It is always a good idea to re-examine from time to time a book or movie that had particularly impressed you. I decided yesterday to re-read A. E. Van Vogt’s Empire of the Atom (1957), which I first read around 1960, and twice subsequently. Its hero, Lord Clane is a mutant as a result of exposure to radioactivity. The time is at some remote point in the future, presumably after a nuclear war. All of Earth is under control of the House of Linn, which rules the planet as if it were the Roman Empire.
So very much, in fact, like the Roman Empire that the first half of the book was cribbed from Robert Graves’s 1934 classic I, Claudius. There is a one-to-one correspondence between Van Vogt’s characters and Graves’s Romans: Clane is Claudius; Creg, Germanicus; the Lord Leader, Augustus; Lydia, Augustus’s wife Livia; and Lord Tews, Livia’s son Tiberius. Only about 60% into the story does Van Vogt escape from his slavish borrowing. At least he doesn’t try to muddy his story by introducing an equivalent to Caligula. It bothers me that I did not notice all this when I re-read the book in 1990, years after I had read the Graves books and seen the BBC I, Claudius TV series.
Still, even with the plagiarism, there are numerous incongruities. The Linns have spaceships with which they conduct wars on Venus and Mars; yet their main weapons are bows and arrows, lances, and swords. They use nuclear energy, but regard it as a “gift from the gods.” Their gods, in fact, are Uranium, Plutonium, Radium, and Ecks (“X”?).
Well, then, what was it that drew me to this book? Pure and simple, I loved the cover (shown above). As a teen, I was a rather sickly individual with frequent headaches—by this time I already was suffering from the pituitary tumor (chromophobe adenoma) that was to reach a climax six years later. Clane was actually a handsome man provided he wore the flowing temple robes that hid his deformities:
After re-reading the message, [Clane] walked slowly to the full-length mirror in the adjoining bathroom, and stared at his image.
He was dressed in the fairly presentable reading gown of a temple scientist. Like all his temple clothing, the cloth folds of this concealed the “differences” from casual view. An observer would have to be very acute to see how carefully the cloak was drawn around his neck, and how tightly the arm ends were tied together at his wrists.
Whoever was responsible for the book’s dust jacket was a genius. Man, I wouldn’t have minded being a mutant if I had a face like that! But, like many teens, especially short, chubby ones, I used fantasy to escape the realities of my situation. Now, half a century and more onward, it doesn’t seem to matter as much any more. I am what I am, and I do not look unkindly on what and who I have become.