GALACTIC PATROL by E.E. Doc Smith

Once again, I will take the opportunity of not writing a book review of some out-of-date science fiction book to meditate on greater issues, in this case, the relation of art and eternity.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.

galactic-patrol

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.

An example:

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.    

And

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.

 

26 Comments

  1. Comment by Jordan179:

    It has occurred to me more than once that, if “Doc” Smith was writing reality, the Islamist attack on Civilization here on Earth would almost certainly be a front for Boskone. This is made more obvious by the fact that the physical object the Muslims most revere is a piece of rock which came to our Earth, long ago, from Outside …

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I am not sure I agree. Smith’s villains were uniformly dispassionate, super-high-tech, scientifically-advanced totalitarians, not cultist thugs. Nazis and communists and organized crime and the Democrat Party would all serve as stand ins for Gray Roger or Helmuth of Boskone. Islam is something different: Islam is more like a villain from a Conan story, or like people John Carter of Mars would kill, or, better yet, Roland or El Cid.

      • Comment by joetexx:

        By fortuity I read Galactic Patrol and the Kinnison novels first. I learned about the Lensmen books from a short review of Golden Age SF published each month in one of the mags – might have been F & SF, might have been Schuyler Miller. I first learned about Lewis’s Space Trilogy from the same source.

        Of course I had to check this out and sought out Triplanetary to read them in the right order. Nothing doing; all the post library had was Galactic Patrol and Gray Lensman. So I read them and found the last two, then went back and read the first two for background. You’re right; this is the way to do it. You need to be pitched directly into the middle of the Lens universe and puzzle out the backstory later.

        I never noticed the ‘Chinese Box’ effect before but it’s true. Each novel segues into the next and introduces a new level of previously unsuspected villainy; Roger to Helmuth to Boskone and the Eich, to Fossten and Thrallis, to Ploor and Eddore. it was a bit of a shock to me to realize that Kim and Clarissa never actually know about Eddore; only their children do.

        Also the hierarchy of Civilization is open and transparent; the Lensmen and the Galactic Council are known to everybody. The Arisisians are secretive, but they are guardians whose aim is to relinquish control.
        In Boskone in contrast each level of leadership thinks it is in control but is manipulated by lower forces whose existence is not suspected by the underlings.

        With regard to Jordan’s remarks it is remarkable that none of the Boskonian villains are cultists or religious fanatics. Save, perhaps, Gray Roger’s ‘adepts of North Polar Jupiter’ who never actually appear in the Lens novels.

        If I ever do a Lens based fanfic it will probably be something like “The Hidden History of the Jovian War”.

        • Comment by Jordan179:

          The structure of the Lensman series is quite complex: though Smith uses straight chronological narrative where ever possible, not only is each novel a separate story but is itself composed of numerous separate stories. There are multiple flashbacks and even retellings of scenes already shown, the next time with added or subtracted information. According to Robert Heinlein, Smith extensively outlined each part before writing it, including making graphs of various levels of suspense and other dramatic content (action, romance, exposition etc.) to ensure that the story didn’t get bogged down at any point.

        • Comment by Mary:

          A cultist or religious fanatic acknowledges something that is and ought to be greater than him, something whose greatness he just has to accept, and to which obedience is due on his part.

          Does that sound like a Boskonian to you? Or even something a Boskonian would fathom?

          • Comment by joetexx:

            A Boskonian can obey only out of fear or to advance his own interests. Obedience cannot be due to anything.

            Sauron’s ring is not enough for him. In his heart he must aim at Morgoth’s Iron Crown.

            The cultist can acknowledge a transcendental reality which he is obliged to obey.

            It is this that gives Islam such dignity as it can ever have.

      • Comment by Jordan179:

        You have a point there — though remember that in Children of the Lens the Boskonians started all sorts of weird front organizations to destabilize Civilization. Also IRL the Axis cheerfully allied with Muslim fundamentalists — even if the alliance would probably have ended had Axis forces been able to actually occupy much of the Muslim world.

  2. Comment by Jordan179:

    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.

    Very much so, and very much to the credit of the Lensman series compared to much later science fiction.

    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.

    “Doc” Smith believed in the functional equality but not equivalence of men and women. This is an explicit theme in the parts dealing with Ilona of Lonabar and the Matriarchs of Lyrane. He points out that the extreme patriarchy of the human Boskonians and the extreme matriarchy of the Lyranians equally deny half of their cultures’ potential by utterly-exalting one sex and degrading the other, and that this is bad regardless of which sex is exalted and which degraded.

    Drug abuse was rightfully regarded as a weapon of the enemy, not as a harmless pleasure nor as a gateway to higher insights.

    Total agreement here. Even though I’m a libertarian on recreational drugs, my reasoning is not “Drugs are great!” but rather “Free people should be free to hurt themselves doing stupid things.” And given the situation facing Civilization in Smith’s world, their hostility towards the drugs is mostly rational.

    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.

    Indeed. Civilization is proud of being Civilized — and it should be proud of its Civilization, since it represents a high stage of moral and societal development, one allowing for freedom and legal equality among the descendants of Tellus. (And, doubtless, the other races of Civilization are equally proud of whatever flaws of youth that they conquered to rise to the stars, which may be very different flaws in the case of, say, the Rigellians and Palanians).

    The idea that women should not be feminine and men not be masculine or the pervasive mood of anti-white anti-European reverse racism are 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.

    Yes. Incidentally, people who assume that Tellurian Civilization is horribly racist and sexist are missing two major points in the story. Most of the stories take place after a global thermonuclear war and centuries of recovery afterward have rather mixed up the races as they existed c. 1950 AD; and most of them are also about serving members in an interstellar military organization. We don’t know what races by modern standards are most of the characters (save for Conway Costigan and the lineages leading up to the Children themslves — and the latter aren’t even completely human in the normal meaning of the term!). And there may be all sorts of politically and economically-important women on Tellus and her daughter worlds — most of them, however, are probably civilians.

  3. Comment by Xena Catolica:

    I got my set when I was 10 & Reagan had just become president; it was about the first sci-fi I encountered other than SW and ST:TOS. I still have a fondness for his prose (in small doses), because there is nothing half-assed or self-conscious about it & those are the principle prose sins of most books I don’t finish these days. If it’s the most purple, it’s whole-heartedly purple & I’ve never had the feeling it was trying to sound like anything but the thing itself; it’s much less pretentious than some you named because it sounds sincere rather than earnest. The self-mockery in the tale of Quadgop the Mercotan manages to be both spot-on and light.

    Reading about thionite during the 80s “Just Say No” campaign was pretty radical–a Lensman doing drugs while undercover as a dangerous personal sacrifice seemed like as an impossible idea as throwing a black hole at an oncoming planet.

    Even the THWUCK! I feel a fondness for, because like lots of GenX girls, I was absolutely forbidden to even touch the comic books at my father’s barber shop. With no brothers, I missed the whole genre & I think missing out on comic books is part of the reason a fewer women write sci-fi and action stories in general. I heard “The Iliad” when I was 11, in all its unedited & unabridged glory, and encountering Smith’s action violence the year before wasn’t a bad transition from the low levels of violence in the “classics” like R.L. Stephenson & Dumas and the specific, visceral violence of Homer.

    And for the record, Mr. Wright, thank you for a space to say such things. It’s unfortunate that most English majors are expected to commit an intimate treason, from the minute we declare the major, to Never Mention Again the books that actually made us love stories in our youth. That was years ago, of course, but it still inspires a specific, visceral loyalty to encounter sophisticated writers who don’t demand we deny Kipling or Doyle or Poe, or that we ever swore by a sapphire Claw or tungsten teeth.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Wait. What? Are there English majors who do not like Kipling and Poe? Those writers are established as immortal members of the cannon. One might as well not like Shakespeare and Milton. What is the point of being an English Major if you do not want to read English writers?

      Wow. Things are worse than I thought. I just spent three years arguing with a physicist who had never read Euclid and never read Newton. And there are people getting majors in English who don’t read the English works.

      The purpose of studying literature is to learn to appreciate trashy common literature and get more out of it, and also to learn to appreciate great and immortal literature and get more out of it. I would have never read Tolstoy had I not been required in school, and my life would have been darker and dimmer for it. But I can also read Jack Kirby’s MACHINE MAN with greater appreciation, because I can see what the mad genius Kirby is trying to do and how he is doing it, and he is a genius. The purpose of studying literature is not to learn to appreciate only one kind of book and snub the rest and gather malice in your heart for the past and for the greater mass of mankind. Learning to hate others for frivolous reasons is Uncle Screwtape’s work, not a school professor’s.

      • Comment by Mary:

        What is the point of being an English Major if you do not want to read English writers?

        Avoiding having to pass calculus.

        I just spent three years arguing with a physicist who had never read Euclid and never read Newton.

        The difference between this and failure to read classic fiction is that the pith and essence of Euclid and Newton can be extracted, paraphrased, and entirely rewritten, and yet still be the pith and essence of their work. Indeed, have the exactly same point as the original work. Both geometry and mechanics are extremely abstract subjects.

  4. Comment by Gigalith:

    The copy I read was that reissue in two volumes of three books each. Unfortunately, I read them in the “wrong” order, so the giant latter of increasingly villainous villains was spoiled for me. Also, the (awful) foreword to the novels was self-described as Boskonian, though I skipped it the first time through.

    All said, the Lensmen series has a special place in my heart, for sheer audacity if nothing else. I don’t think anything save Olaf Stapledon has the same insane scale, what with people throwing entire planets of un-matter around by hyperspace tube, galaxies in collision, millenia-long breeding experiments, etc.

  5. Comment by Earl Wajenberg:

    I hope it will please you to learn, Mr. Wright, that recent physics gives a bit of “support” to Smith’s inertialess drive (not, of course, that it really needs it). The recent discovery of the Higgs boson is verification of the existence of the Higgs field, which, in current theory, is what endows particles with significant parts of their mass. Hand-wave over the Higgs field energetically enough, and you can claim to manipulate inertia.

    This pleases me, and I hope you, not because I can say, “Ha! Doc Smith was right after all!” but because one can say, “Inertia control isn’t a half-bad scientific speculation after all.” Something similar could be said of the way hyperspace is back in scientific fashion, in string theory.

  6. Comment by Sean Michael:

    Alas, I never read E.E. Smith’s Lensmen stories. And I can’t help wondering if I COULD like those stories at my age, when they are probably best read for the first time around age 13. I fear the Lensmen stories will have to remain on the back burner in my mind.

    I’ve been trying to recall which of the SF books I read from the age of 14 to 16 might best fit the kind of space opera described by Mr. Wright. Some of Heinlein’s juveniles, possibly? But the title which immediately popped into my memory was Poul Anderson’s ENSIGN FLANDRY. I still remember how deeply the book impressed me and the pleaure it gave me. And, despite being space opera, it was also a very sophisticated and moral book.

    Sean M. Brooks

    • Comment by robertjwizard:

      Hi Sean,

      I don’t know your age, but I read them for the first time last year at the age of 42. I enjoyed it greatly. Yes, there were a lot of campy moments and styles as Mr. Wright highlighted, but Smith made a really enjoyable story with a pretty damned detailed background. It is also a little of a space opera history lesson, a lot of the stuff in Lensmen was inspiration to later work.

      Best read at 13? Absolutely! I would have swallowed these in a weekend at 13. But they were pretty sweet at 42.

      Edit: It should be noted in all fairness. My favorite joke of all time is the “What did Spock find in the toilet?” joke which is causing me to laugh yet again. So I am not exactly the most mature 42 year old.

      • Comment by Sean Michael:

        Hi, Robert!

        Thanks for your comments. Alas, I’m a fair bit your elder, creeping close to age 59! (Smiles). But your comments about Smith’s Lensmen stories are encouraging. And the evidence found by Mr. Wright of the great care Smith took in writing those stories also helps in encouraging me to give his work a shot.

        As for the Spock joke, we should be able to be just a teensy weensy bit “immature” sometimes! I still like to sometimes watch the Three Stooges, for example. Or read Donald Duck or Scrooge McDuck comic books.

        Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  7. Comment by The Ubiquitous:

    So far as not having the example of the Nazis: They didn’t need the example of the Nazis. If Chesterton can be trusted — he may not, because he would be the first to admit he was a newspaperman — the world already had the example of the Prussians, though the world did not pay attention. From Eugenics and Other Evils:

    Though most of the conclusions, especially towards the end, are conceived with reference to recent events, the actual bulk of preliminary notes about the science of Eugenics were written before the war. It was a time when this theme was the topic of the hour; when eugenic babies (not visibly very distinguishable from other babies) sprawled all over the illustrated papers; when the evolutionary fancy of Nietzsche was the new cry among the intellectuals; and when Mr. Bernard Shaw and others were considering the idea that to breed a man like a cart-horse was the true way to attain that higher civilisation, of intellectual magnanimity and sympathetic insight, which may be found in cart-horses. It may therefore appear that I took the opinion too controversially, and it seems to me that I sometimes took it too seriously. But the criticism of Eugenics soon expanded of itself into a more general criticism of a modern craze for scientific officialism and strict social organisation.

    And then the hour came when I felt, not without relief, that I might well fling all my notes into the fire. The fire was a very big one, and was burning up bigger things than such pedantic quackeries. And, anyhow, the issue itself was being settled in a very different style. Scientific officialism and organisation in the State which had specialised in them, had gone to war with the older culture of Christendom. Either Prussianism would win and the protest would be hopeless, or Prussianism would lose and the protest would be needless. As the war advanced from poison gas to piracy against neutrals, it grew more and more plain that the scientifically organised State was not increasing in popularity. Whatever happened, no Englishmen would ever again go nosing round the stinks of that low laboratory. So I thought all I had written irrelevant, and put it out of my mind.

    I am greatly grieved to say that it is not irrelevant. It has gradually grown apparent, to my astounded gaze, that the ruling classes in England are still proceeding on the assumption that Prussia is a pattern for the whole world. If parts of my book are nearly nine years old, most of their principles and proceedings are a great deal older. They can offer us nothing but the same stuffy science, the same bullying bureaucracy and the same terrorism by tenth-rate professors that have led the German Empire to its recent conspicuous triumph. For that reason, three years after the war with Prussia, I collect and publish these papers.

    Chesterton lived to see the Nazis, but he went to his reward before they did.

  8. Comment by idontknowbut@gmail.com:

    I hate to be pedantic, but you can have momentum without mass. Handwave joyfully away about inertialess drives, but the Higgs doesn’t really help your spiel.

    String theory (and its 20 years of no results) has its detractors.

  9. Ping from Galactic Patrol:

    [...] But Mr. Wright has a lot more to say about the book, and about Doc Smith; go take a look. [...]

  10. Comment by Suburbanbanshee:

    “QX” was actually also contemporary slang. It’s the way ham radio/Morse people clicked out “OK” (I don’t know if it’s because it was shorter or because it prevented mistaking letters). It shows up in several other radio-related stories of the time.

    I’m not a ham myself, so I had to be told this also.

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