The right of self-defense and the limits to tyranny: A.E. Van Vogt’s The Weapon Shops of Isher, the 2005 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing an Appreciation series of all past award-winners. Here’s an Appreciation for A. E. van Vogt’s The Weapon Shops of Isher, the 2005 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

By Michael Grossberg
A. E. van Vogt, celebrated as one of the masters of science fiction’s Golden Age, is perhaps best known for The Weapon Shops of Isher.

Imaginative and ingenious, van Vogt’s 1951 novel dramatizes the power of self-defense to sustain personal freedom.

Moreover, the novel introduced one of the most famous political slogans in science fiction: The Right to Buy Weapons is the Right to Be Free.

A classic and superior example of hard sf blended with sociopolitical SF during the early golden age of science fiction, the novel imagines a future dominated by a dictatorial Empire of Isher whose authority is  challenged by some mysterious Weapon shops.

First published in part in the July 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, the novel incorporates the first three parts of the saga about the weapon shops, a source of alternative opposition to authoritarian government,

The plot is sparked by a hapless reporter caught up in swings from past to future as his doppelganger transports himself months into the past to make a fortune in the stock market after saving records of the market’s prices.

As in many other van Vogt novels and stories, the plot is propulsive and twisty, with aspects of a puzzle piece and a surreal, dreamlike and prismatic quality that later inspired the dreamlike and fragmented stories of Philip K. Dick. Van Vogt is still read today because his works embody a strong “sense of wonder” and ingenuity that helped popularize golden-age science fiction.

In this story, van Vogt imagines weapons developed through advanced technology that are only usable in self-defense against aggressors, but are not capable of murder. The weapons, in short, are in many ways a concrete embodiment in technology and hardware of ethical libertarian principles in action.

As a reminder, libertarianism (a more consistent modern variant of classical liberalism) is based on the “live and let live” and “anything that’s peaceful” philosophy of respecting other people’s rights while upholding the right of self-defense if one’s own life and liberty are threatened by the initiation of force. Thus, a fully free society is one in which aggressive violence is both morally and legally prohibited, and people may only use force in self-defense. Wouldn’t it be nice, as van Vogt imagines, if advanced technology made that norm of a peaceful, cooperative and free society more common?

Written during the depths of Hitler’s National Socialist aggressions during World War II, Van Vogt’s Weapons Shop stories – which include a sequel, The Weapon Makers – highlight perennial themes about the intrusiveness and dangers of government, whether State officials are well-meaning or power-grabbing ruthless tyrants.

If van Vogt was so concerned about unchecked government power, then why was he reportedly sympathetic to monarchy as a form of government, as some of his critics allege? Certainly, libertarians don’t share that view, which rightfully sparked some critical discussion during the peak of his career. SF writer editor Damon Knight hated van Vogt’s writing style and apparent politics and pretty much destroyed his literary reputation in the 1950s, after first leading the charge against van Vogt in a 1945 essay expressing misgivings about his politics and nothing that many of van Vogt’s stories presented monarchy favorably.

Yet, the evidence for that claim seems thin in retrospect – such as van Vogt portraying his protagonist in a 1945 story “Heir Apparent” as a “benevolent dictator.” Also, Knight later retracted some of his criticism, and many other prominent sf writers (from Dick to sf editor David Hartwell and other critics) have since disagreed strongly.

In any case, shouldn’t we respect the creative rights of fiction writers to exercise their imaginations and write about a variety of characters – without having critics assume that the writers “agree with” their characters’ views or endorse the particulars of their imagined futures?

(By the way, this is roughly the same fallacy that led some to misunderstand Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and falsely infer that Heinlein was some sort of “fascist” because he allegedly favored and found no fault with the particular social and legal order that he had envisioned in that novel exploring the grim realities of war and duty. Of course, in reality, Heinlein favored liberty and opposed fascism, socialism, national socialism and any other form of left- or right-wing authoritarianism.)

Overall, the primary thrust of van Vogt’s Weapon Shop stories is appreciated by modern libertarians because they dramatize libertarian/classical-liberal themes. The story highlights the dangers of unlimited majoritarian democracy, especially for minorities and individuals, and views weapons of self-defense as necessary to provide each citizen with the ability to resist aggression – by private criminals or public officials.

Ultimately, van Vogt’s novel makes an implicit case that the First Amendment and the other Bill of Rights cannot be sustained or defended without the Second Amendment, and that no government can completely oppress the People when the citizens are well-armed.

Note: A.E. Van Vogt (1912-2000) was a Canadian-born sf author and one of the most popular and influential sf authors during science fictions’ mid-2oth-century so-called Golden Age.

A.E. van Vogt in the early 1960s. (Creative Commons license)

Among his other popular novels: Slan, The Voyage of the Space Beagle (whose stories are widely recognized as an unacknowledged source of inspiration for the classic sf-horror film Alien, especially the story “Black Destroyer,” and the TV series Star Trek), The World of Null-A, The Changeling and The Silkie.

The Science Fiction Writers of America named van Vogt their 14thGrand Master in 1995.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, the 2006 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction.

* See related  introductory essay  about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”  an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers. Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.


Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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