L’empire de l’atome se déroule en 12 000 après JC. Dans des temples gardés par des prêtres atomiques, l’uranium, le plutonium et le radium sont des dieux. Clane, issu de la famille régnante, nait après une exposition radioactive accidentelle. Eduqué à l’isolement par un prêtre scientifique, l’enfant est doué de pouvoirs supranormaux. Responsable des victoires martiennes et vénusiennes, il sauve l’empire après une invasion barbare et se tient prêt à protéger le système solaire contre une éventuelle attaque d’au-delà de notre système solaire. Le livre est écrit en 1946.
Van Vogt based Empire of the Atom largely on the plot of I, Claudius by Robert Graves, putting it into a science-fictional setting. The work was originally presented as five novelettes published in Astounding Science Fiction between May 1946 and December 1947.
- “A Son Is Born” (May 1946)
- “Child of the Gods” (August 1946)
- “Hand of the Gods” (December 1946)
- “Home of the Gods” (April 1947)
- “The Barbarian” (December 1947)
Some time, a little over 10,000 years from now, a noblewoman gives birth to a deformed child, a consequence of having been accidentally exposed to radiation from one of the temples of the Atom Gods. The baby is kept alive because one of the atom priests wants to conduct an experiment to see what will happen if the boy, unlike other mutant children, is given the full education of an atom priest.
In his teens the mutant boy Clane helps his father win a war with Mars. He also continues his studies while his grandfather, who is Lord Leader, and his tutors protect him from the Machiavellian intrigues swirling around him, especially those of his grandmother Lydia.
Reaching his majority, Clane turns his estate into a laboratory where he can test new inventions and machines that he has retrieved from the ruins of ancient cities and reactivated. When his grandfather dies, Clane becomes a target for assassination, but shortly thereafter Lady Lydia receives a vase containing the assassin’s ashes. Even a direct frontal assault by a militia fails against Clane and Lady Lydia is compelled to cease her attacks on him.
A war between the Linnan Empire and rebels on Venus provides an opportunity for Clane to take an expedition to explore the ruins of an ancient city there. When the Venusians capture the Lord Advisor and thousands of his troops and prepare to hang them, Clane appears in their camp and displays the awesome power of the Atom Gods. With the war won, Clane returns to Earth with his findings.
In spite of Clane’s warnings, the Linnan Empire is taken by surprise by an invasion of barbarians from Europa, the largest of Jupiter’s moons. The invaders kill the Lord Advisor and Clane must take command of the imperial forces. Disguised as a slave, Clane sneaks into his townhouse in the city of Linn and touches an artifact that he found on Venus. With the power it gives him he compels the barbarian chieftain, Czinczar, to surrender, but not before Czinczar shows him the body of an alien, one of a species that Czinczar believes caused the cataclysm that devastated human civilization thousands of years before. The Europan threat is vanquished, but now Clane has a new worry.
The story continues and concludes in The Wizard of Linn.