One of the themes of my reading in recent times has been a more deliberate effort to fill in some classic sci-fi gaps. And one of the most classic is E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, a pioneering effort in the space opera genre.
Alas, unlike many other genre-creating writers of the early twentieth century, Smith’s work seems to have fallen through the cracks. With the exception of some horrendously edited e-books, the Lensman series is out of print.
And the chronology of the saga is also confusing: most lists will describe Lensman as a six volume opus with Triplanetary as the first. So naturally I started with this one.
But, as it turns out, Triplanetary was a story which originally had nothing to do with the series, but was later retconned in as a sort of prequel, with the third book, Galactic Patrol being the real start of the series, and the second book (confusingly titled First Lensman) being a later interquel between the two of them. So, having read all these three books, I’ve basically done the equivalent of starting Star Wars with The Phantom Menace and no doubt have spoiled a lot of plot for me.
Anyway, what is Lensman about? Well, having developed interstellar travel, humans (among other spacefaring species) are finding crime difficult to patrol in the vast expanse of space. So a seemingly benevolent and highly advanced species called the Arisians have given an elite few the lens: a piece of tech which grants the wearer incredible psychic powers for the purposes of interstellar policework.
So what you wind up with are a lot of faster than light space combat, slower than light space combat, weird aliens, plans within plans, wheels within wheels, lots of tech described using words like, “ultra” and “laser,” purple prose, 30’s/40’s slang, space pirates, uber-manly heroes, etc. Pretty much everything the cover above suggests. In a way it feels very proto Avengers, with its diverse cast of supermen coming together to kick galactic evil in the face.
It’s all pretty pulpy, but it’s great fun. But it’s also weirdly inspirational, in a, “Josh it’s ok to write hokey space opera and fanfiction,” kinda way. You might not think that I need such inspiration, but I get a lot more discouraged with my assays into fiction than I do running my mouth on here.
And having read so far, I think I can agree that Galactic Patrol is the best place to start. While Triplanetary does feature a pre-Star Wars Death Star controlled by a guy called Roger, it feels pretty lightweight and tangential. And while First Lensman has a pretty cool plot about corrupt presidential politics along with some neat worldbuilding (Senator Palpatine has nothing on these guys), it gets kinda bloated in its attempts to check off as many continuity points as possible. Galactic Patrol, however, is an ultra pulp classic with a pretty breathtaking pace. Sure, the hero reaches Mary Sue levels of superlative ability, but in a work as over the top and explodey as this, paper thin characters are almost an asset.