When I was a kid, my Dad’s well-populated bookshelves included a selection of Golden Age science fiction. One anthology stuck out to me: two black and white covers with a magenta rocket that spanned both volumes: Anthony Boucher’s A Treasury of Great Science Fiction. The original edition from 1959. I pulled them down and began reading them; I was maybe eleven, twelve years old, reading a book that had been published when my Dad was nine.
He is dead now, my Dad. Dead and gone at 63. I sit at his desk and flip through his beloved books and try to hold on to him a little longer.
This week, to distract me from grief and to remember my Dad and to reconnect to my own passions, I’m re-reading The Weapon Shops of Isher by A. E. van Vogt. The last piece in Volume 1 of Boucher’s collection. (The book has a typo on the back cover, misspelling the story as THE WAPON SHOPS OF ISHER; at the time, because anything was possible, at first I thought that was the legitimate title. After all, it follows three stories after Sturgeon’s “The (Widgett) the (Wadgett) and Boff.” You can see why I wasn’t suspicious of the typo.) I don’t recall the details of the storyline, but I clearly remember the feeling of reading this story for the first time.
The emotional experience of reading all these stories is layered. First, the warm, gauzy nostalgia of it. The cadences of 1950’s genre fiction, charming in its awkwardness. An awareness of how unliterary the writing is, how dreadfully bad in one sense, and with that a stubborn loyalty to its directness and lack of pretension. The best of these stories weren’t trying to impress: they were trying to say something useful, something urgently important to the writer.
And then, especially pungent after the recent stink over entrenched sexism in the professional science fiction community, there’s a rueful awareness of the depths of the sexism. Gods bless him, Boucher included three great women science fiction writers in this collection: C.L. Moore (co-writing as usual with her husband, Henry Kuttner), Judith Merrill, and Mildred Clingerman, all mentioned sans the leering condescension of certain other editors of that era. Still, a passage from van Vogt’s story illustrates the typical female character:
“Lystra!” It was her father; and McAllister realized by his swift movement how quickly the older man grasped every aspect of the situation. He stepped forward and took the gun from his daughter’s fingers — the only man in the room, McAllister thought, who could dare approach her in that moment with the certainty she would not fire. For hysteria was in every line of her face; and the tears that followed showed how dangerous her stand might have been against the others.
Not that the male characters were particularly sharply drawn; the failure of sexism indicated a broader failure to understand or portray dimensional, nuanced human beings. (All this in the context of an obvious fascination with psychology, ironically.)
And yet. And yet… The Weapon Shops of Isher wrestles with notions of global importance: power, force, violence, and the question of how to introduce resilience into a system. How could a small group of people vaccinate the entire society against totalitarianism?
It was the scope of the ideas that entranced me. And I have no doubt this, too, entranced my Dad fifty-odd years ago. Gossip didn’t interest him; big ideas did. What was going on in the world? What might make it better? He bowed to social pressures but kept his own counsel; what mattered to him was what would actually work, not what this or that authority said was right. Science fiction appealed to both of us, I’m guessing, because it was so damn big. It mattered.
And of course science fiction had spaceships. That certainly didn’t hurt.