Publisher: New English Library
Series: Empire of the Atom (#1)
Publication Date: 1966
Clane is a mutant, the abomination son of Earth’s Lord Protector. But though his body is twisted, his mind may be the greatest humanity has ever known . . .
This is a difficult book to review. The two key facts here are 1: This is a mess of a novel, and 2: Rarely have I had more fun reading something. So near as I can tell, this is a patched together group of short stories, some of which may have been pulled from the author’s dreams. It is wild, dizzying and utterly manic, veering between family melodrama and space opera pretty much at random, with a fair deal of proto-Atompunk thrown in for good measure. If you’re still here after all that, then I guess you’ll love it as much as I did.
Van Vogt’s future Earth is a wasteland, parts of which are still radioactive from a great war several thousand years previously. The Lord Protector rules unchallenged from his fortress-city of Linn, alongside and atomic priesthood that worships gods such as Uranium, and Ecks. Mutants are rare, and universally despised, and yet Clane is allowed to live as a social experiment. From here the novel tracks his life in the shadows of nobility, as he learns more about the world and his place in it.
But the action doesn’t stop at Earth. No, early on we are told that the war on Venus is going rather well, and later on the reader is swept to the canal-riddled Martian plains for a war fought with spaceships and longbows. there are also barbarian tribes living on the moons of Jupiter who play a small but important role later on.
As you may have guessed by now, nothing about the worldbuilding in Empire of the Atom makes any sense. It is hilariously, gloriously, and unapologetically insane. The plotting is just as wild, skipping back and forth between plotlines, with major moments covered in small sentences and whole paragraphs dedicated to the seemingly meaningless. Characters flit between moralities on a whim, and nothing about any of it really makes any sense whatsoever.
But that doesn’t matter. Because this book is just FUN. There’s not a slow moment to be found, although standard writing advice suggests there should be. It’s like a rollercoaster, and one that could crash and burn at any moment at that. Van Vogt’s writing is spars, even compared to some of his contemporary’s, but he has an undeniable gift for keeping you interested. Because if your attention wavers, you’ll have missed enough story for most authors to take a hundred pages to tell.
If this promise of an insane joyride – the literary equivalent of overdosing on sugar and then rolling in some hallucinogenic mushrooms – doesn’t tempt you in, then this book certainly isn’t for you. But if you want to turn your brain off and just see what a madman can do with a pen and paper, then there are far worse ways you could spend the day.
And best of all? There’s a sequel!