by A.E. van Vogt
As a lifelong reader of science fiction I can’t believe that I have never read any A E Van Vogt until now. Regarded by many as one of the most influential science fiction writers of the mid twentieth century, he was still writing into the 1980s. The Weapon Shops of Isher was published in 1951, and with the exception of a few references to “atomic energy” typical of the era, it stands up pretty well.
Like most good science fiction, the technology and scientific projections are only a small part of the whole. In this book, set on Earth several thousand years in the future, Van Vogt has created a world in which corruption and greed have become endemic and the power of the empire not necessarily where it should be.
In the world ruled by the house of Isher, there is an uneasy balance between the ruling dictatorship and the Weapon Shops, who offer freedom in the shape of firearms. Thrust into this unstable world is Chris McAllister, a news reporter from the twentieth century, who becomes pivotal in the conflict to come, in more ways than one.
Whilst Empress Innelda rules with absolute authority, she is uneasy about the level of corruption within her government. But changing a system that has become embedded over generations will not be easy. Alongside the political shenanigans is the story of Cayle Clarke, a young man from a poor background who finds himself shifting through time. In a plot linked to the twentieth century journalist, Cayle becomes close to the Empress and central to the shifting balances of power.
Despite being just over 120 pages long, The Weapon Shops of Isher has great depth of plot and characterisation. The book has great pace and is extremely well written; it is a great example of the best if mid-twentieth century science fiction. I just wish I hadn’t waited so long before reading Van Vogt.