Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 58.
I was drawn to this box of paperbacks of mine in part because I noticed it contained all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, a series I’d been meaning to read for a while. After giving it a good look, I noticed it also contained most of another series: E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman books. (Or, as the cover of the book at hand would have it, “E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s classic Lensman series.”) I’ll sheepishly admit I’d never heard of it, but the moment I started researching it, I realized that plenty of people I did know certainly had. Not only is Smith considered one of the most influential writers of the space-opera genre, this series is widely cited as one of the main inspirations for Green Lantern—the Silver Age incarnation, for those keeping score at home—and Star Wars. Clearly this was not a series to be ignored. And, of course, once I started this project in earnest, I had no choice about ignoring it.
Still, I put off starting on these for a while, in part because I wasn’t sure where to start. I noticed one book was called First Lensman, which seemed like an obvious starting point. But it turns out that it’s the second book in the series chronologically, and the last Smith wrote, appearing in 1950 two years after the last chapter of the last book, Children Of The Lens in 1948. Still, my box didn’t contain the first book in the series, Triplanetary, and the more I looked into it, the more it seemed like that book was written as something unconnected to the Lensman stories, then retrofitted once Lensman took off. First Lensman started to look like as good a place to start as any.
And I guess that’s still true. I had two strong feelings reading First Lensman:
1) It’s as influential as I’d heard (and maybe even more than I realized, having not read a lot of space opera), and
2) Smith just isn’t a particularly gifted writer. In fact, he’s a real chore to read.
Let’s start with the influence. Smith sets up a struggle between ultimate good and ultimate evil, to be played out on a universe-spanning stage. On the side of good: The Arisians, an ancient, virtuous race whose plan for keeping the cosmos safe for children and other living things involves distributing devices called lenses to the most forthright and honest people in the galaxy, regardless of their planet of origin. On the side of bad: The Eddorians, who use subterfuge, manipulation, and behind-the-scenes deal-making to keep their hands on the reins of power. (Basically, the Eddorians want to run the universe as if it were Chicago.) So we have all of existence participating in a gigantic game of chess, almost as if there was… I don’t know… a Dark Side and a Light Side of some kind of Force at work.
Apparently Lucas even used Lensman terminology in early drafts of the Star Wars script, and it’s not hard to sub in Lensmen for Jedi Knights. But even Lucas’ universe has more moral ambiguity than Smith’s. The Elders of Arisia choose only the absolutely incorruptible to be Lensmen. They’re flawless folks doing brave deeds flawlessly. And you know what kind of characters aren’t very interesting? That kind. There’s not a Han Solo in the bunch, just a lot of earnest Lukes doing their best to do good. (The series was also apparently a strong influence on Babylon 5. I’ve never seen that show, in part because it looks forbiddingly long and complex at this late stage; to echo a line from Tasha Robinson’s boyfriend, I’m waiting for it to be available in pill form. Apparently B5 creator J. Michael Straczynski is working on a Lensmen screenplay, however.)
First Lensman combined a lot of elements that, over the course of reading classic science fiction, have come to drive me nuts: Flat characters, shadeless morality, breathlessly detailed battle scenes, oh-yeah-then-this-happened pacing, and a prose style that’s functional at best. At the heart of the story are Virgil Samms—the First Lensman of the title—and Rod “The Rock” Kinnison. You won’t find two more interchangeable characters anywhere. And as for their adventures, there’s really not a moment of suspense: Smith makes it clear that good will always triumph over evil, and it proceeds to do just that in each episode. And he makes it clear using passages likes this:
Space was full of darting, flashing, madly warring ships. The three Black superdreadnoughts leaped forward as one. Their massed batteries of beams, precisely synchronized and aimed, lashed out at the nearest Patrol super heavy, the Boise. Under the vicious power of that beautifully-timed thrust that warship’s first, second, and third screens, her very wall-shield, flared through the spectrum and into the black. Her Chief Pilot, however, was fast—very fast—and he had a fraction of a second in which to work. Thus, practically in the instant of her wall-shield’s failure, she went free; and while she was holed badly and put out of action, she was not blown out of space. In fact, it was learned later that she lost only forty men.
All that said, I completely get why Smith caught on. He’s got sturdy concepts that play directly to fantasies of superiority and escape. Who wouldn’t want a device that lets you read minds and talk to aliens? I’d rather have a Green Lantern ring, but Smith makes being a Lensman sound pretty appealing. And while some of the episodes fall flat, some don’t, particularly a sequence in which the Lensmen attend a ball, realize they’ve walked into a trap, then use their powers of telepathy to get out of it. And that battle between good and evil: Who wouldn’t want a piece of it?
I’m not sure these are books for grown-ups, however. Though Samms questions his incorruptibility early on—even using the phrase “Who is to watch the watchmen?”—the Arisian Mentor reassures him that he’s a good guy and doesn’t need to worry about it. Later in the book, the bad guys try to stir up distrust of the Lensmen, and frankly, if I were voting, I probably would have been persuaded by their arguments. Think about it: A group starts using telepathic alien technology to enforce the law. Who wouldn’t be scared of that? (On the other hand, the anti-Lens rhetoric includes a reference to “intergalactic bankers,” which suggests they’re crypto-anti-Semites.)
Maybe that kind of thinking brings too much of the world outside Smith’s pages into the book. His is a much simpler struggle against a much simpler version of evil than the kind you and I encounter every day, a world where those powerful Lenses focus the light of virtue to a laser-like intensity. I just hope the volumes I’m due to read later make that light shine a little brighter than it does here.
The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells
“The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking as it seemed from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand.”
Starswarm, by Brian Aldiss
“The most simple statement you can make is also the most profound: Time passes.”