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By Klono’s Silk Unmentionables!


By Thorne Smith 

1 Apr, 2023

Not Actually A Review


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Time erodes all, including our collective memory. Even what is preserved in print can be subject to caprice; once well-known works can be forgotten. Take, for example, that classic space opera: Thorne Smith’s Lensmen.

Thorne Smith, born James Thorne Smith, Jr. (March 27, 1892 – June 20, 1934), is best remembered today for Topper, a humorous ghost story adapted into several movies and television shows, each more careful than the last to erase the risqué elements that so delighted audiences nearly a hundred years ago. Topper was hardly his only work. Smith was once known for a space opera filled with black silk stockings, the consumption of Olympian quantities of alcohol, and discontented lives transformed beyond recognition.

Civilization having triumphed over the malevolent Eddorians — offstage and well before the novel begins — accountant Sterling Jeffreys finds himself in lamentable circumstances much like those of so many other Smith protagonists. Middle-aged, trapped with few prospects of promotion, and bullied by his domineering mother, Sterling cannot even hope for the distraction of interstellar pirate raids, criminal conspiracies, or enormous battlefleets appearing from hyperspacial tubes. Civilization has the galaxies well in hand. For Sterling, the consequence is stultifying.

Cue an encounter with red-bronze-haired Cam. Admitting in a rare moment of frankness how unhappy his life is, Sterling inspires pity from the young woman. Luckily for Sterling, Cam comes from one of the galaxy’s most famous families and is in a position to transform Sterling’s life. Unfortunately for Sterling’s equanimity, Cam is a teen and her sympathy is expressed in whimsy. The wrist watch that symbolizes Sterling’s regimented life vanishes. It is replaced by a Lens.

The Lens is (to quote):

[quote] 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. [/quote]

A Lens is a fine accessory when fighting criminals or horrors from beyond the stars. On the wrist of an accountant, it spells the end of conventional life. Imbued with mental powers, Sterling discovers to his astonishment that the middle-class propriety of his superiors and mother is merely a façade. Everyone around Sterling has pastimes that do not bear close examination. Thanks to the Lens, Sterling cannot help but closely examine them.

Unrequested revelations are bad enough. Lenses are supposed to be the monopoly of the Lensmen and Sterling is very much not a Lensman. Sterling is therefore a subject of intense scrutiny from the Lensmen. Too bad that Sterling and his Lens are permanently bonded. Or rather, as Cam’s Lensman father Kimball unhelpfully points out, they are bonded until Sterling dies. Since Kimbal has jumped to an alarming conclusion about the nature of Cam and Sterling’s relationship, Kimball would be more than happy to assist Sterling to escape the Lens by ending Sterling’s life if he could just catch up to the fleeing accountant.

Second only to how did drug runners get their hands on the deadly drug thionite if the only planet that produced it was under the control of the Lensmen?” is Why, given that Kimball has the abilities imbued by millennia of eugenics and the Lens, did he not simply read Cam and Sterling’s minds when he encountered them in a state of easily misinterpreted undress?” There are two explanations, one in-story and one more meta. The first is that Kimball was angry and didn’t think of it, also that Cam and Sterling had impressive mind-shields so telepathy might not have worked. The second is because it was funnier this way. Granted, not funny for Sterling, poorly prepared as he was to be pursued by a blaster-waving irate father. Readers of the time were amused.

Admittedly, the narrative leans heavily on conventions that have fallen out of fashion. In particular, the characters consume enough alcohol to fuel an Earth-to-orbit chemical rocket. Previous Smith novels presented drunk driving as sometimes fatal but always hilarious. Drunk starship piloting is less fatal because space is so very empty and the ships inertialess, but the hilarity may be lost on modern audiences.

Similarly, Cam1 is clearly (to steal film critic Nathan Rabin’s 2007 phrase) a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an attractive and eccentric young woman who exists solely to disrupt the protagonist’s comfortable, exquisitely dull life. Many of Cam’s more dubious decisions make sense only if we assume she exists entirely to reform a man she had never before met2.

Nevertheless, this forgotten space opera is a fine example of Smith’s talents played out on an epic scale. Zany misunderstandings, amusingly risqué moments that must have gotten the book banned in Boston, and a stupendous assortment of comic scenes are crammed into a novel that is quite short by modern standards. It’s a shame the novel is so obscure some would claim it never existed. Of course, such people must be wrong. If Thorne Smith’s Lensmen never existed, how could I be writing about it?

1: Cam’s twin sister Con and older sisters Kat and Kay (also twins) are cut from much the same cloth. I see the comic utility of a twin sister but why two sets of twins? 

2: Granted, a godlike Arisian does admit that they set the whole series of events in motion in pursuit of a higher goal it declines to specify, but given how sozzled the Arisian in question was, I don’t know how seriously the reader is supposed to take its claim.