Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Slan solution

with 8 comments

Slan by A.E. van Vogt

Science fiction has never been as good at predicting the future as it might like to believe, but it came as close as it ever did in the story “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which Robert A. Heinlein wrote based on an idea from the editor John W. Campbell. It appeared in the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which represented the peak of Heinlein’s career in the pulps: it also included his novella “Universe,” which was similarly derived from a premise by Campbell, and the complete chart of his Future History, an act of unprecedented generosity by the magazine to an individual writer. But “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which he wrote under the pen name Anson MacDonald, is the most impressive work of all. It describes the invention of a superweapon, based on radioactive dust, that is used to end World War II, but which quickly results in a destructive arms race. The “solution” is the creation of the Peace Patrol, a nongovernmental organization that maintains monopoly power over the weapon and monitors other countries to prevent it from being developed elsewhere. As the title implies, this isn’t much of an answer—it means that the Peace Patrol effectively holds the rest of the world hostage—but Heinlein and Campbell weren’t able to come up with a better one. We’re faced with either the constant threat of destruction from what we’d now call “non-state actors,” or an intrusive and unaccountable police state that controls the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction while drastically limiting most other freedoms.

“Solution Unsatisfactory” is usually remembered as a prediction of the Cold War, but it reads more today like an anticipation of nuclear terrorism. In the note at the end of the story, Campbell lays out the dilemma:

The irresistible weapon has been discovered. It can be duplicated easily by small groups, so that only the most rigorous and minute policing—intruding on every individual’s private life—can prevent it escaping control to be turned on all men…The world must be defended against every little knot of crackpots with a mission—and the horrible weapon.

Campbell concludes: “Can any solution not invoking the aid of the Arisian super-beings protect mankind against the irresistible weapon?” This last sentence may require a word of explanation. The Arisians, who made their first appearance in E.E. Smith’s Lensman series, are a race of advanced aliens who have been secretly manipulating mankind throughout all of human history. They’re infinitely intelligent, powerful, and benevolent, and they would, in fact, represent a pretty good solution to the problem that the story presents. So would a different kind of superbeing, which made its debut the previous year in A.E. van Vogt’s landmark serial Slan. The Slan are mutated, superintelligent humans who have developed the power of telepathy. (When the story begins, they’re a persecuted minority, and many science fiction readers—who felt oppressed and ostracized because of their own intelligence—identified with their situation, leading to the popular slogan: “Fans are slans.”) As a reader named Billiam Kingston-Stoy promptly pointed out in a letter to the magazine, having seen only a plot summary of the Heinlein story: “Any slan, or reasonable facsimile thereof, could give you an accurate solution of the problem.” Campbell responded: “The question on ‘Solution Unsatisfactory’ is to answer the problem without supermen.”

"Solution Unsatisfactory" by Robert A. Heinlein

Needless to say, introducing a species of nonhuman superbeings to resolve an existential threat is a form of cheating—and one to which science fiction, like the superhero genre, has always been particularly susceptible. But what isn’t as well known is that Campbell originally had a similar solution in mind when he first pitched the idea to Heinlein. As he wrote in a letter dated December 15, 1940:

I’d rather lean to the nice, ironic possibility, in the ending, of having one of the characters of the story—[a] rather minor background character, but a persistent one, make a concluding observation to his wife. Seems he’s been watching with great interest, that he and she and their fifteen children know that what happens now isn’t particularly important, since they and their new race, the superhumans, are taking over in a generation or two anyway. They’re the result of one of the mutations caused by all the dusting.

In response, Heinlein wrote:

I did not use the superman mutant idea—too reminiscent of Slan and too much like a rabbit out of a hat. Besides I have a strong hunch that big jumps in mutation are always down…and never up. I don’t know enough about genetics to prove it, but it seems wildly improbable to me that brand-new powers, abilities, senses, etc. can appear without a long, slow evolutionary background.

Campbell evidently agreed, and it’s instructive to see how he immediately turned Heinlein’s objection into a condition of the story itself. The lack of a satisfying resolution was no longer a bug, but a feature. (Campbell explained in a later letter: “The story is weak, because the solution is palpably synthetic and unsatisfactory—and that very fact can be made, by proper blurbing, the greatest strength of the story.” That’s good editing!) But the most fascinating development came later. Within a few years, the scenario sketched out by the story had become all too plausible, and Campbell wasn’t optimistic about mankind’s chances. As he wrote in the magazine in April 1946:

When small, use-anything atomic devices can be made, they can be made in secret…When they can be made in secret, some sincere, noble soul, a martyr to his own desire to save the world as quickly as possible in the way he knows is best, is going to commit suicide with some such gadget, and remove Washington…from the Earth…It’s up to psychology to develop means of finding such unstable people…Psychology must advance faster than nuclear physics.

The italics are mine. Before long, Campbell would try to put a new psychology into practice—with the help of L. Ron Hubbard. It was called dianetics, and its goal was to provide its subjects with enhanced intelligence, memory, sensory awareness, and even morality. The improved human beings that resulted would be the only ones capable of providing the world with the security that it desperately needed. Hubbard called this idealized person a “clear.” But you could also say that Campbell’s solution to the unsolvable problem was to turn fans into slans.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2016 at 9:49 am

8 Responses

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  1. Learning more about these sorts of connections is precisely why I am eager for your new book. Thanks for this preview!


    December 12, 2016 at 4:44 pm

  2. One of the things that saved us from Campbell’s “It can be duplicated easily by small groups” nightmare (granted, we settled for some different nightmares) is that practical production of fissionable materials turned out to be a matter of large scales. It took the resources of a nation-state or a big industrial organization to manufacture plutonium or enriched uranium.

    This bottleneck gave a lever to limit nuclear proliferation. A more important tool was convincing have-not nations outside the “nuclear club” that it was in their interest to forego development of their own nuclear weapons. While difficult, this was a tractable problem. But the bottleneck made it easier to monitor potential proliferators, looking for big, power-hungry isotope-separation plants, or large breeder reactors. Controlling sources of uranium ore was another tool. So, it may go without saying, is keeping tight security on weapons belonging to members of The Club.

    I think 1941 Campbell, or 1946 Campbell, would be astonished to learn that the number of nations possessing nukes in 2016 would be so small.

    This is the case because people around the world have worked hard to limit proliferation. I hope they keep working.

    Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey

    December 15, 2016 at 6:23 pm

  3. @marieguthrie: Thanks! Learning more about these sorts of connections is precisely why I’m writing it.


    December 22, 2016 at 9:11 pm

  4. @Bill Higgins: Have you ever read Campbell’s article on death dust?


    December 22, 2016 at 9:15 pm

  5. Check the comments on that Death Dust page– I’m in there!

    Bill Higgins-- Beam Jockey

    December 23, 2016 at 8:36 pm

  6. @Bill Higgins: I might have known!


    December 27, 2016 at 8:28 am

  7. Hi

    Yesterday I read the article you had on long reads and took the liberty of posting a link on my webpage. Today I have been reading the articles on your webpage and I have been quite impressed with the level of research you have done. I just started this article when I stopped and read “Solution Unsatisfactory,” before finishing it. Now I will continue reading your other posts, I am sure I will find lots of interesting information and ideas. I am a big SF fan especially of the period you are covering and I am really looking forward to you book.

    Thanks for all your work.


    February 6, 2017 at 11:48 am

  8. @Guy: Glad you liked the article and found the blog! I hope you’ll stick around.


    February 8, 2017 at 8:51 pm

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