman an M.I.T. Now, under Campbell's editorship of Astounding, in four novels serialized between 1937 and 1948, Smith imagined superior men of the future working in concert with like beings of other races to defend all sentient life in our galaxy in an eons-long war between good and evil. In some ways, these Lensman stories were old fashioned and pre-Campbellian, but they did exemplify the scope and command that Campbell wished his new rigorous SF to attain and thay set a mark of human capability and moral achievement for his other writers to aim for.
L. Sprague de Camp was a man of immense curiosity and erudition who had been trained as an aeronautical engineer but then gotten sidetracked by the Depression into a series of compromise jobs. His greatest contribution to Astounding was a series of scientific and historical articles which expressed Campbell's philosophy of the potential power of human scientific achievement. Then, when Campbell started his rational fantasy magazine, Unknown, de Camp became it's star writer. In a novel, "Lest Darkness Fall", he imagined a man of the present travelling to the latter days of the Roman Empire and giving it a shot of the knowledge necessary to prevent it's collapse. And in a series of stories written in collaboration with scholar Fletcher Pratt, he showed another contemporary hero imposing scientific order on various alternate universes whose reflection is to be seen in literature and legend.
Robert Heinlein, an engineering officer who had been forced into retirement from the navy by tuberculosis before he was out of his twenties, became Campbell'smost reliable and innovative writer in Astounding during the three yearsprior to the entry of the United States into World War 2. In his Future History series, and in an accompanying chart published in Astounding in 1941, Heinlein suggested that the future might be ours to invent. He envisioned a series of societies to come, each with it's own nature and concerns, yet historically connected to each other and also linked to the present day. And he confirmed this prospect of multiple possible human futures in stories like "Beyond This Horizon" and "Waldo" which presented completely different sequences of potential historical and social development.
Isaac Asimov was a precocious pre-med student - and later a chemistry graduate student - at Columbia University who brought an unsaleable story to Campbell's office in 1938 and hung around to learn whatever he could from the editor. After a three-year apprenticeship in which he sold a fair number of stories to other magazines but precous few to Campbell, he suddenly blossomed into one of the editor's most productive contributors. First, in a series of robot stories, Asimov placed our heretofore untamed mechanical offspring under the rule of scientific law. He followed this with a pivotal story, "Nightfall", in which he presented the power of science as fundamentally superior to the cycles of history, previously thought of as all-powerful. Finally, in his Foundation series, which pictured the decline of an immense human interstellar empire 50,000 years in the future as it was offset and counteracted by men with a command of the new science of psychohistory, Asimov extended scientific order to the whole galaxy.
A.E. van Vogt, the last of Campbell's great writers, recognized that he was working on the same overall mythic project as Smith, de Camp, Heinlein and Asimov. he would even come to say, "In a sense we were all One Great Big Author". And yet, he'd also be aware - as they would be, too - that he was wery different than they. Van Vogt would believe that his unique approach to writing science fiction set his work apart and gave his stories a timeless quality that other SF did not have.
And int is more than possible that he was right about this.
Alfred Elton van Vogt was born on his grandparents' farm on April 26, 1912, and raised in a series of small towns in Saskatchewan and manitoba. His father was a storekeeper and then a lawyer who became the Western Canadian agent for a shipping line and moved the family to Winnipeg when Alfred was in high school.
Van Vogt was a voracious reader who picked science fiction up for a time as a youngster and then dropped it after awhile, as many do. He read pulp fiction, historical novels, mysteries, and westerns, as well as more serious British and French literature. He read in history and psychology and phylosophy of science. And he read many plays including Greek tragedirs.
However, his attempts at studying practical science in
high school were something less than a success. He was
good at overviews adn concepts, but dismal when it came
to remembering exact facts.<p>
He knew that he wanted to be a writer. He took a writing course by correspondance and read books on writing from the public library. But mainly he was self taught.
He wasn't any too successful. For a time, he fell into writing confession stories. After that wore thin, he turned out radio scripts and occasional pulp stories. But he hadn't figured out his proper form. Consequently, he worked at one job and another, and noodled along at his story writing.
In the summer of 1938, when van Vogt was 26, he was an advertising space salesman and writer of interviews for a chain of half-a-dozen trade magazines which included Hardware and Metal, Sanitary Engineer, and Canadian Grocer. And then one day, after years in which he had read no science fiction whatever, on impulse he picked up the latest issue of Astounding in a Winnipeg drugstore, thumbed to the middle pages, and began to read a story.
The story which he chanced upon this way was "Who Goes There?" by Don A. Stuart. Although it was given no special emphasis within the magazine, this happened to be a work of extraordinary significance. It's true author was John W. Campbell and "Who Goes There?" was a key example of the modern science fiction he wanted to publish in his magazine - a model for others to follow.
In this story, a hideous telepathic alien creature is discovered frozen in the Antaarctic ice. When it is thawed out, it comes back to life and begins to take over the men and animals of the expedition and turn them into extensions of itself. In previous SF, mankind would have been helpless before this superior alien invader. In "WHo Goes There?", however, it is the humans who prevail by keeping their heads, cooperating, and successfully applying their scientific knowledge to the challenge that faces them.
Van Vogt was swept away by what he was reading. Not only did he recognize this story as something different, he was inspired by it. As soon as he finished "Who Goes There?" he sat down and wrote a letter to Astounding outlining an idea for an SF story of his own and asking the editor if he had any interest in seeing more. John Campbell wrote back immediatley to encourage him, and van Vogt was launched into a new career as a science fiction writer.
His first published SF story was "Black Destroyer" in the July 1939 Astounding, the issue which would come to be reckoned the point of departure for Campbell's Golden Age. This issue also had Asimov's initial story for Campbell, and the following month's Astounding would present Heinlein's first story.
But of these debuts, van Vogt's was the most auspicious. Not only was "Black Destroyer" pictured on the cover of the magazine, but it would be recognized as one of the most significant stories published in Astounding that year.
"Black Destroyer" took the lesson that van Vogt had learned in reading "Who Goes There?" and magnified it and extended it. The story concerns an exploring party of humans froma a galactic civilization who encounter a powerful and able but decadent and hostile creature on an isolated planet. This being seeks to kill them all and seize their spaceship in order to conquer the galaxy, but they manage to defeat it by virtue of their greater self-control and breadth of vision.
This brings us to van Vogt's second major difference from his fellows. De Camp, Heinlein and Asimov were all basically satisfied with the nature of humanity as it is now. The goal as far as these scientifically-trained men were concerned was to imagine improvements in our state of knowledge and command, and to envision how human thought structures and human authority might come to be imposed upon alternate universes, our future history, robots, and the galaxy.
Not so with van Vogt. No less than they, he cared about the welfare of humankind, and he would even come to say, "Science fiction, as I personally try to write it, glorifies man and his future". But van Vogt was not as ready as Campbell's other writers to think that all that was necessary in order to realize this future was an improved set of scientific tools. It was van Vogt's perception that humanity is still ata relatively early stage in it's development and that if we are going to become all that we may aspire to be, we will have to do some growing up and changing. As he would say: "I don't think that we know yet - in physiological or psychological terms - what a true human being would look like".
His approach to this key insight was not simple, linear, or even rational. Rather, it was holistic, multiform, and intuitive. Van Vogt would not write one central set of connected stories like Heinleins Future History or Asimovs Foundation Series. Instead, He posed his question - what is it that constitutes true superiority. real maturity, adn how might humanity arrive there? - and came at it again and agin from one direction and then another.
The British philospher and SF visionary Olaf Stapledon
and the American myth scholar Joseph Campbell are in
agreement that true myth is a combination of the best
knowledge pf a particular culture and the highest
aspirations that it can conceive. If, as van Vogt
suggests, the mythmakers of John W. Campbell's Astounding
This difference between van Vogt and the others may be seen most clearly in the pictures that they drew - or didn't draw - of the galactic future of humanity:
L. Sprague de Camp was unable to see any rational scientific means by which human beings might achieve the faster-than-light travel necessary for us to explore the stars, so in his Golden Age stories he left the question of expansion into the galaxy alone.
Robert Heinlein was able -just one time - to imagine humans setting forth from his future historical Earth and traveling among the stars. But when they got there, they would encounter superior beings of one kind and then another and be intimidated and scurry back to Earth, tails between their legs.
Isaac Asimov was more ready than de Camp and Heinlein to allow mankind a future place among the stars - but it was only by writing of a galaxy that was devoid of other intelligent rivals and competitors and rnaking human social relations and political interactions his focus of concern.
In contrast to Asimov, Heinlein and de Camp, A.E. van Vogt would see no problem in placing humanity within the context of the galaxy as a whole and then measuring us against whatever we might find there. This meant that in a story like "Black Destroyer," galactic humankind might be pitted against a culturally degenerate but immensely powerful alien being, while in another story it would be humans who were seen as galactic provincals. In one series of stories, van Vogt might picture us as leaders within a stellar federation of many different races, while in another group of connected stories he would portray human beings as unrivaled within this galaxy and venturing forth to explore another in a greatship in which all the dominant positions are held by women. But even these examples do not exhaust all the different galactic possibilities which van Vogt would imagine.
Even John Campbell would marvel at the range and audacity of all that van Vogt was able to envision. Years later, he would say to another writer of van Vogt: "That son-of-a-gun is about one-half mystic, and like many another mystic, hits on ideas that are sound, without having any rational method of arriving at them or defending them."
Van Vogt himself would not think of what he was doing in terms of mysticism. That would be a dirty word to him. But there can be no doubt that his favored working methods - some derived from his early study in how to write, some worked out over the years by himself - went far beyond the bounds of ordinary reason. Along with his unconventional self-education and his view of the unfinished nature of our humanity, it is these systems of story production which constitute the third great difference between him and his fellow contributors to Campbell's Golden Age. Let us look at six of these methods:
1. Van Vogt didn't plan his stories in advance. He would declare that when he tried to do this, his stories didn't work and he was never able to sell them. He'd say, "I have no endings for my stories when I start them -just a thought and something that excites me. I get some picture that is very interesting and I write it. But I don't know where it's going to go next."
2. Van Vogt would write his stories as a series of short scenes or "presentation units," each of which had its own immediate purpose. This meant that he might contradict himself completely or go off in a whole new direction from one scene to the next - but no matter.
3. He would never hesitate to deliberately use approximate words or "wrong" words if they were able to strike a particular tone or resonance which produced a desired subconscious emotional effect in the reader.
4. Even though he found it extremely difficult to do, van Vogt would try to write what he thought of as "science-fictional sentences." These would have deliberate gaps or vaguenesses -"hang-ups," as he called them - for the reader to fill in out of his or her own imagination. Though this might seem a strange way ofworking, it is exactly the same technique as the crucial missing "cutting word" at the heart of the Japanese haiku.
5. Van Vogt wouldn't hold back anything while he was at work on a particular story. He made a deliberate point of tossing in any and every idea that occurred to him which he could see any way to include.
6. While writing, especially when he got stuck in a story, van Vogt would program his dreams to carry him forward. He would set his alarm clock to wake him during the night, think about his story for a while, and then go to sleep. When his alarm rang he would lie awake thinking about the story and it's problems some more until he fell asleep again, only to be awakened again after another two hours, and so on through the night. He says "Generally, either in a dream or about ten o'clock the next morning - bang! - an idea comes and it will be something in a sense non-sequitur - yet a growth from the story. I've gotten my most original stories that way; these ideas made the story different every ten pages. In other words, I wouldn't have been able to reason them out, I feel."
Slan was van Vogt's first novel, written in the evening and on weekends over a six-month period from the end of 1939 when van Vogt was employed as a paper pusher in the Canadian Department of Defence in the early days of World War II. As a serial in Astounding, Slan was van Vogt's second great hit and the most popular story published in the magazine in 1940.
Van Vogt says, "My work has been somewhat invalidated by critics who are determined to force mainstream techniques on science fiction; but we'lljust have to wait and see who wins in the long run. My wager is on my method of presenting science by way of fictional sentences, and on the timeless reality that must underlie the dreaming process, when it is used consistently as I have done."
The results of his unusual and original mode of working you will see here in Slan. The story is sometimes fuzzy, sometimes bewildering, sometimes exasperating - and yet it is also an undeniably original, provocative, and even brilliant piece of work.
Take van Vogt as you find him and make the best of him that you can. Go along where he carries you and enjoy the roller-coaster ride. Many writers have tried to copy A.E. van Vogt, but there has never been another SF storyteller quite like him.