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.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Calling Captain Future: A Pulp Hero Who Skewed Young

Edmond Hamilton's Captain Future, starting in 1940, was a product of his era: his stories skewed very, very young.

A decade earlier in the 30s, hero pulps had a target audience of two groups: working class men, and young kids. For that reason, the adventure stories, while "clean," had an element of lurid horror like the crime thrillers. Their composite audience resulted in a composite genre. The hero pulp magazines were undone in the 1940s when this audience fractured: the kids turned to comic books, and adults switched to "men's adventure" paperbacks and thrillers.

You can see the beginning of this fracture in Captain Future, who by 1940, was a latecomer to the pulp hero game.

Just like the history of movies of the 50s was competing and responding to the challenge of television, the history of pulp magazines in the 1940s was about responding to the comics.

There seemed to be three major responses:

Turn pulp heroes into comic books and vice-versa. A good example would be Sheena and Ka-Zar, who were originally magazine characters.

Sarcastically dismiss comics and their "superheroes." This reminds me of movies in 50s that called TV "the idiot's lantern." A big one was the Doc Savage mystery, the "Whisker of Hercules." It was a mean satire of superheroes, with a potion that gave bad guys Superman powers, only to have Doc Savage get the better of them. The potion turns out to make the superguys age and die superfast (Lester Dent felt comics were a fad, so this was a metaphor, too).

Captain Future is in the 3rd Category: a pulp magazine hero designed to grab the "kid" audience moving to comics. 

Captain Future is the hero pulps meeting comics halfway. It has the showy Flash Gordon science fiction, but next to pulp style mystery "reveal the bad guy's true identity" detective plots. Captain Future has superficially similar elements of Doc Savage updated to space: raised to be a scientific superman by a brain in a jar and two robots, who bicker among themselves like Doc's aides, Monk and Ham. Unlike Doc, though, but like Superman, he has a regular girlfriend (Joan Randall, planetary police agent) with a job that leads her to be kidnapped often and get right in the thick of the action, and like Batman, Captain Future has a chief of police who contacts him with a flare signal.

The fact a kid aimed pulp would be science fiction isn't surprising. The love of kids for science fiction, starting around ages 7-12, is almost inevitable according to developmental psychology. Just as teenagers' new moral reasoning abilities lead them to question authority and their parents in that stage of life, as soon as kids start to think hypothetically and reason systematically around 7-12, they start to imagine alternate scenarios and other worlds. Just like teenagers test their new moral reasoning, testing their new ability to think imaginatively leads to a psychological development stage where science fiction is important.

(It's also not hard to understand why the Human Torch is such a popular character among kids. Every kid goes through a stage where they're a pyro.)

It's also unsurprising Ed Hamilton would later on be one of the few pulp writers to transition to becoming a comic book plotter, writing Superman for a number of his most memorable years. Going from the same magazine that gave the world Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard to a hero pulp writer amusing the kiddies to comics writer might be one of the oddest trajectories ever.

Though it nowhere near got as lurid as some of the pulp mags aimed at working class adults, Ed Hamilton was a writer in Weird Tales, and occasionally some horror details slipped in.  One of my favorites was an event right out of the movie Lifeforce, where Captain Future is driven to explore the wreck of a totally unknown spaceship, and discovers an octopoid-like alien race who were awakened to seek nutrients from blood. More like this, please!

Captain Future also has the usual hero pulp "figure out the identity of the mystery bad guy" plots. You'd think mystery wouldn't work in science fiction, but they do here, because all facts, including odd futuristic technological details, are presented to the reader fairly. The science in the stories is so good, it's shocking. In "Calling Captain Future," he figures out the black star headed toward the earth was an illusion, because its gravity didn't distort light around it, a "gravitational lensing" effect Einstein predicted, which is today something every physics student learns, but which was by then ultra-cutting edge.

As weird as Captain Future's origins are, Captain Future underwent a weird trajectory since. He was reprinted in the 60s thanks to the hunger of the paperback market. Doc Savage caught on thanks to punchy, dynamic Bama covers, but Cap's had the most ludicrously generic ones ever.

And it gets even weirder from there. Captain Future was one of two 40s American adventure SF series (the other being the Lensmen) who became, of all things, a Japanese anime. And here's the amazing part: the Captain Future anime? It was so faithful to the 40s pulp novels, it was shocking. The mystery plots were preserved more or less intact, the bickering between the robots, with the only changes were utterly predictable layups like changing locations in the Solar System to different worlds and giving his girlfriend more to do. I'd be inclined to rank it as the most faithful, accurate adaptation of any hero pulp, not that there's much competition there.

Finally, Captain Future is now best known as a hokey piece of pop art instead of an actual character, like the posters adorning the room of the characters in the Big Bang Theory, a sitcom that represents all that is mainstream and evil in the world of entertainment. Captain Future's giant poster hasn't led to a revival of the character, but has led to sales of Captain Future posters.

Captain Future is iconography now. For years, whenever I'd see a later parody of 50s space heroes, I'd see some muscular guy with an exaggerated chin, ray gun, finned costume, and with a personality based on Adam West's performance of Batman. I'm talking "The Adventures of Captain Zoom in Outer Space," Spaceman Spiff, and Buzz Lightyear. I'd see these guys and think, "what exactly IS it they're making fun of?" Real 50s science fiction didn't have heroes like that. It's making fun of something that never existed.

TV Tropes calls this a "Dead Unicorn Trope," something everyone thinks is a cliché and is frequently parodied, but never existed in a straight form. Examples include "the Butler did it" in mysteries, the idea of the mustached and black top hat stock silent film villain (who never actually existed in the silent era), and black and white color coded cowboy hats in Westerns. Superman movies have jokes about changing in a phone booth, when Superman never actually did that.

Real science fiction of the 1940s and 50s had heroes that were cigar-chomping, badass, wisecracking engineers who solved the problem with dubious engineering concepts. They usually talked more like Nick Fury than like Adam West as Batman. There were also a lot of young men who grow up over the course of the story (with science fiction of the 50s, it's always men). The young man on a journey to grow up and learn something is the central journey of all genre fiction, so why should SF be immune?

Captain Future might actually be the closest spoofs like Buzz Lightyear and Spaceman Spiff ever got to resembling a real science fiction hero of the past, and even he's nowhere near close.

A scientific wizard like Doc Savage, Captain Future is a surprisingly warm person, in contrast to the stoic, Vulcan-like Doc. He has a humanizing touch of real scientific curiosity, and at one point, boarded an unknown, scary and abandoned alien ship just to satisfy it. He also seems like a gifted diplomat, and it's rare to find an alien race that is genetically evil; most encounters with aliens are a misunderstanding solved via diplomacy. How very Star Trek: the Next Generation!

The aides (Futuremen) are two robots, Otho (a plastic robot able to shapechange) and Grag (a metal superstrong robot), who bicker back and forth about who is more human. Since they act like assholes, I'd say they're both pretty human. Grag is huge and strong but childlike and has a cute pet Lunar mouse; Otho, the plastic one, is disagreeable and they hint he's a little on the bloodthirsty side. Both of them aren't as redundant as Doc Savage's aides because, after all, even if you're Doc Savage like Captain Future is, a superstrong invulnerable robot is still handy to have around.

My favorite of the Futuremen is definitely the Brain. A brain inside a jar who helped raise Captain Future, his sole remaining emotions are loyal and protective love for the baby he brought up. How endearing is it that the Brain still calls Captain Future "boy?" You get the feeling the Brain has Captain Future as his last remaining link to other people, and if that link was severed he would be a cold, disturbing, possibly villainous figure.

Captain Future's local Lois Lane equivalent is Joan Randall, and her defining characteristic is, she's a big Captain Future fangirl. Captain Future, after all, is his era's biggest celebrity. Every word out of her mouth is Captain Future will save me, Captain Future will stop you, etc. She does dangerous things just to be near him. The love she has for him comes off as the obsessive infatuation of a groupie.

For once, I can understand why the hero wouldn't pursue a relationship, and unlike Doc Savage, it's not because he only has sex once every seven years. As ego stroking (and something else stroking) as groupies can be, would you marry a groupie? Relationships have to be based on respecting the other person (impossible if they admire and debase yourself before you), and obsession isn't the same thing as love.

All the same, Joan Randall is loyal and doesn't lose faith in Captain Future. She seems even tempered, without the whiplash-like changes in mood that make Dejah Thoris and Jane beautiful but psychotic bitches.

Things to Ponder: 

  • The Comet, (Captain Future's rocket) has the ability to disguise itself as a real comet, which sounds like the worst camouflage ever. I mean it, it's maybe the worst disguise in history. Once the "comet" slows down, speeds up, or CHANGES DIRECTION, the jig would be up. 
  • Captain Future's ring, with nine small gems around a single big one to represent the Solar System, has an atomic motor that keeps the 9 gems turning. Captain Future uses this tiny hidden atomic motor the same way Luke Skywalker uses the tiny battery hidden inside his robot hand: to get himself out of jams when he was captured and all his visible equipment taken away.
  • Truly creepy moment: in the Sargasso of Space, Captain Future runs into the "an early earth exploration ship." Its' name? Pioneer. It'd be interesting if someone attempted to assemble a history of Captain Future's Solar System from hints dropped here and there. I'd do it, if I had access to more of these.
  • Another creepy moment? At one point in the prison on Pluto's moon, Captain Future mentions the prison armory contains an "atomic bomb" that if blasted, would destroy everything. This was in 1940.