on 22 June 2013
I just read this novel for the second time since buying the paperback in the early 1970s. I must have liked it then because I kept it ever since, but it's now hard to understand why. It started life as a serial and, boy, does it show. There is no coherent plot. The hero bounces around from one situation to the next with no real rhyme or reason. Apparently the forces of both the Empire of Isher and the mighty Weapon Shops are hot on his heels although, since they only catch him up once and then only by accident, one might be forgiven for thinking that they were just pulling his leg. As our man goes along he finds time to post a letter (the 4000 year old empire having invented matter transmission, antigravity and invisibility cloaks but been stumped by the tricky concept of email), answer a job ad and chat at regular intervals with the Empress Innelda, who seems to spend most of her time sitting by the phone awaiting his calls and therefore has too much time on her hands, if you ask me. Oh, and at one point he flies off into space and meets some aliens.
The Empress is the only female character in the book, by the way, although that is not particularly unusual for science fiction of the 1940s and 50s. Actually, she's the only character of either sex, since all the males, hero included, are either one-dimensional jaw-jutters or simply there to prop up the scenery. Neither is there any exploration of the technology used in the story, which you might have thought was pretty much compulsory for writers of this period. Van Vogt simply throws out expressions like "atomic gas bubble" and "vibrational enlargement" and leaves you to figure out what that's supposed to mean.
Finally (for this review), the pacing is dreadful. Despite all the action taking place at breakneck speed, the book feels longer than its 140-odd pages. This is probably due to the constant unnecessary insights into the hero's thought processes and often byzantine sentence construction: "His muscles, dynamically ready for the run that was to take him through the ranks of the men while they stood paralysed, tensed."
This author is generally touted as one of the giants of the golden age of SF, but on the basis of this effort I find myself in full agreement with the critic Damon Knight, who said of van Vogt that he "is no giant; he is a pygmy who has learned to operate an overgrown typewriter."