Science Fiction & The X-Men, Part 2: The Golden Age Context for the Original X-Men

A close up of a person's eyes Description automatically generated with medium confidence[Gollancz’s 2003 SF Masterworks edition of More Than Human; cover art by Chris Moore; Voyager/HarperCollins ed. of The Caves of Steel; art by Chris Moore]A picture containing text Description automatically generated

I. Children of Tomorrow

Last Look at Slan

Last time we looked briefly at the 1940 serialized novel “Slan” by A.E. van Vogt (later published as a book in 1946), an instant hit at the time, one it’s very hard to imagine either Stan Lee or Jack Kirby not reading, even if only to take the pulse of the moment with their target audiences. More likely, they read it for fun, because it would have been a much easier pleasure during the Golden Age of sf.

At the time, it was the most popular introduction to bookish American youths of the idea of the pariah elite, both benevolent and malevolent—think X-Men versus the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and the way each reacts to a world that fears and hates them. In fact, this twofold analogy between Slan and Marvel’s X-Men is the clearest relationship between the two fictions. Beyond that, their similarities start to break down; slans are all telepaths and have superhuman physical traits; obviously, these standard powers are diversified among the mutants of Marvel. For the wider sf community, mutants were a trope for the hyper-intelligent; almost all of these fictional metahumans were superpowered by ultra-brain smarts and psi powers.

Slan became so popular among Golden Age sf readership that it whipped up an obvious catchphrase to describe itself: “Fans are slans.” Feel the incel vibes yet? Hounded and ostracized for their native genius and far-out imaginations, these early fans—at a time when indeed sf was not cool enough for school—were meant to identify with Vogt’s pariah elite, persecuted because of their unappreciated giftedness. So before we even get to the X-Men, we have here the early (Steve Ditko side of) Peter Parker—the most feverish incel of Marvel’s early Silver Age.

Of course, not a few early critics noted clear similarities between the persecution of the Slans and that of Jews happening at the same time in Europe. But to be clear, van Vogt was not Jewish, and reading the novel allegorically in this way does not do the real-world minority any real service. First off, in the story it turns out that the Slan people are in fact the secret masters of the world; the hidden dictator of all is a Slan (the hero, Jommy Cross wins his daughter’s heart, and the narrative closes with the future “royal” lineage secure). So, read as a historical allegory, Slan simply plays into the hate speech inspired by The Protocols of Zion (popular since its Russian-language publication in 1903).

Now, there’s no reason to think a significant percentage of readers even read Slan in this way. Indeed, fans mostly uncritically identified with this persecuted minority of super-geeks with hot bods*—however ridiculous that sounds. I mean, wait! That’s not silly at all, if you’re dorky enough to be reading this 😉.

*This part only depends on how you feel about a pair of golden tendrils just below the hairline.

As fair warning, the story is rife with misogyny (and fridging) as the young hero ascends to his full potential, not to mention van Vogt’s lifelong libertarianism, which with later stories, like The Weapon Shops of Isher, would make him a posthumous Second Amendment folk hero to this day. Notably, Slan was published by Arkham, whose founder August Derleth, a close friend of Lovecraft, started the publishing house in order to publish Lovecraft’s works posthumously.

More Than Human

Much more fascinating than Slan or even other classic “mutant” stories is More Than Human (1953) by Theodore Sturgeon. Here, six social outcasts deemed deficient by an ableist society find a gestalt collectivity together, fusing their various individual psi powers (telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, super-intelligence) into a positive and empowering take on the communal hive mind. They are never termed “mutants”; instead, Sturgeon’s yearning comes through here more sublimely than ever, in a dream of abolishing humanity’s modern-day alienation through our in-born powers of mental evolution—sure to be realized sometime soon. At least, that was the kind of spiritual intensity brilliant but lonely minds like his brought to the dreams of sf; that desire for change in a time of overwhelming conformity (especially for someone closeted) suffused much genre writing of the mid-20th century, verging—almost but not quite, not yet, with still so far to go—on a public safe space, as close as was possible in that day and age.

Sturgeon’s More Than Human is a passionate, loving cry for a kind of superhumanity that we never got from Silver Age comics. But one day, far down the line, the X-Men franchise would offer the closest approximation—within the Big 2, at least.

Three Other Significant Mutant Texts

Last time, I said that Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras (1953) would be much more welcoming to modern readers. And this is true, but I’d forgotten the disgusting problem, very common then and even now, with cat breeders “destroying” kittens, often whole litters, if they didn’t appear “purebred” enough. The first young protagonist, “gifted” with metahuman intelligence but whose grandmother who forces him to repress the markers of his difference from the other boys (out of fearful love for him), partakes in this inhumane practice—even while secretly saving a few (despite his smothering mother’s potential fury). Being a cat-dad, of abandoned kittens no less, I have no sympathy for any of this.

A picture containing text, book Description automatically generated[X-Men #1 art by Jack Kirby and Paul Reinman]Still, the linked collection is distinctive for its psychological realism, relative to the pulp stories of the day, and the subtlety with which it explores a world undergoing the slow change wrought by irradiated wombs (the wives of nuclear physicists! and other atomic plant workers), the children’s sheltered upbringing (as orphans, following the plant’s disastrous explosion), and their eventual emergence into the public when their unique intelligence is clearly what (Cold War) humanity needs to right its wayward destiny.

Children of the Atom collects three novellas, most famous of which is the first, 1948’s “In Hiding,” which has been widely claimed as a directly influence on the original X-Men title, but I actually can’t find any direct evidence for this. Again, though, it’s hard to imagine Stan and Jack weren’t regularly reading Astounding magazine (which in 1960 would be retitled Analog) edited by the American sf’s gatekeeper, John W. Campbell, from 1937 to 1971. This was the venue that published not only the serialized “Slan” but also the stories that make up the following famous series: E. E. “Doc” Smith’s “Lensman,” Clifford Simak’s “City,” and Isaac Asimov’s “Robot” and “Foundation.” Robert Heinlein’s popular Double Star (1956) was also initially serialized here. Granted, Shiras’s stories were never even close to be so well known as these, but even though she didn’t publish anything else until the early ’70s, they were popular enough to be collected in novel form, and the book proved a success—with the first story in particular widely anthologized throughout the 1950s and several times a decade since, most recently in Lisa Yaszek’s The Future Is Female! (2018) from the Library of America.

It’s truly remarkable, though, that very few of us know that the immediate Ur text for Charles Xavier at least was written by a woman (which may have been easy to overlook at the time given that “Wilmar” is definitely historically male gendered name, though it was apparently her legal given name, not a penname). Note also that one of the most popular writers of adventure fiction in 1930s and ’40s, C. L. Moore, mentioned below, claimed that she wrote under an ungendered pen name not at all out of fears of misogyny but rather because she wanted to keep her side gig as a writer a secret from her employers at the time. Still, I haven’t deeply researched this, and while among her immediate creative peers at least there didn’t seem to be misogyny, it does seem like she was only later co-credited for work she cowrote with husband, like the tales that make up Mutant.

More in the pulp tradition is Mutant (1953), collecting the “Baldy” tales of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, the first four of which were originally published in 1945 in Campbell’s Astounding magazine, while the last was original to the 1953 fix-up novel. Each story is set at a different point in time in a US obliterated by nuclear disaster and replaced by small communities that are seem politically autonomous but are linked through cultural and economic ties. The real narrative is the way in which the minority of mutant telepaths (resulting from, yep, irradiated reproductivity) slowly emerge from their self-repressed status as a people, initially very anxious about staying assimilated to a humanity that they feel they must serve in order not to be persecuted and ultimately eradicated. Parallels with Marvel’s mutants abound!

Honestly, though, these stories are definitely pulp, not in a bad way, but they don’t compare that well to Shiras’s Children of the Atom. Still, the conceptualization of isolated, maladjusted telepaths, labeled “paranoids,” is definitely of interest for its similarity to the notion of “evil mutants” who will not accept assimilation. The fight between them and the rest of the mutant community is one of survival, so claims assimilationists who feel endangered both by the paranoids’ willful obstinacy but also their penchant for simply subliminally mind-controlling/hypnotizing “baldy” youths.

One thinks of early Silver Age Magneto with his almost hypnotic glare, suggestive of psi powers, despite such suggestions soon being redacted. Just check out his earliest appearances! After all, it’s where he first and most unsubtly mirrors baldy Chuck. Then, of course, there’s OG Evil Mutant Mastermind, who would definitely vibe with the paranoids.

Diagram Description automatically generated with low confidence[Mags with astral projection powers in X-Men #6; see issue #7 for his psi “mental probe”; art by Jack Kirby and Chic Stone]More than any of these, however, I’d recommend the pre-nuclear mutant narrative of Odd John (1935) by Olaf Stapledon, which perhaps influenced the Children of the Atom stories, but here the inspiration is much more fascinating. Briefly mentioned last time, this novel is in the British scientific romance tradition epitomized by H.G. Wells. I noted that it was direct revision of J.D. Beresford’s Hampdenshire Wonder (1911), which is the earliest anglophone instance of the fantasticated intellectual Übermensch.

Although Odd John takes place in the same timeline as The Hampdenshire Wonder, it’s entirely separate and self-contained as a narrative. Unlike the popular American mutant stories of the midcentury, this novel is much closer to a subtle/literary psychological horror story. It’s not horror per se, but the uncanniness of the titular Odd John is meant to unsettle the reader. Clearly reminiscent of key aspects to that most famous of American sf novels, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1959, 1966), the conceptual breakthroughs experienced by Odd John are, however, much more darkly tinged and ultimately meant to satirize elements of modern (British) society. John’s bitterness and repressed anguish are frightening, unlike poor Charlie’s. And ultimately, his fate does not attest to the failures of science (or the scientization of human life) as we see with Charlie; rather, Odd John is destroyed by an outraged humanity that hates and fears him for being much craftier and intelligent but also eerily detached from what he sees as humanity’s narrow and fragile sentiments.

The success of Stapledon’s narrative is in making us feel sympathy for the devil. It’s an impressive feat and an essential sf classic (one of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks; more have been published since 2013, but you’ll need to snoop around their website to find them—Gollancz is the most important preserver and publisher of otherwise lost sf classics).

Psi Boom

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Having edited a collection of academic essays on the impact of late-19th and early-20th century phrenology, parapsychology and related pseudoscience on a variety of historical circumstances, most often related to early criminology/mass criminalization, I appreciate how impactful such strange and often harmful ideas have been on everyday people throughout modern history; there’s a perhaps unsurprisingly direct line from the phrenology craze to the still widespread use of the lie detector testing. Psy-op experiments with ESP, remote viewing, and so on came out of the same scientistic social milieu.

Of course, a lot of these ideas also make for fun stories and flights of fancy, but it’s even more interesting to look at the actual history here: The scientism of this era was dominated by both pseudoscience and, worse, Social Darwinism. In other words, the early Modernist ideals of priestlike scientists is thoroughly rooted in dreadfully backward fantasies of power, the same sort of marriage of science and mystery that gave birth to the monstrous disease of Nazism. While the direct revolt against these ideologies were found in the arts, with expressionism, cubism, surrealism, dadaism, fauvism, etc., these too are thoroughly products of a time mired in some really nutso ideas about the powers of the mind—a real sea change from the endless pieties, however sincere or otherwise, of the Victorian era.

No less part of this craze was the aforementioned John W. Campbell, Jr. (1910-1971), who succeeded in setting himself up as American sf’s gatekeeper from the 1930s through the next few decades. Of course, many writers bypassed him and his magazines and certainly the majority of those he published would not have agreed with many of his ideas, but he was still a towering presence. And he was quite the champion for pseudoscience, despite also being the most vigorous (often irritating) proponent for “hard sf.” In fact, it was his magazine Astounding that in 1950 introduced L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology to the wider sf community. But Astounding’s editor went much further in the early 1950s in inundating readers in the “psi boom,” Campbell’s own coinage, which was much less the work of the market’s invisible hand and more his own heavy propaganda. His neologistic verbiage here included another term well known to comic fans—“psionics,” a portmanteau, according to Campbell, formed of “psychic electronics,” although it first debuted in a now totally obscure Astounding story by sf legend Jack Williamson (who was just a great storyteller rather than a pseudoscience ideologue. Except for 1938’s “Who Goes There?”—the source material for three famous sf movies called The Thing—Campbell himself was not a memorable author).

Campbell’s editorship certainly wasn’t all bad even though American sf would certainly have been more varied and diverse had he not been such a dominating presence, but he is responsible for the “psi boom,” encouraging authors, no matter how much they didn’t buy into parapsychology, to write such tales for him as if they foretold our true evolutionary destiny. Yet there were certainly receptive audiences, during his day and long before and after the 1950s. These psi tropes, however, did fade out quickly within a few years; indeed, it was probably the biggest (and also, anticlimactically, quietest) bust in genre sf history.

The fad for extrasensory perception emerged out of the oft bizarre, not infrequently proto-fascist esoterica of the late-19th century Spiritualist movement—that again, has given us a lot of fun stories, albeit ones that weren’t at all meant to be silly at the time (except by profiteering hucksters and contemporary satirists). Still, many of the “metahuman” aspects of these fantasies will always be appealing, at least as fantasy.

Worthwhile (Nonmutant) “Psi” Yarns Still Appealing to Modern Audiences

Text Description automatically generated[1996 Vintage Books Demolished Man cover by Evan Gaffney; 2005 Gollancz SF Masterworks Dying Inside cover by Dominic Harman— The darkest takes on telepathy here]A picture containing text, water sport, swimming Description automatically generated

  • Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels (1950) and More Than Human (1953) (also for teleportation)
  • Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953) and (for teleportation) The Stars My Destination (1956)
  • Zenna Henderson’s “People” stories collected in Pilgrimage (1961) and The People (1966)
  • Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965)
  • James Schmitz’s The Witches of Karres (1966) and “Telzey Amberdon” series (1960s-70s) (also for various related superpowers)
  • Robert Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze (1968), The Second Trip (1972), and—an absolute sf classic—Dying Inside (1972).
  • Connie Willis’s Crosstalk (2016)—the most relatable here, given its connection to modern tech/social media
  • For psychometry (like Longshot!): Colin Wilson’s The Philosopher’s Stone (1969)
  • For telekinesis: Gordon R. Dickson’s epic pangalactic “Childe Cycle” (1950s-60s)
  • Jack Vance’s “Telek” (1952), in Minding the Stars: The Early Jack Vance, Vol 4 (2014)
  • For teleportation: Phyllis Eisenstein’s Born to Exile (1978) and Steven Gould’s Jumper (1992)
  • For all of the above: Andre Norton’s second and third novels of her “Forerunner” trilogy (1960s)
  • For paranormal empathy: Leigh Kennedy’s The Journal of Nicholas the American (1986)
  • Stanislaw Lem’s “Altruizine” (1965) in his Cyberiad collection (English trans 1974)

II. Killer Robots

This section will be blessedly brief; there’s simply too much material already out there!

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But it’s worth noting that during the WWII years, there was a marked shift in the pulps away from stories of robots portraying what Asimov called the “Frankenstein Complex”—feared and persecuted monstrosities that turned on and/or fled from their persecutors, in depictions that swung from fearful to sympathetic during the previous decades. In fact, at the beginning of the century, robots were treated as jokes or gags, barely concealing a widely felt fear over the seemingly absolute mechanization of society at the time (hey—do you really think people today were the first to freak out over roboticization?). Asimov’s ideals were contrary to all such fears; in his ideal (galactic) society, machines would basically run the show (infrastructure and other life-critical systems) while humanity got to do the fun stuff, thinking and sports, socializing and politicking, etc.—but all without violence.

One of my favorite sf authors, Alastair Reynolds, is the most recent to have fully worked out such ideas in his epic trilogy, “Poseidon’s Children” (2012-2015)—I cannot recommend it highly enough. It tackles human-animal relations, environmentalism, and a kaleidoscopic look at solar system colonization, as well (for those who loved Kim Stan Robinson’s 2312, though Reynolds’ epic is stronger on..

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