The Weapon Shop series
by A. E. van Vogt

Review Essay by
Robert Wilfred Franson

The Weapon Shops of Isher
components appeared as —
  "The Seesaw", Astounding Science Fiction, July 1941
  "The Weapon Shop", Astounding Science Fiction, December 1942
  "The Weapon Shops of Isher", Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1949
rewritten into a novel for book publication —
Greenberg: New York, 1951
231 pages;

The Weapon Makers
Astounding Science Fiction, February-March-April, 1943
revised for book publication —
Hadley: Providence, 1947
224 pages

both novels collected in —

The Empire of Isher December 2001


Warning: more than a few plot surprises are discussed below,
as are a number of the astounding torrent of ideas,
but we hope this will encourage prospective readers of the novels.


The world of the Weapon Shops

A. E. van Vogt's two Weapon Shop science-fiction novels, The Weapon Shops of Isher and The Weapon Makers, give us multiple flashes of van Vogt's creativity at its best, but these flashes gleam fitfully through wisps of undeveloped background, shallow characters, and frequent really painful failures of style. Nevertheless, these classic stories from Astounding's Golden Age, are still being read — and we still may find them fascinating.

The Weapon Shop was in a glade of green and floral vegetation; it made a restful, idyllic picture between two giant buildings. The great, universal sign of the store told its old, old story to all who cared to see:

The Right to Buy Weapons is the Right to be Free

The window sign was the same, too, as in all the shops he had seen. The letters were smaller, but the words were just as positive:

The Finest Energy Weapons in the Known Universe

Neelan stood very still, staring at the gleaming display of revolvers and rifles. It wasn't that there was anything new here. For years he had carried one of those marvelous, defensive guns. The weapon was in place now, fitted snugly in its holster under his left shoulder. Seven times, in the days when he had lived by his remarkable gambling luck, that supergun had flashed its abnormal power.

No, definitely it wasn't the newness. It was that the very sight of a Weapon Shop always gave him an eerie sensation. It required a distinct mental reaching to realize that every Weapon Shop was an impregnable fort. And that bloodily earnest attempts had been made by the Isher government in long-gone years to smash the entire organization.

Let's start with the style and work up. In the above quotation from early in The Weapon Makers, the peaceful glade, all leafy and flowery, has its ambience trampled underfoot by the writer as by an uncaring giant: generic vegetation that makes a label for a place, not a place. This is not a scene, this is a note for a scene that didn't get written. It is symptomatic of these books that the physical environment is as bare as a minimalist stage-play. More about giant tramplings later — in the flesh.

The curse of surprise

Weapon Shops of Isher - cover by Earle Bergey The atomic engineer Neelan, one of three main viewpoint characters in The Weapon Makers, suffers to the full what I call the van Vogtian curse of surprise. Not only is Neelan often startled by events, and struck dumb by realizations — sometimes twice on the same page — but he is even surprised, confused, or dumbfounded by things he already knows. You would think that any half-wit, having carried a Weapon Shop gun for years and used it to save his own life seven times, ought to be able to look into a shop-window full of them and simply admire the display.

It's not as though the Weapon Shop organization is new; it's thousands of years old, and suffuses the Isher Empire. The even older Isher Empire dominates Earth and the Solar System and has for over 4700 years; the current hereditary Empress is the young woman, Innelda. She is an active, personal administrator and autocrat: more like a Tudor than a Windsor.

The third and central viewpoint character is Robert Hedrock, Earth's only immortal man (by means of a not-yet-repeatable scientific accident). Hedrock founded the Weapon Shops long before to create an enduring opposition to the Isher Empire, lest imperial stability turn into oppression without recourse.

Hedrock and Empress Innelda do a little better than Neelan and the secondary characters in The Weapon Makers at absorbing the slings and arrows of conversation and daily activities. But these constant startlements and realizations suffuse both novels; even as a teenage reader I found this uncomfortable and annoying.

Assembling the Weapon Shop series

A. E. van Vogt assembled several of his novels from shorter magazine stories, revising or rewriting for later publication. The curse of surprise is present to some degree in most of van Vogt's science fiction, but in the Weapon Shop novels, even after revisions, these announced surprises continually punish the reader. Note that this is not the reader's plentiful sense of wonder at van Vogt's extraordinary events and ideas. It is the awkward reaction of characters who do not live in their own world, rather have been dropped into it by the author. The startled characters seem to reflect the author's own ongoing surprise at his story elements.

Initial publication and revision history of the two novels suggest this authorial surprise; they have an unusually complex history, even for van Vogt, so I give the early details at the head of this review. The Weapon Shops of Isher components appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in 1941 and 1942, and in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1949; and were rewritten into a novel for book publication in 1951. The Weapon Makers was conceived as a novel, serialized in Astounding in 1943 and revised for book publication in 1947. (L. Ron Hubbard 's initial article "Dianetics" appeared in Astounding in May 1950; van Vogt's involvement with Dianetics was probably the most absorbing and fateful for any science-fiction writer other than Hubbard himself.)

I'm not sure it matters which Weapon Shop novel you read first; they are not quite a single novel in two volumes. The events overlap to a degree — and in the case of events in the time-travel subplot from "The Seesaw", to an infinite degree. These novels have rewards (and frustrations) not readily found elsewhere. They have the compelling headlong rush of a vivid cinematic dreaming, tonight's dream assembled jerkily from memorable earlier dream filmstrips. The projector's whirring sprockets tug the film along inevitably, flick-flickering from scene to scene, a great dramatic pull that will not bear stopping and thinking. This dream-rush is the power and the glory, as well as the weakness and confusion, of van Vogt's classic science-fiction novels; never more so than in these two.

Structurally free or libertarian?

The Isher Empire and the Weapon Shops organization between them rule the world and the Solar System, and are curiously intertwined, and in the person of immortal Robert Hedrock even interpenetrating. Despite the vaunted Imperial stability, van Vogt portrays the Isher world as full of ignorance and corruption; a little plot byplay depends on the fact that Imperial officers must buy their commissions or otherwise bribe their way upwards. The Weapon Shops are run by a secret council, a shadow government essentially hidden from the population at large.

Aside from the talk of freedom, and of course the Weapon Shops' reason for existence, there really is little that is structurally free or libertarian in this rivalry of giant systems. Nor, for that matter, do we have much sense of conservative tradition, nor liberal empathy for the downtrodden, nor radical impulse to make major improvements. We do have armed ignoramuses from the lowest peasants, soldiers, and crooks, to the very highest level of Empress Innelda, Robert Hedrock, and the Weapon Shops Council. The Isher Empire / Weapon Shops world is not one you want to live in, or even get caught in, guns or no guns. This is perhaps accidentally symbolized by the fate of one innocent present-day fellow (originally in the story "The Seesaw") who does pass through the grinding mill-wheels of Isher and Weapon Shops, and is rewarded with a quite horrific off-stage fate in The Weapon Shops of Isher.

Van Vogt's creative torrent —

he Exide Giant - Electric Storage Battery Co. advert, May 1918 (small) The underdeveloped background makes me feel that a truly great novel or series might have been made out of all this Weapon Shop series material:

The right of individual self-defense, embodied in the Weapon Shops' ability to guarantee each non-government person's right to buy and carry a weapon.

Imperial stability, with personal rule and the attendant corruption, throughout the Solar System and enduring for millennia.

Time travel is important to the plots of both books; but always seemed to me as mostly a gimmick here, allowing Robert Hedrock to be a deus ex machina for trick entrances and exits, rather than an integral part of the Isher events.

Robert Hedrock, founder of the Weapon Shops, is immortal. Considering that Hedrock is as busy as Hercules juggling his Twelve Labors — including wooing the young Empress Innelda — this is almost essential.

The Weapon Shops have the secret of instantaneous transportation, even between Earth and Mars; this means no individual shop can be blocked from setting up, nor successfully besieged. A tremendous concept; less of a wild card in the plot only when we compare it to immortality and time travel.

The Weapon Shops also have the secret of personal magnification, so at the metabolic cost of five years of lifespan, a man can bestride a city like a colossus for half an hour. Effectively, only an immortal such as Robert Hedrock can make much use of this. And Hedrock deploys as a giant only to smash up some cities as a distraction to the Empress Innelda, and an offstage tease to the reader.

There are available psychological training courses of great sophistication.

Taking a hint from such training, even the van Vogtian curse of surprise could have been worked in positively — perhaps as a symptom of, and clue to, psychological manipulation.

Two major characters, one in each novel, have gambler's luck to an extreme degree. One of these with time-travel-loop self-help turns gambling riches into immense business holdings, and is termed a callidetic giant. (The OED says that callidity means craftiness or cunning, which may be what van Vogt thinks about successful gamblers and financiers.)

The Isher Empire has developed the secret of invisibility.

And independent inventors have stumbled on the unreproducible secret of faster-than-light interstellar travel.

— But without time for development

I say secret above because these tremendous advances in science and technology often seem to be awarded by caprice of the author, rather than developed within the Isher / Weapon Shops world. With so much material, van Vogt's Weapon Shop novels read somewhat like stage-plays, the rapid adventures almost submerged in a Dostoevsky environment of psychological encounter, awkward conversation, and agonizing self-reflection.

I write a story with a full and conscious knowledge of technique. Whenever my mind blurs, no matter how slightly, on a point of technique, there my story starts to sag, and I have to go back, consciously think it over, spot the weakness, and repair it according to the principles by which I work.

A. E. van Vogt
"Complication in the Science Fiction Story"
in the 1947 symposium Of Worlds Beyond,
edited by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach

We won't get into the star-travelling alien spiders, except to mention that they function as omniscient commentators and last-minute omnipotent plot-fixers, really as the Weapon Shops' spider-gods ex machina.

Readers may be surprised creatively;
but characters should live in their world

A. E van Vogt has more sympathetic characters elsewhere, as in Slan; does a much more thoughtful job of suggesting a futuristic psychology in The Voyage of the Space Beagle; and neatly portrays subtle out-of-phase menace (no giants) and instantaneous transportation in The World of Null-A and The Players of Null-A. And guns? Well, for reliant, armed, thoughtfully libertarian cultures, Robert A. Heinlein's characters in Beyond This Horizon and Red Planet actually live and function in their societies, aware of the requirements of freedom.

Could the Weapon Shop novels have been written differently? Given van Vogt's unique approach and style, maybe not. It would take more than van Vogt's brilliant creativity, it would demand the strength of a creative Hercules to integrate all their included elements; the master of imagination to be also a master of construction. The effective demigod Robert Hedrock gives it the old immortal try, and the wildly straying dream-plot ends do wrap up, more or less. But the real weakness is that van Vogt's characters here fall so far short of their own time and place.

In both The Weapon Shops of Isher and The Weapon Makers we have important characters who are staggeringly innocent and uneducated concerning their own milieu, both wholesale and detail. And of course, educated or not, they all are surprised almost every time they see a man, a building, a thought, or a memory. These are not good references for the nearly five thousand years of Isher civilization, tempered by the Weapon Shops. If millennial Imperial stability plus resolute armed individual freedom can do no better than this, they all should have tried something else, at least four thousand years earlier.

The Weapon Shop novels are a flawed cornucopia, yet in their own way sparkling, quick-paced, and fascinating; and despite my complaints have brought me back for multiple readings. These novels may surprise you; sometimes they still surprise me.


© 2001 Robert Wilfred Franson

Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1949 cover
by Earle Bergey

Livelong at Troynovant
longevity & immortality

Mentality at Troynovant
the mind and mental operation

Time at Troynovant
temporal philosophy and travel

The "Exide" Giant Dominates
The Electric Storage Battery Co.
advertisement, May 1918

Utopias at Troynovant
utopia in power, or dystopia

Weapontake at Troynovant
weapons, martial arts;
gun rights, freedom of self-defense

Component stories "The Seesaw" and "The Weapon Shop" have been much anthologized; and both novels have appeared in multiple editions. Easiest to find may be the combination edition, The Empire of Isher (2000) — which politically-correct title avoids Weapon, the key word of both original novels' titles.


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