The Weapon Makers (vt. One Against Eternity) – AE van Vogt (1952)
This sequel to ‘The Weapon Shops of Isher’ was originally serialised in Astounding Science Fiction in 1943 and revised for novel publication in 1952. It is set some seven years later where Robert Hedrock, immortal agent of the Weapon Shops, discovers that he is to be sentenced to death by The Empress Innelda Isher following his lunch with her and her advisors. However, he manages to talk his way out of this, but finds himself also under sentence of death by the weapon Shop Council who have discovered his immortality and suspect him of being an alien spy.
The main plotline hinges around the suspected invention of an interstellar drive, the disappearance and search for its inventor and attempts by all parties to get their hands on the technology for their own various agendas.
There is genuine excitement in this novel, and a semblance of plot, since Hedrock has to use his weird-science inventions and his ingenuity to get him out of a series of cliffhangers. Many of them are, to be honest, Deus ex Machina plot devices which do not bear close logical or scientific scrutiny, but with van Vogt, it hardly matters as it’s what he does best and it seems somehow to work.
At one point Hedrock, having escaped Innelda’s troops in a small ship powered by the revolutionary drive, is captured in interstellar space by an advanced race of telepathic spiders and for a time exists in a world of virtual reality while the aliens test and examine him.
It is revealed, somewhat obliquely, that Hedrock not only founded The Weapon Shops but has also been the husband of previous Isher Empresses and the father of their children, which brings a somewhat disturbing and incestuous flavour to the mix.
Again, in terms of regular van Vogt devices, we have the fifty-mile long spaceships, the great phallic building (within which is hidden the interstellar ship), powerful female aristocrats, the superman/logical hero and van Vogt’s annoying philosophy of masculine superiority.
Hereditary monarchies and aristocracies pepper van Vogt’s work. I have mentioned elsewhere that those writers who exhibit a fondness for monarchist systems tend to be those who live in countries without them, and don’t have to suffer the reality of it. This may not be true of van Vogt, being Canadian, although he did move to the US in 1944.
The Empress is the only female character in the novel. Her ‘court’ is exclusively male, as is the Weapon Shops Council and although this reflects the attitudes of the time and is related to the demographic of the readership, van Vogt regularly appears to emphasise the inferiority of women. It is not so evident here although not entirely absent. The Empress Innelda, ruler of Earth, Mars and Venus, is essentially a powerful dictator but in van Vogt’s view is not complete until she has found a man to sort her out. That man, as is suggested early on, is Hedrock, a man who is also some kind of ancestor several times over.
Putting aside the innate sexism and some rather complex incest issues, it is one of his better novels, remains highly engaging and hasn’t dated too badly.
What has made this novel in particular one of van Vogt’s most discussed works is the final line, uttered by the interstellar spider-beings. ‘Here is the race that shall rule the Sevagram’.
It’s a brilliant and original touch, as the Sevagram is never mentioned anywhere else and would have left readers of the time, and up to the present, somewhat open-mouthed at this lack of conclusion, this vast open question guaranteed to leave the book hanging in one’s mind. As John Clute points out in his overview of van Vogt in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia ‘this resonantly mysterious Slingshot Ending, which seems to open universes to the reader’s gaze, may well stand as the best working demonstration in the whole of genre sf of how to impart a Sense of Wonder.’