Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Weapon Shops of Isher by A. E. Van Vogt

"These men," she said, "go around surreptitiously using transparencies.  The first thing they discover is if you're wearing a weapon shop gun.  Then they leave you strictly alone."
Cayle's face hardened.  "Could I borrow yours?" he asked tautly.  "I'll show those skunks."
The girl shrugged.  "Weapon shop guns are tuned to individuals," she said.  "Mine wouldn't work for you.  And besides, you can use it only for defense." 

The Weapon Shops of Isher, first published in book form as a hardcover in 1951, is a fix-up of three stories from the 1940s, "Seesaw" and "The Weapon Shop," which appeared in Astounding, and "The Weapon Shops of Isher," which saw light in Thrilling Wonder Stories. (Back in late 2013 I read the version of "The Weapon Shop" which was reprinted in M33 In Andromeda in 1971.)  Early this week I read the Ace paperback printing of the novel (# 87855) from 1969 with the quite cool cover illustration by John Schoenerr.  The Weapon Shops of Isher has been reprinted many times, and served as the inspiration for numerous impressive illustrations; two of my faves are below.

Seven thousand years in the future the Solar System is ruled by the House of Isher, which sits atop a corrupt and decadent bureaucracy.  The young Empress Innelda is the latest in this long line of tyrants, and she is not happy with the status quo.  Her family has ruled for over four thousand years, but for some three thousand of those years a second power center has existed which has served to limit the depredations of the Isher government: the Weapon Shops.  The Weapon Shops sell to honest citizens small arms which are "the finest in the known universe," ray guns with integrated force fields that are proof against the government's own ray guns.  Thusly armed, a person is more or less safe from both government interference and from the many criminals the incompetent and corrupt police force is unable or unwilling to control. Dedicated to a policy of non-aggression, the Weapon Shops won't directly overthrow the government, but act as a check on its many abuses.  Over time the weapon makers hope to educate the masses and improve public morals such that a more just government will evolve.  Innelda hopes to repair her Empire by radical action, first destroying the Weapon Shops and thus increasing her own power, and then instituting reforms of the government and culture herself.

Based as it is on three separate stories, this novel follows three main plot threads; these are somewhat interwoven, but for the most part the tales of C. J. MacAllister, Fara Clark and Cayle Clark are confined to their own chapters, and the narrative periodically switches between these threads.

The heart of the novel, and its philosophical core, is the tale of Fara Clark, which was told in the 1942 story "The Weapon Shop." Fara, a small businessman in a small town, starts out the novel as the most dedicated of adherents to the Empress's cult of personality, and gradually learns of her, and his society's, corruption and decadence.  As a result he becomes a customer and supporter of the Weapon Shops.  It is in these chapters that Van Vogt presents his philosophical points ("The Right to Buy Weapons is the Right to Be Free" and "People always have the kind of government they want") and the most realistic and literary character in the novel, Clark himself.

The MacAllister plot thread, I am assuming from "Seesaw," is the briefest, and serves to ground the story in the present day and add the climactic "sense of wonder" these old SF works often strive for.  Empress Innelda hopes to crush the Weapon Shops, which prevent her from achieving totalitarian power, but the Shops are rendered practically invulnerable by technology far superior to that of the government, like their teleporters and force fields. At last the Empress' scientists have developed a form of energy that can blow away the Weapons Shops.  A bizarre side effect of the use of this new energy is to suck a man from the past, 1951 to be exact, into the present of the novel. This poor sap, reporter C. J. MacAllister, finds himself in a Weapon Shop, charged with so much "time-energy" that, should he touch anything that isn't properly insulated, he will explode with enough force to destroy the Earth.

The Weapon Shop personnel put MacAllister in an insulating space suit and sending him bouncing back and forth through time.  In a way I could not begin to understand, MacAllister acts as the weight on one end of a lever ("seesaw") of time energy, with the colossal generator that powers the Empress's new war machines on the other end. While MacAllister shifts back and forth in time, so does the generator building, which appears and disappears at intervals, buying time for the Weapon Shop boffins to develop a defense against the Empress' new weapon.  With each bounce MacAllister is hurled further forward in time or further back in time, until he is floating in space in time periods during which the Solar System is long decayed, or yet to be born.  In the mind-blowing final paragraph of the novel, we learn that it is the explosion of MacAllister at the dawn of time that created the Solar System in the first place!

The lengthiest sections of the novel come from the 1949 novella, "The Weapon Shops of Isher."  These chapters serve to add action and sex to the novel, and follow Fara Clarke's son, the somewhat listless Cayle, who has been living at home in his twenties but refuses to work at his father's repair shop.  Cayle leaves his family's little home town for Imperial City, where he experiences first hand how exploitative and inefficient the government is.  For example, while flying to Imperial City he is robbed by the crooks that the government monopoly airships tolerate (because the government gets a cut from the thieves.)

Cayle is a "callidetic," which means he is very lucky (shades of Larry Niven!) and the Weapon Shop's high council suspects he will become important in their struggle with the Empress.  They assign a resourceful and attractive woman, Lucy Rall, to watch over him, and Cayle, a hick from the sticks, definitely needs someone to watch over him in that hive of scum and villainy we call Imperial City!  Lucy and Cayle fall in love while she shows him around town, and then she spends a lot of time and energy doing detective stuff, trying to find him once he's been kidnapped.  Lucy discovers that Cayle has been put to work at "The House of Illusion," an establishment that amounts to a bordello that caters to older women who desire the company of young men.  Lucy infiltrates the House of Illusion, but before she can rescue Cayle he gets shipped to the frontier world of Mars to work as a laborer!

In the end Cayle, hardened by his experiences in the big city (like being whipped in the House of Illusion) has the audacity to get his ass back to Earth and into the Imperial court, where he makes cunning use of time travel to neuter the Empress' new super weapon, save the Weapon Shops, make himself rich, and marry Lucy.

My favorite parts of the novel, beyond the material in the original "The Weapon Shop" story, are probably the descriptions of life in the decadent metropolis of Imperial City.  Van Vogt tells us all about the futuristic devices (energy drinks, hand-held lie detectors and x-ray machines, air taxis, solar power, etc.) there and the innumerable skyscrapers, like the 80-story-tall men's clothier which occupies three city blocks.  There you can buy a swimsuit or a ski parka, and then use them on the artificial indoor beach or ski slope encompassed within the store's vast acreage.  The House of Illusion scenes are also quite good.  Van Vogt succeeds in making the strange Empire of Isher come to life.      

The Weapon Shops of Isher is a classic of Golden Age SF, full of crazy ideas and plot twists that are all a lot of fun.  It is also recognized as an important text in the history of libertarian SF, having been inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 2005. Definitely worth the time of the classic SF fan.

Next up, the second novel of the Isher saga, The Weapon Makers.

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