Doc Smith isn’t one of my favourite authors. Recently, someone else’s review led me to wonder why I can ignore archaic writing styles to enjoy other pulp authors, but cannot do so for Doc Smith. One way to answer the question is to reread the very first Smith I ever read, Gray Lensman. This book was originally serialized in Astounding in 1939; I read a 1970s reprint of the 1951 novel version. I now know why I didn’t like Smith. I have to warn you, it’s a pretty stupid reason.
But first, much needed background! In a universe that seems to be Steady State, the Arisians are old beyond comprehension and correspondingly advanced. They are also the ancestors of all life native to the Two Galaxies. After billions of years, life exists in bewildering variety but all of the various species are descended from Arisian spores. The intelligent ones share many traits, and many of them (the majority) can learn to communicate and cooperate. (Sadly, life-forms such as the Overlords and the Eich may be able to join Civilization in theory, but don’t see the point.)
The Arisians have only one serious enemy: the unspeakably horrid Eddorians, invaders from “some other, some alien and horribly different other, plenum” who plan to conquer all the worlds of the universe (which for Smith, consists of the Milky Way and its close neighbor, Landmark’s Nebula). Although the two races are advanced in different fields, they are effectively equals and direct war would be pointless. The children of the Arisians do not enjoy any such immunity from the Eddorians. Determined to protect innocent species and ultimately to rid the universe of the nightmarish invaders, the Arisians have worked behind the scenes to create and support Civilization, a galactic federation of all the intelligent beings of the Milky Way. More recently, they have assisted in the creation of the Patrol (fearless, incorruptible guardians of the good) and equipped a chosen elite with the mighty Lens!
The Lens is a lenticular structure of hundreds of thousands of tiny crystalloids, built and tuned to match the individual life force — the ego, the personality — of one individual entity. While not, strictly speaking, alive, it is endowed with a sort of pseudo-life by virtue of which it gives off a strong, characteristically-changing, polychromatic light as long as it is in circuit with the living mentality with which it is in synchronization. Conversely, when worn by anyone except its owner, it not only remains dark but it kills — so strongly does its pseudo-life interfere with any life to which it is not attuned. It is also a telepathic communicator of astounding power and range — and other things.
Green Lantern fans: note that the Lensmen came first.
What the Arisians have not done for the legions of civilizations gathered together under the banner of Civilization is reveal the evil machinations of the Eddorians. Until the events recounted in this volume, the Patrol believed they were facing a merely criminal organization, albeit a very heavily armed one. Enter Kimball Kinnison, Lensman! He is the first person in a position to connect the dots and realize that Boskone is no band of space-pirates and zwilniks but rather a legitimate existential threat to all that is good and nice in the Two Galaxies!
The story opens as the Patrol is crushing, with great difficulty, Boskone’s main base in the Milky Way (a campaign begun in an earlier Lensman novel, Galactic Patrol). To his surprise, Kinnison realizes that master criminal Helmuth was communicating with … someone … in distant space. Following the line of Helmuth’s communication beam doesn’t lead to any object in the Milky Way but does point directly at Landmark’s Nebula (the island universe whose collision with the Milky Way had led to the creation of millions of worlds).
Much of the rest of the book involves Kinnison’s efforts to work out the scale of the Boskonian threat. Some of this involves undercover work as a hardened space-miner. There is also a daring expedition across the gulf between galaxies, into the heart of enemy territory. While Kinnison does not, I believe, ever discover who the Eddorians are, he does come face to face with their principle minions, the malevolent Eich. The Eich rule most of Landmark’s Nebula as proxies for their incomprehensible masters.
Dragged out into the light, subjected to repeated attacks from Civilization, the Eich will have to abandon their subtle efforts to corrupt Civilization. They adopt more direct methods. Civilization may have the Lens and powerful engines of war, but the Eich are themselves armed with super-science of their own. Who will win the inevitable contest between light and eternal darkness? (Hint: this was written before grimdark became a popular motif in the SF genre.)
The Lensman series is very loud. If it were to be released as a series of audio books, it would need to be read by someone like BRIAN BLESSED, in order to properly convey its sweeping drama and universe-shaking significance. Other authors might dabble in interstellar voyages; Smith sends his heroes between the galaxies. Other author may write about impressive mind powers; Kinnison can strike a man dead with a thought. Other authors may have ray-gun battles; Smith’s battles are so over the top that that the bricks of nearby buildings burst into flames! Planetary-shattering atomic bombs are only used for base security; the real WMDs involve hurled planets and mind-wrenching spheres of pure negative matter!
It’s not all space spectaculars. There are a few quiet moments. There’s a passage describing Kinnison’s patient coaxing of a spider that has stayed with me over the decades since my first reading.
One plot element that had slipped right out of memory is Kinnison’s love life. Port Admiral Haynes and Surgeon-Marshal Lacy spend a lot of time shipping Kinnison with his One True Love Clarissa MacDougall.
“Here’s to love!” Haynes gave the toast.
“Ain’t it grand!” Surgeon-Marshal Lacy responded.
“Down the hatch!” they chanted in unison, and action followed word.
“You aren’t asking if everything stayed on the beam.” This from Lacy.
“No need — I had a spy-ray on the whole performance.”
The relationship plotters engage in more than high-tech voyeurism and assignment fiddling (to ensure that Kinnison and MacDougal encounter each other frequently): Haynes and Lacy subject themselves to an experimental medical treatment to see if it is safe to use on a gravely injured Kinnison. These two gleeful old coots are really invested in the whole Kinnison/MacDougall affair. This is very touching. And also creepy. And a total abuse of their authority. But genuinely touching.
In retrospect, I wonder if the way Haynes and Lacy use their powers in ways that cannot possibly have been intended when they were granted their positions could taken as an example of how power corrupts, even when granted to the (mostly) incorruptible. Best not to wonder about other little side-hobbies the Patrol and the Lensmen indulge. Just the spy-rays alone.…
[Reading about the Kinnison/MacDougal romance reminds me that the “my job is so demanding that it would be inconsiderate of me to marry this woman for whom I yearn constantly and obsessively” trope goes way back.]
As I commented somewhere or other, it wasn’t until I saw a recent biopic of J. Edgar Hoover that I realized Smith’s Patrol might have been inspired by the FBI. The detail in the film that particularly caught my attention was a discussion of how automobiles made it comparatively trivial for criminals to flee across state lines. Just so, starships can range across stellar jurisdictions. If the parallel wasn’t intentional, it is still striking. Just as the FBI attempted to quash interstate crime, the Patrol attempts to eradicate galaxy-wide scourges. There is even a scene in the book in which Kinnison is trying to explain the scale of the Milky Way into human terms. By an odd coincidence, starships can cover about the same number of parsecs in an hour as cars can do miles!
Smith’s galactic federation, Civilization, is a bit unusual for SF of the 1930s in that it tries to be all-inclusive . Anyone can join regardless of form. While humans might be that tiny bit better than the other races in Civilization, that’s only because they are one of the primary beneficiaries of Arisian tampering. It says something about the Eddorians that, despite this inclusiveness, there is no way to include them or their scenery-chewing minions in Civilization. (Though Smith goes out of his way to point out that while the Eich may be evil, they’re definitely not cowards . Even enemies have their strong points.)
Smiths’s choice to write the Lensmen as incorruptible heroes above the law sometimes falls a bit flat. Their faith in themselves doesn’t seem completely justified ; not only does Kinnison inadvertently open a broadband two-way telepathic channel to Clarissa (which he assures himself must have been for some good reason, even if he cannot work out what it was) but there are a number of occasions where the well-known Patrol policy of No Prisoners means that even the lower-ranked Boskonians, who might otherwise have considered surrendering, have no sensible choice but to fight to the death .
So, given that I was an SF omnivore when I first encountered the Lensmen stories, why didn’t they click with me? I think I just started reading the series at the wrong point. My first novel was Grey Lensman, which is really just the second part of a larger novel that begins with Galactic Patrol. I got off on the wrong foot and never recovered.
1: While be-tentacled aliens are allowed, I don’t recall any evidence that humans are anything but white.
2: It’s not unreasonable to see the Eich as the Reich, which raises the question of whether Smith had a real-world model for the Overlords of Delgon, who
were debased, cruel, perverted to a degree starkly unthinkable to any normal intelligence, however housed
and generally lacking any redeeming features. I would guess I am happier not knowing the answer to that question.
3: Leaving aside that age-old question: if the Patrol and the Lensmen are incorruptible and if they control the planet Trenco, the only source of the deadly drug thionite, how is it that thionite is still for sale in the Milky Way?
4: If you are a criminal and you want to be taken alive by the Patrol or at least by Kinnison, try hard to be an exceptionally attractive woman. Ideally human or at least humanoid.