I first came across the 1942 short story “The Weapon Shop” by A.E. van Vogt in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929–1964, a fantastic collection of some of the best short fiction from the pre-Nebula years that was instrumental in shaping my taste for science fiction when I was an impressionable teen. A few years later I came across the full-length novel The Weapon Shops of Isher (1951) in the two-volume collection A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, edited by Anthony Boucher, and was surprised to see that the short story I’d enjoyed was actually part of a much longer work that was far more complex and appealing to me.
What had actually happened, though I didn’t know it at the time, was that van Vogt had taken three of his shorter works that had been published in science fiction magazines in the 1940s ― the above-mentioned “The Weapon Shop,” “The Seesaw” from 1941, and “The Weapon Shops of Isher” from 1949 ― and combined them into the “fix-up” novel The Weapon Shops of Isher. (Reportedly, van Vogt even coined the term “fix-up”; certainly he was enthusiastic about the process of combining and reworking his earlier stories.)
As a result, The Weapon Shops of Isher is a wide-ranging novel with multiple plot threads and characters. Seven thousand years in the future, Earth is ruled by the Empress Innelda, an intelligent, rather despotic young ruler who is the latest descendant of the long-reigning House of Isher. For the last couple of thousand years, the monarchy’s tendency toward tyranny has been checked by the Weapon Shops, where anyone (except government agents) can get a super-high-tech weapon to use for self-defense.
In this setting there are three interlocking plotlines, logically enough, since this novel is composed of three shorter works. In the first, Chris McAllister, a reporter, enters a weapon shop that suddenly appeared in his town in the year 1951 and is instantly transported to the time period that the shop came from, some 7,000 years in the future. The weapon shop’s owner and his daughter soon realize that McAllister and the shop are seesawing in time because of an energy weapon being turned on the shop by the Empress. Because of the huge mass differential, McAllister is swinging back and forth far further in time than the shop … and it’s only getting worse. Not to mention he’s building up a massive charge of energy in his body, with no safe way to discharge it.
The second plot thread follows Fara Clark, an older man who’s extremely set in his authoritarian attitudes toward his family and his devotion to the Empress. His harshness has alienated his 23-year-old son Cayle. Fara despises the weapon shops and their philosophical views that set them in opposition to the Empress, but when Fara’s repair shop business and livelihood are ruined by a ruthless corporation, he may have nowhere else to turn.
The third (and most interesting, at least to me) plotline follows Cayle Clark as he escapes his village, intent on making it in the big city, Imperial City. He’s hampered by his small-town habits and lack of sophistication, but on the plus side he has immense “callidetic” (PSI) mental powers and has gained the interest of Lucy Rall, a young woman who works at the weapon shop and has Connections. But Cayle’s mental powers may cause him trouble as well as helping him out, especially when he gets carried away with his lucky streak and wins far too much money in a gambling palace. The owners of the establishment are not at all amused, and they have ways of making people like him pay.
One of the secondary characters is a man named Robert Hedrock who, through an accident of some kind about 2500 years earlier, is now Earth’s sole immortal man (something he keeps secret), and who is a key executive within the weapon shops organization. Hedrock’s immortality is oddly handwaved in The Weapon Shops of Isher, but he takes center stage in its sequel, The Weapon Makers, which was first published in serialized form in Astounding magazine in 1943, but is set several years later than this novel.
I originally read back The Weapon Shops of Isher in the 80s and enjoyed it hugely. It has some strikingly imaginative ideas and ― what is more surprising ― characters who are actually memorable (something that can’t be taken for granted in classic SF). On reread, I can see that some aspects of it are dated: Fara Clark’s dismissive treatment of his wife and adult son seem very mid-20th century, though arguably it could remain a small-town attitude in the far future. Though most of the power players in this world are men, the Empress wields impressive power and Lucy Rall takes a fairly active role in directing her own and Cayle’s lives. Van Vogt is also patently enthused about the Second Amendment; the weapon shops’ slogan is “The right to buy weapons is the right to be free.” It’s a measured take on the right to bear arms, however: the shops’ high-tech weapons can only be used only by the buyer, and only for self-defense and approved hunting.
You can see the seams where van Vogt melded together the three novellas, but the plot threads all weave together fairly well in the end. The Weapon Shops of Isher is one of the better science fiction novels from its era; I recommend it to readers who are fond of Golden Age SF. Both this novel and its sequel, the Retro Hugo-nominated The Weapon Makers, are available on Kindle for a reasonable price (currently $3.99 each).