In Sci Fi, as in the real world, there’s bad science, and there’s anti-science. Bad science is Star Wars (and, frankly, Star Trek) and, oh, say, Psychology . Anti-science is X-Men and Sociology. Star Wars and Psychology mis-use aspects of science or introduce mountains of handwavium in the service of another end – most excellent entertainment, in the case of Star Wars, getting tenure and grants in the case of psychology. Anti-science, on the other hand, pretends to be science but in reality undermines and contradicts the basic principles of science. X-Men is built on the idea that Eeevolution ™ ‘leaps forward’ in a remarkably directed way. Eeevolution cares about us! And knows which direction is ‘forward’. Sociology puts on a lab coat in order to give some sort of coat-tail legitimacy to the program of remaking society into a Marxist fantasy land.
Many a great story has been built on Bad Science, mostly, I presume, in a completely innocent manner – the goal is to create a gripping, mind-bending story, not give a science lecture. Even more understandable are the old stories that extrapolated from what people thought they knew at the time – what was perfectly hard speculation in 1890 looks utterly silly, scientifically speaking, in 2015. So bad science in stories is OK, you just have to run with it unapologetically (*cough* midicloririans *cough*) and readers will be OK with it. In fact, it’s fun in and of itself to read old stories just to see the state of science at the time from which the authors jump off.
WARNING: I’m going to spoil the daylights out of Slan. First Men in the Moon, not so much.
The First Men in the Moon is just such a story. Since it was first published in 1901, H.G. Wells was unencumbered by too much information about the moon – it was still a blank slate of mystery upon which his imagination could pour out. But first, he’s got to get his men there.
A lone eccentric scientific genius named Cavor is puttering around in the English countryside, trying to formulate a material that is impervious to gravity waves. Bedford, a dissolute neighbor and the narrator of the story, joins him. Cavor’s first successful experiment results in a sudden tornado-like disaster, as his sheet of gravity-proof ‘Cavorite’ causes all the air above it, now immune to the effects of the earth’s gravity, to blast off into space at high speeds (why? I guess the aether moves it or the air exists in some other absolute frame of reference). The resulting rush of surrounding air into the low pressure area creates a suction that destroys nearby building and, thankfully, blows the sheet of Cavorite right off the earth before the entire atmosphere is launched into space.
Bedford and Cavor proceed to build a space ship – a metal and glass sphere with smaller pieces of Cavorite arranged behind shutters. The shutters can be opened and closed, creating repulsion or attraction as needed.(1) They decide to take a test flight to the moon, packing up stuff just as if they are a couple English gentlemen going on safari.
The moon, while not made of cheese, nonetheless reminds one of a block of Swiss, with highly-adapted insect-like aliens filling all the holes. Well’s idea of a frozen atmosphere that thaws during the two-week day and refreezes at night is wonderful. The whole ecology of the moon’s surface springs up with the dawn and crumbles to dust with the night.
But his interest is clearly in the rationally-organized aliens, who are trained and physically altered to suit the tasks their society needs done, so that no one is unhappy with his lot in life. In his audience with the Grand Lunar, Cavor presents human war as necessary to the culling of the species, as people are all mostly alike and many are dreadfully unhappy with their lot and would otherwise make trouble if they weren’t periodically out killing each other. Otherwise, Cavor is presented as a kind-hearted and optimistic humanitarian. Wonder what Well’s monsters would sound like?
Otherwise, a fun ride, wonderful imagination. This is the story that inspired C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy.
SPOILERS AHEAD! Slan is a great story all but ruined, for me at least, by the ending. You may have read here about my aversion to Way Cool Mind Powers. WCMP are a bump in the road for me, a good enough story can get me past it pretty easily. Slan succeeds well in this respect, as it is a grippingly told adventure story where the WCMP are, for the most part, essential and well-integrated. It’s that other thing….
Jommy Cross (2) is aa 8-year old boy whose father, a great scientist and a Slan, was murdered by base-edition humans some time before the story opens. He and his mother, also Slans, are walking in Centropolis, the world capital some centuries in the future. She is reminding him of his duty to recover his father’s work when he turns 15, and his duty to stay alive as the police close in on them. He narrowly escapes as his mother is gunned down.
What is a Slan? A post-human who is way smarter, way stronger, tougher and longer-lived, than the base human stock – us – among whom they live. They also have WCMP – they can read base human’s minds, and, with permission, each other’s as well. Jommy can also exert a bit of ‘hypnotism’ over humans, wherein he takes complete control of their wills. Slans have golden tendrils sticking up out of their heads that enable their telepathy – and make them easy to spot.
Humans, of course, fear and hate Slans, and blame them for several centuries of increased monstrous human births, murders, and trying to rule the world and enslave base humanity. Humans believe the Slans possess some sort of machine that is used on pregnant women to cause them to give birth to Slans, but that most of the time, the result is the birth of monstrosities. Thus, Jommy and his family have lived in hiding all their lives. Other Slans are presumed to exist – the government claims to be finding and killing them off regularly – but Jommy’s family has never managed to find any.
The story alternates sections that deal with Jommy’s attempt to survive, find and ultimately use his father’s inventions to save whatever remaining Slans are out there, with sections that follow Kathleen, a young Slan captured by the government and living under the watchful eyes of Kier Gray, the world dictator, a brilliant and formidable man.
Jommy does find his father’s notes and invention – an atomic-powered hand-held weapon that can dissolve regular matter into nothing. He manages to set up a secret lab out in the country, where he develops lots of cool toys – a indestructible flying car, a anti-gravity/atomic powered spaceship, a crystal gadget that greatly aides his ‘hypnotism’, and lots of weapons.
Jommy also finds Kathleen, who has likewise grown up and made a daring escape – and who is promptly murdered by the evil head of the state police, but not before they have fallen madly in love.
There are evil conspiracies, space battles, daring escapes, a trip to Mars, multiple major reveals and plot twists – it’s all kinds of fun. Then comes the end, where we find out what’s really going on.
What’s going on is the X-Men. See, evolution – I hereby coin the term Hegelution for the kind of intelligent, willful process that makes ‘leaps’ in order to better or supplant the species – so Hegelution has decided, after the manner in which all mindless, mechanical natural processes make decisions, to kick the human species up a couple notches. Thus, by otherwise perfectly natural causes (!?!) Slans arise. Kier Gray turns out to be a Slan, and he and a team of Slans have been running the world’s human government for ages. They created the new subspecies of tendrilless Slans, who can easily hide among humans, but lack the mind-reading ability of true Slans. Tendrilless Slans hide in plain sight, and have developed all sorts of way cool technology, including anti-grav propulsion and interplanetary travel. But for reasons too twisty to get into here, the true Slans made it so the tendrilless hate and fear them. Hegelution under Slan management will eventually return the tendrils to the tendrilless in a few generations, and the Slans can then be one big happy family of world-dominating super-beings who treat humans as, at best, annoying pets.
So we have humans, who truly are threatened by the Slans, tendrilless Slans who hold humans in contempt and true Slans in fear; and true Slans who are, in fact, manipulating things so that they will end up running the planet and solar system. True Slans do, in fact, commit and allow all kinds of murder and mayhem in the name of the Coming Glorious People’s Slan Paradise – they make Machiavelli look like an old softy. Glorious enough ends justify any means; the connection between the means employed and the ends targeted is so well understood that no unintended consequences need be considered. Slans are real, real smart, after all, and should be in charge. Intelligent management is all the world really needs.
And they’re the heroes. And Sci Fi fans quickly adopted ‘Fans are Slans’ as a motto – if anyone were paying attention, that would not make many friends among non-fans.
Anyway, anti-science. It’s not just that evolution doesn’t work like that – it’s more a description of what has happened, and in no way a cause of what has happened – it’s that Hegelution undermines the very idea of science. As the medieval philosophers noted, natural philosophy is an attempt to discover and understand the secondary causes of nature without recourse to constant divine intervention – that ‘God did it’ is both true and trivial, and does nothing to explain any particular case, or, indeed to distinguish between natural phenomena and miracles.
But Hegelution is a cause, both here and in the despair-inducing X-Men. Not only is it a cause, but an intelligent one, that somehow foresees or guesses what kinds of mutations might be helpful.
Slan is a rollicking good time, provided you buy the idea that heaven on earth is a socialist paradise run by really smart guys. If not, it’s still an adventure story well told.
One more minor point: Slan foreshadows future stories by normalizing the idea that total Slan hunks like Jommy will of course bang away like rabbits on willing Slan women – for the betterment of the species and all. When we get to Star Trek in 30 years, all that’s missing is that ‘for the betterment of the species’ nonsense – and any children that might thereby arise and complicate things.
- Sounds like a good bit of calculus would be needed to figure out how to get anywhere in this thing…
- Minor curiosity: In this story, women and girls have normal, traditional names, like Kathleen, while men have rare or made up names like Kier and Jommy.