|Tempo Books, cover art Paul Lehr|
I was supposed to read The Weapon Shops of Isher first, then this one. That's because it was published in novel form in 1952, a year after the other novel. It was again republished as One Against Eternity as part of an Ace Double. But really, I don't think it matters which one should be read first because, like most of the A.E. van Vogt stories and novels I've read, The Weapon Makers doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense by the time you're done.
Not to say that's a bad thing. This novel is such a Snap-Crackle-Whiz-Bang-Pulp of a Science Fiction adventure that plot and logic goes out the window in all the shit that's going on.
This one is about Captain Robert Hedrock and the struggle between the House of Isher and the Weapon Shops. The current Empress is the beautiful Innelda Isher who, at the start of the novel has just ordered the capture and death sentence of Hedrock for being a spy. Hedrock gets advance notice of this order and manages to escape Innelda Isher's soldiers from a banquet hall, seeking sanctuary at the The Weapon Shops headquarters. Much to Hedrock's consternation, the Weapon Makers have issued their own death sentence on Hedrock, because they believe he is a spy for the House of Isher. You see, there's been a several thousand year long uneasy balance between the House of Isher and the Weapon Shops, which were designed to build and store weapons that could only be used in self defense against a tyrannical government. These Weapon Shops came about after the destruction of around a billion people in a war that just about destroyed the Earth and around the same time House of Isher rose to power from the nuclear ashes.
So anyway, Hedrock manages to flee the Weapon Makers and escape into an underground laboratory where he's promptly attacked by a giant rat! The giant rat is the by-product of experiments that Hedrock has been conducting for the past several hundred years in an attempt to understand and harness the radioactive chain of events that made him immortal thousands of years ago. That's right, Hedrock is immortal...just go with it. Anyway, Hedrock is now on the hunt for a cat named Derd Kershaw, who has apparently come up with a design for an interstellar rocket ship that both the Weapon Shops and the House of Isher are determined to get their hands on. Apparently having this method of space travel at one's control insures superiority over one's enemies. Don't ask me why.
Hedrock's seach for Derk Kershaw leads him to twin brothers Gil and Dan Neeland. It turns out that Gil is looking for his brother Dan, who was involved in the rocket design that Derd Kershaw was overseeing. Through a confusing series of events Hedrock gets a job as a rocket designer for a suspicious dude named Greer, but when Hedrock reports to Greer he discovers that the building they're working in is really a hangar hiding the Kershaw's rocket ship! I'm throwing the exclamation point in because that's how things move in this novel.
|Ed Valigursky cover art from 1970|
So Hedrock dupes Greer long enough to tie him up, providing the opportunity to investigate the ability of the ship they're in. But, Greer has been in communication with security commanders from the House of Isher and they've now surrounded the hidden rocket ship with 800 cannons, or something, forcing Hedrock to assume Neeland's identity, after which he manages equip part of the ship with an interstellar drive and make his escape by blasting off into space, where he travels at many times the speed of light, ending up on a planet where he's captured by a species of giant spider-like aliens so advanced that they're capable of fusing identities through telepathy, allowing Hedrock to return to Earth under Neeland's identity!
(Whew! ...catching my breath here)
Back on Earth, Hedrock makes a giant man which then attacks the cities of the Empire, forcing the House of Isher and the Weapon Shops to form an alliance against the destruction of their cities.
At least I think that's what happens.
I'm telling you this novel shifts gears so many times that I was never really sure what was going on by halfway through it. The whole story moves like a dream, where shit just happens without any seeming design or logic. Somewhere in his career, A.E. van Vogt determined that in order to hold a reader's attention he'd have to keep the action fast and furious, and logic be damned. Much of this was a result of his novels being structured, or cobbled together, by previously published short stories from the pulps. At least this is true of his novels from the 50s. It was also during the 50s that A.E. van Vogt was involved in L.Ron Hubbard's Dianetics centers in California. So make of that what you will.
Most of A.E. van Vogt's novels are easily found in used bookstores for really cheap. It seems they were never out of print, finding new readers every generation. It's understandable because, in spite of their flaws, they're pretty fun to read. They're the stuff that inspired many more "sophisticated" novels that came after in Science Fiction. So take 'em for what they are.