A. E. van Vogt’s The Weapon Shops of Isher is one odd little science fiction novel. Part of its oddity undoubtedly stems from the fact that the author created the novel by combining three previously published short stories, a common practice in 1951 (when the novel was published in book form) and one to which van Vogt was particularly addicted. This has the result of making The Weapon Shops of Isher even more incoherent than it would have been anyway. In this case the incoherence doesn’t really matter. It’s no coincidence that Philip K. Dick was a huge fan of van Vogt’s work - it’s intentionally mind-bending and it throws a lot of ideas at the reader. Fortunately many of the ideas are rather good.
This novel is set on Earth, thousands of years into the future. This is the age of the Isher Empire. The current empress would like to rule with an iron hand but she cannot, because of the power of the weapon shops. The weapon shops are a kind of shadow government, but not quite. Whether they have any legal status is uncertain. Either way they exist and they are immensely powerful.
The empress has decided to break the power of the weapon shops, using a new energy weapon. The weapon shops however are far from defenceless. In this case their defence involves a manipulation of space and time that has the effect of hurling an unlucky mid-20th century newspaper reporter seven thousand years into the future - and that’s just the beginning of his misfortunes. The weapon shops also make use of Cayle Clark, a young man with some unusual abilities (including breath-taking luck at gambling).
The man behind the strategy of the weapon shops is Robert Hedrock, who happens to be immortal (among other useful attributes).
The plot will set your head spinning at times. This is an author who doesn’t worry too much about plausible future technologies. He just seems to enjoy tossing cool ideas around.
The most interesting, and the most controversial, aspects of the book are its political content and what appears to be a very strong pro-gun message. My advice is that whatever your views on the subject of guns don’t be put off by this - guns are not really the point of the story, they’re more a mechanism for driving an important element of the plot. Also don’t jump to the conclusion that this is a stereotypical right-wing fantasy - the politics of the novel are much more complex than that and can’t really be placed neatly on a left-right axis.
The Isher Empire is a monarchy with pretensions toward absolutism but in practice it’s nowhere near absolutist and certainly not totalitarian. The government is meddlesome and bureaucratic and would undoubtedly have become totalitarian but for a number of limiting factors. The first of these is the existence of the weapon shops. The weapon shops will sell people guns but the guns can only be used for self-defence. If you try to use them for any other purpose they simply won’t function. They are in effect intelligent guns. It should be noted though that the weapon shops define self-defence rather broadly. Their guns can be used not just to defend a person against a physical threat but also against a severe infringement of his rights. Weapon shop guns are also vastly more effective than the government’s guns. This has the effect of making outright tyranny or totalitarianism impossible since individuals can not only protect themselves against such threats; they can do so with a near certainty of success.
The government’s powers are also limited by the uncertain loyalty of the army and by corruption. The Isher government is very corrupt but in some ways this is a feature rather than a bug. Without the corruption the government would be much more efficient, and hence much more dangerous. This is a world in which real power is divided. Not officially and not willingly, but in practice no one group can gain a monopoly of power.
The empress is capricious, overbearing, arrogant and impetuous. She is also realistic, conscientious, courageous and generally well-meaning. A monarch has to take a long-term view. If a monarch makes a mess of things there may be no kingdom for the heirs to inherit. The empress therefore has to regard the empire as in some ways held in trust by her. That tends to encourage moderation and wisdom. The empire represents stability and while the weapon shops are watchful they are not actually opposed to the government. They simply oppose any extension of its power.
Apart from the politics the book also has some pretty cool ideas on time travel and time travel paradoxes. It’s also intriguing in that (like Larry Niven’s much later Ringworld) it treats luck as something real, something than can even be quantified. Cayle Clark’s success at gambling is no accident - given his abilities it is inevitable.
This novel is a product of a period in the history of the genre when an author could write an incredibly ambitious novel packed with ideas that is also very very short. Having started in the pulps van Vogt knew how to tell a story with admirable conciseness. There’s more emphasis on characterisation than you might expect. Both the empress and Cayle Clark are much more complex than the average protagonists of 1950s science fiction. The empress in particular is a rather fascinating personality and is far from being either a stereotypical heroine or villainess.
The Weapon Shops of Isher is a bit disjointed and it has its flaws. Robert Hedrock is a rather tedious infallible superman figure. Despite all this it’s an odd but exceptionally stimulating example of the science fiction of the golden age. Highly recommended.