Friday, July 3, 2009

The Weapon Shops of Isher by A.E. van Vogt

The release of Star Trek this spring, and my own reconnection with the old Star Trek TV show from the 1960s, prompted me lately to wander the stacks of the local public library, browsing for science fiction books. I almost never read them otherwise. Correction: I never read them. Growing up, my older brother owned bookshelves of the genre, but I could never build an appreciation for it. I recall trying, and abandoning the effort in disgust when the opening page of some classic story had the protagonist stepping over a Raggedy Ann doll in the street, and tumbling therewith into another dimension. "That's what's cool about it," my brother said. I only harrumphed.

It's all curious, because this year, not only has Star Trek resurfaced and great fun it is too, but a science fiction master, Robert Heinlein, has been quoted by people who are watching President Obama take on the powers of a dictator amid the orgasmic baying of a lapdog press and the silence of an apparently disbelieving (at best) public; one of the many dangers to democracy, Heinlein said years ago, arises not just from ignorance or apathy but from a simple money problem. When a bare majority of the population decides to vote itself goodies out of its neighbors' taxed wealth, forever, when once 51 percent of a country can learn to do that and call it fair and like it, the future looks bleak. And, my goodness, thanks to my brother's library, I had already heard of this wise Robert Heinlein.

It's curious, too, that The Weapon Shops of Isher by A. E. van Vogt should happen to concern grand political themes like dictatorship, an imperial cult, government theft of private property, the suppression of dissent, and gun ownership. Being science fiction, it also includes time travel, and invisibility suits, and doorknobs that reach out to, and weapons that jump into, the right people's hands.

The tale is extremely painstakingly thought out. Roughly, it gathers together three or four plots -- politics, liberty, love -- with four main characters, all interconnected. It starts in 1951, somewhere in America. A weird new shopfront suddenly appears on some Main Street, taking the place of a store already there. Its blinking neon sign reads "Fine weapons. The right to buy weapons is the right to be free." A journalist investigates, enters the shop, and is never seen again.

This journalist, McAllister, is catapulted seven thousand years into the future, into an empire of Isher run by the young, lovely, adored, and more or less vicious Empress Innelda. Among her subjects she counts the fractured Clark family, whose father Fara and son Cayle don't get along. Cayle meets the dark and fetching Lucy, who is a weapon shop employee and who was McAllister's first contact when the shop materialized in the wrong time. As the plot develops, we learn that things everywhere and everytime are out of whack because the Empress is trying to launch one final attack against the shops, which represent the only thing in the empire that she does not control. (Cayle's father is all for it. Squashing evil and insurrection, and rebellious sons, and so on.) Doing this requires the harnessing and disguising of fantastic amounts of energy -- buildings shimmer in and out of existence across time and space -- and it was only McAllister's stumbling into one of the targeted shops that revealed to their fraternity of owners the scope and the kinks of the terrible plan.

Author van Vogt keeps his science going at a good clip, or at any rate he describes men walking on mid-air floors, and viewing real-time graphs charting the movement of giant buildings swinging on wild energy fulcrums through "quadrillions" of years of space time, in such a way that the reader can root for him and think, well at least he's not just saying "it's so." He also takes care to describe a completely corrupt future world. Isher is gangland Las Vegas and Chicago, and every day is potentially the St. Valentine's Day massacre. Every day is also a play day for the masses, who gamble themselves into mental oblivion in gigantic department store/casinos, or graduate to patronize seamy "Houses of Illusion" where all sensual desires are gratified through fantasy. The planets outside Earth are penal mining colonies with populations in the tens of millions.

The weapon shops at the center of the story, with their defiant slogan "the right to buy weapons is the right to be free," stand as the Empress' target, but as the story unfolds we learn that they are practically inviolable. They are run by one man, Robert Hedrock, who plays the admittedly serious game of defending them with a trump card no one else has or guesses he has. What's more interesting about them, though, is that they function as a kind of religion or even an underground government. Undergirding their existence, and their ad slogan, is a philosophy which the weapon shop men say in italics: "People always have the government they want." Given that, no other political fact matters or is even of much interest -- as long as the people can also arm themselves. "Thousands of years ago," the weapon shops' founders invented guns that could only be used in defense and only for their owners. Physical defense always being possible, the weapon shops say nothing and do nothing to interfere in any way in anyone's life. They agitate for nothing politically, they neither support nor decry any group. By their existence, they prove that while people may choose to fool away their time and energies by the millions, still the power of the state remains ultimately nil.

Maybe. This story inspired me to think anew about the Second Amendment. In 1789 the states insisted on a Bill of Rights being attached to the Constitution before they would consider ratifying it, and number two, no less, on the list of absolute rights desired was the right of the common man to own a gun. In places where it certainly seems "people do not have the government they want," in Iran, in North Korea, the people also do not have guns. And yet, earlier this week in Houston, the federal government's agents went door to door confiscating guns. And what good is a gun when the gun-owning citizen cannot keep it without (presumably, logically) committing the sin and crime of attempted murder or murder to do so -- which the gun-confiscating state will then punish with jail time?

Van Vogt solves the problem with his nearly sentient, defensive future guns. And yet, what is the point even of them when the bulk of the population doesn't want them? (Or do they?)

It's a wild story, and points up afresh, as I unburden myself of my criticisms, the quote that I happened to have come across recently, that criticism is always easier than craft. So it is, and far be it from me to criticize the man (the woman? who is A.E.?) who thought all this out. I respect the depth of the material. This science fiction is not all space ships and warp speeds, even though that's fun too. I even credit him with a remarkable case of clairvoyance. The Weapon Shops of Isher is a part of A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, edited by Anthony Boucher in 1959. Fifty years ago, Van Vogt describes his heroine searching for information, seven thousand years hence:

"First she pressed the machine-file activator, pecking out the key word illusion. The file screen remained blank. She clicked off the word house. No response."

What else is Lucy doing, but Googling? And how cool is that?

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