E. E. “Doc” Smith: Triplanetary; First Lensman

Strange but true: I never read any E. E. “Doc” Smith before. (It was Michael Kaminski’s assertion in The Secret History of Star Wars that Smith’s Lensmen were a key influence on Lucas’s Jedi Knights that convinced me to take the plunge; mostly I hadn’t read the Lensmen books because I thought I knew exactly what to expect from them, and this was something I hadn’t heard before.)

I expected clunky prose, and found plenty of it (with all the ultra-this and super-that occasionally becoming unintentionally humorous) — but I didn’t expect it to be so rough I actually couldn’t tell what was going on. In First Lensman‘s mining disaster sequence, Smith mixes wholly invented (I’m sure) miner’s argot with (I think?) some real-world-but-unfamiliar-to-me mining terminology such that I had only a vague idea what the characters were doing.

It was way more bloodthirsty than I was prepared for. I expect space opera to have a high body count as a rule, but I also expect the baddies (colorful evil leaders and direct henchmen aside) to largely be as evil and faceless as Star Wars‘ stormtroopers. Smith’s Lensmen cheerfully toss off remarks like, “In emergencies, it is of course permissible to kill a few dozen innocent bystanders,” which is probably pragmatic, but not exactly heroic or noble. They’re also pretty hard on combatants who are not actually evil or villainous, and may even become staunch allies a chapter or two later. In Triplanetary, Conway Costigan employs tactics against civilians that would be labeled terrorism today.

They were racier than I expected them to be, including descriptions of skimpy outfits, lurid (if unspecific) threats of fates-worse-than-death at the hands of sadists and/or sex-obsessed aliens, an instance of implied bisexuality, and a smidgeon of actual smooching.

But on the other hand:

  • I was struck by how un-xenophobic these novels are. Alien races are often described as having “monstrous” appearances, but still worthy of inclusion in the ranks of civilization’s defenders — even, sometimes, if they have decidedly un-human mores.
  • You couldn’t by any stretch call these novels “feminist,” but they’re not quite as sexist as I expected — several of Smith’s women are intelligent and self-directed, not just props for men to wrangle over, or insignificant background characters.
  • I found it positively eerie to read about First Lensman‘s slim poll margins, electoral dirty tricks and counter measures here in the twenty-first century — Smith is almost spookily prophetic.
  • It really is astounding how much even modern science fiction draws on Smith’s tropes. I totally buy Lensmen as a key inspiration for Jedi, and Smith’s rays-vs.-shields space battles use the same fundamental rules as everything from Star Trek to Star Wars — and this before the invention of the laser. Star Trek‘s plethora of inscrutable super-advanced alien races also seem to owe a debt to Smith’s Arisians.

needs more demons? I wouldn’t presume to say so. But it does help to bring some historical perspective.

Published by therealsummervillain

likes: equality, making things easier to use, biking, jangle, distortion, monogamy dislikes: bigotry, policies that jeopardize people, lack of transparency

One thought on “E. E. “Doc” Smith: Triplanetary; First Lensman

  1. Been a loooong time since I read these, but I think your review is pretty spot on. A couple of notes:

    –Triplanetary was written after all the rest as a prequel, and, unfortunately, gives away the whole Arisia/Eddore thing which is gradually revealed by the rest of the series. Another case where original publication order beats internal chronology.

    –Frighteningly, the Lensman series is less amoral, and more literate, than his original hit, the Skylark series.


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