Today we will be talking about A. E. van Vogt’s THE WEAPON MAKERS. We’ve dealt with van Vogt before, talking about his influence on Philip K. Dick (in terms of throwing in so many new ideas that the novel dissolves into near incoherence) and how his books really aren’t that interesting in terms of characters. The novels are pure action, for the most part, pulp adventures where the actors are cardboard cut-outs rather than real people and the mystique of new scientific ideas are supposed to carry us through the relatively one-dimensional politics.
(In THE WEAPON MAKERS van Vogt posits a future where there is a hereditary government that is kept in check from becoming too despotic by a secret cabal called the Weapon Shops. They have that bland but utterly descriptive title because they have built impregnable Weapon Shops in every town in the world where ordinary citizens can go in and buy Weapon Shop weapons (the repetition gets a little inane) that can only be used for self-defense but are extremely powerful. The novel puts ordinary citizens against the government as two undeniably opposed forces which can’t work together because their interests are always going to be separate. Is this Libertarian?)
In true van Vogt fashion, the most interesting part of the novel is something he rather glosses over: the entire set-up of this future world has been designed by our protagonist, a virtual immortal whose at least been alive the last two thousand years and has repeatedly married into the hereditary ruling family (essentially having sex with his descendants over and over again). There is no explanation as to his immortality, or why he’s driven to perfect the world. Who is he and why is he doing this? Who cares? There’s plot to ravel!
However, what I want to focus on is the way women are treated in this novel. It’s a pulp novel by a (in)famous science-fiction author first published in 1943, and so it is perhaps not surprising that this far-future society is pretty much on par with mid-century America in the way it views women. The main antagonist of the novel is Empress Innelda Isher, but she is noted mostly (as was the main female character in the other van Vogt novel I’ve read) for being nearly as good as a man, both intellectually, morally, if not physically. Of course, her emotions come into play in a way that’s presented as a strength, but is also mostly a fault–she decides things by feeling rather than logic.
And, okay, all of that is nothing new. Sexism in science-fiction and fantasy, especially older SF&F, is so cliche it’s almost not worth mentioning except when it doesn’t occur (except that it still occurs, and mentioning it is the only way to evoke change, eventually, hopefully).
But what is most amazing in this novel is how science is presented. Our main character has designed a machine that removes him from the time-line so that he can, in effect, travel through time (even if only seven or so hours in either direction), and he creates a time-loop which deus ex machina’s him from the main climax of the novel, preventing a death that would be unavoidable otherwise. He’s invented teleportation, as well as a device he uses to grow to Godzilla-like heights so he can terrorize cities (all in the name of a justifiably good end) and is invulnerable, to boot.
All of this future science. All of this advancement in both technology and medicine.
And yet Empress Innelda, after giving in to her feelings for our “hero,” dies in childbirth.
She dies in childbirth.
You can tell what really matters to a culture by what problems they decide are worth investing time and money in to solve.
And she dies in childbirth.