In Review: Empire of the Atom

A Dune-like read until the conclusion which introduced too much too late.

Empire of the Atom by A.E. van Vogt

Published by Ace Books, Inc., 1957. Paperback of 162 pages at 35¢. 

Note: This is an Ace Double book. It can be flipped over for an additional story, which is Space Station #1 by Frank Belknap Long.

The cover: A lone Roman solider walks forward as a hail of arrows zip past him, his shield breaking one of the bolts. A tank moves forward to his left against a destroyed city. Just above the tank is an odd looking space fighter, moving to the source of the arrows. The title is at the top with the illustration below it and the author’s name just above the spaceship. This is the type of cover I would expect from a sci-fi book from this time period. Not great, but it gives a good tease of what the story is about. Overall grade: B 

The premise: From the first page, “They were strange people, those inhabitants of Earth 12,000 years after the Galactic War. They possessed the power of the atom, they had real space-ships, but they did not understand how they worked and they did not know the elementary principles of science. But the strangest among them was the young man, Clane, mutant son of the ruling family. Clane should have been destroyed — for that was the rule for such freaks. But when he miraculously survived, it was to be the start of a chain reaction of super-scientific miracles that would either remold the solar system on a higher scale or reduce it once again to utter barbarism.” I like reading about futuristic societies, mutants, and how barbarians come to change the future. This sounds good. Overall grade: A

The characters: Lady Tania Linn is the first character the reader is introduced to because she’s just given birth. Her husband Creg Linn isn’t around because he’s waging war off world. The child born is Clane, whose body is misshapen, labeling him instantly as a mutant. Most mutant children are put down, but he is of royal blood and this has never happened to royalty before. Creg’s father is Lord Leader Linn, his wife Lady Lydia. The Lord Leader allows Scientist Joquin to take the child and raise him, telling the leader that because the boy is physically horrible he could still be mentally fit. He’s allowed to raise the child away from the royal family and that has the child get a life he never would have dreamed of. As time goes on, and the child forgotten, Lord Leader Linn receives a letter from Clane that his father would be doing better in his battle for Mars if he took some different actions. This intrigues the royal grandfather who visits the boy and finds he’s much smarter than anyone believed. As time progresses, and it does so quickly, leaders come and go, with Clane being the wild card for the future of civilization. Outside of infighting among the family, the big bad revealed late in the story is Czinczar from Europa. He’s introduced so late and given a surprising object that he seemed really forced. I would have been happier if he wasn’t introduced and other family members remained the villains in trying to gain power by stepping on Clane. Overall grade: B

The settings: Earth and Mars are the settings of this book. Earth resembles ancient Rome, but with some technology, such as spaceships and knowledge of atomic energy. Humans also believe that the Gods are the forms of atomic energy, with four different churches led by scientists that keep these elements secreted and safe. I thought that was interesting. Clane’s compound that he builds for himself was very cool and thought that what it could do was very smart and telling for future events. Mars is like Earth essentially, but more rural. And there’s quite a bit of water there that’s key to their civilization. The settings were a solid background to the political tomfoolery that’s the focus. Overall grade: A-

The action: There’s more political action with characters scheming to acquire or maintain their power more so than physical fighting, though there is some of that. I enjoyed the former more than the latter. Once Clane was old enough to start developing strategies for war and his grandfather is changing his opinion of his mutant grandson the story really picked up. There was enough action to keep me reading this in one sitting. Overall grade: B+

The conclusion: I wasn’t happy with how Czinczar was dealt with. I didn’t like the surprise he revealed to be in his possession that was the basis for his war to be the ruler of all humanity. I didn’t like the MacGuffin that Clane used to battle Czinczar — it was too powerful an object to introduce in the last ten pages. It seemed like van Vogt was setting up another novel. I really enjoyed the book until this conclusion. Overall grade: D

The final line: A Dune-like read until the conclusion which introduced too much too late. I loved the characters and their actions, with plenty of behind the scenes scheming. Clane was a great underdog hero. I liked the setting that combined Roman civilization with some remnants of technology. I only wish that the conclusion didn’t wrap up so quickly with so many new things introduced. Overall grade: B-

To see the cover visit my Instagram account: patrickhayesscifipulse

To read the review of the flip book go to


Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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