The Weapon Makers (1943), currently nominated for a 1944 Retro Hugo award, is the sequel to the better-known The Weapon Shops of Isher. As discussed in my review of The Weapon Shops of Isher, A.E. van Vogt was fond of creating fix-up novels based on his earlier works, and the creation and publication history of both of these novels in his EMPIRE OF ISHER duology is complicated. The Weapon Shops of Isher was published in its final form in 1951, several years after The Weapon Makers, but The Weapon Makers is set several years after The Weapon Shops of Isher. It may help to keep in mind that about half of The Weapon Shops of Isher comes from two short stories published in 1941 and 1942. For its part, The Weapon Makers was first published in serialized form in Astounding magazine in 1943, then printed in book form in 1947, then substantially revised by van Vogt and republished in 1952. (This publication history makes my head spin.) I think it’s advisable to read The Weapon Shops of Isher first, so you’re grounded in the world of the Empire of Isher, but it’s not strictly necessary, plot-wise.
At any rate, this story begins about seven years after the events in The Weapon Shops of Isher (we know this because the Empress Innelda, who was 25 years old in the first book, is now 32). One of the weapon shop organization’s executives, Robert Hedrock, has been a spy in the Empress’ palace for the past six months. Hedrock is Earth’s only immortal man, a secret he’s never told anyone. He’s about 2500 years old but looks like a man in his prime.
One of Hedrock’s secret weapons is a “spy ray” machine, and using it he finds out that the Empress ― who’s treated him very favorably in the past six months ― has just ordered him to be arrested after their lunch in a few hours and then immediately hanged. Despite the personal danger, Hedrock decides to stay in the palace and try to brazen it out. It works, at least partially, but it seems a lucky break for Hedrock when a weapon shop carplane whisks him away from the palace after lunch.
It’s not actually so lucky, though: the High Council of Weapon Makers, a group of thirty men who run the weapon shops organization, has convened to put him on trial on the spot. Hedrock is under grave suspicion because the Council has realized that he’s not the person they originally believed him to be. Their sentence is immediate death, and that sentence is a lot more dangerous coming from the Weapon Makers than from the Empress.
From here Hedrock plunges into a dizzying series of adventures, including trying to save the world’s first and only interstellar spaceship, which the Empress is intent on destroying to protect her regime; first contact with an alien race, which has questionable intentions toward humanity; avoiding capture by the Weapon Makers; stomping around the country in giant form (seriously!); and a little bit of time travel. The plot is definitely imaginative but rather disjointed. Van Vogt claimed that many of his story ideas came from his dreams (during his active writing years he reportedly would wake every ninety minutes to write down ideas from his dreams), and after reading The Weapon Makers, I believe it.
Empress Innelda is a strong-willed, vividly-drawn character here and in The Weapon Shops of Isher, but makes some odd choices in this book regarding love, marriage and motherhood. This development was probably generally satisfying to readers when this book was published sixty or seventy-five years ago, but (though I’m all for marriage and parenthood) the way she acts seems quite out of character. For their part, the weapon shop personnel in this story are far less altruistic than they seemed in the first book, and more inclined to take offensive action against perceived threats like Hedrock and the Empress, but that plot development makes much more sense and works well.
Van Vogt found some fascinating ways to work time travel into the plots of his EMPIRE OF ISHER books, but the science in The Weapon Makers ― spy rays! A countless variety of rings for Hedrock’s fingers that allow him to teleport and do other incredible stunts! Aliens with amazing mind-over-matter powers! ― is definitely of the handwavy, soft science variety. This is an imaginative novel with an intricate plot, but it doesn’t cohere as well, or impress me as much, as The Weapon Shops of Isher. It’s worth reading, though, if you enjoyed the first book.