As formulaic as it is, Vault of the Ages is an exciting, rousing book. In reviewing it nearly 50 years after it was written, it is of course important to take into account its vintage, as well as its relative position in Anderson's oeuvre. Yes, this is an early novel, only Anderson's second, and geared towards a juvenile audience. That means that many readers today, particularly those who have had a chance to sample any one of Anderson's later, more sophisticated gems, will find this tale old-hat, with its Messages about human responsibility and the importance of using science only for good underlined in bright red crayon. But what it lacks in freshness it more than makes up for in readability and entertainment value. The naive simplicity of the story has the same irresistible appeal Star Wars had in 1977. In these days when pop culture wants to be as cutting edge (whatever that means), postmodern, cynical, and dark as possible, it's nice just to get back to the basics every once in a while.
Set in the Alleghenies roughly 500 years after a nuclear holocaust, Vault of the Ages tells the story of Carl, a young man who is the son of the Chief of the Dalesmen, a community of peaceful farmers and craftsmen whose existence is threatened by the Lann, fierce warriors from the north who are fleeing their increasingly cold homeland for warmer climes, conquering and subjugating any who stand in their way. With the help of a couple of farmboys, Carl enters the ruins of one of America's ancient cities, which are enshrouded in taboo and inhabited by ragtag groups of people whom everybody calls witchmen or worse, yet with whom it is still necessary to trade for vital materials like metal (cannibalized from ruined skyscrapers) to make weapons, farm equipment, and the like. As son of the tribal Chief, it falls to Carl to take on the official duty of conducting trade.
Once inside the city, Carl and his friends discover a "time vault," a large time capsule in effect, left over from the pre-holocaust civilization, containing numerous tools, books, and more detailing the sciences that have since been lost. Carl discovers that the evil magic known as science is not necessarily evil; it's just that men put it to evil use, when they could just as easily put it to good. Some preachifying ensues. Then Carl heads home with a souvenir (a flashlight) to show his father in the hopes of persuading him that the taboos are so much hogwash, and that they need the knowledge the vault contains, which could not only aid them in their day to day lives, but perhaps help them defeat the Lann. (Pursued by Lann on his way home, Carl manages to scare them off with the flashlight.) But the powerful Doctors, the Dalesmens' equivalent of a priesthood, will hear none of it; the cities and their forbidden knowledge are taboo, and even a Chief's son is not immune from punishment for breaking taboos. So, when the Dalesmen ride forth to engage the Lann in combat, and get their asses kicked, Carl says the hell with it and secretly rides back to the city with his two friends to recover whatever ancient tools he may find to help save his people from utter destruction.
As you can see, it's all very de rigeur adventure. But Anderson makes it wonderfully fun through brisk writing and some spectacular battle scenes. Yes, there's much hammering home of lessons pertaining to courage, taking control of one's own destiny, and using knowledge and science for Good. Fine, this is a juvenile. What can be said with certainty is that Vault of the Ages gets the job done in the storytelling department. There are some plausibility gaps and minor inconsistencies, and Anderson's use of contemporary character names comes off as an anachronism; hearing Carl announce himself grandly as "Carl, son of Ralph" is just a little snicker-inducing. Yet this is so much quibbling over details. In a less thoroughly entertaining story, those would be far more damning flaws, but here they are eminently forgivable. All through the tale I was reminded of the rush I got first reading SF as a pre-teen, that sensawunda buzz. We all could do with that from time to time.