NESFA Members' Reviews

coverEmpire of Isher

by A. E. van Vogt

A book review by Mark L. Olson

Orb, 2000

A. E. van Vogt's recent death reminded me that I ought to re-read some of his novels, so I picked two which I remembered with the most pleasure, and which Orb has just reissued, and I wasn't disappointed.

The two Weapon Shops novels are both quite short by today's bloated standards. The first one, The Weapon Shops of Isher, is a fix-up novel combining a novella and a novelette and some additional material - one of van Vogt's favorite techniques.

Both are set in a distant future about 7000 years from now in the late 1950s. If they still used AD, their calendars would read something like 7000 AD, but it is really the 1950s with a bit of glitter added. The world - indeed, the entire Solar System - has long been unified in the Isher Empire, a genuine none-of-this-limited-monarchy-crap Empire. Isher rules peacefully and fairly lightly because the all-powerful Imperial Government is counterbalanced by the Weapon Shops whose superior science makes them invulnerable to Imperial weapons and who sell defensive guns to anyone who wants them. (The guns literally can't be used except for hunting or self-defense.) The Weapon Shops also run a parallel judicial system which dispenses civil justice to anyone cheated by the Imperial government.

This political situation has existed, stable and generally pretty free, for thousands of years. The stories tell of a threat to this order coming from an Imperial government determined to do away with the Weapon Shops and a new threat due to a bit of overweening ambition on the part of the shops, as well.

Both times, Robert Hedrock, Earth's one immortal man (and scientific genius) redresses the balance - as he has many times before, having been the first Isher emperor and, later founder of the Weapon Shops and, through the years, balancer of society. (It's fun watching Hedrock rush around from place to place trying to keep the whole world running smoothly.)

The stories both maintain van Vogt's breakneck speed throughout - something happens every few pages - and probably are some of his best writing. (Who can forget two novels which end with super-aliens, having examined Hedrock, leaving the Galaxy forever with the words "This much we know: This is the race which will rule the Sevagram." or with the line "He would not witness, but he would aid in the formation of the planets.")

Naturally, it also contains some really clunky writing - for example, van Vogt knew virtually no science, but had a knack for coming up with marvelously meaningless words which sound just right. So when he slipped up and tried to be too concrete, his pseudo-science was all too obviously pseudo. (Like talking about teleportation by means of a vibrational device. (Stop snickering.))

These are marvelous books!

NESFA homepage | Review Index | More Reviews by Mark L. Olson