Monday, September 30, 2013

TV Review: "Agents of SHIELD"

I am very cynical about non-animated TV doing superhero comics correctly, and for a pretty good reason: it's never done superheroes correctly before.

Ever. No exceptions, no wiggle room. Every panel I've seen on superheroes on TV asks some variation on "why can't they get it right?" It's not just the limits of special effects, although limited special effects and budget do unquestionably play a role: remember George Reeves's door knocking? Rather, the problem is one of attitude. There's embarrassment of superheroes' high concept traits that reflects a kind of chickenshit, play it safe conservatism.

Arrow would be Exhibit A: a dead serious procedural where the hero doesn't wear a costume.

Agents of SHIELD is only superficially similar to Arrow, and may require me to re-evaluate the view TV doesn't get it. I had a list of reservations about this show a mile long. I was initially worried it would be a genre spy show that runs away from its comics origins. I was pleasantly surprised to see it didn't. I knew it would call back Avengers and the Marvel movies, but I didn't know it would THIS MUCH. The MacGuffin in the first act is leftover Chitauri tech from Avengers (yes, a big plot point in the series is alien superscience). Extremis from Iron Man 3 is not only referenced, it's the center of the pilot's entire third act.

Best of all, the series captures the Marvel movie tone perfectly: wiseass, rapid fire pitter patter, based around self-awareness and funny timing. It's FUN and funny – something the trailers did not successfully get across. I give it the highest praise I can think of under the circumstances: it feels like a 45 minute Marvel movie.

As for playing it safe with high concept oddities…there was a goddamn flying car.

In addition to that, the greatest strength of SHIELD is it has a leading man, Agent Coulson, an unlikely wildly popular fan favorite character entirely because of the performance of Clark Gregg, who surprisingly, is more of a writer and director than an actor. In the age of the dark TV antihero, Agent Coulson is someone you instinctively trust, who, when given an "easy" way out of a problem (shooting and killing an innocent man to prevent an explosion), refuses to take it as it'd leave a child an orphan and instead chooses a third way. When confronted with a whistleblower, Agent Coulson's reaction is to bring them in and make them a part of the organization instead of cracking down and closing ranks.

When told all secret agent G-Men do is lie and make examples out of little guys that don't fall in line, he rebukes that idea to give a guy going through hard times a second chance. In an age when we're afraid of shadowy observers, I like that, at least Agent Coulson is there to lend a hand, and not place a boot to the throat. The show realizes some people are just creeped out by secret government surveillance and has to make the good guys people with integrity to earn our respect.

Agent Coulson reminds me of Captain Picard from Star Trek: the Next Generation. A leading man of integrity who refuses to accept the only way to solve problems is violence, who's most distinctive physical feature is his hairline, who somehow manages to be bigger than life and commanding despite being of medium height, and who has a dashing, action oriented second-in-command.

The sidekick is always created to be a foil for the main hero. If the hero is sophisticated, the sidekick is more "rough and tumble." If the hero is happy-go-lucky and carefree, his ally will be rocksteady and reliable. And in the case of this show, if Coulson is a nontraditional, outside the box thinker, his second in command is a more reactionary type who trusts a lot less.

This brings to mind maybe the biggest misstep of the pilot: the central intercharacter conflict is between a female whistleblower/hacker who hates secrecy and deceit, and a way more reactionary SHIELD agent. This is a great idea, because in the wake of domestic spying scandals along with the revelations of WikiLeaks and Snowden, a show about a heroic government agency designed to keep would be, well, creepy. The moral issues there have to be acknowledged.

It reminds me of how the biggest problem with the original 70s Battlestar Galactica is the conflict between civilian and military authority, with the noble military struggling against cowardly, treacherous civilian government, like something out of Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. So a character was added in the reboot (civilian president Laura Roslin) to do this complex conflict justice.

A whistleblower functioning as group conscience would be a great conflict and topical. Unfortunately, they sabotaged and underserved this conflict by making the hacker girl a cute, ditzy fangirl into the super business because she's a groupie. Imagine if someone smart, someone made of fire and steel, was cast in the role, someone like a young Sigourney Weaver or Michelle Forbes, who'd really fight against her reactionary SHIELD male counterpart! Of all the characters to not make a "Major Kira!" They neutered the central conflict by making She-Snowden into Doris Day.

The Moonlighting dynamic is cliché, but it's cliché for a reason: it works. But Moonlighting only worked because Bruce Willis was paired up with Sibyll Shepherd.

This is surprising because Joss Whedon, like Chris Claremont, has a rep for writing badass babes and warrior women. In the case of Whedon, I'm not certain this rep is deserved. Apart from the obvious exception of Buffy, his writing is overrepresented with vulnerable, wounded, "cute" everywomen in need of a hug. If Whedon really did deserve his rep as an amazon-lover, he'd have used Storm in his X-Men run instead of Kitty Pryde, who he made his POV and main character. Claremont, on the other hand, wrote the Invisible Woman and the Wasp like Storm. In the case of Agents of SHIELD, someone wrote what should have been Storm like the Wasp.

Apart from the whistleblower vs. secrecy conflict, the other big, topical idea in Agents of SHIELD is best personified by a hard on his luck single Dad. At the end, this Dad talks about a general feeling a lot of us have since the financial collapse of 2008: for the little guy willing to work hard, America doesn't live up to its end of the deal, and little guys are screwed and stepped on by the big guys. To even get by, you have to be a giant, super…and where does that leave the rest of us?

I was very worried Agents of SHIELD chose to make the show about nonpowered agent characters to "run away" from superheroes, but this assured me that they made this show from their point of view for a reason, to make a point: the little guy's eye view of the Marvel Universe, like something out of Busiek's Marvels or Astro City.

Agents of SHIELD deserves special praise for having a pretty realistic and up to date take on nerds, too. The traditional, Peter Parker style awkward nerd in glasses is not really in style thanks to geek-chic, and the latest reboot of Spider-Man reflected that, making him more an alienated loner and less the traditional nerd. The biochemist and engineer on this series are an equally up to date take on nerds. They remind me of all the people I used to see in my science classes and still see posting minutiae about cave snails and Florida orchids on my Facebook wall: not outwardly antisocial, but with bizarre interests that bore most people, and easily excitable by little, gross arcana.

The cast's "secret weapon" might be Ming-Na Wen. Yes, the mighty Mulan herself is on this show, and why that isn't a selling point I'll never know. She's silent, intense, clearly an experienced combat vet (no little girl, the actress is over 40), a crack pilot, and she gave a breathtaking smackdown with her spy fighting skills. The implication of the pilot is, she's a character very much like Garibaldi from Babylon 5: a chequered past, this is her last chance to make good. Like Garibaldi, I'm guessing her past involves alcoholism or PTSD.

Agents of SHIELD is so very Marvel: it's got the humorous, fun tone that made the Marvel movies infinitely more watchable than DC's dead-serious efforts (I admire the Nolan movies a lot more than I like them). It certainly isn't Arrow, afraid to use its universe and running away from wild things like costumes and boxing glove arrows. Heck, remember the single-Dad superhero? He didn't have a costume, but at least he acted like one: hell, he saved one more innocent citizen than Superman did in all of Man of Steel.

In short, it's a success…maybe one of the first decent attempts to translate comics to television. And I'll be watching this week, too.

Things to Ponder: 

  • How great is it they use the term "superhero?" Most shows run away from that term.
  • Project: Pegasus apparently exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Does the Thing work there in between attempts to get his pro-wrestling career going? My Spidey-sense tells me this will be a plot point.
  • All of us True Believers caught the reference to Forbush-Man, right? If not, turn in your Merry Marvel Marching Society card!

  • Everyone caught how they slipped Journey into Mystery in dialogue, right? Before you think that's nothing special, that's one more fannish, Easter Egg reference than was in all of Man of Steel, that's for sure.
  • What gets everyone excited here are the hints there's more than there appears when it comes to Phil Coulson's mysterious resurrection. Here's a possibility a friend told me: what if Coulson is, and always has been, a SHIELD life model decoy? Explains why he seemed to be in several different places at once during the movies. 
  • This is a small nit, but couldn't they have used ONE canon SHIELD character as a regular on this show? Would it have been so hard to dig up Clay Quartermain, or Jimmy Woo, or Jasper Stiltwell, or the Contessa, or Bobbi Morse?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Review: E.E. Smith's Lensman Spin-Off Novel, "Masters of the Vortex"

Imagine if math whiz Nate Silver was the hero of the movie "Twister," and you've basically got the premise of E.E. Smith's Lensman spin-off novel "Masters of the Vortex."

Our nuclear engineer hero uses his math skills to ride out and destroy atomic vortexes, or swirling, constant atomic explosions that, in terms of natural disaster plausibility, only barely beat out "reverse meteors." In the pulp SF universe of the Lens, if you have a slide rule and some all-American gumption, there's no natural phenomena you can't lick!

To his unbelievable good fortune, "Storm" Cloud lives in the one science fiction setting ever where the ability to do math in your head superfast practically makes you a superhero and isn't rendered superfluous by computers: the Lensman universe, an interstellar civilization anachronistically based on vacuum tube electronics, where the writer's imagination could conceive of planet crushing superweapons and faster than light travel but not an integrating computer any smaller than several tons. Eventually, you realize when the book talks about a "master computer" it means a person.

"Storm" Cloud is not a Lensman himself, which I'm sure made E.E. Smith breathe a sigh of relief, considering how impossible it must have been to come up with challenges worthy of the most ludicrously supercompetent heroes in all of fiction. Imagine if MacGyver was a telepathic dragon and you start to get the idea.

"Storm" Cloud has a different superpower: math. For instance, he uses "statistical analysis" to predict criminal behavior and figure out the lair of drug dealers (Zwilniks), indicating that the Universe of the Lens might not have an internet, but it easily beats our world when it comes to applied sabermetrics. He also uses mathematics to take on the house at gambling: he's even able to figure out how to win when the dealer cheats and stacks the deck. Since the dealer always does it the same way, you can figure out the pattern.

When Cloud's family are killed by an atomic vortex, his character turns vaguely suicidal, and with the mania of a person with a death wish, he leaps to figure out the correct, ever changing way to make an atomic vortex go bust, figuring if he's wrong, he has nothing to lose. When he ends up figuring out the first ever way to destroy vortexes, he becomes an intergalactic celebrity and hero, and his life acquires a new purpose. Imagine if someone figures out a way to destroy hurricanes or tornadoes and you'd get the idea.

Soon, Dr. Cloud is joined by an eccentric crew of oddballs and misfits who assist him in his rocket in "Vortex Blasting," and with who Cloud discovers a new purpose. The fact our hero is recovering from the loss of his family and is depressed and borderline-suicidal is a new angle, one that gives this character an arc. After all, due to the death of his family, Cloud is a much bigger misfit than the Lensmen were.

This is also an interesting look at the much older E.E. Smith, returning to the Lensmen universe in 1960 after a pause of close to 15 years (he would tragically, die five years later). Middle aged family men are prone to two very dark fantasies: one is faking their own death successfully, and the other is having their family die in some accident, which makes them going off on some exciting new life away from them. I'm not saying they want their family to die, only that there's a longing for freedom.

Some history is in order, here: Smith wrote the short story that formed the kernel of this novel, "The Vortex Blaster," in 1941, in the magazine "Comet." The original short story from 1941, "The Vortex Blaster," is actually the opening few chapters in the novel, "Masters of the Vortex." Smith wrote a story in the Lensman universe (unlike Triplanetary, this one was always in the Universe of the Lens) as a favor to F. Orlin Tremaine, the pre-John W. Campbell editor of Astounding, an act of loyalty to help out Tremaine's new pulp mag "Comet." But since Smith was publishing the Lensman stories in Campbell's Astounding, he couldn't get a true Lensman story in "Comet," and only published a story in the Lensman universe. In 1960, Smith blew his short story up into a novel.

This makes sense. The Lensman Universe is big enough to have a thousand more stories inside of it.

That said, though Masters of the Vortex is a great new direction showing the more psychological SF of the year 1960, it's just plain GOOD to be back in the Lensman universe. I'd compare it to when Star Trek came back after years away in the new Trek movie. Hearing about Lensmen, speeders, tractors, dureum, Boskonians, Bergenholm drives, space axes (though the less superhuman and ordinary Cloud uses more of a "space-hatchet") fill you with the same charge as the familiar phasers, photon torpedoes, Klingons, and Starfleet Academy did when Trek returned.

There are even hints after all this time, Smith wants to play around and have fun with the conventions of the genre he helped create.

For instance, there's a subplot where Cloud, doing what engineer-scientists always seem to do in old space opera, comes to the rescue of an alien princess unjustly captured by a dictator, but it turns out the princess in need of rescue is not exactly in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold: she's a dome headed, elephant-legged creature. She might be called "elephant princess" and would be right at home beside the Adventure Time oddballs like Slime Princess and Hot Dog Princess.

Sooner or later, it was bound to happen: a space hero would rescue a princess who isn't exactly screwable. This kind of Princess rescue is nonetheless an important job for a wisecracking Anglo-Saxon addicted to cigarettes and alcohol who loves explaining things to others they already know.

Maybe because the Lensman books were a girl-free zone, Doc Smith overcorrects here, and the ratio of men to women in Storm Cloud's crew is like something out of a harem anime or She-Ra's planet Etheria. We see a lot of races only mentioned in dialogue in Lensman: the doctor is a mute, telepathic Manarkan with a legalistic worldview, the cook is a cute brick-pink Chickladorian, the linguist is Vesta the Vegian, a cat-girl who speaks 50 languages with a battle cry of "tails high, sisters!" and my favorite, the engineer, Tommie, a Tomingan, a race also called "squatties" for their heavy-gravity shortness and stout diesel truck builds; Tommy loses her temper and loves to smoke huge cigars.

The love story is basically an REO Speedwagon song: emotionally "damaged goods" people who learn to love again. One of the most amusing and revealing details about the time when it's written is that when it's revealed one of the female characters is over 30 and not married, the immediate question is, "what's wrong with her?"

The love interest is Dr. Joan Janowick, a 34-year old, a slightly chubby integrating computer engineer, cyberneticist, and telepath with a few streaks of gray. Dr. Janowick has a PhD in Cybernetics, and it took me a while to figure this out from context clues (just like when they say 'computer' in this story they mean a person), but in 1960 "cybernetics" didn't mean robot parts, but mathematical systems and patterns. Everyone is a mathematician in this story!

Cloud does have a power/competence gaining arc similar to the Lensmen, though, at a vastly reduced scale. At times, the Lensman novels feel like a Dungeons and Dragons game where the Game Master is way, way too liberal with the experience points and loot. Here, Cloud practices nonstop with his guns until he becomes a lightning quick draw. This is another sign of how, like Star Wars, the Lensman books were oddly Western-informed, with dive saloons and crusty meteor miners.

Some unique aspects of the Lens Galaxy were explored in this story. Language in the Lensman novels was a non-issue because of the Lens's universal translator ability. This is the first to tell us what language was like in the galaxy of the Lens, and…here's a surprise: the most widely used language in the galaxy is Galactic Spanish (or "Zpanidge," as aliens pronounce it), since the vowels are softer and it's more logical in grammar and spelling. Doesn't it just turn everything upside down when you find out everyone's been speaking Spanish all this time?

Spaceal, the universal pidgin lingua franca, is good for two things; engineering concepts and lewd swearing. It has to be experienced to be believed. It's somewhere between 60s Stan Lee teenager talk and a stroke:

"Stacked? She's stacked like Gilroy's Tower, Buster – an honest to god DISH, believe me, and raring to go. We were on one of those long weekend jaunts around the system, one of those things things were apt to get off the green at times…"

Things to Ponder:
  • Amazing Stories reference: one of the planets is named "Palmer III."
  • Thing I will never get tired of: people adding emphasis by saying "…and you can check me to ten decimals on that!" A gorgeous or unique woman is called a "real prime number." Is everything math-centered in this civilization?
  • What a relief it is none of the crowd-pleasing characters from the Lensmen books show up here. It'd feel like what it is, like when Ted Danson shows up on Frasier: "oh, hey! Nice spin-off you've got here…"
  • The Lensman universe is a deeply problematic world in one way, because you have to really write around the "call the cops" problem: any scenario that can be solved by calling the cops. Multiply that usual issue in stories by a billion if it's the LENSMEN. 
  • If there's one thing I hate, it's grammar pedants. If there's another thing I hate, it's wrong grammar pedants. Believe it or not, there are some words with multiple correct plural forms; both "octopuses" and "octopi" are correct. So are "vortexes" and "vortices." The book prefers vortices, on the grounds that it's way less clear what they're talking about that way.
  • There's one potentially very dark interpretation of the fact "Storm" Cloud, a scientist studying vortexes, had a family home that naturally attracted a vortex by its construction. Look, do I need to spell it out for you? Stormy had them killed! I can't possibly be the only one this thought ever occurred to, can I?
  • Everyone knows that the original idea behind licensed Star Wars novel villain, the Saruman-like evil Jedi Master Joruus C'Baoth, is that he was originally going to be an evil clone of Obi-Wan Kenobi, but Lucasfilm nixed that idea as going too far. Is it possible D.D. Cloudd from the David Kyle Lensman novel "Lensman from Rigel" was originally going to be "Storm" Cloud from "Masters of the Vortex" finally having a proper team up with the 2nd Stage Lensmen heroes, but the idea was nixed at the last minute for licensing reasons? The characters of D.D. Cloudd and Neil Cloud are practically identical and have the exact same character arc: they are non-Lensed civilian science experts who work closely with the Galactic Patrol who went into their research because of a death of a family member that fills them with a self-destructive deathwish, which they overcome because they find a new meaning and purpose surrounded by other misfits.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Millennium Comics' Doc Savage: the Manual of Bronze (1992)

Apart from the pun in the name, the Manual of Bronze is a slim below-comic sized volume, a totally unique object printed by Millennium Comics in 1992, during the brief time they had the Doc Savage comics license.

Millennium's work can be pointed out as the single most accurate interpretation of Doc ever, remembering details scattered through 150+ novels, like how Long Tom had a gold tooth that, whenever it was knocked out, he'd vow to get the guy responsible. Their comic adaptation of Repel (aka the "Deadly Dwarf") is one of the most artistically successful ever, and maybe one of the showiest, featuring Doc's archfoe, an evil gay millionaire midget who insists his henchmen walk around shirtless (yes, really).

The Manual of Bronze includes detailed character bios on Doc, the Gang, and a few selected villains (including the aforementioned Deadly Dwarf), and it's even a scrapbook of Doc Savage art by different artists, a prospect that must have been a lot more tantalizing before the invention of Google Image Search. My favorite is Adam Hughes, and here's why:

It's worth owning for no other reason than it's intimately researched and complete and shows diagrams of gadgets and equipment like Doc's Helldiver, the Fortress of Solitude, etc. I didn't care for the Supermachine Pistols' out-there design; since the machine pistol later on became a reality in the form of the uzi, wouldn't it stand to reason they'd look something like that, only with a curled magazine?

In any case, if you like to clip and save diagrams from comics about vehicles and gadgets (and I sure do), this is for you.

What's more, this is the only book of its kind thus far made for Doc Savage. Perhaps one day we'll get a more detailed illustrated reference. Until then, this one will have to do.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Three Fan Theories for E.E. Smith's Lensman Novels

The reason Doc Smith couldn't publish a sequel to "Children of the Lens" is because it had incest as a major plot point.

Children of the Lens was full of uncomfortably weird "huh?" moments that hint Kimball Kinnison's children, able to mind-merge and destined to replace the Arisians as Guardians of Civilization, have an incestuous relationship:

The kids were special in another way, too, he [Kit] had noticed lately, without paying it any particular attention... They didn't feel like other girls. After dancing with one of them, other girls felt like robots made out of putty. Their flesh was different. It was firmer, finer, infinitely more responsive. Each individual cell seemed to be endowed with a flashing, sparkling life; a life which, interlinking with that of one of his own cells, made their bodies as intimately one as were their perfectly synchronized minds. 
[Mentor] "Your lives will be immeasurably fuller, higher, greater than any heretofore known in this universe. As your capabilities increase, you will find that you will no longer care for the society of entities less capable than your own."

Considering the Children are genetically perfect and arguably aren't even human anymore, this isn't as bizarre or offensive as it sounds.

Still, Heinlein, himself no stranger to incest-themed stories, wrote that Smith intended a continuation to Children of the Lens. In fact, there are even some textual clues in Children a sequel was planned: Christopher Kinnison delivers a flask of force, and it's not clear who finds it, and he states that Civilization is again threatened and that he is just a youth and not entirely up to the challenge.

Heinlein said in "Larger than Life" that Smith's Lensman sequel was "unpublishable" at the time. Could it have been because of incest-related themes?

The maddening thing is, we may never know. Smith told Heinlein what his Lensman sequel would be like, but we've never found even a manuscript or outline, and now both men are dead.

Like Heinlein said, "that's his story to tell. You must find your own."

Clark Ashton Smith's "Vulthoom" is set in the Lensverse

Pulp aficionados love to go crazy and guess which stories cross over, and it helps that reoccurring tropes make a lot of pulp stories very similar (like how most pulp heroes have gray eyes…including Kimball Kinnison, incidentally). For instance, one of my favorite pulp interconnections is that the scarecrow-bodied geologist-archeologist explorer main character in Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" is really Johnny from Doc Savage.

"Vulthoom" is a science fiction horror story where the primary villain is a tremendously long-lived, mostly unseen, hideously different alien being who is considered the Martian devil. Vulthoom's modus operandi is to operate at the center of a conspiracy with humanoid servitors that never see him directly, who he manipulates by using their self-interest. He has tremendous mind powers and is capable of conjuring psychic illusions. What's more, his chief weapon is exotic Martian narcotics, which he distributes and uses to control others.

Doesn't this sound like Boskone's modus operandi to a T?

Vulthoom even has a secret base hidden deep underground below Mars (shades of Helmuth's base!), where he is constructing a fleet of interstellar warships unseen by law enforcement.

The Mars seen in Vulthoom is consistent/identical with what we know about Mars from Triplanetary: a long-time Earth ally with a tremendously long, unknown history, a dying ancient culture. Earthmen visit often, but we don't really understand the inscrutable Martians.

The Alhai, giant and monstrous with withered faces, are not exactly biologically similar to Martians in the Lensverse, but that's actually a plot point: in the story that they are bigger and genetically altered and even the main characters acknowledge they look nothing like normal Martians.

Oh, and by the way: the hotel where earthmen stay is called the Tellurian Hotel, incidentally, with Tellurian being the Lensverse name for Earthmen.

Yes, women CAN use the Lens. 

"Your report is neither conclusive nor complete."

Sean Barrett, in GURPS Lensman, said flat-out that no humanoid female could use a Lens. He based this on Virgillia's speech in "First Lensman" for why she was rejected for a Lens.

One thing should be pointed out: Virgillia Simms' explanation for why she didn't get a Lens in "First Lensman" was her interpretation of what happened, not something she was repeating verbatim from Mentor.

Nevermind we SAW women use a Lens: Clarissa, in Second Stage Lensmen. In the David Kyle continuation novels, another woman becomes a Lensman: Lalla Kallatra. Kyle stated women could use the Lens, but they were rare to the point of being unheard of.

In short, there's no conclusive proof there are no women Lensmen, but we have several right in front of us. The belief they aren't is a "Black Swan" fallacy: because all of the swans we see so far are white, there can't be a black swan.

The belief women can't be Lensmen based on Virgillia's speech reminds me of how, for a long time, there was an attitude women couldn't be starship captains in Star Trek because of Janet Lester's belief in "Turnabout Intruder." Why are we accepting here at face value the point of view of a mentally disturbed, crazy person consumed by envy?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Review: E.E. Smith's Lensman Series

Quick! What's the one thing you probably know about the Lensmen?

They inspired Green Lantern, right?

I guarantee it did. If Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Spider, and the Slans were the start point for, respectively, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men, it's easy to see the Lensmen as the pulp magazine forebears of the Green Lanterns.

Like the Lanterns, they are space police, endowed with an unusual glowing instrumentality. They are assembled from dozens of bizarre alien races, united, despite their sometimes weird body shape and origin, by their incorruptibility, unbribeability, and tremendous competence. They were given their objects of power from a powerful, cold, and unknowable race billions of years ahead of our civilization.

The most elite members of a combination interstellar military and police, the Lensmen spend an unusually long time investigating piracy and narcotics (yes, that's right: in Lensman, drugs,  right out of "Reefer Madness," are the "ultimate evil," on the level of a cheesy 80s "just say no" cartoon). These low-scale crimes are slowly revealed to be united in a multi-galaxy-spanning, Illuminati-like evil conspiracy with leaders that are hideously inhuman, a conflict that in the final stages, is revealed as nothing short of the battle for good against evil on a cosmic scale.

That's the keyword for Lensman: scale. It starts off so normal in Galactic Patrol, the first book, but the most memorable aspect of the Lensman novels is the way it keeps ludicrously upping the ante, especially in the increasingly wild technological arms race between heroes and villains. Technology takes wild galumphing leaps, not just from book to book but between the chapters. In that respect, Lensman is more realistic than the static technology levels of, say, Barsoom: any technological advantage is only temporary, and a big plot point is keeping any new weaponry, detection, or stealth technology a secret.

Over time, the good guys throw planets at the villains. Not kidding here, actual planets were used as gigantic kinetic kill weapons rocketed at the baddies. The solution to a killer hurled planet: turn an entire star into a vacuum tube to release solar blasts that level entire worlds. You don't even want to know what they're doing in the last book.

The personal power and competence of the Lensmen also grows with time. At the start of the first novel, the Lens is just a universal translator with its main purpose unclear. By the end of the first book, our Lensman hero is able to subtly perform mind control. By the end of the third book, there are psychic power battles with gigantic super-intellects where the mere reflection of mental blasts results in hundreds of people for miles around the site of battle dropping down dead. By the end of the final book, the millions of Lensmen all over the galaxy attempt a Lens-to-Lens mind-merge for a final battle.

Individually, the Lensmen are what Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon would be, if they had a Brock Samson level body count. Sure, the Lensmen are boy scouts…until the time comes to snap bones and stab people. It's always the nice guys, you know...

Shane Black described Doc Savage as Jimmy Stewart if he was a killer. That description was wildly off the mark for Doc, but it works just fine for the Lensmen.  The Lensmen are already their own Venture Brothers or Team America parody. Like 24 or Starship Troopers, it's fertile ground for a biting satire that alternates between queasily uncomfortable and hilarious. Can you imagine what Robocop/Starship Troopers director Paul Verhoeven would do with this material?

One of the great Lensman parodies, Backstage Lensman, had this pitch-perfect line in it that summarized Lensman's casual collateral damage, which supposedly left E.E. Smith in stitches when he read the parody at a convention in the 1960s:

"I got a line through Banjo Freeko, the planetary dictator, but only after I blew up the mining industry on his planet and killed a few thousand innocent people -- regretfully, of course. But I do that all the time. It revolts me, but I do it." 

Don't get the wrong idea, though. Our Lensman hero, Kimball Kinnison, is an engineer who saves the day with some odd new engineering concept and outsmarts equally baddies via very complicated strategies and long-cons. This is one of those stories I got the feeling the characters were smarter than me and one step ahead, instead of slowpokes figuring out what I've already pieced together. I can imagine the odd duck, nerdy, Jewish fans of the early days of SF seeing more of themselves in the Lensmen than their burly tormentors.

Here's another thing Lensman and Green Lantern have in common: though group shots might convince you otherwise, Lensman isn't an anthology piece, but has a clear-cut human point of view main character. Kimball Kinnison is a coffee achiever go-getter who graduated at the top of his class. Lensman Kimball speaks in a rapid-fire, pitter-patter quippy style of dialogue that might be called "Mid-Century American Wiseass," and is familiar to any reader of Marvel comics, detective or science fiction story from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Kinnison is a bigger than life, brawny, he-man adventurer that in terms of sheer competence would give Batman a run for his money: Kinnison is a tactician, strategist, and over the series, shows skill at disguise, fast-draw, engineering, and is a scrapper familiar with dirty bar fighting. After seeing Kinnison's cunning plans and then reading science fiction in the comic strips from the same era, like Flash Gordon, I understand what Michael Chabon was talking about when he said for a time, everyone in comics seemed vaguely retarded.

The prose style in Lensman has its strengths. At its best, it's visceral and exciting. At its worst, it's Gee-Whiz All-American YELLING AT THE TOP OF OUR LUNGS. There are some tremendously exciting moments right out of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Four squatly massive semi-portable projectors crashed down upon their magnetic clamps and in the fierce ardour of their beams the thick bulkhead before them ran the gamut of the spectrum and puffed outwards. Some score of defenders were revealed, likewise clad in armour, and battle again was joined. Explosive and solid bullets detonated against and ricocheted from that highly efficient armour, the beams of DeLameter hand-projectors splashed in torrents of man-made lightning off its protective fields of force. But that skirmish was soon over. The semi-portables, whose vast energies no ordinary personal armour could withstand, were brought up and clamped down; and in their holocaust of vibratory destruction all life vanished from the pirates' compartment.

On the other hand, you have this:

At the touch of those beams, light and delicate as they were, the relay clicked and the torpedoes let go. These frightful shells were so designed and so charged that one of them could demolish any inert structure known to man, so what of seven?  
There was an explosion to stagger the imagination and which much be left to the imagination, since no words in any language of the galaxy can describe it utterly!

Doc Smith needs to be introduced to Elmore Leonard's rule: "you should have no more than two or three exclamation points per 100,000 lines of prose."

The first true Space Opera (we care about)

Though its star has certainly fallen from the lofty perch it previously occupied, in its day, Lensman was one of the unifying, foundational "shared touchstone" books behind early science fiction fandom. In a genre of fiction at the time defined by anthologies, it was a well-defined setting visited again and again with recognizable characters (Kimball Kinnison, Surgeon Lacy, Clarissa, Pilot Henderson, Tregonsee, the dragon-like Worsel), and recognizable technology (ultra-waves, inertialessness, etc), and consistent alien species (Chickladorians, Kalonians, Tomingans, Valerians). It had a characteristic of SF properties that get a strong sense of identification from fans: you could imagine or project yourself into it. There's a reason Star Trek, not the Twilight Zone, is the most emblematic series of 60s science fiction with the more crazy-devoted fandom: we care about recurring casts.

Lensman was an ambitious gamble, unique for its time, that paid off in a big way: it was designed from the outset to be told over multiple novels, in an era when pulp-paper magazines were read once and usually used immediately after as toilet paper and forgotten. ("Used as toilet paper" is literal, not metaphorical; that's part of the reason we still have so few pulp paper story magazines from the Depression around.)

Just like there's debate over who the first superhero is, it's not clear if Lensman was the first space opera adventure. Space Opera is a genre with extravagant, melodramatic, escapist adventure yarns set around freewheeling interstellar space travel, usually involving aliens, ray guns, rockets, and technology – what Brian Aldiss, in the sixties called "the good old stuff," the stuff Star Wars would attempt to recreate. Lensman, together with E.E. Smith's earlier effort, Skylark of Space, is to space opera what Superman is to the superheroes: maybe not the first, but the first to exist in the modern form we'd recognize today, with every element in place, and popular enough to be influential and set the standard.

Before E.E. Smith's Lensman and Skylark, most escapist SF adventure was often a "Planet" romance in the style of Burroughs's John Carter of Mars. Lensman was a clean break with the Burroughs style, just like Superman was clearly something different than just a repackaged pulp mag adventure hero.

Your Grandparents' Star Wars

Lensman is like Gil Evans's jazz: it's your grandparents' favorite thing that you've never heard of.

It's impossible to underestimate how big a deal Lensman was to SF's first and second generations, which makes the loss of its central position since the 1970s all the sadder. Depressing example: I tried googling "Tregonsee" (the placid, calm, unexcitable barrel-bodied Rigellian Second-Stage Lensman) and the top hit was for a commenter on Glen Beck websites. Which, to be as delicate as possible here, gives you a good sense of the demographic to which Lensman was important to (hint: the mean age of Fox News viewers is 65).

The first science fiction wargame ever designed was Lensman-themed.

People would cosplay as Kimball Kinnison to science fiction conventions before it was called "cosplay."

Lensman parodies, like Backstage Lensman, were widely circulated.

One of the oldest scence fiction conventions is named Boskone, a pun on BosCon (get it? It's in Boston.) Though it's very likely only a few remember what the name originally meant. Not to mention when a splinter group broke off due to drama, that con named itself Arisia…

Pre-Internet era, Xeroxed and manila envelope mailed Lensman fanfiction was everywhere, and in fact, some examples of Lensman fanfiction from the 1960s are, surprisingly, still around and available to read. 

Lensman got not one, but two continuation series by other writers, one by David Kyle in the early 1980s (at the height of the Star Wars phenom, when there was a space opera revival in pop culture and even "Planet-Smasher" Hamilton and Leigh Brackett were reprinted often), and another by William B. Ellern in the 1960s.

Filk, or folk-like songs sung at SF conventions, was written about the Lensmen, maybe the closest thing SF fandom has to true oral culture, like the surprisingly old and durable filthy rhymes we all said at summer camp ("I'm Popeye the Sailor Man/I live in a Garbage Can"). Here's a good one, dedicated to the jokey spaceman's god, Klono, the human Lensmen swear by ("Klono's carbduralloy claws! Klono's golden gills!"), sung to the tune of Old Time Religion:

Give me that real old time religion
Give me that real old time religion
Give me that real old time religion
It's good enough for me! 
How the hell can Klono manage
Not to do himself some damage?
But with all those weird appendage-
-es he's good enough for me!
(Chorus, repeat)

Still Unique After All These Years

The most striking thing about Lensman is, despite the fact it is genre-foundational, almost all of it still feels unique to today's readers. One of the biggest problems with Burroughs's John Carter of Mars/Barsoom is, since it was so early, so crucial to SF development, it's imagery and ideas have been so thoroughly strip mined by later works, to the point the original work feels, in retrospect, so very "familiar." That's part of the reason the John Carter movie didn't do so hot: it felt, ironically, derivative…despite the fact Edgar Rice Burroughs did it first!

The same is not true of Lensman. Despite being a genre start point, it still feels so unique.

The one place Lensman might strike a familiar chord in modern times is, it was the first science fiction adventure novel I can find that used space marines in strength-enhancing power armor.  Heinlein in particular always worshipped Doc, said as much, and wrote something similar to this part of the series, with power armor heroes with board-and-storm tactics, an obscure novel nobody remembers today called Starship Troopers. Power armor troopers might just be one of the most familiar images in all of science fiction, but even here, Lensman adds some idiosyncratic twists: because of the tremendous durability of personal force screens that negate energy weaponry, combat is often fought brutally with space axes.

The Arisians, the Guardians of Civilization, are infinitely more cold, awe-inspiring, and all-around impressive than any of their imitators. No human being who sees them sees the same thing twice (some see them as monstrous dragons, others as wise old men, another as an amazon woman seven feet tall). The Arisians are anti-democratic, detached, and occasionally brutally callous: only big league stakes get their attention. ("Youth, your inexcusably muddy thinking got yourself into this situation. Get yourself out."). Their planet is an intergalactic mystery, and even Lensmen get a message of "…and STAY out." They're less like Green Lantern's Guardians and more like Babylon 5's mystery-race, the Vorlons, equal parts cryptic and creepy.

When the tremendously brilliant Helmuth, speaker for Boskone, ventures to Arisia to obtain the secret of the Lens, he is told this:

"Inflated — overwhelmingly by your warped and perverted ideas, by your momentary success in dominating your handful of minions, tied to you by bonds of greed, of passion, and of crime, you come here to wrest from us the secret of the Lens, from us, a race as much abler than yours as we are older — a ratio of millions to one. 
"You consider yourself cold, hard, ruthless. Compared to me, you are weak, soft, tender, as helpless as a newborn child. That you may learn and appreciate that fact is one reason why you are living at this present moment. Your lesson will now begin."

What is the Lens?

The quest to discover the true purpose of the Lens is the entire story of the Lensman series, much like how Philip Pullmann's "His Dark Materials" is all about the central mystery of Dust. What is it and what is it for? The answer is considerably more complex than it being a mere power object.

The marvelous thing about the Lens is this: since using the power of the Lens requires personal growth and awareness, it links the character development arc to the main "action" story. The only thing I can compare this to is how bending in the Last Airbender is linked to your temperament, your emotional and mental development, e.g. you can only Firebend if you have passion and a driving goal in your life, and if you lose your goal, you lose your powers; the Avatar in "Legend of Korra" couldn't airbend because she was strong willed and didn't have the ability to airbend until she learned to be more personally flexible.

Another example of a character arc of this kind where the physical action and character development are linked is the way two pilots are needed to drive a robot in Pacific Rim. Because the two have to mentally be in sync and share memories, in order to fight, they have to get through their psychological issues first.

In the very first Lensman novel, Galactic Patrol, we learn the Lens was given to the Patrol by ultra-powerful beings called the Arisians, once the problem of lawbreaking became an interstellar issue, needing a police/military force with interstellar, galactic jurisdiction to pursue escaping lawbreakers, who could always just flit over ("flit" is a bit of the 30's tinted space-slang here; prepare to get used to it) to another system to escape.

Here's a description:

The Lens is not really alive, as we understand the term. It is, however, endowed with a sort of pseudo-life, by virtue of which it gives off its strong, characteristically changing light as long as it is in metal-to-flesh circuit with the living mentality for which it was designed. Also be virtue of that pseudo-life, it acts as a telepath through which you may converse with other intelligences, even though they may possess no organs of speech or of hearing. 
"The Lens cannot be removed by anyone except its wearer without dismemberment; it glows as long as its rightful owner wears it; it ceases to glow in the instant of its owner's death and disintegrates shortly thereafter. Also - and here is the thing that renders completely impossible the impersonation of a Lensman - not only does the Lens not glow if worn by an impostor; but if a Lensman be taken alive and his Lens removed, that Lens kills in a space of seconds any living being who attempts to wear it. As long as it glows - as long as it is in circuit with its living owner - it is harmless; but in the dark condition its pseudo-life interferes so strongly with any life to which it is not attuned thta that life is destroyed forthwith."

It's only given by Arisians to a tiny percentage of Galactic Patrolmen they know to be unbribable; making them interstellar "Untouchables." The first one we meet is our hero, Kimball Kinnison, a freshly minted Lieutenant Patrolman and Lensman. We discover the properties of the Lens as he does.

At first, Kimball believes the Lensmen are fighting an unusually intense and prolonged crime wave of piracy and narcotics. But eventually, his horizon broadens and he realizes there's a pyramid-like conspiracy at work: it's not just a gang of cutthroats, but an assault by a totally hostile culture, emphasizing hierarchy, intolerant of failure, with masters that rely on levels of secrecy and conspiracy, and each battle reveals another layer. It's not a crime wave, but a full scale war. As he realizes he's unequal to the task, he starts to realize the futility of the "arms race." The good guys create a stealth ship, the villains create better stealth electronics, and so on…and he realizes the only real long-term advantage Civilization (always in caps) has over Boskonia: the Lens.

That's when the big revelation is dropped: the Lens isn't just a telepathy augmentor or translator. It's something that is given to advance personal and mental development – in fact, at a certain point, the Lens only awakened telepathy in humans: it didn't give it to them at all. In Kinnison's case, it's pretty damn literal: he gets personal scope and range into what's going on…his telepathic powers acquire scope and range. It's no coincidence the Lens and Mentor open up new powers to Kinnison every time he learns something important, like when he's sent to the hospital after nearly dying and biting more than he can chew.

In other words, the Lens is necessary to grow, but it's a "Magic Feather." In many cases, we run into alien species, like the dragonlike Velantians, who are so formidable they make earthlings seem puny in every way. In the first books, Kimball Kinnison is the least powerful member of his gang: burly sergeant van Buskirk, a heavy gravity worlder with superstrength and the ability to jump 20 feet into the air on earth gravity has it in muscles, and Worsel is the better telepath.

But the Lens, and the aptly named chief of the alien Arisians, Mentor (again – this series is not big on subtlety) show Kinnison he's the exact right man for the job after all. The Valerians might be telepathic and be exploding flying tornado-snakes of death with a stinger tail, but Kinnison's will and stubbornness is what's needed: the Valerians have great minds but aren't big on tenacity or cussedness, and when introduced, are a slave race of telepathic conquerors.

There's a life lesson here: talent and genius will only get so far. Persistence and drive, though, can get you anywhere.

Technology and Science

For an adventure series, Lensman is surprisingly hard science. That's something that will come as a shock to anybody familiar with how fast and loose space opera can play, especially before the 1950s.

A lot of it feels like just plain showing off. E.E. Smith was proud of his PhD, and he should be...though it was in food chemistry specializing in donut mixes. In an era when being a science fiction pulp mag writer was a step above being a pornographer (but only barely), it must have been a treat for readers to have a "real" scientist.

There are paragraphs on paragraphs of engineering gobbledygook that could choke even the fifty buck word nonsense babbled on Star Trek Voyager, but even in the worst cases, there's just enough science to make it sound like an actual description and not like the characters spontaneously got Tourette Syndrome. (Supposedly, Smith merged real science with twaddle, and was impressed with fans who could tell which was which).

The trouble is, "hard, believable science and technology" for 1937 is almost intriguingly quaint and exotic. Just like everything else about the Lensmen, you'll either find it aggravating because it's so old-fashioned, or you'll find it terrific because it's so old fashioned. Imagine an entire interstellar capable civilization based around vacuum tube electronics. Integrating Computers are based around punch cards, weigh hundreds of tons, and require entire rivers for coolant.

My favorite detail? At one point, a new medical discovery is revealed to FINALLY, at long last, be a cure for polio!

Space was described as being filled with ether, or thick interstellar gas, one atom of hydrogen per centimeter (actually the density is far, far less than that, with an atom or charged proton of 1 x 10^-31), with space filled with this to the point spaceships had to be astrodynamic (hence football, sphere and cigar shapes), and were often steered and buffeted around. At one point, the good guys invent an antimatter weapon, the Negasphere. What's interesting is, it's closer to Dirac's original idea of what antimatter would be like, with weird properties like "anti-mass," so it inverts tractor beams: tractors push and pressors pull.

There's one very interesting theory in Lensman, which at one point went into cosmology. At the time, it was believed the only reason solar systems ever formed with planets was because of two stars passing closely to each other. Smith's explanation for how the galaxy of the Lens was filled with life? At some point, it ran into and collided with another galaxy, seeding both with life-giving star systems. Smith thought this through: one end of the galaxy's star systems are older than the other. The second galaxy, discovered in a later book, is utterly ruled by the Boskonia conspiracy. Smith identified the second galaxy as the Lundmark Galaxy, which is so astronomically unremarkable, half of its' Wikipedia entry is on its' role in the Lensman stories.

If you're interested, this fascinatingly exhaustive thread explains how science and technology works in the Lensman books.

The Villains

Lensman might have some of the most clearly brilliant and hideously wicked villains in science fiction. The first and best was Helmuth, a ruthless blue-skinned pirate leader. He was so brilliant, like Sherlock Holmes, he could deduce what was truly going on based on a single out of place clue. I suspect Star Wars's Grand Admiral Thrawn, another cold, blue-skinned supergenius tactician, was based on him.

That's typical of Lensman, which has tremendous respect for its evil enemies; even the pus-brained, jailhouse evil trash and bar scum that make up the space pirates and drug dealers (zwilniks, yet another future slang word) are brave and fight to the death rather than beg for mercy. This is a characteristic of Smith's: his bad guys are evil, but shockingly competent and cool in their own way, like the cold, superintelligent, yet oddly honorable Nietzschean Überman Blackie DuQuesne from Skylark of Space.

The bad guys, originally criminals, have a technological advantage and the Patrol has to keep pace. This must have been very relevant in 1937, when Prohibition was a fresh memory. The Thompson submachine gun, a murderer's dream, was better than anything most police departments had, and most bootlegger speedboats and stock cars were easily able to outrace the police and Coast Guard.

The culture of Boskonia is hierarchical, with increasing levels of secrecy, impersonal rigidity, intolerance of failure, and the belief that the ends ultimately justify the means. Success alone determines right and wrong. At the upper levels, past the common drug dealer and Sydney Greenstreet lookalike bosses, the echelons of Boskonia are dominated by beings like the Eich and Onlonians, hideous, shadowy, supergenius and unknowable creatures that breathe freezing poison gases.

Heinlein and E. E. Smith were both right-wing…though of a smart, skeptical kind with respect for intellect that would be out of place in the modern Republican party of Jindal, Bachmann and Sarah Palin. Heinlein was always funny and charming, but Smith was, at times, more like getting cornered by your drunk Republican uncle at Thanksgiving, especially in works like Spacehounds of IPC where the villains are an evil union "who want to take care of their men from the cradle to the grave" (those bastards!).

I'm pleased to say other than the War on Drugs aspect of Lensman, with reefer dens so lurid as to be campy schlock, and the Geneva-convention free war of extermination (like all brutal violence, at first it's horrifying and then it becomes hilarious), Lensman is Doc Smith's most apolitical work.

The noticeable and unpleasant exception is the political corruption subplot in the prequel "First Lensman," which had a parody of Huey P. Long style leftist New Deal populism. It's about as tone deaf as you expect, like if the aforementioned drunk Republican uncle at Thanksgiving wrote a book. It's nowhere near as hilarious as the story in Little Orphan Annie where drama king Daddy Warbucks dies of cancer because FDR was re-elected (this really happened). Still, the only way it could feel more dated was if the Lensmen had to track down Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

For the Love of God, DO NOT Read Triplanetary First!

One of the things that has really damaged the Lensman series is how the numbering puts the prequel, Triplanetary, as the "first" Lensman book. It's nothing of the kind.

Triplanetary was originally a Smith novel written years before Lensman was even conceived, and it featured no Lensmen, no Galactic Patrol, no familiar technology of any kind (Bergenholm drives), and even uses technology that's deeply un-Lensman: robots, for example. The novel was rewritten to be a Lensman prequel as an attempt to repackage it with the Lensman name. Because it takes place chronologically first, the baffling decision is made to make it first, and it's a poor introduction to the Universe of the Lens or understanding what the Lensmen is all about.

The real story of Lensman begins in Book 3, Galactic Patrol, with the introduction of Kimball Kinnison and the gradual revelations about Boskone. People, reading a book series in chronological order is a bad idea. Worlds unfold, and decisions are made to introduce us to character traits and concepts deliberately.

This is also why it's a terrible idea to start reading Narnia with "The Magician's Nephew." Everything about the structure of "Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is designed to introduce and unfold the world of Narnia and its crucial concepts; there's a big explanation for Aslan; Magician's Nephew takes him for granted so he has a lot less grandeur if you start there. Decisions are made on the basis that LWW would be read first.

"The Magician's Nephew" is a peripheral story. It's like reading "Jungle Tales of Tarzan" first just because it happens first, before the more crucial "Tarzan of the Apes" and "Return of Tarzan."

In conclusion, if you have to read the prequels Triplanetary and First Lensman at all, read it long after as a "bonus," explaining background.

Things to Ponder:

  • DeLameter ray guns "flashing man-made lightning" in Lensman are ludicrously potent, turning someone to superheated vapor, and a big chunk of the wall behind them, too. An antidote to how infuriating it is guns never hurt anyone on Star Trek: Voyager.
  • We get very little about how the average person goes about their business in the Universe of the Lens, but it seems one-man helicopters and autogyros in addition to automobiles are a personal form of transit.
  • To my knowledge, no other science fiction universe uses Lensman's distinctive method of travel: the Bergenholm, inertialess drive, which reduces inertia to nothing, allowing near infinite acceleration. Since then, physics has disproven this idea,'s so distinctively Lensman-y nobody can use it. 
  • There was going to be a Lensman movie written by J. Michael Straczynski (as in Babylon 5), who was big enough of a superfan he wrote four draft scripts. Alas, Lensman is not a recognizable name anymore. The only reason Shane Black got Doc Savage made was, Black made the studio a mint for Iron Man 3.