Hugo Reading Club No. 7: Slan
It's Hugo reading club time again! I'm going to outpace my reading soon, but for now we can all just enjoy the reviews. Today we have Slan by A. E. Van Vogt, which just last year got a Retro Hugo for 1941.
Elevator Pitch Summary: Humanity's next form--the slans--are hated and persecuted by humanity and the new authoritarian government, and while one slan tries to navigate the complexities of the state another races to save the race from genocide.
What I Like: Um... well... I did enjoy some of the scenes with Kathleen. That theme of a child (later young person) trying to navigate what's essentially a corrupt court is kind of compelling, I guess?
I also, perversely, wanted to like Granny, but I gave up after a while because Van Vogt was so dang determined that I not like her. She was interesting, though! And the spoiler-y thing that Jommy did to her eventually made me really turn against him and lowkey root for her. I feel like a story where Granny was less malevolent and there was more complexity in her relationship with Jommy would have been way more interesting than the story we got.
What I Don't Like: Well... I think we've already established my beef with psi themes. I just cannot get excited about stories with mind-reading and telepathy and whatnot, with one or two exceptions. This was not one of the exceptions--in fact, it had heaping helpings of the thing I dislike the most about psi themes--the idea that psi-enabled characters are inherently both intellectually and morally superior to the rest of humanity. I get that for a lot of these sci-fi authors psi is the next stage in a progressive evolution, and they're conveying their optimism about the future by making psi characters generally better, but... well, I guess I just don't find that a compelling vision.
Also, it smacks a little of elitism, and I've got no time for that.
Beyond my usual gripe about psi, this was also right up there with They'd Rather Be Right in terms of plot and character. Granny has no personality beyond "is grody." Kier Gray has no personality beyond "is competent." Kathleen has a bit more complexity right up until she meets Jommy, at which point she loses all the agency she had. Jommy is practically perfect in every way, a fact that bleeds most of the tension out of the plot. The rest of the tension was removed by the prose style, which blatantly telegraphed over and over that the good guys were going to make it out fine.
Of course there's a conspiracy, and two rival kinds of slans trying to control things, and the mystery of where the majority of the "true" slans have gone, and a great technological discovery, and machinations at court, and manhunts... but I just never could bring myself to care about these cardboard, boring, mostly kind of heartless characters. Plus, all the potentially-interesting worldbuilding stuff was jammed in at odd corners or left out entirely, so it never felt all that futuristic or immersive.
I just... I didn't like this book, chums. I tried.
Extra Thoughts: I still want that more complex story about Granny. Shoot, maybe I'm going to have to write it.
Also, WARNING if you are uncomfortable with misuse of mind control powers (is there really any use of mind control that isn't a misuse, ethically speaking???) this is really not the book for you.
My Recommendation: Hard pass.
Hugo-Worthy?: You guys, I get that this was a foundational text in sci-fi, but a Retro Hugo for Best Novel? Really?