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.
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.)
Your Grandparents' Star Wars
Lensman is like Gil Evans's jazz: it's your grandparents' favorite thing that you've never heard of.
The first science fiction wargame ever designed was Lensman-themed.
Lensman parodies, like Backstage Lensman, were widely circulated.
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:
(Chorus):Give me that real old time religionGive me that real old time religionGive me that real old time religionIt's good enough for me!
How the hell can Klono manageNot 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 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.
"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 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.
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.
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
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!
If you're interested, this fascinatingly exhaustive thread explains how science and technology works in the Lensman books.
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 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.
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.
For the Love of God, DO NOT Read Triplanetary First!
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.
"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, and...it'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.
@JulianLives Universal felt the Lensman name wasn't enough to merit the 100M it would cost to make it, so it ended up in limbo.
— JMichael Straczynski (@straczynski) August 20, 2013