Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Weapon Shops of Isher

A.E. van Vogt The Weapon Shops of Isher (1951)
As mentioned on previous occasions, I'm still unable to leave a van Vogt title on the shelf of a store if it's one I haven't read, despite so many of them having bordered on the incomprehensible, simply because when he's good, he's amazing - at least in my opinion. Happily this turns out to be one of those titles that justifies the headaches incurred whilst trying to unscramble some kind of sense from The House That Stood Still or The Beast or any of the others. I had high hopes, having enjoyed The Weapon Shop, one of the three short stories from which this is cobbled together, and thankfully those hopes have been rewarded.

The Weapon Shop - here meaning the short story, although what I have to say applies equally to this novel - is a wonderfully tight serving of van Vogtian surrealism set in the authoritarian interplanetary empire of Isher. The weapon shops of the title represent the only significant obstacle to the empire imposing totalitarian rule over its people. Weapon shops spontaneously appear on busy city streets and can vanish just as easily; no agent of Isher is able to enter a weapon shop, nor purchase any of the weapons, their being for sale exclusively to the common citizenry. One undercover agent of Isher who manages to enter a weapon shop is expelled by the side door and finds himself instantaneously transported to the planet Mars and thus obliged to spend many weeks getting back to Earth. More than any other van Vogt title I've read, this one seems to foreshadow certain aspects of The Prisoner television series in terms of mood.

As may be obvious from the above paragraph, the weapon shops serve as a slightly peculiar metaphor for the right to bear arms. As a subject, I'm in two minds about this one, and have no wish to turn this review into an essay on the pros and cons of gun control. I can appreciate the view - as taken here by van Vogt - that totalitarian dictatorship cannot be imposed upon an armed citizenry, or at least I can appreciate the sentiment on principal. In practice I'm not sure the idea really holds water given that governments intent upon the complete - or as complete as possible - control of their people will generally find a way regardless of gun ownership, and this is without accounting for the considerable drawbacks of having so many people walking around packing heat. It's probably also significant that van Vogt weakens his own argument by having his cake and eating it: the guns sold by the weapon shops are defensive only and cannot be fired in anger, or with ill-intent, or even when hunting certain animals.

Nevertheless, the story works regardless of its own ill-fitting metaphor as an examination of the relationship between an all-powerful state and its own dissident element, how much dissent is permitted and so on; and it works not so much because the message necessarily yields any great revelation as because this is van Vogt doing what he does best, and doing it really well. The narrative swallows itself whole a couple of times, so concentration is necessary as it is with most of his novels; but this one is fairly rewarding, allowing the reader to fill in most of those details I'd swear he omits on purpose for the sake of keeping everything slightly off balance. Given the nature of Isher, the time paradoxes, the surrealism, and the supposed threat from impenetrable shops which materialise from nowhere, and which are indestructible through not being composed of normal matter, you could probably regard The Weapon Shops of Isher as a precursor to Faction Paradox if you squint a little, or if not a precursor, then at least a distant aunt. Granted that the majority of his novels are frankly fucking weird, I can see why A.E. van Vogt's posthumous reputation lags some way behind that of many of his golden age contemporaries, but it still seems a bit unfortunate in consideration of the few which are as good as this one.

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