I have now completed my reading of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman novels, which I began a couple of months ago. There is another Lensman book, endearingly titled Masters of the Vortex, which I haven’t read, but it’s a spin-off existing outside of the series’ narrative.
To reiterate: along with Smith’s Skylark series, Lensman is the ur-space opera. Its premise is that interstellar travel has made police work impossible (what with the vastness of space and all). To compensate, a race of advanced aliens called the Arisians have allowed for certain extraordinary persons – not, it is important to note, necessarily human persons – the ability to wield the Lens, a device which grants the wearer (and only the proper wearer) the incredible psychic powers to fight interstellar crime. One such person is the protagonist, the human Kimball Kinnison. The series details his attempt to bring down Boskone, something which at first appears to be a crime syndicate, but which is literally a conspiracy of astronomical proportions. And of course those Arisians aren’t without hidden motives of their own.
Originally serialized, Lensman now exists in six volumes:
– First Lensman
– Galactic Patrol
– Gray Lensman
– Second Stage Lensman
– Children of the Lens
That is the chronological order. But publication-wize, Galactic Patrol was the start of the series, and Triplanetary originally had nothing to do with the others. But after things wrapped up, Smith retconned Triplanetary into a prequel and wrote First Lensman as a bridge.
This is important to note because it means that the first two volumes can be skipped with impunity, which is a good thing seeing as they are the worst of the bunch. While the series as a whole is pure pulp, Triplanetary often crosses the threshold into self parody. And First Lensman is convoluted and tedious.
There are two major roadblocks to enjoying Lensman. The first is Smith’s own purple prose and lack of good characterization. The characters are all so amazing at what they do, and all so bland. The titular children of the final novel are impossible to tell apart.
Faring better are the alien characters. Smith has a knack for coming up with weird, non-anthropomorphic extraterrestrials, and making them into major players in the story. They bring a lot more flavor to the proceedings. My favourite character was Worsel, a large, multi-headed reptile with protruding eyes with a Klingon-esque mentality. I thought he was going to be a one-shot character for a particular story arc and was quite amused to find him making friends with Kimball and becoming a series regular.
The second roadblock is the serialized origins of the story. Although in a macro sense of continuity, Smith’s plotting is tight (he planned everything out from the start), there is a lot of repetition and redundancy. A lot of individual arcs repeat the same form of a previous one, but on a greater scale, and can feel very rote if you’re reading them all together.
Another consequence of this is that it becomes difficult to take the presence of danger seriously. The characters are always being left in impossible cliffhanger scenarios that they always get out of unscathed in a chapter or two. It’s difficult to feel much tension in all of this.
But if the reader can overcome these blocks, the series has much to recommend it. The story receives much of its exhilaration from the sheer magnitude of it. Smith’s interest is less in the interior lives of his characters and more in gleefully talking about conspiracies that span millennia, aliens so horrifying they drive humans insane, tech so ludicrously powerful that it involves using faster-than-light antimatter planets as ballistics (seriously), space battles, psychic battles and the like. There is almost always cool stuff going on happening at a scale that is humanly inconceivable. Or at least it was cool to my inner 13-year old.
There is something both endearing and naive about the philosophy at the heart of the series. On the one hand, I like its optimistic view that any rational being, regardless of how many tentacles it has, is capable of finding enough points of commonality to band together for a common cause; I like its Americanish, can-do spirit.
On the other hand, Smith doesn’t seem too interested in any of the moral questions his story naturally raises. His characters have an incredible amount of power and often use it with deadly results. But there is no interest in exploring the potential in power for moral corruption (as Tolkien does in The Lord of the Rings) or the catastrophic fallout that can happen when one deliberately engineers supermen and attempts to manipulate the future of humanity (as Frank Herbert does in Dune). The Lensmen are often a little too willing to take casualties if it’ll tip things in their favor.
These things can irk me a lot. I took a class in international relations as an undergrad, and for a lot of it felt like we were glossing over a lot of fundamental philosophical questions that should be addressed before any discussion about nationstates could be sober. But I’m not an Arisian, I suppose.
Anyway, that’s another sci-fi antiquity off the proverbial list.
EDIT: Incidentally, Lensman did get a loose anime adaptation some decades ago.