Tuesday, March 1, 2016

First of its Kind

If you're growing up today and you're into young adult science fiction and fantasy, you are spoiled. Terribly, awfully spoiled. New titles arrive weekly and a lot of them are damned good. You will never ever get through all of YA SFF published, and certainly not while you are still a YA.

It was not always thus. Even a couple of decades ago, things were sparser. Remember that the reason JK Rowling had difficulty publishing the first of the Harry Potter novels was the widely held belief in the publishing industry that "kids just weren't that into fantasy." Scroll back a few more decades and you have only a smattering of titles (including the Earthsea books I wrote about a while back). Scroll back just a little further to the 1930s and there's really no YA SFF. YA is not really a concept at all and SF was just emerging from infancy, about it enter its Golden Age.

Then in 1940 Slan, by AE Van Vogt, was published serially and became, arguably, the first YA science fiction novel. It’s worth reading simply to experience it as the first of its kind. But it's a fascinating and gripping story even if it comes across as a little odd compared with what you're probably used to reading.

Jommy Cross is a nine year-old slan, a new race that's smarter and stronger than humans, and can read minds thanks to specialized tendrils which grow from their heads. Humans fear the slan and, though no one really knows for sure where slan come from, humans are taught that the slan steal and experiment on human babies in order to create more slan.

The Earth is in a vaugely post-apocalyptic state. Space travel within the solar system had been practiced in the recent past but is currently out of reach to humanity. The slan, however, may be camping out on distant planets, biding their time, waiting for an opportunity to invade again. The earth, meanwhile, is ruled entirely by a single dictator, Kier Gray, a man with a tenuous grasp on power constantly plagued by his advisors attempts to carry out a coup.

Jommy's father is long dead, but in his lifetime he used his slan mind for scientific discovery and invented an almost impossibly powerful weapon. When Jommy's mother is taken and killed by humans, Jommy, now orphaned, escapes with a single directive from his mother: find his father's weapon and turn it against Kier Gray. In attempting to elude the authorities, Jommy is soon taken captive by a criminally-minded woman known only as Granny who wants him to help her carry out thefts. He soon realizes that while he could easily slip away from her, working for Granny provides him with the perfect cover to search both for his father's elusive weapon and the even more elusive community of slan rumored to be hidden somewhere on the planet. As Jommy grows up his hatred for humans softens and he begins to consider a new mission for himself, one that will bring peace between humans and the surviving slan.

AE van Vogt often spoke of his writing being inspired by his dreams. (He even arranged to be awoken at 90 minute intervals so he could jot down any dreams he was in the middle of having.) This may explain the strangeness of his stories. The narrative of Slan feels a little cold and detached. Jommy, for instance, never quite expresses the grief or terror you might expect from a child (or even an adult) after losing his mother. Sometimes it seems as if the author is not quite in control of the writing as the narrative and point-of-view jump around and scenes fail to develop as completely as you might be used to.

You can deal with this in a couple of ways. You can smile and shake your head and think "that AE van Vogt was really not a very good writer" and go ahead and enjoy the story he is telling anyway, or you can figure that the detached writing is being used to reflect the strangeness of being in another century on an Earth that is vastly changed and seeing it all through the eyes of an isolated mind-reading super human.

But if, in any case, you just go with it, you'll be treated to a lovely retro adventure from someone in the 1940s imagining a far future world, pushing the idea of compassion during a compassionless time and featuring, believe it or not, both a flying car and a lost city.

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