Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Weapon Makers by A. E. Van Vogt

Before Hedrock could explain the simple elements of human nature involved, the titanic thunder raged down again at his mind:


Like many of his stories, the publication history of A. E. Van Vogt's body of work can be quite confusing.  The Weapon Makers is considered a sequel to The Weapon Shops of Isher (it appears after The Weapon Shops of Isher in omnibus editions of the two novels, for example) but The Weapon Makers appeared in book form before The Weapon Shops of Isher did, and it was serialized in three issues of Astounding in 1943, years before one of the component stories of The Weapon Shops of Isher appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1949.  I guess what matters is that the events recounted in The Weapon Makers take place seven years after those described in The Weapon Shops of Isher.

Greenberg's fun logo
I own a hardcover copy of The Weapon Makers, published by Greenberg in 1952.  This is a revised edition; apparently the text is different from the text in the 1943 serial and the 1947 hardcover edition by Hadley.  This week, immediately after reading its predecessor, I cracked open the 63-year old volume.

In The Weapon Shops of Isher we met Hedrock, a relatively minor character who was, secretly from everybody, immortal.  Hedrock is a big wig in the Weapon Shop hierarchy, and in The Weapon Makers he is our main protagonist.  We learn he became immortal thousands of years ago in a freak accident related to a technique that physically enlarges living things.  Over the centuries since, he has killed thousands of rats in experiments (don't tell the folks at PETA!), trying to duplicate the accident so he can offer immortality to the entire human race (don't tell the folks at ZPG!)

Over the course of The Weapon Makers we learn some of the many things Hedrock has been up to in his long life, each of them dedicated to the purpose of guiding the human race to a finer future.  Hedrock, for example, founded the Weapons Shops which have served to limit the excesses of a tyrannical government, and has often married and fathered members of the House of Isher, the rulers of that government.

Hedrock, who in the novel often performs as a super spy and super detective, has insinuated himself into the court of Empress Innelda, but in the first chapters of the book both the Empress and the Weapon Shops become suspicious of him--Innelda orders him executed at once, and the Council of the Weapon Shops eventually comes around to her belief that Hedrock must die.  Hedrock finds himself on the run from both of the powerful institutions that dominate the Empire of Isher.

That artillery piece is a mere
"ninety-thousand cycle unit"
Our main plot concerns the fact that a small team of scientists, independent of both the House of Isher and the Weapon Shops, have developed an interstellar drive.  Innelda wants to stifle this development, because she knows that her subjects will flee her rule as soon as they can get out of the Solar System.  The Weapon Shops want the secret of this invention revealed to the people.  Hedrock is right there in the thick of things when a criminal who has stolen the interstellar ship from the scientists hides it in plain sight in the middle of Imperial City, and the Empress's army, backed up by heavy energy artillery ("one-hundred-million cycle guns") storms the vessel.  Hedrock makes use of the interstellar drive and escapes to the far reaches of outer space, where he meets powerful aliens that look like spiders.

These aliens are totally lacking in any emotion and absolutely selfish, and send Hedrock back to Earth in order to study him.  As the incredulous spider people observe, Hedrock, Innelda, and other people take risks and make sacrifices in the interests of abstract causes and their fellow human beings.

In the Earthbound climax of the story, Hedrock uses that growth technique to make himself 150 feet tall and, reminding me of my favorite sequence from Little Nemo in Slumberland as well as my beloved Godzilla, marches through dozens of cities, smashing buildings and demanding that Innelda release the secret of the interstellar drive.  All the while Innelda's flying navy pursues him, blasting away with their batteries of energy cannon.  (Libertarian readers take heart: before launching this act of Brobdingnagian terrorism Hedrock has memorized the locations of the many businesses he has secretly acquired and developed over the centuries, and so all the buildings he is kicking over are his own!  And he attacks on the weekend when nobody is at work!)  This scene took me by surprise, even though Van Vogt had cleverly foreshadowed it and it appears on the cover of Italian edition of the book.

Hedrock the Immortal is probably a better title
 for the novel than The Weapon Makers

Perhaps just as startling, in the same chapter as the kaiju scene it is revealed why Empress Innelda has been making so much trouble for everybody by launching her costly attacks on the Weapon Shops: she is sexually frustrated!  Luckily, there's a cure for that--marry the man she has loved against her own will since she met him: Hedrock!  (Don't expect to see a glowing notice of The Weapon Makers in the book review section of Ms. anytime soon.)

Having a husband, and the prospect of having children, revolutionizes Innelda's whole psychology.  But tragedy strikes nine months after Hedrock and Innelda's wedding--suffering through a catastrophically difficult childbirth, Innelda must choose to sacrifice the baby, or herself.  Determined that the bloodline of Isher continue to hold the throne, she dies that her child with Hedrock might live.  

In the novel's final "sensawunda" paragraph the spider people, having witnessed the altruism and love they have never before encountered among any other civilization, realize that the human race is the greatest of all intelligent species and will someday rule the universe.  (At least I think that is what the mysterious final sentence of the novel means.) 

Full to bursting with ray guns, rocket ships, time travel, space aliens, mental powers, declasse political and psychological theories, and bizarre plot twists, The Weapon Makers is very entertaining.  And I have to admit that, having read and seen so much SF that argues that humans are a bunch of jerks and aliens or elves (or even Neanderthals!) are our superiors and should be telling us what to do, I enjoyed the ending which asserted that humans are the greatest thing in the universe.

A brilliant example of Golden Age SF, with all the characteristic elements people love or hate about the SF of the '40s and '50s.


My next read: A Van Vogt novel from the same period of his career as the Isher books, The House That Stood Still.


  1. I had the hardcover with an intact jacket. Alas, my "valuable baseball card" moment came when my family got rid of that (and several other nice early books by various writers) when I was away!

    van Vogt has a special part in my heart even though many of his books and stories read like confused dreams. Amazing concepts and wacky plots, a new direction every 1,000 or so words, good stuff.

  2. I just realized, by looking at ebay and abebooks, how valuable the dust jacket to this edition of Weapon Makers can be. I can't recall what I paid for mine, probably just a few dollars. As you can see, the jacket is a wreck.