Thursday, October 31, 2013

"The Weapon Shop" by A. E. Van Vogt

Van Vogt is a strange writer, with a writing style that can be confusing and disconcerting; this often suits Van Vogt’s purpose, as his plots often involve a person discovering shocking and incredible secrets, exploring bizarre worlds that were hidden in plain sight, realizing unusual new powers, and the like.  Van Vogt has some serious weaknesses as a writer, but his wacky, surprising plots and unusual points of view always provide a wild ride, so I keep reading him, and am always willing to forgive his excesses and mistakes the way you forgive a close friend or family member their little eccentricities.

“The Weapon Shop” is one of Van Vogt’s more famous stories; it first appeared in 1942, and I read it in the 1971 collection M33 in Andromeda, with the cover blurb, “Six shattering stories by science fiction’s mastermind” and the exciting plot synopses on the back cover under the heading “AN SF SUPER SIXPACK.”

In the far future the Solar System is ruled by the Empress Innelda Isher, 1180th of her line.  Fara Clark is a loyal subject of the Empress, hard-working, honest, conservative.  Clark has always tried to do the right thing, but his son is a slacker with loose morals whose rank misbehavior leaves Clark vulnerable to predatory businesses owned by the Empress herself.  Disastrously indebted, Clark loses his savings and his small business, and sees no way out other than suicide.

During this crisis there appears in Clark’s small conservative town one of the mysterious Weapon Shops, emblazoned with its motto, “The right to buy weapons is the right to be free.”  The Imperial government and its loyal supporters like Clark detest the Weapon Shops, but the Weapon Makers have a technology so superior to that of the Imperial government that they are invulnerable.  Clark investigates the shop, and slowly comes to realize how corrupt and tyrannical the Empress and her government are, and that the Weapon Shops exist in order to provide some measure of relief from the injustices of the Imperial government, and to help to gradually reform the morals of the people of the solar system.   The shops choose not to overthrow the Imperial government, because it is the people who must change if the government is to change; one of the Weapon Makers says, “People always have the kind of government they want.”

This is a fun and interesting story.  The style is less bewildering than some of Van Vogt's work, and the triumph of a decent man over a corrupt government at the end of the story is cathartic.  However, the “Weapon Shop” is also a utopian wish-fulfillment story that ignores much of the complexity and tension of real life that informs good literature.  The idea of an institution of superior power that exists to redress the wrongs committed by corrupt governments is very appealing, and was perhaps particularly appealing in the world of 1942.  But, in the same way the invincibility of Clark Kent detracts from the tension of much Superman material, the invincibility of the Weapon Makers renders the story more of a fable than a drama.

The magic of the Weapon Makers’ technology also serves to undercut the message of responsibility that Van Vogt seeks to convey with the aphorism, “People always have the kind of government they want.”  For one thing, it is clear that the guns the Weapon Makers sell cannot be used to commit murder or other crimes – this removes responsibility from the hands of the gun owner.  Additionally, the guns generate a force field which other ray guns cannot penetrate, removing much of the risk of resisting the Imperial government.  In real life, supporters of the right to bear arms have to face the fact that sometimes weapons get in the hands of evil or deranged people, and those who advocate resistance to tyranny have to face the fact that people who stand up to tyranny often die at the hands of tyrants.  The magical weapons in Van Vogt’s story turn these moral dilemmas into no-brainers.

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