Once again, I will take the opportunity of not writing a book review of some out-of-date science fiction book to meditate on greater issues, in this case, the relation of art and eternity. Or, if that sounds too highfaluting, the question is why some entertainment is quickly forgotten and some slowly and some never.
In this case, the book not being reviewed is GALACTIC PATROL by E.E. Doc Smith. I hope in days to come to nonreview the other three books that form the core story of the Lensman series, since I am reading them for the first time to my boys, and rereading them for the nth time for myself. It is as close to an immortal classic as a bit of juvenile pulp space opera can ever come.
Can anything as fundamentally frivolous as a space opera reach the status enjoyed by immortal works of art? Myself, I very much doubt it. Science fiction depends on scientific wonders for its main appeal, and those wonders pall with familiarity. In order to achieve immortality, a work must appeal across generations, and therefore must address some fundamental mystery of the human condition, something all men of all ages and languages might have in common.
The sentiments and ideas surrounding an industrial and scientific revolution are unlikely to continue to have appeal once those ideas and sentiments are dated. Certain works, as Bob Shaw’s short story “Light of Other Days”, or Aldous Huxley’s novel BRAVE NEW WORLD can address these greater themes in a science fictional setting, but an adventure story cannot reach these heights unless, if it is possible, it touches some deep root of human nature that men of a far wider community than those interested in or living through a scientific revolution might have.
One way in which a work of art or entertainment passes into immortality is to father greater works, or father a whole genre, so that merely by occupying the position as the inspiration for a healthy number of epigones assures the work will be revisited.
Some works earn this patriarchal position by dint of sheer merit. I would list The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Professor Tolkien as work that would have been remembered on its own merits even had it not inspired an entire army of imitators and a much smaller rebel army of self-important literary opponents. The horror tales of Edgar Allen Poe would also be remembered on their merit even had he not defined an entire genre, perhaps two.
On the other hand, the Cthulhu Mythos stories of HP Lovecraft are remarkably lacking in any trace of literary merit, craftsmanship of characterization, dialog, plot, technique, or anything: yet Lovecraft fathered a genre which surely will endure for so long as the genre Tolkien fathered.
The patriarch of the space opera genre, my own field, is of course E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, whose SKYLARK OF SPACE dates from before science fiction was scientification, so that he had no place to sell it when it was first written. It falls somewhere between these two poles: the prose and characterization is not as bad as Lovecraft, but the consummate artistry, insight, craft and genius, the sheer humanity, of a Tolkien or a Shakespeare is absent. I rate Smith in SF on the same level as Jack Kirby in comics: he is the king of a humble country, but still it is a thing passing brave to be a king.
A genre is defined by something more like a family resemblance than a crisp mathematical definition: it is defined by the readers and their expectations. The readers will accept certain tropes and conventions, certain ideas of what degree of realism or romanticism is acceptable for various aspects of plot and characterization, setting and so on. A cluster of stories sharing the same tropes is a genre. Science fiction is the genre which rests for its main appeal reference to scientific wonders: those with more science are Jules Verne style hard SF, and those with more wonder are HG Wells style soft SF. Those who jettison everything for the astronomical scale of the action, the events, and explosions are writing space opera. Originally the term merely meant a hackneyed or untalented sciffy yarn; it has come to mean stories that follow the tropes pioneered by Edward Elmer Smith: large-scale action, larger than life heroes, uncomplicated moral themes with clearly defined good and bad guys, and so on.
GALACTIC PATROL, the first of the Lensman series (at least, the one you should read first) is the gem of Golden Age pre-Campbellian space opera. It was first serialized in 1937-38 in Astounding Stories.
The name just by itself perfectly captures the pulperrific goodness of the trans- Tellurian deeds of derring-do. In my youth, it was a good bet that any science fiction fan who was really a fan had read it or heard of it: but keep in mind the total number of science fiction novels was so small that a devoted fan could have read all of them, at least those published in English.
Nowadays, it is more likely that an SF fan cannot read this work without being reminded of the later works copying it (STAR WARS is the most obvious example) and the fan will most likely be more familiar with the copies than the original, and regard the original, ironically, as derivative.
Also, times have simply changed. It is not a book you can pick up and just read without making a mental effort to put yourself in the mindset of the 1930′s, any more than you can just pick up a Shakespeare play and just read it without the imaginative effort needed to put yourself in the mindset of Elizabethan England.
Four books form the core of the Lensman series: GALACTIC PATROL, GRAY LENSMAN, SECOND STAGE LENSMAN and CHILDREN OF THE LENS. The first is a pirate story set in space, complete with smugglers and maroons, shipwrecks and naval battles; the second is an undercover narcotics cop story; the third is a spy story; the final one is more like an epic or a myth, Wagnerian in scope and consequences.
The stories have certain flaws which I will be happy to discuss below, but there is one overarching virtue to all these books which I have never seen done before or since, and I must mention it first.
Each book is so cleverly constructed that it can be read independently, coming to what seems a perfectly satisfying conclusion with no loose ends, but in the first chapter of the next book the reader discovers that things are not what they seemed, and that the big evil black hat of the last book was himself but an agent of a higher, deeper, darker power from a race even farther away with even more psionic powers. This Russian Doll approach to writing sequels has been rarely tried, and this is the sole successful example of how to do it known to this writer.
It is a hard trick to pull off, and, as far as I know, Smith is the first author ever to attempt it. Each volume has to be completely satisfying in and of itself, with no dangling ends or odd mysteries left over (something Smith complained Edgar Rice Burroughs was guilty of–see GODS OF MARS for an obvious example), but also has to be open ended enough to smoothly mesh with the bigger picture once the curtains are drawn back even farther so that what you thought was the head of the dragon our hero just slew turns out to be one head of the Hydra, who turns out to have brothers bent on revenge, who turns out to have been sent out by some immortal from the underworld.
I am hard pressed to think of an example of such a thing being done once, much less four times in a row.
I know there are some people who insist on reading A MAGICIANS NEPHEW first, even though THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE was written first, and they are likely to read FIRST LENSMAN or TRIPLANETARY before reading GALACTIC PATROL. This approach simply ruins the nested Russian Doll of evil intergalactic conspiracy by putting the biggest of the Big Bad Wolves on stage in the prologue, and so the whole cleverness of the Russian Doll approach is lost.
It is easy enough to mock Space Opera for being loud, silly, and simple, since these are indeed its main virtues. What is difficult is to have enough real hard SF in a space opera to give it ballast and even a slight bit of gravity, which is something Smith does with such skillful yet seeming effortlessness that one might miss it, overwhelmed in the sound and fury (which he also does with enthusiasm).
For example, the very first scene of the first chapter establishes the science fictional speculation which is the core of the series, namely, what would be the effect of fast and cheap interstellar travel on society, specifically, on crime rates?
Organized crime, particularly acts of piracy, would be unstoppable: any wrongdoer on any world in the galaxy could flit to any other, commit robberies and slave-taking and mayhem, and be outside the range of local, continental, worldwide and system wide authorities faster than a radio wave (which moseys along at lightspeed) could spread the alarm. The impossibility of tracking a fleeing criminal in a space vessel is literally astronomical. If the fugitive goes to ground on a foreign world, inhabited by aliens whose language the pursuing police officer does not speak, whose customs he does not understand, and whose atmosphere he cannot breathe, the problem is even worse. If in addition, previous contact has been rare or none, the police officer also has the problem of identifying which shiny bent thing with leaves is the leader of the political organization, if any, the aliens possess, as opposed to which is the houseplant. More to the point for this story, the alien has the problem of discovering which of the two Earthmen just landed on his world is the police officer and which is the crook.
Obviously the scope of this problem depends on myriad factors, such as the frequency of alien contacts or the number of alien races, the speed of the ships, the ease of communication, the ease with which new territory can be discovered, and so on. But the international policing mechanisms and treaties used just here on Earth, if Earth were a ringworld or Dyson’s sphere and therefore had within sailing range a hundred continents instead of seven, or thousands, and a sailing ship could quickly reach destinations millions of miles away, all such treaties would be woefully inadequate. The solutions to organized crime on an interstellar scale do not ‘scale up’.
The answer in the Lensman universe is that a coldly superior race, called the Arisians, for reasons not revealed in the first volume, has granted to civilization a lens-shaped semi-living gem (or organism or device or thought-construct) which cannot be counterfeited, which cannot be used by anyone save the one soul to whom it has been attuned, and further kills anyone attempting to don it except the true owner. It is a badge that cannot be counterfeited. The Lens also acts as a telepathic sender and receiver and universal translator.
And, just to make things easy, the superior beings can identify beforehand who has the moral stature needed never to abuse the immense power of the lens, so no one but the Worthiest of the Worthy ever is given this badge of office. So the lens allows the police officer instantly to identify himself to any living intelligence on any world, telepathically display his good intentions and the honesty of his purpose, and understand any form of communication.
Unrealistic? Sure, but not any more so than the idea of Faster Than Light drive itself, or intelligent life on other planets. The purpose of science fiction is not to propose serious scientific ideas, but to tell stories, and to use as much or as little science as needed to aid the reader in his suspension of disbelief. The science here is meant as no more than a figleaf, to cover up what would otherwise distract from the overall effect.
And, given a race millions of years older than mankind, living in a universe where telepathy and telepathic technology was possible, it seems reasonable to suppose that evolution would produce a race where everyone can see into each other minds and reduce the workings of all thought processes to a praxis. It seems reasonable also to suppose that there are only two possible fates for such a race: they would either eliminate all evil and insanity and unharmony of thought from their midst, or would eliminate whatever conscience they possess allowing them to judge that evil is bad.
The idea that a planet full of mindreaders and mass-hypnotists would be just like us, and have customs and laws like ours, seems to me to be less realistic than a planet full of either angels or devils of terrifying aspect and power.
And if terrifying angels cannot discover anyone to whom it is safe to give the mind-reading power, well, that might be a more realistic novel, but it certainly would not be as long. I wonder what the Lensman universe would be like if, instead of superpolicemen akin to Captain America, the Lens were only given to Mother Teresa.
Be that as it may. On Earth, the Lensmen candidates are corps of interstellar lawkeepers who perform both military and police functions. At graduation, they are fitted with a lens, and sent out to fight space pirates.
I should mention the figleaf Smith uses to work his way around the limitations of Einsteinian relativity is as clever as any I have ever read, and I have read some clever ones. The concept here is that inertia is not an innate property of matter, but can be suspended within the action of a special field. Inertialess matter can be accelerated instantaneously to any velocity or come to an instantaneous standstill without the slight jar or sensation. This would obviate the need for more than infinite energy needed to propel what relatively predicts would be more than infinite masses of faster than light bodies.
Whatever his weaknesses in characterization or dialog, this is an unsurpassed and unsurpassable bit of science fictional hand waving.
Smith postulates that the resulting velocities are limited by the density of the medium through which the intertialess body passes. This would allow far greater velocities for intergalactic travel as opposed to interstellar. It makes for a number of peculiarities of space combat; and Smith carefully thinks through the odd implications of delivering damage to a vessel which instantaneously matches velocity to any bullet or expanding gas ball of an explosion touching its outer hull.
In one of those brilliant touches of verisimilitude only master sciencefictioneers pull off, he postulates that when the special field collapses, the original inertia, the original vector of velocity and direction, reasserts itself. This would allow, for example, a ship to pass from Earth to Mars in a moment, but at Mars she would have to take time and expend fuel to overcome the difference in vector between the two worlds.
I will emphasize the craftsmanship of this conceit to my fellow science fiction writers. No one before wrote a story where inertia was not an innate property of matter, and no scientist, at least to my knowledge, has any proof that such a thing is impossible. It may not be legitimate science, but it is not one of the usual scientific absurdities we readers have come to expect from faster-than-light make-believe.
Also, I will emphasize that E.E. Smith is one of those rare authors who actually understands the magnitudes of astronomical distances, of atomic energies (an accomplishment more impressive when you realize that atomic energy was theoretical back then) and of the scope of what a galactic civilization would involve.
GALACTIC PATROL is neatly divided into three acts. In Act One, Kimball Kinnison, the number one graduate of his class and indeed of all time, is sent out on a suicidal mission to recover intact the technical secret of the space pirate organization which allows them to draw in free energy from cosmic rays, enabling a pirate ship to be lighter while stronger than the corresponding warships of civilization, so that any pirate battleship can outrun any vessel she cannot outgun.
Kinnison against all odds succeeds in capturing a pirate ship intact, but the larger pirate organization, run by a leader known only as a voice over a radio, Helmuth who ‘Speaks for Boskone’, has enough ships and manpower to blockade Kinnison and hunt him down. During the desperate manhunt, Kinnison goes to ground on the nightmare world of the Overlords of Delgon, mesmeric telepaths who use their mind-power to run a sadistic torture-based empire, and he meets and saves (and is saved by) Worsel of Valentia, a dragon-like being equipped with batwings, crocodile hide, razor claws and scimitar tail, with many eyes on stalks, but also a telepath of immense range and power.
Here we encounter one of E E Smith’s immense strengths as a writer. The number of science fiction writers who can pen aliens that are convincingly alien in psychology and culture, who think just as intelligently as men but not like men, and yet at the same time are lovable characters and not mere monsters or sidekicks is less than half a dozen. Smith does this handily, without any long pauses in the action for exposition, in a few swift and well-placed strokes of nonhuman characterization.
The Valentians, being cold blooded reptilian sort of creatures, lack both human drive as well as human compassion, but far exceed men in the precision, fineness, strength and singlemindedness of their thought processes. A Valentian of perfectly firm willpower and stubbornness would be as rare among them as a man of perfect honesty and incorruptibility would be among humans.
With Worsel’s help, Kinnison and the stalwart space marine Van Buskirk destroy the local nest of Overlords, free Worsel’s people. In return that highly intelligent and technically advanced race arranges to ambush a number of the pursuing pirate ships, and aid Kinnison to return to Tellus.
During the same long flight and flight sequence, Kimball Kinnison meets another Lensman, this one from Rigel, a many-tentacled creature with no eyes and many mouths, but one whose mind is so calm, imputable, steady, rock-solid and placid that he could no doubt serve as an English butler. Again, the Rigelians lack qualities the Earthmen possess, such as forceful personality, ambition, daring, nor do they possess than manic intelligence and berserk courage of Valentians, but moral turpitude is unknown among the Rigelians, even as a mental disease.
In the Second Act, Kinnison is wounded, quarrels with his redheaded nurse Clarissa MacDougall, with whom he is destined to fall in love, returns to Arisia for training in additional telepathic powers, include ESP, mind control, memory editing and so on. Now equipped with superhuman powers, and a detection-invisible speedster, he investigates and invades several Boskonian bases, and saves the saucy redheaded nurse from space pirates.
The pirates withdraw their ships, rearm, and prepare to begin a galactic war, which promises to be an endless stalemate. Helmuth of Boskone wisely decides to clear out all his known bases and reequip and rearm his ships based on the new parity between their technologies. Here we encounter another strength of Smith as a writer: he writes villains that are neither weak nor unintelligent nor craven. The pirate chief and his men are cunning, bold, vicious, daring and highly scientific thinkers.
Their only drawback is that they are evil, that is, selfish rather than selfless, in competition with their underlings and overseers rather than in cooperation, and Smith is an adroit enough writer to make it clear that this, not some curse of fate, is why they fail. At a time when all the Progressives were infatuated with ideas of scientifically run totalitarian states, socialized medicine, and other manifestations of madness, this stern moral shows remarkable hardheaded clearsightedness on the part of Smith. In effect, he predicted the causes of the downfall of the Soviet Union even earlier than Ronald Reagan.
The other thing he does well is that Smith makes his good guys into fairly rough customers, not above dirtying their hands with tormenting and killing the bad guys as need be. In one of the most memorable scenes in this memorable book, Helmuth himself, personally, departs from his invulnerable superstronghold outside the galaxy and travels to the haunted planet Arisia, in a bold attempt to wrest the secret of the Lens from whoever or whatever might be there. He is millions of mile away from the planet when his thought-shields are brushed aside like cobwebs, and all voluntary functions of his nervous system usurped by an outside mind of superhuman if not unimaginable range, precision, force, scope and power. The following mental monologue occurs:
“You are surprised that your thought-screens are not effective?” The thought was coldly contemptuous. “I know in essence what the messenger from Ploor told you concerning them when he gave them to you, but he spoke in ignorance. We of Arisia know thought in a way that no member of his race is now or ever will be able to understand.
“Know, Helmuth, that we Arisians do not want and will not tolerate uninvited visitors. Your presence is particularly distasteful, representing as you do a despotic, degrading, and antisocial culture. Evil and good are of course purely relative, so it cannot be said in absolute terms that your culture is evil. It is, however, based upon greed, hatred, corruption, violence, and fear. Justice it does not recognize, nor mercy, nor truth except as a scientific utility. It is basically opposed to liberty. Now liberty—of person, of thought, of action—is the basic and the goal of the civilization to which you are opposed, and with which any really philosophical mind must find itself in accord.
“Inflated—overweeningly by your warped and perverted ideas, by your momentary success in dominating your handful of minions, tied to you by bonds of greed, of passion, and of crime, you come here to wrest from us the secret of the Lens, from us, a race as much abler than yours as we are older—a ratio of millions to one.
“You consider yourself cold, hard, ruthless. Compared to me, you are weak, soft, tender, as helpless as a newborn child. That you may learn and appreciate that fact is one reason why you are living at this present moment. Your lesson will now begin.”
Then Helmuth, starkly rigid, unable to move a muscle, felt delicate probes enter his brain. One at a time they pierced his innermost being, each to a definitely selected center. It seemed that each thrust carried with it the ultimate measure of exquisitely poignant anguish possible of endurance, but each successive needle carried with it an even more keenly unbearable thrill of agony.
(Since I was not in the ship with Helmuth, I did not have the opportunity to ask the Arisian Watchman on what grounds it could be that good and evil are ‘of course’ relative terms, whereas liberty was a goal with which any really philosophical mind must find itself in accord. Hmm. My Visualization of the Cosmic All is not complete on that point.)
After seeing far too many shows where goodness is implicitly or explicitly equated with weakness, and badness as strength, it is refreshing indeed to read of universe where the opposite, and truthful, equation is made. The nature of Helmuth’s evil is such that he can never correctly assess his inferiority to the Arisians. Humility is the one property neither devils from Hell nor pirates from space can encompass.
In the Third Act Kinnison discovers the location of the secret military headquarters of Helmuth, an immense domed fortress on a remote planet in a globular cluster outside the galaxy proper, and relying solely on his newly-forged superhuman mind-powers attempts to infiltrate the base singlehandedly. Kinnison is wearing a new type of super-armor, and walks into a ringing hail of rebounding machinegun fire as he closes, step by step, shields flaming, toward the pirate chieftain….
Such is the plot. Characterization, there is little to none. Kinnison is the same Iowa-born starman as from the same bloodline and central casting call as any number of other square-jawed space heroes hail from. Clarissa MacDougall is a Redhead, and therefore, in good pulp tradition, is both gorgeous and Scottish and fiery and has a temper. But she also loves her man, and will stand by him through thick and thin even though he feels his life as a brutal warrior is too harsh for her, and promises her nothing but heartbreak.
I said I would mention the drawbacks: the writing style is the most abusively over-empurpled purple prose from the purplest hell of paid-by-the-word thesauromaniacal glossilissila.
When the Overlords saw that a fight to the finish was inevitable they also seized weapons and fought with the desperation of the cornered rats they were. This, however, freed Worsel from guard duty, since the monsters were fully occupied in defending themselves. He seized a length of chain, wrapped six feet of tail in an unbreakable anchorage around a torture rack, and set viciously to work. Thus again the intrepid three, the only minions of Civilization theretofore to have escaped alive from the clutches of the Overlords of Delgon, fought side by side. VanBuskirk particularly was in his element. He was used to a gravity almost three times Earth’s, he was accustomed to enormously heavy, almost viscous air. This stuff, thick as it was, tasted infinitely better than the vacuum that Tellurians liked to breathe. It let a man use his strength; and the gigantic Dutchman waded in happily, swinging his frightfully massive weapon with devastating effect. Crunch! Splash! THWUCK! When that bar struck it did not stop. It went through; blood, brains, smashed heads and dismembered limbs flying in all directions. And Worsel’s lethal chain, driven irresistibly at the end of the twenty-five-foot lever of his free length of body, clanked, hummed, and snarled its way through reptilian flesh. And, while Kinnison was puny indeed in comparison with his two brothers-in-arms, he had selected a weapon which would make his skill count; and his wicked knife stabbed, sheared, and trenchantly bit.
And thus, instead of dealing out death, the Overlords died.
A million beams, primaries raised to the hellish heights possible only to Medonian conductors and insulation, lashed out almost as one. Screens stiffened to the urge of every generable watt of defensive power. Bolt after bolt of quasi-solid lightning struck and struck and struck again. Q-type helices bored, gouged, and searingly bit. Rods and cones, planes and shears of incredibly condensed pure force clawed, tore, and ground in mad abandon. Torpedo after torpedo, charged to the very skin with duodec, loosed its horribly detonant cargo against flinching wall-shields, in such numbers and with such violence as to fill all circumambient space with an atmosphere of almost planetary density.
Screen after screen, wall-shield after wall-shield, in their hundreds and their thousands, went down. A full eighth of the Patrol’s entire count of battleships was wrecked, riddled, blown apart, or blasted completely out of space in the paralyzingly cataclysmic violence of the first, seconds-long, mind-shaking, space-wracking encounter. Nor could it have been otherwise; for this encounter had not been at battle range. Not even at point-blank range; the warring monsters of the void were packed practically screen to screen.
The author’s attempts to portray the manly and bloodcurdling space-oaths of space pirate, space marines, space prospectors, meteor miners, drugrunners, and all the manly jaspers and neerdowells, thugs and roughnecks of space while staying within the acceptable limits of 1930′s juvenile boy’s fiction will embarrass modern ears drenched in word-filth since their suckling days.
The sheer ponderous sobriety and operatic hyperventiliation of the romantic dialog (all the worse for being understated in a typically Midwestern ‘Gary Cooper’ style of speech) will make the attempts at roughneck slang seem Shakespearian by contrast: and let the imagination of the reader cringe as he contemplates that all this dithering dialog is drenched in the author’s tin-eared attempt to futurize his slang-argot with futuristic future-talk that we are supposing the Men of Tomorrow will say.
So, where we say “OK!” the spacemen of tomorrowland say “QX!” and where we say, “Smooth sailing!” they say “Clear ether!” and where we say, “I don’t know if I have the horsepower to tote that barge, sarge!” they say, “I don’t know if I have the jets to lift that load!” and where we say, “The internal combustion engine of my horseless carriage is purring like the proverbial kitten gorged on catnip!” they say, “I check you to seventeen decimals!” because future people have things like jets and ether and decimal notation.
Now, if you point out that no one in real life in our times actually says anything about horsepower toting barges, I will sadly admit that perhaps no one in the future will be talking about the ether theory either, which I believe passed it expiration date during the Michelson-Morley experiment, circa 1887. Hot jets!
But I must fairly confess that to me, this lousy dialog is a feature and not a bug (we future people speak about features and bugs because in the computer age, the word bug refers to a computer malfunction—so, hey, maybe people do add argot phrases as technology changes. QX!) I admit that I love this dialog, and unless you have a tin ear like mine, you will hate it.
It is awkward, unreadable, juvenile, but—and here is the great conjunction—but it is perfectly fun.
It has no trace of cynicism, modernism, irony or any of the mustard gas of modern political correctness. Unlike PERDIDO STREET STATION by Mieville or BLINDSIGHT by Watts, which were frankly far more accomplished books executed with far greater technical skill, this awkward pulp forms a breathable oxynitrogen moral atmosphere. Those books have a methane and chlorine moral atmosphere, in which nothing human can live.
Keep in mind when reading any review that men fall in love with books as they fall for women, because of the will of the great blind god Cupid, whom even mighty Jove cannot oppose, and not because of a sound judgment of merit. If you fall in love, you see the flaws and do not mind them. If you fall in hate, you see the merits but they mean nothing to you. If you love a book, you can list the reasons why you love it, but by and large they are the exact same reasons you would hate it if you decided you hated it.
I suppose a good and objective reviewer can put personal emotion aside, which I will do here when I say the dialog is terrible but memorable in an embarrassingly awkward and unconvincing juvenile machismo futuristic style. It is, of course, the same type of dialog I use in my own books, by Klono’s brazen claws and carballoy teeth, so whether you find it delightful or despicable is up to the blind god Cupid.
Other drawbacks spring from the basic theme: if you are not a fan of masculine pulp action, all the unspoken assumptions of the universe, from the fact that the men are reluctant to punch women in the face to the fact that women cannot be Lensmen will annoy you.
If you are not willing to believe that an utterly altruistic race of superbeings can find morally incorruptible men to entrust with absolute power both political and psionic, you will not be able to perform the basic leap of suspension of disbelief which the background of the story-world demands.
If you can make that leap, then you will be willing to accept without demur even rank absurdities (such as that the Lensman of Unattached or ‘Gray’ level of rank have no rank, are given no orders, and can commandeer any material or labor of any kind whatsoever in any amount whatsoever to use as he sees fit with no oversight whatsoever).
Along the same lines, if you cannot swallow the basic fact that the enemy cannot be stopped or slowed by negotiation, by compromise, or by deterrence, and will accept neither quarter nor armistice, then the implacable ruthlessness of the war will also annoy you. The moral complexities which surround real wars are here absent, or are paid only the mildest lipservice. Lensmen do not suffer from shellshock or post-traumatic stress disorder, nor do their consciences bother them for wiping out enemies by ships and fleets and worlds. It is simply not one of those kinds of war stories. It is not a war story at all, not military SF after the fashion of, say, STARSHIP TROOPERS, which tells of the war from the point of view of the infantryman. This is more Homeric, more concerned with the clash of the demigods and superheroes.
For myself, I thought the remorselessness of the war effort was one of the more realistic touches. Consider, please, when this was written. Between the First and Second World Wars, it was the common assumption of the intelligentsia and the progressives that Darwinian competition between all races of man was both normal and beneficial: the stress of competition between white and black and red and yellow would cull the weak, and allow the master race to enslave and then exterminate Jews and Gypsies and Catholics and other weaklings and atavisms. The Progressives did not yet have the embarrassing example of the National Socialist Worker’s Party of Germany to give people a concrete picture of what all their vague windy talk of eugenics and a scientifically-run state would mean. Smith was bucking the intellectual currents of the time by proposing a Civilization based on mutual respect of universal rights. It is an idea the postwar generation takes for granted: at the time it was new.
But Smith was also an adroit and insightful enough master of the art of science fiction speculation to know that intelligent creatures evolved in alien environments with alien biology and alien psychology would not necessarily have anything in common with mankind except their capacity for thought. Political units in Earthly history are born of historical forces, such as the sharing of a common ancestor, or the decent from a successful race of invaders. In outer space there is no common ancestry. Any political polity would have to be utterly artificial. This leads to two possibilities: the first is civilization, a union of worlds with nothing in common save for their rational conclusion that the alliance is mutually beneficial against a mutual foe. Such a union would and could attempt no meddling with local and planetary affairs: it would of necessity be a federal system. The allies would be drawn together only by a rational apprehension of the mutual benefit of continued alliance. There would be nothing of sentiment or fellow feeling or patriotism or brotherhood. It would be cold and rational, but it would be devoted to liberty.
The other possibility is utterly remorseless conquest, an empire of mutually incomprehensible races that mutually detest each other, and each planet would be held in check only by the fear of their remorseless and ruthless masters. There would be nothing of sentiment or fellow feeling or patriotism or brotherhood. It would be cold and rational, but it would be devoted to tyranny.
These are indeed the diametric opposites Smith establishes between Civilization and Boskonia.
Now consider that these two forces, being diametric opposites, could not tolerate the existence of the other, could not make peace, would not even have a sufficient basis to negotiate or trust surrender terms. Remember that civilization consists not only of redblooded Earthmen, but reptilian Valentians who have no concept of mercy, and bovine and placid Rigellians, who have never developed or needed a concept of chivalry, and so on. If the Earthmen feel merciful toward humanoid enemies they happen to encounter, this is a sentiment that may not even be explicable to the various allies of your Civilization, reptilian or tentacled or breathers of frigid poisonous chemicals or whatever.
Smith shows a powerful imagination to envision a multiracial and mutually tolerant society at a time when the byword of the Progressives was eugenics and racial superiority: it is an idea since copied in countless science fictional backgrounds, including STAR TREK and STAR WARS but it was a new idea at the time.
But unlike STAR TREK and STAR WARS the aliens in the multiracial civilization in Smith’s universe actually are alien, at least as alien as anything invented, say, by Larry Niven or other masters of the craft. (Indeed, the Puppeteers with their craven and manipulative ways seem more than a little inspired by the Palainians of the Lensman universe.) The allies of civilization cooperate only by the power of thought alone, for they have no sentiments in common. And two diametrically opposed galaxy-wide civilizations with no sentiments in common have no basis to discuss peace, or ask or accept surrenders. Indeed, aside from the Lensman, it is not necessarily the case that any race can communicate with any race unknown to it.
There are anachronisms in the text which may jar a modern reader, such as the utter absence of electronic calculation machinery. During space battles, computers (that is, servicemen with pencils and sliderules and adding machines) calculate the orbits and flightpaths of the multimillion ship navies.
The main anachronism is to read something, anything, written by a Western writer back in the day before the West had fallen wholeheartedly into vice, decadence and corruption. The moral atmosphere is noticeably different, even in a lighthearted space adventure story. Marriage, not fornication, was regarded as the natural end of male-female relations, and sexual perversion was not only not celebrated, it was not even mentioned. Drug abuse was rightfully regarded as a weapon of the enemy, not as a harmless pleasure nor as a gateway to higher insights. The nauseating spectacle of self-abasing self-loathing which is as common among us in these days as in the days of the Chinese Empire was the sight of court eunuchs cravenly kowtowing until their heads bleed was not so much unknown as incomprehensible. The ideas that women should not be feminine and men not be masculine or the pervasive mood of anti-white anti-European reverse racism are ideas nowhere present, and modern readers sensitive to such things will note the absence with rejoicing or contempt, depending on the degree to which they themselves are loyal to civilization rather than Boskone.
Those readers to whom the modern atmosphere is their native air will choke not just on this book, but any book, great or humble, portraying either in a mature or juvenile way, either seriously or lightheartedly, the struggle of civilization against barbarism. The barbarians will hate this book as much as the Boskonians.