The Weapon Shops of Isher
I must have been around 14 when I decided that if I didn’t want to change my name to Nostril, I’d better work on… if not winning fights, making them at least painful and unpleasant for anyone who decided to beat up the littlest guy (which, at that time, was me). Within a month or two of more or less a fight a day, then one every two days, and gradually less… and black eyes and a nose that remains very skew, and a fair number of bruises, I had acquired something of a reputation that took me from being the kicking-boy to someone you really didn’t want to mess with just for fun. I got a little better at it too. It didn’t stop me getting my clock cleaned a few more times later and getting my nose broken again… because weight and size differentials meant that I was going to lose, and sometimes bigger people wanted me to lose badly enough (or were sure enough of themselves) to take it to me. It was a learning process for everyone. I learned that some opponents were just too big. They learned that there were easier, softer targets. Life at boarding school went from tough to just something you had to do, with elements of STALKY & CO outside the tedium of classes.
Curiously, what sparked the end to the Dave-getting-thumped era was a book of my brother’s. I had a cheerfully communist attitude to my older brother’s books –which, oddly, as he bought the books, was an attitude he did not share. I think one of the intrinsic flaws of the theory of communism is explained by this! Like in writing, point-of-view is important. Anyway, the book I had ‘shared’ from his collection was AE Van Vogt’s WEAPON SHOPS OF ISHER. Now, honestly the book didn’t blow me away.
But the concept of the Weapon Shops did, because whether Van Vogt realized it or not, the customers of the Weapon Shops were always going to be people like me.Edited addition for clarity for those who haven’t read it. For me the concept in the book that changed my behavior pattern from trying to avoid fights to making sure the other guy regretted it was that Van Vogt illustrated to me that winning wasn’t necessary to deter an oppressive foe. All that was necessary was making it ‘cost’ your foe, and them know it. At this point it becomes — mostly — easier for them to pick on someone else. Which is why the argument about armed citizens not being able to defeat the army of an oppressive government becomes moot. It’s not about if they can defeat them. It’s about making it ‘cost’ too much to worthwhile.
Van Vogt plainly thought the sort of people I got thumped by were destined to rule the world, and that this was a good thing. Once again, it’s a point of view thing. Van Vogt thought dictatorships could be potentially benign. He did have the perception that existence of Weapon Shops would keep them benign.
I had a slightly different point of view: the weapons of the Weapons Shops would make me at least equal to the guys whose size and weight differential means that they’re probably going to win most of the time, who would do exactly what they pleased, otherwise. That was a point that got firmly imprinted with another misadventure.
Now, at that time there was a scummy dive of ‘beer-garden’ in the town my boarding school was in – Fonteine – where waiters circulated in a large, run-down, ill-lit ‘garden’ – of bench seats and trees with lights strung in them. The waiters of that time and place were poor and black, and for a tip, didn’t give a rip if you were underage and buying beer. It was a place the various bad boys of my school used to venture – in groups – when they bunked out. It was also the local gay pick-up place. There was smelly pisser (calling it anything like ‘bathroom’ is taking euphemism to the ridiculous) where… if you were a school-boy sneaking illegal beers you definitely went into in large groups, unless you had something else in mind besides getting rid of the now improved beer you had just rented.
Only – in some ways I was a rather innocent young bad boy, and none of my companions had actually spelled this out to me. And their attention being on something else, and as I needed to go, I went.
Which, as it proved, was a mistake. I was, as I mentioned, small. And while this may seem odd now, quite ‘pretty’. And the two guys in the pisser were a lot bigger than me, assumed I was there for an entirely different reason, and were not prepared to take no for an answer. Now, luckily for me, one of my buddies worked out I was missing and three of them came looking for me – and I managed to get the hell out of there. But the Weapon Shops of Isher would definitely have had a customer in me.
It’s kind of odd product of Van Vogt, who favored monarchy as a system of politics, an autocratic and often totalitarian (hereditary ‘monarchs’ spring out of totalitarian rulers – See North Korea as a current example) system, where those in power… are, well, the ones with power — the ones who are supposed to see their subjects do as they are told and punish wrongdoers. Yet: what this reader got out of it was the idea of some kind of force equalizer which made size much less relevant, and the enormous value of that, to the individual, particularly to the small, weak and threatened individual. Think about it: if you’re 6’8’’ 350 pounds of muscle, and your unarmed threat is 5’2’’ 128 pounds soaking wet – they’re no threat. The other way around… you’re in trouble. You may not always be as lucky as I was. Equalizers suddenly look very attractive – to the vulnerable. Not at all to the big and powerful – especially if they control who has ‘equalizers’ and see it’s only their people. Likewise authoritarian-totalitarians who like to have things their way, and will control the enforcers to see to it… hate the very idea of a concept like the weapon shops.
I took this idea into the latest of the HEIRS OF ALEXANDRIA books – I wrote it several years back, and turned it over to Eric (who has been ill. It’ll come out. It’s been paid for) Where I have a peasant girl and her miller’s son lover, fleeing from their Feudal lord. She’s an attractive young girl – a peasant, unlettered and at the very bottom of the autocratic social order. Her lord decided he wanted her, and the boy tried to stop it – and succeeded – but now they are both fleeing his men. The Lord’s men are the de facto police of the time and place – because the autocrat was the law, they obey the autocrat, and the kids are thus criminals. The boy will be killed, probably slowly, if they take him alive, as an example. The girl will be raped and, when the autocrat tires of her, given to his men. This is autocracy – history is full of it. Perhaps it was evolved and such power given to the lord to protect them from the same, but in the fashion of these things, this what they always evolved towards. This what our young couple assume is the norm of the world. The only way to escape it is as outlaws –hunted by all, or to find the protection of a more powerful autocrat.
This is what they do: and offer themselves eagerly in servitude to a magician, Count Mindaug, whose power considerably outweighs their old lord… only, as the young, and now pregnant woman finds out, that, and the strong arm of her husband, are still not enough against might, and things happening faster than their master can respond. She becomes a firm convert to the wheel-lock pistol, for defense of herself, her man, and her master.
Count Mindaug, though owing his life to her determination and skill with it… is very disapproving and worried by this development. After all, the order of society depends on the peasantry, and especially the weakest of the weak, the peasant women, having no choice by force majeure but to submit to their masters. He can see nothing but trouble coming out of this (it’s a point of view thing again. He is an aristocrat. That’s why point of view is so relevant in stories).
Now: I’m anti-authoritarian, and extremely anti-totalitarian and thus feel autocrats are a poor idea – and Van Vogt was pro-autocracy. Yet we’re writing more-or-less about the same thing. What I got out of his book –and what others will get out of mine… are probably not what either of us intended, or thought we were communicating about.
And that is always the true. Once the idea leaves your head and you set it down on paper (or electronic form) it’s rather over to the reader. There’s no point in arguing with them: you simply can’t. What they got out of it is over to them. That’s how you end up with people thinking George Orwell was writing instruction manuals, and sf convention runners reading of Philip K Dick’s MINORITY REPORT got the idea that banning people for pre-crime was a good idea.
As a tangential aside: it’s pretty hard to resist a bit of “I told you so” so I won’t resist. Keep in mind this is essentially doublespeak –what is meant is not that publishers have discovered that there is a vast audience of Trump voters who want books that do not paint them as toothless meth-head hillbillies (something the author and most of their sources seem to have trouble understanding, although they get that these people exist). What it really means is that readers aren’t buying books from authors who despise them and have let them know, and whose values, worldview and interest do not reflect their own. It’s an interesting read – but even the sharper pencils in NY publishing elite plainly don’t get it. SF-fantasy is even further behind the curve and will fall even harder.