Friday, September 28, 2007

Why it is bad to be super

kw: book reviews, science fiction, mutants

In 1977 when I worked at an engineering company, my group manager was a German superman. He was a product of the German eugenics program: tall at 188cm (6'2"), very blond and handsome with startling blue eyes. He was nearly my father's age but appeared twenty years younger. Very strong and very healthy, he'd been training to be a fighter pilot when the war ended. He's probably still alive, aged about 82, if he hasn't killed himself...he was prone to depression—not over the WW2 loss, but seemingly causeless—and pined for work in forestry.

Make no mistake about it, selective breeding works quite well. The German experiments produced startling results in just three generations. However, as in animal breeding, by too rigorously selecting for certain desired traits, one is certain to concentrate plenty of unexpected baggage.

In 1940, author A.E. van Vogt published Slan, a significant warning about eugenics, presented as a novel of the future about "mutants", humans with special "tendrils" at the nape of the neck that made them telepathic; they were also exceptionally strong, smart, long-lived, and healed quickly from devastating woulds.

In Slan the "green monkey effect" takes over, and the Slans (named for their creator/developer, Samuel Lann) are persecuted and killed. Thousands of them flee and develop hidden colonies from which they launch an attempt to take over humanity. The ensuing Slan Wars show that 100,000 supermen cannot overcome a billion determined "ordinaries". This was the explicit warning to German ambitions, delivered on the eve of U.S. involvement in World War Two.

Fifty years later, van Vogt ("Van" to family and friends) was persuaded to revisit the topic and write the novel that has become Slan Hunter. He could not complete the work, as he was beginning to fail with Alzheimer's disease, but left plenty of text and a strong outline. It was finally finished by Kevin J. Anderson, a fine and prolific author with amazing ability to both collaborate with any competent author, and to write with another's voice if needed.

The Slan hunter himself turns out to be a bigoted jerk who blunders his way through the landscape, offending all and sundry before meeting a violent end; by that point one wishes his demise were more excruciatingly fitting. He is matched by an equally bigoted "tendrilless Slan", a member of a further mutation (today we'd say further genetic engineering, but van Vogt was living in the 1940s in his mind). There are three human varieties that finally have to either learn to get along or to exterminate one another.

Setting aside the deep misunderstanding of the way mutation and selection work, and considering that van Vogt worked on this sequel in the late 1990s, it seems the drive behind Slan is missing, and that this novel is a drawn-out means of getting Slan and human to work together; a mid-stage to a further sequel. However, as Kevin Anderson completed his own work on the book in the 2005-6 time frame, there is a distinct element of "How will you deal with a wholly unreasonable enemy that you can't easily distinguish?" That is, the problem posed by the Islamofascist attacks on Western society.

I wish Van had lived, mens sana in corpore sano, to finish the work himself. With one book he gave us a clear understanding of why the German experiment could not succeed, and with another he was well on his way to showing how today's Islamic experiment is equally doomed.

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