Friday, 13 November 2009

The Weapon Shops of Isher, and The Weapon Makers, by A E Van Vogt

These books were first published in around 1950 although their content had previously appeared in magazines. They are set some seven thousand years hence in a future in which the Earth is ruled by an Empress with almost absolute power, opposed only by an organisation called "The Weapon Shops". This maintains invulnerable stores around the planet at which citizens can buy vastly more sophisticated energy guns than any available to the Imperium. Among other things, they feature what is known today as "smart" technology; they can only be fired by their owners, and only in self-defence. The shops are also smart, and won't let in Imperium employees. Their slogan is "The right to buy weapons is the right to be free".

In The Weapon Shops of Isher, a man from the present enters one of these shops which is briefly transported into our time, and finds himself carried into the far future. Most stories with a start like this would then focus on the adventures of the present-day hero, but Van Vogt is not so obvious; the man has a peripheral role although, as it turns out at the end, a pivotal one. The time displacement has been caused by the huge energies brought to bear in an attack on the Weapon Shops by the Empress, who has become tired of their resistance to her control, and the story is about the war between these two powers. Two other key characters are Cayle Clark, a young man of great potential from a country village who tries to make his way in the big city, and Robert Hedrock, the immortal man who first established the Weapon Shops thousands of years before and who covertly returns to them under different identities every few generations.

The Weapon Makers returns to the same setting a few years later. There is an uneasy stand-off between the Empress and the Weapon Shops, but this stability is threatened by a radical new invention which prompts a struggle for the future of the Imperium. The principal characters remain the same with the exception of Cayle Clark, who receives not a mention despite his key role in the previous work. This time the focus is firmly on Robert Hedrock, who pretends to be a traitor to the Weapon Shops in order to gain a position of trust with the Empress. But as his unique status is gradually revealed he finds himself under attack from all sides, including some all-powerful arachnoid aliens.

It is possible to pick lots of logical holes in these stories. The people in the future speak exactly the same brand of English as our present-day man. It is incredible that after thousands of years all of the resources of the Imperium could not find a way of duplicating or defeating Weapon Shop technology. Why only one man should be immortal, and how that happened, is not even addressed in the first story and not explained in the second, except as some sort of accident. The characterisation is also very thin (as always with SF stories of this era) although adequate to carry the story. However, these tales are rich with the famous "sense of wonder" and the optimistic view that all things are possible, and they are intended to be absorbed rather than critically analysed. They are arguably closer to fantasy than to SF.

There are also some strong points in the stories. The way in which Cayle Clark falls foul of the traps of the big city and the endemic corruption which prevents even the Empress from getting her way are convincingly portrayed. In fact, the first book is rather more involving than the second because of this focus on his personality and the way in which he reacts to his situation. Hedrock is a far more fantastic, less credible super-hero and the reader never doubts his ability to survive.

Despite the flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading these books (for the first time in four decades). It is unfair to apply the standards of modern literature to them; they are of their time, and what a time it was for SF!


Fred said...

Good review. My feelings about the work exactly. They're for fun and wonder and not for critical analysis. I just reread them last year for the first time in decades and was surprised, and gratified, to see how well they had held up. I had heard rumors about a possible third book in the series, but fortunately, nothing came of it.

Anthony G Williams said...

Indeed - beware all long-delayed sequels (especially if they're co-authored with someone else!)

Fred said...

Very sound advice.