The Weapons Shop by A.E. van Vogt
from The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction ed. Asimov, Waugh, Greenberg
Carroll & Graf, 1989
Originally published in…okay so that’s kinda complicated and I’ll get to it below
Price I paid: $3
During the 1940s, the great names emerged in an eruption of talent. They formed the mould for the next three decades of science fiction and their writing is as fresh today as it was then.
I didn’t mean to do two stories from this book in a row, but here we are. I have a litany of excuses for not reading a longer book, all of which I’m sure would interest you to no end. My reasons for withholding them are, I assure you, just and noble.
As just and noble, perhaps, as the Empire of Isher! Ha! That’ll make sense shortly. I hope.
If it makes you feel any better, I had a paperback that I’m really excited about arrive in the mail just this Friday. I would have done it this week but time got away from me.
This is my first venture into the worlds of A.E. van Vogt. Until recently I had difficulty pronouncing his name. Fortunately, between the last time I looked him up and this time, somebody added a pronunciation to his Wikipedia page. (It’s van vote.)
van Vogt was always on the periphery of my knowledge of Golden Age sf. I’d see his name listed in short story comps or in lists of the best books of the era, and I’d think, “hmm, I wonder how you pronounce that.” But that’s about as far as it went. I don’t mean this as any kind of slight against van Vogt. It’s just one of those weird things. I’d see him listed somewhere and my mind would skip right over him. I don’t mean to insult his memory, but it’s a fact I can’t deny. Maybe it’s circumstance, maybe it’s synchronicity, I dunno.
Seeing him show up in The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction, then, was nice. It meant that I was obligated to finally sit my butt down and read some of this guy.
(Actually I read most of the time lying down, which is probably unhealthy. The point still stands.)
So, did it turn out that I’ve been unfairly putting aside my potentially favorite author for many years? Insulting one of the all-time greats by sheer ignorance? Insulting myself?
Nope. I did not like it very much!
I mentioned up at the very top that the publication history of this story is pretty complicated. Here’s the deal.
“The Weapon Shop” started as a short story, which was published in Astounding in December 1942. I don’t know how long it was. It was a sequel, or extension, or something like that, of another short story of van Vogt’s, called “The Seesaw,” which is referenced in the novella I just read.
At some point, and I’m having trouble figuring out exactly when, “The Weapon Shop” was expanded into the novella-length “The Weapons Shop,” which is what I read today. I might be wrong—and correct me if I am, please—but this longer version first appeared in a 1946 collection by Random House called Adventures in Time and Space. Looking at the table of contents, it does appear that the version in there is the version I just read, but I don’t know if this was the first time it showed up like that. Expanding your story and renaming it by adding a single “s” is kind of a dick move.
The story later merited a sequel, “The Weapon Makers,” which was then fixed-up into a novel along with “The Seesaw” and “The Weapon(s?) Shop,” called The Weapon Shops of Isher.
Okay, so there’s all that.
The book won the Prometheus Hall of Fame award in 2005, which means Libertarians like it. I don’t know a lot about the Libertarian Futurist Society who presents that award, but they’ve given it to a number of authors who I do not typically associate with Libertarianism, like Terry Pratchett and Jo Walton. Peter David even got a nom in 1992 for a Star Trek novel, so I’m more confused now than ever.
Buncha ancaps out there giving Hall of Fame Awards to Ayn Rand AND Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m missing something, clearly.
But it’s no surprise to see why this story, or the book based upon it, won something like that. It’s a book about FREEDOM! It’s a book about THE SECOND AMENDMENT…kind of. See, van Vogt was Canadian. He moved to the US in 1944, but at the time he was writing this story, he was living in Canada. This does not prevent him from looking south across the border and thinking that those Americans are onto something, I guess.
The story takes place somewhere around 7000 years in the future. The Solar System is united under an Empire that is currently run by an Empress Isher. Our protagonist, Fara Clark, is absolutely loyal to his Empress. His loyalty is that prissy kind of loyalty that means he calls the cops if he so much as thinks somebody is being disloyal.
His world is rocked when a Weapons Shop shows up in his little village. These shops show up overnight and sell remarkable weaponry. The stores themselves are marvels of technology, nearly invulnerable to all damage and even capable of determining whether someone intends harm and letting them in or blocking them from entering as it needs to. They sell laser guns that also produce shields rendering the user invulnerable to other laser guns. It’s all pretty great.
And of course, the sign on the front of the building reads THE RIGHT TO BUY WEAPONS IS THE RIGHT TO BE FREE.
All of this is utterly infuriating to Fara, who is determined to rid his quiet little town of this seditious element. He storms into the Weapon Shop, yells at the guy running it, and then gets told some cryptic stuff before he leaves again.
After that, his life starts to go down the crapper. It already wasn’t that great to begin with. He’s a pretty successful businessman, but his adult son hates him (with good reason, I think. Happy Father’s Day by the way) and, like I say, he’s that prissy kind of conservative who simply can’t be happy in this life. But his life takes a turn downward from everyday middle-class unhappiness, and Fara find himself getting repeatedly screwed over by the system he loves so much.
First, his ungrateful son withdraws a lot of money from Fara’s bank account in a way that I’m not sure I understand. However it’s supposed to work, Fara now owes that amount of money to the bank? Maybe it was a line of credit or something?
Okay, I looked it up, and it was something called a “sight draft,” which I see elsewhere defined as a draft “payable on demand.” Whatever all that means, the end result is that Fara owes the bank a lot of money, and because he doesn’t want to cause a fuss (he could have thrown his kid under the bus, but chooses not to because that would be socially embarrassing), he accepts and says he’ll pay it.
But before he can even get down to the bank to pay them, his debt is bought by a large corporation, who immediately forecloses on Fara’s business.
So he goes to court, which is in turn no help. It only makes matters worse.
I’m reminded of the old “Mr. Block” cartoons by IWW member Ernest Riebe, from the 1910s. Mr. Block represented the sort of deluded worker who acted in accordance of the interests of his bosses, and thus against his own self interest. He had a staunch belief that justice will be served by the courts, by electoral politics, and by the AFL. He would then be disappointed to find that the justice system is stacked against him, electoral politics are ineffective for real change, and the AFL were simply organized scabs. Despite all this, Mr. Block never quite got it into his blockhead that the IWW was the only organization working for him, if only he’d pitch in…
Joe Hill wrote a song about him:
Poor Block he died one evening, I’m very glad to state,
He climbed the golden ladder up to the pearly gate.
He said, “Oh Mister Peter, one word I’d like to tell,
I’d like to meet the Astorbilts and John D Rockefell.”
Old Pete said, “Is that so?
You’ll meet them down below.”
I bring all that up mostly because I love Wobbly history. I don’t think there’s much of a chance that van Vogt was thinking of Mr. Block when he wrote this story, but who knows? The parallels are there nonetheless, whether coincidental or not.
Fara turns to people whom he thinks would be able to help him. His mother-in-law, fairly wealthy herself, refuses to even give him a loan. Instead, she tells him to buy a gun. He takes this as a suggestion to do the honorable thing and commit suicide. Other people tell him the same thing, and deny him any help. They also suggest he buy a gun.
So he goes to buy a gun.
The ending of this story is kinda lame. I wasn’t thrilled with the rest of it either, but I was hoping for redemption. Instead, we learn something we already kind of knew, or at least suspected: the Weapon Shops are extremely powerful and are operating in defiance of the unjust Empire. Fara is given a few object lessons in the corruption of the Imperial State and how it has conspired against him throughout the story to enrich itself. The Empress he idolizes is a terrible person, who, quite impersonally, destroyed his life in order to add a very small amount of money into her Imperial coffers.
So, accepting that all this is true, Fara joins up with the Weapons Shop people and stands in defiance of the people who come to collect his business from him. It turns out that there are other allies throughout his sleepy village, and they’re all people who denied him help earlier. Fara succeeds in paying off the big corporation that tried to foreclose on him because they readily agree to his terms now that he has a gun. And that’s about where the story ends, with Fara breathing the sweet air of Freedom.
I have conflicted feelings about guns so that’s not where my problem is with this story. My main problem is that it’s all a little too damn pat. The ending is something of a deux ex machina, but more like if God showed up at the end of the story and just explained everything instead of doing everything, and then patted you on the back and said something about bootstraps.
I know that van Vogt’s sort of dreamlike, disjointed style has its fans, notably in later writers like Phil Dick, but for me it just didn’t work this time. Other authors that I’ve read who use a similar or more extreme version of that writing style, like Dick or Lafferty, have more of an internal consistency, though. They make sense within the context of themselves. This story, however, just felt janky and badly put together.
Maybe the longer novel is better about that. This story felt rushed. On the other hand, it’s possible that the novel is barely changed, or made worse. I dunno. I’m not sure I want to know. It’s not that I hated this story, it’s just that it left me cold. I didn’t much care. Didn’t like Fara Clark from the first paragraph and didn’t care if he got any kind of redemption. I sided more with his kid, who got the hell out of the story as soon as he could and screwed over his dad in doing so. Good for him.
Although I think the kid joined the Imperial Navy or something, so maybe not good for him.
Wikipedia quotes Damon Knight in saying that van Vogt was “consistently sympathetic to absolute monarchy as a form of government” and either Knight is talking out of his ass or this story is an anomaly, because I’m pretty sure the point of this story was the opposite of that.
van Vogt was also into General Semantics and non-Aristotelian logic, which are things I can’t hold against him. His connection with Dianetics is worrisome, though.
All told, I can’t say that I’m super wild about finding more of his work, but I’m also prepared to be surprised if y’all clap back at me and say that actually, no, Slan is really good or something. What say you?