This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
The Reading Canary: a Reminder
Series of novels – especially in fantasy and SF fiction, but distressingly frequently on other genres as well – have a nasty tendency to turn sour partway through. The Reading Canary is your guide to precisely how far into a particular sequence you should read, and which side-passages you should explore, before the noxious gases become too much and you should turn back.
The Mutant Mage: Half Dune, Half A Canticle For Leibowitz
A.E. van Vogt is a name you don’t hear much these days, but back in the 1940s and 1950s he was amongst the first tier of SF writers, along with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein. Whereas Asimov’s later work was compromised by a misguided attempt to weave all of his stories into one single timeline, Clarke succumbed to the temptation to write a few too many extraneous sequels to 2001 and Rendezvous With Rama, and Heinlein went crazy and spent most of The Number of the Beast carefully narrating the status of the characters’ nipples, van Vogt met a much worse fate: he went out of fashion.
His name is mainly associated with his 1940 debut novel, Slan, which involves the struggles of a society of elite mutants to gain the respect they deserve from the human race. Given the time period it was written in, and given the Nazi’s fondness for the idea of the superman, this has arguably had a negative effect on van Vogt’s reputation; the book can come across as being “mutant supremacist”, enough so that Philip K. Dick would be inspired to write several stories in which supposedly “superior” mutants turn out to be deadly threats to the survival of humanity and civilisation as opposed to the Bold Next Step in Human Evolution (or just very ill people struggling with crippling genetic disorders). To be fair to van Vogt, though, Slan is very specifically the story of a persecuted minority culture, and so could be read as an anti-Nazi tract; furthermore, PKD saved most of his vitriol for the second-rate authors who imitated Slan as opposed to van Vogt himself.
Perhaps as an attempt to write a more considered treatment of the subject, in 1946 van Vogt began the series which would become known as The Mutant Mage, chronicling the life and times of a mutant born to the ruling family of a postapocalyptic empire with strong parallels with Imperial Rome, set in a devastated solar system.