Ace science fiction - copyright 1951
(cover shown second printing 1961
35¢ cover price - 178 pages)
Book read in June 2000
Rating: 7/10 (Recommended)
Review by Aaron Hughes
One can make a strong case that A. E. van Vogt, who passed away on January 26, 2000, was one of the three writers, along with Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, who played the most important roles in ushering in the Golden Age of science fiction.
Van Vogt's influence on the field was substantial. The stories collected in The Voyage of the Space Beagle were perhaps the first to chronicle the adventures of the crew of a large, military-style starship exploring the universe, and doubtless influenced Gene Roddenberry strongly when he created Star Trek. (The Space Beagle first appeared in Astounding magazine in July 1939, about two years before the first of Eric Frank Russell's tales of the crew of the Marathon, which bear an even stronger resemblance to Star Trek. Earlier recurring stories about spaceship crews I am aware of featured much smaller, less organized bands of adventurers, most notably the two-man team in John W. Campbell, Jr.'s Penton and Blake stories.) One of the Space Beagle stories purportedly inspired the movie Alien - the resemblance was great enough that van Vogt brought a lawsuit against the filmmakers, which reportedly settled for a $50,000 payment. Reading The Weapon Shops of Isher also made me wonder if Philip K. Dick was among the many significant SF writers van Vogt influenced. Weapon Shops has several moments when the nature of reality seems to suddenly shift, as so often occurs in Dick's work.
In addition, van Vogt was a pioneer at revising and combining previously published short stories into novels, a practice many other writers emulated to find new audiences and enhance their financial rewards. Van Vogt even coined the term "fixup," still used to describe such novels. The Weapon Shops of Isher is an example of van Vogt's skills at crafting fixup novels. Weapon Shops is compiled out of short stories published in the 1940's, but van Vogt constructs a seamless novel out of them.
While readers in the 1940's likely would have ranked van Vogt alongside Asimov and Heinlein, he receives far less attention today. His works are reprinted only occasionally (including a new omnibus edition of The Weapon Shops of Isher and its sequel, The Weapon Makers, titled The Empire of Isher), and I seldom see him mentioned with the other elite Golden Age writers. Perhaps this is because he stopped writing new material in about 1950, devoting energy instead to L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics. After he finally returned to writing around 1969, the quality of his later work was unimpressive. (Of course, some people weren't so impressed with the later works of Asimov and Heinlein either.) Or perhaps van Vogt's outlandish, at times illogical, plots do not play well to modern audiences. (In some cases his books were illogical by design; The World of Null-A for example was intended to reflect "non-Aristotelian" logic.) Critic David Pringle has apparently taken the latter view, concluding that "[t]he works of van Vogt, which have provided so much escapist joy, are among the great embarrassments of modern SF."Well, I am not at all embarrassed to say I still enjoy reading van Vogt very much, and I urge those of you who have not done so already to give some of his early classics a try.
One of his classics that I had not previously read is The Weapon Shops of Isher. I finally got around to reading it now because it deals with the issue of the right to bear arms, which is so topical right now, particularly where I live, only a few miles from Columbine High School. In this novel, the eponymous weapon shops all bear the slogan, "The right to buy weapons is the right to be free."
In the distant future, the world has been unified under the empire of Isher, ruled by the young but ruthless Empress Innelda Isher. The only check on the power of the empress is the existence of the impervious weapon shops, which provide defensive weapons to ordinary citizens. Now the empress has constructed a gigantic machine, designed to create an invisibility shield to allow her forces to overwhelm the weapon shops. However, for no apparent reason (Did I mention the plot might be outlandish and illogical?), operation of the machine has caused a man from 1951 to be snatched far into the future, where he begins to swing back and forth through time, with the machine moving through time as well, as if on the other end of a temporal seesaw.
Meanwhile, in the sleepy little town of Glay, Fara Clark, a slightly dense devotee of the empress, is outraged that a weapon shop has opened for business, and determines to do something to drive the weapon makers away from his home. His rebellious son Cayle, on the other hand, is quite pleased by the weapon shop's appearance. He quickly befriends weapon maker Lucy Rall, who convinces him to leave home and run off to the big city. When he does, he soon receives an education on how dangerous and hopelessly corrupt Isher society really is. He is in constant danger, but has two things going for him. First, he has unparalleled "callidetic" talents - a pseudoscientific way of saying he is amazingly lucky. Second, unbeknownst to Cayle, Lucy is watching out for him, on the instructions of one of the leaders of the weapon makers, the enigmatic Robert Hedrock. Hedrock is hoping Cayle will prove the key to thwarting the schemes of Empress Innelda.
Van Vogt leaves little doubt where he stands on the gun issue with lines like, "He thought: The right to buy weapons - and his heart swelled into his throat; the tears came into his eyes." Yet the book doesn't get preachy. For one thing, van Vogt's point is much broader than the matter of guns. The weapon makers represent the libertarian spirit that refuses to submit to complete government control. Unfortunately, some of the impact of the fight for freedom is lost because the weapon makers are hardly valiant underdogs; rather, they are the ones with enormous technological and organizational advantages over the empire. The weapon shops are supposed to be an institution preventing any government from gaining too much power, but van Vogt doesn't explain what's to stop the weapon makers themselves from asserting absolute power over the entire world.
Van Vogt is so busy throwing plot twists and new SF elements at you, however, that there's really no time to get bogged down in political theory. It all makes for very fun reading, especially the moments of phildickian reality shifts. For example, at one stage in the novel a character makes a telestat (video phone) call and is startled to see his own face answer the call. Only after the book is over do you realize how random and unnecessary most of the added SF elements were. For instance, one of the characters is immortal, but there's nothing at all in the story that requires him to be immortal. Even Cayle's implausible "callidetic" powers weren't really crucial to the story.
The profoundly corrupt Isher society is very interesting, and the characterization is quite strong. Like Heinlein and, to a lesser extent, Asimov, van Vogt tends to turn his favorite characters into hyper-efficient supermen. (Hey, maybe we can add Ayn Rand to the list of authors influenced by van Vogt!) Thankfully, there are enough fallible characters here to hold the reader's interest. For much of the book Lucy Rall is a better realized female character than was commonly seen in the pulps of the 30's and 40's. (Later on, she finally settles into worrying about whether Cayle is going to marry her and becomes less interesting.) And Fara Clark is sympathetic as a hard-headed defender of the status quo who gradually has to face some of the problems with his society.Overall, this is a solid example of van Vogt's important early work, not without faults but certainly vibrant enough to entertain.
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Copyright © 2000 Aaron Hughes
cover art for Ace paperback edition
60¢ cover price - 156 pages