Empire of The Atom – AE van Vogt (1957)
An interesting fix-up here which is loosely or partly based on Robert Graves’ ‘I, Claudius’, and has been assembled from five stories (“A Son Is Born” (May 1946), “Child of the Gods” (Aug 1946), “Hand of the Gods” (Dec 1946), “Home of the Gods” (April 1947) and “The Barbarian” (Dec 1947)), all originally published in Astounding.
On a far future Earth a child, ‘Clane’ is born to Tania, the daughter of the Lord Leader of Earth. The child is malformed as a result of his mother’s exposure to radiation.
Normally children such as this would be out to death but Jonquin, one of the scientist priests who maintain the temples of the God Metals, convinces the family to allow the child to live in order that he can study the development of such an unfortunate.
van Vogt here postulates a far future Earth where the automated production of power from nuclear materials continues in temples of scientist priests, although no one appears to understand the principles behind the science and attributes the power to Gods who control the God Metals. Following a war with an alien race known as The Riss, humanity has fallen into a stagnated society of ignorance. Nuclear powered ships travel from world to world despite the fact that the secrets of their construction have also been lost. It’s a bit of a hard pill to swallow, it has to be said.
The Lord Leader discovers Clane to be highly intelligent despite his nervous tics when in unfamiliar company, and takes his advice on military strategy when the Earth forces are under siege when trying to conquer the human population of Mars. As pointed out, it loosely follows events in at least Graves’ account of the life of Claudius. The Lord Leader’s exiled stepson, Tewes, for instance, is clearly Tiberius and the Lord Leader, the Emperor Augustus.
Clane fits in to the usual van Vogt ‘logical hero’ template and becomes adept at anticipating and deflecting assassination attempts and, when he finally assumes the position of Lord Leader, defeating invading barbarian armies from Jupiter. In retrospect it might have been far more interesting if van Vogt had kept to the Claudius template. Claudius avoided death because the schemers and plotters around him found him a harmless and somewhat ludicrous figure, which was far from the case. van Vogt has Clane control his nervous reactions very early on, and his physical abnormalities are concealed under voluminous clothing, and so may as well not be there.
Rather like the conclusion to ‘The Weapon Makers’ van Vogt throws in some surreal non-sequitors at the finale. Clane has been captured by the Barbarian leader Czinczar who brings in a package containing a deformed possibly alien body packed in ice. Clane proves that he has complete control of a ball of light which hovers within the room by killing the guards who try to harm him and then the Barbarian surrenders his entire forces to Clane. Is this body an alien threat from outside the Solar System, or one of the Riss?