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