Book Review: Empire of the Atom – A.E. Van Vogt (New English Library 1975)

Before I start, a few words on the cover of this book.  Just look at it, pretty sinister huh?  However, the picture has absolutely nothing to do with anything in the book.  I can only imagine that  the covnersation leading to it’s creation went something like this:

Ed the publisher:  “Hi Chuck, it’s Ed”

Chuck the artist: “Have you got the money you owe me fool?  It took me days to create that Martian Princess cover”

Ed:  “As soon as we’ve sold a few copies and covered the printer’s expenses, we’ll pay you, don’t worry.  Anyway, I’m calling because I’ve got the opportunity of a lifetime for you.   We’re putting out Empire of the Atom by A.E. Van Vogt and we want you to do the cover, this could make you.”

Chuck “What’s the art budget?”

Ed “Well…. we’re a bit short at the moment but we can offer you 25 pence and a set of fake Asimov sideburns that I got from the last Worldcon”

Chuck: “25 pence, you can shove it up your…”

Ed:  “Hold on, hold on, give me a chance.  Really Chuck, you should take a long-term view, this book will sell and when it does, think how many will see your work.  I think you should remember that I also hold those photos of you and Mandy from accounts from the Christmas party”

Chuck: “You stinking blackmailer !  OK, I’ll do it, but for 25p  I’m not going to read the book, I don’t even want to hear a synopsis.  Explain the main character to me in three words.”

Ed:  “Erm, ok, let’s see, it’s about a radioactively mutated boy.”

Chuck: “You’ll have it by lunchtime tomorrow.”  SLAM.

The main protagonist in the book is Clane, whose body was affected by radiation in his mother’s womb.  However, he is described in the book as having angelic features, which the character on the cover is sadly lacking.

So much for the cover.  Van Vogt’s book is based on material originally published in 1946 and 1947 and can be described as science fantasy.  It is based on a future Earth, which was struck by catastrophe at some distant point in the past and now seems to operate on a semi-scientific, semi-feudal system.  Priest like scientists have access to, and worship, radioactive isotopes.  

Earth, and much of the Solar System is ruled by The Lord Leader and it is to his daughter, Lady Tania Linn, that the deformed boy Clane is born.  Clane is described as being ‘enormously, calamitously different’. The scientists responsible for this outrage are hanged and their temple destroyed, a move which will help The Lord Leader to consolidate his power and use the resources of the temples in his attempts to unify the Solar System.

Politics, power and family divisions play a large part in the narrative.  Clane’s father, Cregg Linn, is opposed to his step-mother Lydia and step brother Lord Tews.  The Lord Leader understands his wife’s ambitions all too well but must keep her on side to prevent fracturing his leadership.  

The scientist priests worship the atom gods and Van Vogt seems to have a dim view of religion.  One character exclaims “It is a well known fact that the atom gods are interested only in the ignorant, the simple, the believing.”

The book itself feels as though it is a number of short stories stitched together.  That is not to say that it is bad, there are just moments where it takes odd turns.   Sometimes it feels as though  the narrative drive is lacking and we are reading a series of set-pieces or thoughts on plot development.  

Philip K Dick was fan of Van Vogt and liked the strangeness and incoherency of some of his work as it seemed to him to be a reflection of the chaotic and meaningless nature of life itself.

The idea of a space-faring feudal kingdom relying upon ancient technology did feel a bit strange.  The people of Earth have spaceships but have no idea of how fast they travel.  When an invastion of Mars is carried out, soldiers from Earth take horses.   Either there are people on Earth who understand and maintain the technology or Van Vogt has a lot of faith in the durability of technology.  

I had not read any A.E. Van Vogt books previously but I’d be happy to try a few more based on my experience of this one.  It’s not a great book, but it is enjoyable.