4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Mass Market Paperback
There are some critics like Colin Wilson who view A.E. van Vogt as a profound philosophical science fiction writer. I suspect that rather more critics side with Damon Knight, who finds van Vogt to be a writer of almost no literary value at all. My own view is a bit more mixed. I find that many of van Vogt's novels (_The Beast_, _Rogue Ship_, _Darkness at Diamonda_) are awesomely bad. A few others (_The War Against the Rull_, _The Silkie_) are passable space operas. And then there are those that are part fairy tale, part mad inspiration, part dream sequence, and part pseudoscientific doubletalk that actually deserve their reputation: _Slan_ (1946), _The Book of Ptath_ (1947), _The World of Null A_ (1948), and _The Voyage of the Space Beagle_ (1950). For all their faults, these novels have a pizzazz and energy that transcend literary polish.
_The Weapon Shops of Isher_ (1951) belongs in this third category of van Vogt's novels. It is one of his most skillful fixup novels, based on novelettes from _Astounding_ and _Thrilling Wonder_ in the 1940s.
We are presented with a lot of the gee-whiz trappings that we come to expect of van Vogt at his best. There is an Empire ruled by a beautiful, but willful and ruthless Empress. In loyal opposition, there are the powerful Weapon Shops that bear the libertarian motto:
THE RIGHT TO BUY WEAPONS IS THE
RIGHT TO BE FREE (21)
There is the obligatory van Vogt superman, Robert Hedrock, who (it develops) has something to do with both the Empire and the Shops, and who has an agenda of his own. And there is McAllister, the hapless newsman, who has become a kind of human pendulum swinging through space-time:
The newsman was now the juggernaut of all juggernauts. In all the universe there had never been anything like the power that was accumulating, swing by swing, in his body. Released, the explosion would rock the fabric of space. All time would sigh to its echoes and the energy tensions that created the illusion of matter might collapse before the strain. (78)
But perhaps the real secret of the success of the novel is that much of the action is told from the point of view of three "little people": Fara, a pompous small-town shopkeeper; Cayle, his rebellious but naive son; and Lucy, a brave but impulsive agent for the Weapon Shops. Part of the fun of the novel is watching Fara learn the way of the Weapon Shops, Cayle learn the ways of the City and Mars, and Lucy fend for herself when the Shops cast her adrift. We see these characters grow and change, and their interactions with one another mature.
There are sections of mad invention:
Swiftly he held one of the rings on his finger against an ordinary looking electric socket. A loop of metal slid out. He inserted his finger into the loop and pulled. What happened in that moment was an ordinary enough weapon shop phenomenon. He was transmitted by a weapon shop matter transmitter a distance of about eleven hundred miles into one of his numerous laboratories...
He decided that he could safely remain an hour. (83-84)
And there are other sections that seem dreamlike:
Twice, involuntarily, she slowed. The first time, something soft seemed to caress her face. It was almost as if a loving hand reached out and deliberately touched her, with affectionate fingers. The second time, the result was more dramatic. She caught her breath suddenly. A flush burned her face and down her body...
It was in just such nuances that the House of Illusion excelled. Here, tired old roues... could recapture for a price otherwise lost emotions of their abused bodies. (93-94)
What, then, of the pseudoscience? In other novels, van Vogt makes use of Nexiallism, non-Aristotelianism, the Bates system of eye exercises, and Dianetics. I have suggested elsewhere that the wise reader will not take these hobbyhorses too seriously. In _The Weapons Shops of Isher_, we don't have a pseudoscience so much as we have the libertarian philosophy of the Weapon Shops. I am afraid that many younger readers will be led astray by this. They will claim that the novel is a solemn philosophical defense of the second amendment and the National Rifle Association. The truth is that a van Vogt novel-- even a good van Vogt novel-- is never a terribly rational affair. Van Vogt was always more concerned with telling a kind of creative science fiction fairy tale more than he was promoting a rational philosophy. Many times he failed in a spectacular manner. This is not one of his failures. Not by a long shot. Oh, and did I mention that the novel has what Anthony Boucher called one of the greatest curtain lines in all of science fiction?
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Sounds like a blurb from the NRA, but in fact this slogan is one of the lynch-pins of one of the most complicated and headlong adventures that van Vogt (often called the master of the re-complicated story) ever wrote.
The Weapon Shops, like many of his stories, was actually written and published as several stories before being collected and somewhat edited into book form. In this case, the major portions were published as "The Seesaw" (Astounding, July 1941), "The Weapon Shop" (Astounding, Dec 1942), and "The Weapon Shops of Isher (Thrilling Wonder Stories, Feb. 1949). It is important to note the age of these stories, written as they were during the so-called `Golden Age' of science fiction, when ideas were far more important than character or great prose style. This book is absolutely replete with ideas, but the prose, dialogue, and character development certainly leave something to be desired when compared to modern novels. While reading this book you need to let the story line and ideas overwhelm you, and ignore some of the more blatant excesses in writing style.
It starts with a Weapon Shop magically appearing in a 1950 neighborhood. When a policeman attempts to open its door, he finds it locked - but when a newspaperman tries it just a minute later, it opens - and the newspaperman finds himself in the Isher Empire, which has been around for 4700 years, and where the Weapon Shops effectively form the `opposition' to this government. This is plot thread number one. The second thread is that of a young man wishing to leave his provincial village and make his fortune in the big city - where he finds that he is a `callidetic giant', able to beat any game of chance, and ends up amassing a fortune so large that he can upset the economic stability of the Empire. Thread three involves the world's only immortal, Robert Hedrock, who was instrumental in establishing both the Empire and the Weapon Shops, the first to provide a stable form of government, the second to ensure that the Empire can neither stagnate nor become an unopposed dictatorship. Stir in invisibility, time travel, and the secret of faster-than-light propulsion and you have an explosive mix that will keep you turning pages as fast as you can (and don't you dare think about the plausibility of any of this!).
I think I first read this book around 1960, when I was about twelve, and many of the images of this book made a large impression on me: the casinos and their very futuristic gambling machines, the giant computer that kept track of all the vital statistics of every person in the solar system, the idea of waging war by shifting in time, the `brothels' of the day, even the `energy weapons' that the Weapon Shops sold. Reading it today, these same items still fascinate - and the ending is still an explosive bang.
The thematic point of the right to have weapons strong enough to protect the individual from any government excesses is a major one, and certainly was very topical when it was written at the height of WWII. However, this point is not examined very closely for its downside, because in the story such weapons could `sense' whether or not the person purchasing it had the appropriate mental outlook - an easy way out of the problems seen by today's society with too many weapons freely available to almost anyone.
This is possibly his strongest novel, certainly at least as good as his Slan and The World of Null-A, as here all the various ideas and plot threads do seem to come together in a cohesive whole, something that could not be said about a lot of his works. And it is a pell-mell, head-over-heels, fun and fascinating read.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)