This review contains numerous plot spoilers.
Read on at your own risk.
For a spoiler-free review, read Mark McSherry's.
March 6th, 2007
The Young and the Tendrilless: A Golden Age Soap Opera
An Article about Slan, Dune, & Anderson's Sequels
I really did want to like Slan Hunter and was excitedly looking forward to reading it. True, I did have a certain amount of trepidation considering its author. The realist inside me continued to send out the occasional reminder that Kevin J. Anderson does not have a good track record when it comes to writing sequels to other authors' works and that I shouldn't expect anything different with this one. But I had decided beforehand to approach it with an open mind and to give it the benefit of the doubt. However, having now read it there is no doubt but only dead certainty that it's a fundamentally faulted book. Even though I had some major complaints with the new Dune novels he has co-authored, Slan Hunter marks a new low in the already dubious realm of sequels-by-another-hand.
In this article I clearly state what is good about Anderson's writing, as well as exactly why his work has serious flaws. My intention has not been to be cruel — if it comes across as such, I apologize. I've merely tried to capture here my amazed disbelief at how dismal the story and characterization are and how deeply shocked I was that everything painstakingly established in Slan has been so blithely thrown away.
Kevin J. Anderson. There's an awful lot of him about these days. Books bearing his name encompass surprisingly large areas of bookshelf space in places like Barnes & Noble, and often in unexpected areas of the alphabet (such as "H" for instance). Indeed, it's easy to unknowingly buy a book by Anderson. I myself just a few weeks ago bought a copy of Starcraft: Shadow of the Xel'Naga by Gabriel Mesta. There currently does not exist a word in the English language capable of describing the strange mixture of thoughts and emotions I experienced when I read the "about the author" section in the back of the book and discovered that, oh good gracious me, Anderson had written this book as well, but with his wife and under a pseudonym no less. Words that would come close would be bewildered, astonished, dismayed, annoyed, and resigned.
But Anderson is good at what he does, I'll give him that. Very good. He writes enthralling books that are almost impossible to put down. His works have tremendous momentum that carries the reader along like few others can ever manage. He draws you in and immerses you so that you really don't care about anything else while you're reading them. They are never dull and make for speedy and undemanding reading, yet are long enough to keep you busy for quite some time. In other words, they're the perfect thing to read when you've just found out that your flight to Denver has been postponed for another six hours and you've already read all the books in your carry-on. Fortunately, in such a situation there's usually a book shop nearby, so go ahead and buy an Anderson novel at random. Before you're even aware that any time has passed, your plane will be ready and you'll begrudge having to put the book down for ten minutes as you board the aircraft.
He is perhaps the most skilled prose stylist working in the English language today, consistently producing the single most readable style I've ever had the pleasure of reading and I thoroughly enjoy this aspect of his novels. Everything is always crystal clear, and one's eyes simply glide effortlessly over the pages. I can't recall ever having to re-read a single sentence in any of his books in order to understand what was happening. This reflects a great deal of both natural talent and hard work on his part which I admire greatly. Simply reading through his Dune 7 blog, I found his industriousness and enthusiasm inspiring. It quickly became apparent to me that he is a truly man who loves writing and has worked long and hard to get where he is today.
I'm sorry to say, though, that aside from being easy and absorbing reading, he comes up rather short in other important respects. His plots, though intricate, are far from being actually complex, relying more on soap opera melodrama to push the action forward than on plausible characters and situations. Dune: House Corrino in particular suffered greatly from this. When reading it I was struck by the fact that over half of the characters were doing what were doing because they were quite simply out of their minds. Totally gone. Crackers, barmy, swinging-off-the-chandeliers nutso. (Compare that to the number of crazy people found in all six of the original Dune novels.) When your book is populated by such characters it's easy to keep the action coming. Indeed, you often find yourself in an excess in the plot department, hence you need three volumes to tell an otherwise straightforward story just to keep track of all the raving and backstabbing and whispered revelations. We get conflict for the sake of conflict, bad decisions for the sake of creating action, and endless arguing in places where arguing make no sense on any level.
Incidentally, to be be clear on this point, I've read and greatly enjoyed Brian Herbert's solo novels (as well as his collaboration with his father) but I've never been able to see any of Brian in the new Dune novels. I've found his unique perspective and wry sense of humor to be totally lacking. This is not to say I disbelieve that he collaborated on these books, just that his individual contribution is simply not apparent. The new Dune novels come across merely as Anderson imagining things on the basis of The Dune Encyclopedia and the David Lynch film — the latter of which, I hasten to add, I particularly hold in high esteem, but it did take considerable liberties with the source material, especially regarding the Harkonnens. You remember them? They were portrayed in the film as almost comically overdone cow-tongue-eating diseased animals, and in the prequels were shown to indulge in cutting people up with chainsaws or drowning them in raw sewage for amusement. They're great for gruesome thrills, and they're all over the place in the Prelude to Dune trilogy, yet I don't recall seeing any Harkonnens quite like that in Frank Herbert's novels. And though I haven't yet read the Legends of Dune trilogy I know enough about them to be irked that they have turned the Butlerian Jihad, a religiously-motivated conflict, into a pure tech-war rebellion against robot overlords. So, all that said, do I buy the new Dune novels? What, are you kidding? Of course I buy them! There was more than enough in them that I admired and enjoyed, and they had occasional glimmerings of the grand scale of things that abounded in Frank Herbert's work. The attempt to create artificial spice was a real stroke of genius in Prelude to Dune, and say what you will about them those books were certainly a hell of a lot more interesting than Frank's last two Dune novels, the bloated and interminable Heretics of Dune and Chapterhouse: Dune. But with Slan Hunter, I'm afraid, there was nowhere near enough good to outweigh the bad, and the bad is much, much worse.
Continuity and Characterization
The sequel follows closely on the heels of its predecessor, so re-reading Slan directly before starting Slan Hunter is not so much a recommendation as it is a necessity. Fortunately, the SF Book Club has plans on putting out a volume that includes both novels. I'm very glad of this, since those mainly interested in Slan Hunter who otherwise might never read a van Vogt book will be able to read his original work for themselves.
Sadly, the two books do not flow together. For me the worst thing about Slan Hunter is that it is very inconsistent with Slan, and at many different levels. Not just in tiny, nit-picking ways but in major aspects. I was quite simply appalled at how many artistic liberties were taken. However, it would take a complete rewrite of the entire book, from the basic plot all the way up, to rectify these inconsistencies. Indeed, much of the novel's basic premise relies on them. But, being the rabid van Vogt fan that I am, I had a keener eye on continuity than most readers will so I may have judged it too harshly in this area. Nonetheless I'm going to discuss the continuity issue in some detail, as it's something I feel very strongly about.
First of all I will willingly grant a certain degree of leniency to begin with, since writing a sequel to another author's book is hazardous territory. Heaven knows it's risky enough to even write a sequel to your own book! Nobody can write like van Vogt and nobody ever will again, so it shouldn't be expected. Aside from the writing style, there are the ideas, plotting, scene setup, presentation, and characterization. None of these can be easily imitated, and with some authors it is truly impossible. Their very uniqueness is what made them remarkable. Expecting perfection in this area is foolish, but what we have here is so far from even reasonable that I can only assume it's through sheer carelessness or indifference.
One of my major complaints involves the slans themselves. Even a short ways into the novel it quickly became apparent that Anderson has changed the nature of the slan's telepathy. In the first book slans could sense the thoughts of humans but could not transmit thoughts to them, only to other slans. Slan Hunter has apparently taken Jommy's learned skills in hypnosis from the first book (which was very difficult to use without crystals), taken it out of context, elaborated on it, and made it into a basic slan ability. Here, all slans routinely project ideas into humans' minds, getting them to disbelieve their own senses and only "see" the image they want them to see. This ability was not only absent from the original work but everything we learned about slans specifically precluded this.
In Slan they used their mind-reading abilities to avoid detection by taking advantage of gaps in people's attention. Here, they beat humans over the head with their ludicrous superpowers. "I'm not here! Look over there! Nothing to be worried about! Just go about eating your sandwich and ignore the prisonbreak!" This takes away what made the slans unique in SF and turns them into the overdone generic telepaths that we've seen in countless books and films. One of the crowning ironies of the persecution of slans in the first book was that slans could not do this sort of thing — their powers were passive except with others of their own kind.
The humans in the first novel said surprisingly little about slan telepathy; here, that's practically all they can talk about. A careful examination of Slan shows that mankind's primary fear of slans was not because of their telepathic abilities — it was because of their supposed efforts to corrupt human infants by turning them into slans using mutation machines. It irritated me tremendously to see this emphasis altered. But, after all, fear of telepathy is a more common theme and easier for readers to "identify" with. The effect of all this is that now, apart from their tendrils, slans are virtually identical to the telepaths we saw in Babylon 5. But as much as I like that series, this is supposed to be a Slan novel!
But, by far, that was not the worst. Slan Hunter is sorely lacking in conviction and gravitas. I lost count of the number of lines that, to me, felt like they came straight out of a Saturday Night Live skit that took the plot of Slan as their source material. There are so many places where I was sure Anderson was making a joke of the whole thing. Chapter after chapter I spent a lot of my time shaking my head with disbelief at what I was reading. I kept thinking "He's got to be kidding!" Potentially jokey scenes in the first book (such as the "toupee test" in Chapter 17) were full of menace rather than humor while here even serious events are made light of, limiting the dramatic impact the book could have had. There's also a lot of comical buffoonery, with inappropriate smart-aleck remarks and a surprising amount of people smacking each other upside the head. Reading many scenes in Slan Hunter was like watching a dreary seaside performance of Punch & Judy. This was especially evident in scenes featuring Petty & Granny, except the gender roles were reversed. I was truly incredulous at some of the things I found in this novel. Although I never had to re-read a single line to understand it, I often had to just to make sure I wasn't imagining things.
Just as I experienced with the Dune prequels, Slan Hunter definitely cheapens what came before and it does this mostly through astoundingly dismal characterization. Although van Vogt had a reputation for using characters as mere tools for the plot, this has never bothered me and I've always found the people in his books interesting for what they were. There are many different levels and types of characterization. I've always viewed van Vogt's stories as "SF legends," and his characters are perfectly suited for this. His stories are great sweeping vistas and huge conflicts, rather than focusing on the mundane. Whenever he attempted to focus on characters, making them into flawed and ordinary people, he reached rock bottom artistically. Although the characters in Slan certainly weren't worthy of intense character study, they had a much rarer quality in that they were all far more than just people. They were designed to be part of a legend.
But the characters in Slan Hunter are childish parodies of those we knew in Slan. Rather than having a "Beowulf" feel to them they have a "Days of Our Lives" feel. These mythological characters are turned into gaudy soap opera stars. They're shallow and loathsome people who spend most of their time bitchily snipping at each other like a bunch of high-school cheerleaders. This is an absolute tragedy.
Every character carried over from the previous story has something wrong with them — with some the divergence is minor, while with others it is so glaring that it truly defies description. In particular, Lorry and Petty suffered the most. They were fascinating and capable characters in the first book, setting intricate and well thought-out schemes into motion and dealing with unexpected setbacks with calm brilliance. Here, they appear in the form of grunting gorilla-like thugs with big fists and small brains, who endlessly gloat, argue without a shred of reasoning, and murder people with no hesitation or consideration of possible consequences.
Lorry was power-hungry, but he went about it very cautiously and allowed his personal desires to dictate his actions only up to a point. Petty was hateful and cruel, but he was also fiercely intelligent and resourceful. Both were measured in their actions and considered possible contingencies, and if they were faced with defeat they would quickly change allegiances to be on the winning side. Hanging on to power was the thing, regardless of who they had to side with. All that subtlety is lost — in Slan Hunter both men merely bellow and spit like wild animals, pummeling down anything that gets in their way. Lorry has been changed from a cool and masterfully manipulative character into a wildly emotional and bloodthirsty savage, possessing all the intellectual subtlety of Tamerlane. Oh, and by the way, Lorry is now revealed to have been a tendrilless slan all along. I probably don't need to spell out what I thought of that.
Though similar in the way they operated in Slan, Petty and Lorry were distinct individuals. But here in Slan Hunter they are now identical to each other in every respect. This was undoubtedly meant as a way of showing how hatred has warped the minds of those on both sides of the human vs. slan conflict, turning them into mirror images of the very thing they're fighting. But this is a cliché we've seen countless times, and it only serves to destroy both characters by twisting them into crude generic figures.
Easily, the worst scenes in the book feature Petty. Particularly towards the end, truly unbelievable things are done with this character. He is reduced to playing the part of an overblown villain who is suddenly revealed to be single-handedly responsible for everything bad that ever happened to Jommy Cross and is now practically credited with having slaughtered with his bare hands every single slan who's died in the last 50 years. So distorted and predictable has this truly sinister character become that Petty is now a pure matinée villain — he does everything but twirl his curlioed mustache and tie Kathleen to the railroad tracks. It's hard to keep from laughing when reading his scenes — I kept envisioning him as Snidely Whiplash. That's not a good sign.
In short, interesting characters are turned into pantomime buffoons that clomp around the stage like a flock of village idiots spouting broken lines from recycled soap opera scripts. I frequently lost track of who was saying what because all the bad guys sound the same, as do the good guys. Nobody had much personality in this book, not even the repulsive Granny. In the first book she was a twisted woman, her mind bordering on insanity even in spite of Jommy's efforts to heal her through hypnosis. Even the "nice" Granny in Slan felt menacing and you felt sure she could snap at any moment. The Granny in Slan Hunter has more in common with Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies: she talks about money a lot; she's got her handy shotgun; and she makes delicious apple pie and shouts at those who try to eat it before it's ready. I kid you not. I almost expected to see a scene where Jed — I mean Jommy — keeps Granny from taking all her money out of Mr. Drysdale's bank to hide it under her mattress.
What we really have here are full-blown caricatures that are downright hilarious even though they were meant to be taken seriously —at least I hope they were, because if they weren't on this count alone Anderson would have no business writing sequels to the classic works of others. I'd be amply able to enjoy such absurdity if these weren't cheap replacements for characters we already knew. This is the worst aspect of Slan Hunter and the thing that made me so furious, especially during the last third of the novel. And this is why I will never read it again if I can help it. I want to forget all about Slan Hunter's cartoon characters and just remember the real Petty, Lorry, Jommy, Gray, Kathleen, and Granny as they appeared in Slan. In Slan Hunter, they all feel like characters culled from various films and TV shows, and then watered down and warped, and set up to masquerade as the originals. To put a reversal on Dragnet's well-known disclaimer, the names here are the same, it's the people who have been changed.
Working in the Wrong Department
Just as Anderson doesn't seem to understand Frank Herbert, neither does he understand A.E. van Vogt. Anderson excels at this mundanization, substituting complex and fascinating things with slick and shallow concepts that have been done to death. He is a talented author but it upsets me to see him trying to write (and apparently believing he's actually succeeding) something other than what he is suited for.
Van Vogt's and Herbert's stories were always challenging — alas, there is nothing challenging about Slan Hunter. There are some paragraphs in van Vogt stories that I have to read four or five times before I understand what it says, but the reward is well worth the extra effort. And if you have ever understand everything in a van Vogt story on first reading (or even second or third or fourth!) you clearly glossed over a few places — it's happened to me many times. What is often toted as van Vogt's and Herbert's greatest weakness is actually their greatest strength — the sheer challenging complexity of their work. Van Vogt's tales in particular were always taxing on the mind and vastly challenging to the imagination. Indeed, I cannot even begin to enumerate the number of his stories that I found utterly fascinating whilst understanding about one third of what I was reading. Like a dream, it makes sense in a way you can't actually understand or define. Only van Vogt and H.P. Lovecraft have been able to consistently accomplish this dream-like atmosphere in their writing and everyone else who tries it merely ends up writing real nonsense, and such is the case here. I think it's a crying shame that Anderson of all people was selected to continue both A.E. van Vogt's and Frank Herbert's legacies. He is poorly suited for it. He is good at many things, but he is not even the same type of author as these two.
After reading Slan Hunter I've decided to buy the first few of Anderson's Saga of Seven Suns novels sometime soon. After thinking about my reasons for disliking Anderson, I've realized that my main complaint is what he does to other authors' settings and characters — very likely, if I can see him at work in his own universe and working with his own characters, I would get a more well-rounded impression of him as an author and may very well have eliminated my main cause for dissatisfaction. I'm eager to find something by him that I can like without serious misgivings or reservations. Even the soap opera aspect of his novels, I dare say, will be more palatable when he's not degrading other people's established characters in the process.
Even if I thought additional stories in either of these worlds were strictly necessary, Anderson is definitely not the man for the task. He is a good author but his strengths lie in a completely different realm altogether, and there's nothing wrong with that. I think it's wonderful that SF is a diverse genre that allows for a wide variety of styles and subject matters. This review is, after all, being written by someone with a massive collection of Doctor Who books and who enjoys Warhammer 40,000 novels more than any sane person should. There's a lot of room in my library for different brands of storytelling and I'd like to see Anderson at work where he really excels.
On one hand Slan Hunter is a fun and light-hearted adventure that moves along nicely and propels the reader forward. On the other hand, it's shallow and has all the hallmarks that so marred Anderson's Dune novels except it's much worse here and lacks the ingredients that made the new Dune novels worth reading despite their faults. The kindest thing that can be said for the plot of Slan Hunter is that it doesn't retread what happened in Slan (even though it may rewrite it from time to time) and despite its many faults it truly is a completely different story.
Slan Hunter's major faults might be forgivable if the plot were interesting. But it isn't. It is totally superfluous to the events in Slan, and it's not even noteworthy when appraised on its own merits. It comes across as a novelized disaster movie — and a very routine one at that — rather than a sequel to one of the most influential SF novels of all time. I could use an adapted quote from Slan (Chapter Ten) to describe its sequel: "There was nothing clever about the plot, here was simply a crude reliance on big guns and plenty of them." This is a book all about violence — no subtle plans, no fascinating ideas, no intriguing conflicts. While van Vogt's stories featured plenty of action, it wasn't there for its own sake, and the emphasis was completely different. It was necessary to the story rather than being the story.
Despite a few flaws Slan held up fairly well when it came to internal consistency and credibility. Slan Hunter is all over the place, throwing out ridiculous ideas and plot developments with wild abandon and apparently no consideration to how believable they are or how they fit in with anything else. Apparently, this is the closest Anderson can come to imitating van Vogt's copious outpouring of pertinent — not random — ideas. Much of the last third of the novel reached such heights of absurdity that I quickly lost any consideration I may have had to regard this tale as a legitimate continuation to Slan.
There are many "surprises" in Slan Hunter but none (except one) are genuinely unexpected. And the single one that was unexpected — involving a machine left over from Samuel Lann's time — was, I'm sorry to say, so needless and nonsensical that it truly had no place in the story and only served to detract from it even further. It was a painfully unsuccessful attempt to emulate the panache of van Vogt's distinctive style of endings. All of the surprises lack the puzzle-box quality of van Vogt's tales; they don't naturally arise from the material but are stuck on for gosh-wowing the reader with a few implausible developments. They're drawn from the all-too-familiar repertoire of stock surprises and I suspected many of them far in advance, simply because they were so clichéd and could be relied upon for their cheap shock value. And a few of the twists had me hopping mad because they were so ridiculous, unreasonable, and did horrid things to the world built up in Slan. A few seconds of thought totally demolishes many of these surprises because they are totally incompatible with the rest of the tale, to say nothing of the events in the first novel. Van Vogt's surprises were always logical conclusions to the rest of the story. Anderson on the other hand throws in things at random, creating a hodgepodge stew of long-dead clichés that only elicits a knee-jerk reaction.
And, horror of horrors, everything is resolved at the end by firing two salvos from a sawn-off double-barreled deus ex machina. Van Vogt never ended a story with a tinfoil god descending onto the stage, much less a whole glittery gaggle of gods. This is incredibly sloppy, and the grossly implausible "solutions" offered to all the problems here are just appalling. I can't believe anyone thought these were good ideas.
Slan Hunter boils down to an implausible run-of-the-mill adventure story that quickly becomes tiresome. Around Chapter 19 I grew very weary of the whole thing. It was tedious, ludicrous, ill-conceived, and badly executed. And I groaned when any character from Slan appeared on the scene because I knew the horrible fate in store for them. I had to force myself to continue and things only grew worse as the novel progressed. I admit it started out being absorbing, but even then only on a soap-opera emotional level and was far worse than Anderson's other novels in that regard. The real drama and conflict of Slan is replaced with teen melodrama that would be more at home in one of the more repetitious episodes of Smallville. This book is sensationalistic rather than thoughtful, relying on raw emotion rather than the intellect to keep your attention and propel the story forward. This is completely antithetical to van Vogt's — as well as Frank Herbert's — aims and methods in his fiction, and yet another indication that Anderson is not suited for these jobs.
One of my first impressions of Slan Hunter was that it feels as if it were written very fast. So fast, in fact, that Philip José Farmer would have completed only the first twenty pages of Tongues of the Moon in the time it took Anderson to churn out all 75,00 words of Slan Hunter through his laptop. At least, that's how it feels. I'd have to get a good look at Anderson's stopwatch to really know for sure. Being a speedy worker is a commendable trait, and Anderson usually produces quality work at high speed — indeed, if I didn't know that a new Dune novel appears annually I would never suspect they were written in so short a time. They are very smooth and polished products, but Slan Hunter is really ragged and frayed at the seams. And this hastiness seemed to accelerate as each chapter flew by. I could swear that the last third of the novel was written in one sitting, and that Anderson was typing so fast he had to pause occasionally to wait for the computer to catch up with him.
A List of Various Things That Irritated Me...
- Things have been intentionally kept "low-tech" in Slan Hunter. Anderson clearly made an effort to give this book a '40s feel by including revolvers and suchlike. But just as I was beginning to appreciate the effort — even if it did feel a bit shaky — he undermines it by offering unnecessary internal explanations for why the novel has the feel of the 1940s. Although such a decision could be viewed as clever, I personally did not react well to this. It struck me as being too self-conscious and it felt like he didn't expect his readers to figure out he's simply paying homage to Golden Age SF and the era they were written in.
- When the character of Deacon popped up I had flashbacks from Waterworld going through my mind. Surely he could have had a different name? Or is this over-the-top tendrilroasting psycho supposed to be an actual deacon?
- The repeated descriptions of apple pie got rather tedious. I admit this is a petty and inconsequential nitpick and I really ought to be ashamed of myself for bringing it up, but once you've described Granny's delicious apple pie you don't need to keep doing it. We know it's delicious and we believe you already. We've had apple pie before — we get the picture! And these descriptions were framed in truly bizarre scenes that mixed cozy domesticity with the tense atmosphere of mortal enemies who know that black betrayal and spectacular death lie in their immediate futures. Between this and the recurring apple pie, reading this part of the book was just plain weird.
- One thing that greatly annoyed me with the new Dune novels was this obsession to needlessly connect everything. Everyone had to be a secret relative of someone else, or revealed to have been the so-and-so who did thus-and-such to what's-his-name. Everything was retroactively connected that was perfectly fine when they were unrelated. Seemingly, nothing can have any significance on its own. The same thing happens here: numerous things in Slan have now been re-interpreted as loose ends that needed to be "tidied up." Far from making the story more compelling, doing this kind of thing merely shrinks it by forcing the rich background to fold in on itself. Everything has to be tied together into one gigantic, misshapen ball of twine.
- I found it rather amusing that the "secret" police went around wearing flashy armbands. The secret police in the first book wore civilian clothes to blend in with the mainstream population. Hence the word "secret." Yet another sacrifice of plausibility for the sake of a knee-jerk reaction. Their own red-and-black insignia may be different, but we all know what it alludes to. But wicked is as wicked does, not as wicked dresses. The evil deeds of these men should speak for themselves; recourse to stock symbols is a cheap way of creating an instinctive emotional reaction rather than letting the reader feel that revulsion on their own by observing these men in action. In other words, we're being told to be horrified rather than giving us something to feel horrified about. "Zoiks! They dress like Nazis! I hate Nazis!" For me anyway, this made them come across as garish and silly rather than insidious and deadly.
- The phrase "slan hunter" only appeared once in the first book. It was used in reference to John Petty himself and was certainly never intended as anything more than a general description. It was taken for granted that all non-slans would be "slan hunters" by simple definition of what they did when they saw a slan. Hunting slans in the street is what everyone already did. This novel gives the impression that "slan hunter" is an entire profession of its own, while this is clearly not the case in Slan. Slans were few and far between in the original work (see Chapter 8) — there simply weren't enough around to hunt them as a full-time profession. Here we even have an amateur so successful on his many slan hunts that he wears a necklace made out of tendrils. Again, we have cheap sensationalism substituted for faithfulness and plausibility.
- Just as R.A. Salvatore started doing in his books, Anderson doesn't know when to let a character remain dead. Killing them off just once is dramatic enough, thank you — we don't need to see selected individuals turn up a few pages later not quite as dead as they appeared and then perhaps finally get killed again. It just makes me groan. "Doesn't anyone ever stay dead?" Petty jokingly asks when he sees Jommy alive in Chapter 39, after having apparently escaped certain death himself a few pages earlier. I echoed the words in all seriousness. And pointing it out in the book isn't cutesy, it's annoying. Resurrecting Kathleen at the end of Slan was credibly done and fit in with the rest of the story, but in Slan Hunter this sort of thing is used just as a highly unwelcome soap opera stunt. (And the same goes for doing something horrible to a character when the reader knows full well it's going to be fixed one way or another in the end.) This sort of thing just sucks the drama out of it through sheer repetition. When the cow's run dry it's time to stop milking it. If you keep going at it you're only embarrassing yourself and making the cow uncomfortable.
- The final crown of ignominy to this novel was John Petty's last scene... well, I can't believe it was ever put to paper. Any of it. It is the most lurid and overdone scene I've ever read in any professionally produced publication. To put it in suitably purple prose, I reeled from the text and raised my hands to defend myself from the juvenile hysteria leaping out at me, its fangs dripping with the ultraviolet ichor of overblown imbecility. Aside from the atrocious writing in this scene — which is very uncharacteristic of Anderson, and is perhaps another indication of how fast this book was written — Petty is suddenly credited with killing off the entire Cross family. Once again events in Slan are shamelessly rewritten so they will fit in better with this bubbly soap opera paradise. Petty clearly had nothing to do with Patricia's death, though he did happen to be driving nearby at the time. Peter was pacifistic to the point of being suicidal and was killed, without resistance, by the panicky police who captured him. Now Peter Cross is shown to have been the slan equivalent of Rambo (Slanbo, perhaps?), riddled with bullets yet easily gunning down several secret police during their raid on a slan refuge. Am I the only one who has a problem with this?
A Tongue-in-Cheek Digression:
An Exciting Excerpt from Chapter 84:
"Being the Intelligent and Practical People That We Are, Why Should We Worry About the End of the World When We Could Have a Mean & Dirty Fist Fight Instead?"
(With half-hearted apologies to Mr. Anderson)
Inspired by this remarkable passage, and as a fitting homage to this thrilling climatic scene, I have composed an additional chronicle of Petty's persecution of the Cross clan, to heighten the unspeakable tragedy even further. Imagine, if you will, John Petty now foaming impressively at the mouth, his eyes aglow with murderous exultation, his eyebrows twitching with barely-restrained bloodlust. As the sweat pours down his forehead like a salty waterfall, Petty tries with difficulty to focus through his haze of hate on Jommy standing a few feet away, and shouts: "Jommy, you remember when you were four and your mother got you that pet goldfish? You were so happy with it, but one day it just disappeared, didn't it? You were devastated. But you know what, Jommy? I did it! I snuck into your bedroom one night and I ate your goldfish! And it was delicious!! You should have heard his little bones crunch between my teeth! And I'd do it all again in a heartbeat! And I would've eaten your cat too if I weren't allergic to them! How do you feel about that, slanboy! Huh? You wanna piece of me? Bring it on! And Queensberry rules be damned!"
And Now a (Regrettably Short) List of Things That I Did Like...
- I appreciated how the tendrilless slans are portrayed as dealing with the latent tendril genes that start cropping up in their offspring— they are defeated by their own paranoia. (I'm even willing to ignore that the tendrils weren't supposed to crop up in their genepool for another few decades...)
- Anthea's predicament was fleshed out quite nicely, her circumstances forcing her to re-examine the prejudices and propaganda that had been ingrained into her. She's a mundane person (here in the right role, for a change) thrown into exceptional circumstances and her plight is engrossing. Indeed, when I lost patience with the appalling scenes featuring Petty, Jommy, Lorry, and company, Anthea's scenes were the only parts that kept me going.
- Joanna's brief interchange with one Captain Campbell in Chapter 18 was a poignant scene that perfectly highlights her divided loyalties and nicely emphasizes how her entire life since meeting Jommy must have been a prolonged tightrope act.
- The description of the library, to say nothing of the library's archives, had me smiling with delight. I really wish I could visit that place myself!
- I found I had quite a soft spot for Mr. Reynolds the librarian, and I wish we had seen more of him. To me he epitomizes everything that's wonderful about people who love books. His scenes were very enjoyable and I always looked forward to reading his next piece of dialogue.
- In Chapter 17 Anderson addressed an issue that bothered me quite a bit when I recently re-read Slan — Jommy's use of hypnosis to influence the minds of those in the valley where he and Granny lived. This really made me uneasy. I understood he did this to protect himself, but even so it felt like going too far. But the justification that Anderson puts forth is simple yet couldn't have been put better or more succinctly. It has actually helped me "feel better" about what Jommy did. In fact, this admittedly "minor" section may have been my favorite part of the entire book. Anderson summed it up so well, and it was an issue from the first book that legitimately needed to be addressed, and I salute and thank him for it.
I've said this already, but I do believe it needs reiterating: Anderson's writing style is exemplary. I'd even call it awe-inspiring. No one I've read — and I've read quite a bit — is able to match his skill in this area. He also sets up scenes well and fleshes them out. Unfortunately, Anderson excels at style over substance and as much as I enjoy him as a stylist and a gripping story-teller, I largely dislike what he does with plot and character development. I can have my breath taken away by a superbly crafted paragraph or excitingly written scene while shaking my head at its idiotic content. It's like admiring an impressive explosion in a movie while knowing there was absolutely no need for one in that particular scene, or indeed in that particular film.
All things considered, I have to say that Slan Hunter reads like fan fiction. The bad kind. I've thankfully read very little of this sub-genre — almost all of it is pretty frightful — but I've read some that's better than Slan Hunter. Much better. And say what you will about fan fiction, it often makes greater efforts to be more faithful to the original than what we have here in an officially-sanctioned sequel.
In a way I'm glad I got to read it now — in Jim Baen's Universe, thanks to a wonderful gift subscription from Mark McSherry — rather than having to wait for it to be published by Tor in July. Although I realistically didn't expect to like this book very much, I certainly expected something better than this. I was eager to read it, but am glad I didn't build up additional months of anticipation — that would have sharpened my already deep sense of disappointment. Still, looking on the bright side, at least I can save some money by not buying it in hardcover. However, I do plan on buying it eventually just because I'm such a completist. But I'll wait for the paperback and try to get it used. The cover, however, is grand — Bruce Jensen's painting is truly a wonderful piece of art, so in that respect at least the Tor edition won't be a complete waste.
Slan Hunter is not just a "disappointment" — it's an absolute disaster. It's one of the worst SF books I've ever read. This is mainly because of the contrast between this and its predecessor. I suppose Anderson is in illustrious company, though, since a few of van Vogt's own work made it onto the "worst SF" list as well. And, sadly, that's the only thing the two authors seem to have in common.
An Oddball Remark
Not surprisingly, things related to A.E. van Vogt crop up in my dreams every now and then. These are usually wish-fulfillment dreams in which I stumble upon previously unknown van Vogt books sold for 25 cents each in some out-of-the-way bookshop. And from what I've heard from others of you out there, a few of you have had this same kind of dream. I've even been known to wake up and scribble down nonsensical titles in my bedside notebook, my befuddled brain hoping to find them for sale online in the morning!
But I've never had a vanvogtian nightmare before, but I had one about a week before I read Slan Hunter. In retrospect, I suppose one could interpret it as a dire premonition. In this dream a Hollywood director showed me his script for a film based, very loosely, on a van Vogt novel. It was a crossover of two separate franchises, similar to the Alien vs. Predator movie. The script was entitled Slan vs. Harry Potter. As appalling as that script was in my nightmare, Slan Hunter still doesn't look too good in comparison. I'd almost rather see the tendrilled telepath and the kid wizard duke it out for 90 minutes than read Slan Hunter again. At least Slan vs. Harry Potter wouldn't be pretending to be something more than a tedious action story with a bad premise and laughable attempts at characterization.
Slan II: Doomed From the Start?
Slan stood on its own for 60 years, and could easily have done so forever. No sequel was ever needed, and certainly not one like this. Anderson's novel feels like a sequel for sequel's sake, nothing more and nothing less — chugging out a ream of text and slapping a suitable title on the cover. I just wish they hadn't bothered going through the drudgery of creating the text portion of the novel, though. I would've been happier with a book where all the pages were blank. And what with Slan Hunter nominally being a van Vogt book, they could reprint all these blank pages a few years from now under a new title, maybe as "Everything Anderson Understands About van Vogt".
A good sequel should enrich as well as add to what came before; Slan Hunter merely cheapens what happened in the first book while adding nothing worthwhile of its own. There are no ideas, situations, or plot elements here that we haven't seen a hundred times elsewhere, and usually better done at that. This sequel is a generic story and retroactively seeks to make the first novel into one as well. Slan Hunter turns slans into cookie-cutter telepaths with a few surface quirks to make them "different." Van Vogt's stories, as well as his series, tended to endless escalate upward; Slan Hunter is a huge step downward from one of the best SF stories ever told. It is mundane where the original was extraordinary, trite where the original was touching, dull where the original was fascinating, and infuriating where the original was elevating.
If Anderson had written a sequel to a different van Vogt book I would undoubtedly have felt better about it. A sequel to, say, Children of Tomorrow. With some of van Vogt's books I dare say that a sequel by just about anybody would have been a great step upward. But this is a sequel to Slan we're talking about here, people! Not The Winged Man, The Man With a Thousand Names, or Earth Factor X. This is SLAN for Pete's sake! The standards would be far lower for a successor to those novels. Even something like The Wizard of Linn (which I consider one of his "middle" works in terms of quality) could easily have had a solid sequel. But this is van Vogt's #1 book of all time. The bar's pretty high here and I doubt if even van Vogt could have cleared that hurdle himself. Which is why, perhaps, for over 40 years he didn't even seriously consider trying.
This brings me to a pair of important considerations. Firstly, sequels written decades after the most recent volume in a series are seldom very good: Foundation's Edge, The Humanoid Touch, Time Enough for Love, and so on. And undoubtedly van Vogt would have been no exception. The driving force behind a series trickles away with the passage of inactive years, and even many series written steadily year after year run their course and come to a natural conclusion beyond which anything is worthless. This has nothing to do with the richness of the series or the quality of the author; it's just a natural consequence of storytelling. This threshold differs from story to story; some tales are fully told in a dozen books, some in a trilogy, some in two books, and some in a single book. Not everything was meant to be a series, and I think Slan falls into that category.
Secondly, to be fair, Slan Hunter was based on van Vogt's original outline and an incomplete draft so he must take some of the blame for the novel's poor quality. Although like every other writer he created bad fiction throughout his career, around 1984 van Vogt's work took a dramatic and irrevocable turn for the worse. Null-A Three was a rambling and aimless novel, a confused and pale reflection of the van Vogt we had come to know and admire. However, I do not think the Null-A series had run its course — this gives me hope that, in this most basic respect, John C. Wright's upcoming Null-A Continuum might succeed where Anderson has failed. I think, rather, that the failure of Null-A Three — as well as the permanent decline in the quality of his work — had more to do with the tragic slow encroachment of Alzheimers. Slan II was conceived right at this time, so if he had completed it then it would have undoubtedly suffered from this just as much, if not more so.
And, if all this weren't enough, things are further complicated since at some point in the late '80s his stepson Gregory Brayman (Lydia's son by a previous marriage) began collaborating on Slan II. H.L. Drake, in his book A.E. van Vogt: Science Fantasy's Icon, describes the outline he read in 1994 as consisting mainly of social commentary, so in all likelihood the original outline was also fatally flawed. It would be hard for anyone to construct a good, solid book on a poor foundation. And there's even a distinct possibility that Anderson has even made some changes for the better. Since we're unlikely to ever see the outline or drafts, it's impossible to know who is responsible for what in this book; so I should emphasize here that A.E. van Vogt himself did play a major role in Slan Hunter's present form, probably to a greater extent than I realize.
It is truly horrific that the last 15 or so years of this great man's life were robbed of him, and that in these final years he was unable to do what he did so well for so many decades. Alzheimers creates a kind of living death that is far worse than any alternative; I've always considered it to be the worst thing that can happen to someone, especially one who lived a life of intellectual brilliance. I am very glad that Lydia, usually reticent about making public statements, has spoken out to tell us about these tragic years in her introduction that will appear in the Tor edition.
For many reasons Slan II may have been doomed from its very conception and I'm very sorry that all involved decided to go ahead and finish it. Without a doubt I would not have liked this novel regardless of who wrote it. But Anderson at the helm certainly doesn't help things — I clearly see his distinctive style at work here in the form of his Scooby-Doo characters and soap opera shenanigans which have no place in a story of this kind.
All in all, I'd much rather have just read the original outline. But apart from the next volume of J.R.R. Tolkien's grocery lists there's very little money to be made by publishing such things. Instead, we get novels printed which should never have even been completed. Take, for example, Frank Herbert's original outline for a very early version of Dune — instead of publishing it on its own as an interesting curiosity, it was used as the basis for Anderson's and Brain Herbert's "alternate" Dune, the short novel Spice World (included in The Road to Dune). These things are interesting in outline form, but to flesh them out into actual novels is needless and often just downright bizarre. I'm sure they had the best of motives in wanting to see Slan Hunter completed, but sometimes it's better to leave well enough alone.
Why Get So Upset?
Have I overreacted to Slan Hunter? Of course I have. When I pause and think about it I realize it truly is quite silly for me to get so worked up about it. It is, after all, merely a book intended to be read for entertainment. There are far, far more important things in this world that truly deserve to make someone terribly upset. Nevertheless, it was my genuine response to the book. And chances are if a book incites exaggerated reactions there's something inherently wrong with it.
But when it comes to books there are some things I take very seriously. Along with Douglas Adams, both Frank Herbert and A.E. van Vogt have influenced and inspired me more than any other writers. I must say that I'm beginning to resent seeing Kevin J. Anderson swooping down and cheapening first the Dune universe and now the Slan universe with his brand of storytelling that is entirely unsuited for these tasks. Dune was the first real novel I ever read and is single-handedly responsible for my interest in reading and writing. And Slan was the book that showed me what a tremendous author van Vogt is — I made the mistake of trying to read The House That Stood Still first, an experience which put me off his fiction for a couple of years. All by itself Slan set me on a path that led me to devote so much of my time over the years reading, enjoying, and studying his life's work, a task which continues unabated and remains woefully incomplete to this day. So both authors, and more specifically both books, have a special place in my life, and seeing Anderson's failed imitations gain such prominence really rankles. He's mucked about with two out of three, now — I'll definitely start panicking (no matter how much the Guide may recommend against it) if Anderson is commissioned to write a Hitchhikers sequel, another (yet dissimilar) task his talents would be equally unsuited for. The mind positively boggles at the prospect.
Fans of both van Vogt and Herbert will admit — often reluctantly! — that they were far from being masters as far as writing style is concerned, and Anderson's is undeniably a vast improvement in that regard. As a result his sequels to other authors' works have been praised as being more "accessible" than the originals, but I see that as a definite drawback. It wasn't until 6th grade that I loved to read. Others had tried to develop my interest in reading by suggesting this book or that book, but they were all very "easy" and "accessible" and I thought that if such shallow, predictable fluff was all that books had to offer, I didn't want to waste my time with them. Then, one fateful day in 6th grade, I ran across a copy of Dune in the public library and decided to check it out (for reasons too involved to go into here). It took me several months to read it all the way through but its sheer depth and amazing complexity, as well as its scope of imagination and intricate characterization, showed me what books were truly capable of creating. Happily, I've since learned to also enjoy the "fluffy" style of storytelling that irritated me when I was a boy, but I still find it deeply heart-breaking on a very personal level that this brand of tale is now being written as a continuation to these grand worlds.
Opinions & Perspectives
Most people read a book review to get a simple answer to a single question: "Should I read it?" Well, that's a rather involved question to answer but I'll do my best in my usual long-winded fashion.
My opinion is just that: my opinion. When it really comes down to it I'm just another van Vogt reader like the rest of you, one out of the millions around the world. My opinion, though prominent, is just a drop in the bucket. And, to shamelessly mangle a quote from Damon Knight, it's the critics who are pygmy writers at giant typewriters.
If you enjoyed Slan I can't imagine you being able to enjoy Slan Hunter. But that's just me. Only you can form your own opinion of the novel. You will never know for sure whether you'll like a book unless you read it for yourself. If you really want to read it, read it.
And whatever you think of Slan Hunter, it has nothing to do with how great a van Vogt fan you are. Many of you will love it. Many of you will hate it. And many of you won't feel strongly one way or the other. We all have different standards as well as likes and dislikes, even among those of us with similar tastes. Mine may be inexplicable to you, and yours to me, but that's often the way it is with opinions, isn't it?
Ironically, though I find myself writing reviews I generally avoid reading other people's comments on books I haven't read. On those rare occasions when I do read such reviews, I generally disregard what they say. If the book interests me I'd rather just read it myself and make up my own mind. Once I've read the book I sometimes go back and read reviews, mainly to glean interesting trivia and things I may not have picked up on. I continue to be mildly surprised that my appraisal of a book usually runs counter to the majority's opinion. And that could well be the case here.
But if my remarks about Slan Hunter dissuade some from reading the novel, I do think that's fair. I wish someone had told me about the appalling things in the book, and I could have happily lived the rest of my life without reading a word of it. Having now done so, I sincerely wish I could go back in time and stop myself from reading it... or selectively erase my memory... or something, anything, to remove its terrible stigma.
And just to make something absolutely clear, I won't let my personal opinion of the novel cause me to cease promoting it elsewhere on my site. I will not demand that all true van Vogt fans boycott it, and I will not remove links to the book's page on Amazon.com. And I certainly won't stand outside Barnes & Noble from dawn to midnight holding belligerent signs, mumbling tirades to myself and accosting people who come out of the store with a copy of Slan Hunter in their bag. Apart from being a dishonorable and senseless attack on free will, doing any of these things would be just plain tacky. Even in my darkest moments I never even considered doing any of those things... Although I may have experienced the occasional (and purely involuntary) fantasy of lighting up a pile of copies and dancing around it with ghoulish glee. But I wouldn't force anybody to join in, and such daydreams were offset by the practical consideration that in order to burn a pile of copies I'd have to first buy some, and apart from the wasted cost to myself that would just encourage the publisher to print more of them. Logistically, it would perhaps be simpler just to flush $24.95 down the toilet as a tribute to Slan Hunter.
The Bottom Line
The only good thing that can come from Slan Hunter as far as I am concerned is that it will serve to raise van Vogt's profile among those who would otherwise never hear of him. (It sure feels strange, though, saying that the appearance of a bad book is a good thing!) In the final analysis I consider Slan Hunter a publicity stunt of sorts, albeit a fully justified one. Like a movie adaptation, good or bad, even a dismal book like this is sure to do wonders to promote the original author's work merely by being there. Van Vogt has undeservedly sunk into obscurity and hopefully this sequel will serve to bring him back to the forefront of SF discussions where he belongs. Love it or hate it, Slan Hunter is sure to do precisely that.
As they say, there's no such thing as bad publicity — even a negative review like mine can serve a useful purpose. Disagreement creates discussion. As Oscar Wilde so aptly put it, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Paradoxically, a harsh condemnation of a novel brings it more attention than an offhand dismissal. I only hope that the low quality of Slan Hunter doesn't give people a false impression of what van Vogt's work is like, and that it will instead inspire them to seek it out and discover it for themselves.
As a final consideration I'll offer this: Although it is an author's right to do whatever he wishes in his books, I as a reader enjoy the privilege of being able to simply ignore it. I intend to relegate Slan Hunter to the same ignominious lineup as many other works I've had the grave misfortune to read. My feeling is that nobody needs to read it. For myself anyway, I do not consider this a true successor to Slan despite it being officially approved by van Vogt's estate. It takes far more than a sheaf of unfinished notes and a green flag in the legal department to create a true sequel and nobody should feel obligated to accept it for that reason alone.
In all honesty, even if van Vogt had written this entirely by himself I probably wouldn't have thought very highly of it, just as is the case with Null-A Three and several of his other novels. This is even my attitude to Douglas Adams' last two Hitchhikers books or Frank Herbert's last two Dune novels — I give them very little thought at the best of times, or pretend they never "happened" at worst. And, as a reader, that is my prerogative. If a novel detracts from your enjoyment of the previous books in a series, just ignore it. Of course, even in bad novels there are some bits that I enjoy, and I sometimes take them down and read those sections just for fun while disregarding the rest of the book. Heck, you can even jump over specific titles in a series if you want — you can enjoy the later ones regardless of how many you skip in the middle. This is, after all, fiction we're talking about here. These places don't really exist and the attention we give to them is always optional to begin with. But such decisions are made on an individual basis, and it would be not only presumptuous but downright idiotic to force your own views on anyone else. Everyone is free to choose for themselves, either before or after they read it. And everybody is at the very least entitled to express their own opinion, whatever it may be.
If you enjoy Slan Hunter, I think that's great. I really do... even if I do find it completely inexplicable. I certainly wish that I could have, and I almost envy those of you who will. If you don't mind the glaring inconsistency with the first book, and can get beyond the laughable characterization, the ridiculous ideas, and the more lurid scenes, this is a quick, effortless read that is bound to at least hasten the passage of several hours. But alas, with me, it infuriated more than anything else.