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.


David Morefield said...

Okay, I haven't read this one, either, but I did just finish a free Kindle version of "Skylark of Space," and while it may be bad form to hi-jack your "comment section, I've got to vent somewhere.

"Skylark" is a mess, frankly, full of loose ends, ridiculously padded for the first half and rushed for the second. The "evil" Perkins is described as a criminal lowlife, but before he can do much of anything he's casually killed off in a throwaway moment. DuQuesne is described as an emotionless monster, but aside from not paying lip service to "fair play" he's no better or worse than anyone else (and reading between the lines, may be Smith's real "hero"). Cast as a "villain" and mysteriously out of sight from the rest of the cast most of the time, surely he's coming up with some evil plot that will unfold later, right? Nope.

The gang ends up on planet Osnome, where they're all stronger than any of the locals, and have the most powerful weapons around, by far. So where do we get any suspense or excitement with that kind of advantage going in? Apparently that's not a goal. To the extent that there are "thrills," they're the kind a kid would get by upsetting an anthill and then stomping the creatures to death by the hundreds.

On Osnome, Seaton takes sides in an eons-old war on nothing more than his "gut feeling" about one of the participants. After personally slaughtering hundreds of alien soldiers, he watches approvingly as his new pal Dunark lays waste to a city with the Skylark's guns. I say, good show, old man! Reality intrudes for the briefest instant as sidekick Crane asks, "Wait, how can we be sure this guy is any better than the first one?" and Seaton answers, "We shared a mind scan, remember? Trust me, he's our kind of people." You know, a genocidal sociopath.

Dunark's people are better, you see, because they value honor and integrity, while rival Mardonale's people revere only ruthless savagery. So the solution, naturally, is to exterminate the "savage" race. Because that's what people of honor and integrity do. But alas, that would require salt, which is very rare on Osnome; even a few ounces could tip the balance of power. "Oh, is that all?" asks Seaton. "Here, take 50 pounds." I can't help but wonder if Gene Roddenberry invented the Prime Directive as a direct response to this book.

Frankly, given your disdain for Ayn Rand and your generally progressive leanings, I'm surprised you go for Smith at all, given that his work (at least in "Skylark") reads as a sort of Nazi porn. The "good" race of Osnome proudly practices eugenics ("we let the sick ones die"..."we kill all our criminals"..."anyone trying to get married for a reason other than love is put to death"), considers itself the "most evolved" race on its world and views ethnic cleansing as the "ultimate solution." Gosh, that all sounds awfully familiar, somehow.

Seaton and Crane woo their girlfriends (with their "perfect bodies" and virtuous minds) spouting romantic hyperbole that would gag even the writers at Hallmark Cards and finally marry them in an otherworldly ceremony that naturally must be considered valid on Earth. After all the Kondalian monarch gives them a certificate and everything. "Probably some lawyer could find fault with some of the phraseology" says Seaton, "but I reckon this would hold up in any court in the land!" I'm no legal expert, but I'm guessing one of those "petty" legal hangups might involve the document's having been drawn up by "the absolute ruler of the nation of Kondal on the planet Osnome."

Frankly, the whole thing reads like fan fiction from a 13-year-old. And even that might be fun, if not for the sneaking suspicion that said 13-year-old belongs to the Hitler Youth.

David Morefield said...

By the way, elsewhere on this site you mention that "Skylark" debuted with Buck Rogers in the same issue of Amazing Stories, and that Buck stole the cover spot.

I know the art on that cover is always cited as the first image of Buck Rogers, but it's always bothered me that it in no way reflects anything that happens in "Armageddon 2149 AD." Now that I have (alas) read "Skylark," I'm convinced it is Smith's story featured on the cover and not Nowlan's.

There is a scene in "Skylark" where Seaton demonstrates the properties of his copper thingamabob by flying around the airfield on Crane's estate. He holds the rod in his hands and at one point it "amusingly" gets away from him. Watching this exercise with alternating glee and distress is his fiancee Dorothy. This is almost certainly what the scene depicted on the cover of the Amazing Stories cover, right down to the airplane hangar in the background and the girl in late-20s attire waving to her beloved.

I can't be the first one who's noticed this?

Julian Perez said...

I haven't read Skylark in years, but it had a fanfic quality: the main characters were married couples based on Smith and his neighbor exploring the galaxy.

This premise, a homemade rocket explores the galaxy, was clearly the inspiration for Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo, which is way, way better. Heinlein admired Smith, though Heinlein was funnier and better in nearly every way.

It was clearly a transitional work somewhere between Edgar Rice Burroughs' planet romances and what would come around in the 30s and 40s as Brian Aldiss's "good old stuff." I don't agree with people that list it as the first space opera.

The one detail I remember is how table salt turns the tide in a superwar. I find it absolutely insane that salt is so rare on an earthlike planet with an ocean. In brief: light crustal elements with low radii to the ionic nuclei congregate on the surface of a planet. Water as universal solvent means common sodium and chlorine, break down and form salt by ionic bonds. In plain English, there's no scenario where an earthlike planet with water wouldn't have salt.

This sounds like a crazy specific geological nitpick applied to the wrong kind of work, but...Smith has a PhD in chemistry (even if he did specialize in donut mixes). You judge him by a different standard.

It's amazing how little I remember about Skylark.

I remember finding the character of Blackie DuQuesne fascinating. Edgar Rice Burroughs had villains who were evil and their only winning attribute is, they were cunning and sneaky and beat the noble hero by trickery. Blackie was something else; he was like a Nietzschean Superman, a science genius with a cold intellect, smart and self-interested, but you could "deal" with him because of his own weird code. Very few villains had that nuance, and I always heard Blackie became a good guy later.

As for the casual collateral damage in Skylark bordering on Lensman, at first it's horrifying and abhorrent but then it becomes hilarious. I think Lensman in particular is great material for a satire, something on the level of Verhoeven's Starship Troopers.

As for the politics...yeah. Smith was, at his worst, like Heinlein without the charm and personality. The body count in Lensman is darkly funny, but the only point in that work that comes off as polemic was in First Lensman, which had a subplot about political corruption and left wing New Deal populism (e.g., Huey Long).

That reminds me. Remember in my Lensman review when I went on about the "evil union" plot of Spacehounds of IPC? I just read Spacehounds of IPC and not only does it not contain any of the things I thought it had no evil union as the main villains, no "cradle to the grave" line, no use of psychic powers to mine via dowsing. In other words, I must have hallucinated the entire plot of a novel! This is downright weird.

As for the Buck Rogers image, I assumed it was from Skylark. Do people really say that? I find that darkly funny, because it means nobody reads Smith that much anymore.

Every time you start to lose faith in the future of science fiction...remember that somewhere, right now, some teenager is reading Heinlein's "Puppet Masters" for the first time.

Teleros said...

The "Spacehounds of IPC" plot you hallucinated was from "Subspace Explorers" I think. In that, the Earth is basically divided between the evil commie East and the evil cradle-to-grave socialist West (all the "give me liberty or give me death" types having colonised other planets).

As for the Skylark books... yeah probably best to read them as those books that inspired everyone else. Battle stations the size of moons anyone? The writing definitely improved in the Lensman books, although I agree that Marc C DuQuesne was, alongside Nadreck of Palain VII, Doc Smith's best written character.

Sea Wasp (Ryk E. Spoor) said...

A very nice review of one of Doc's less-read works, though in my view one of his better ones (I think Lensman was his best series, but Skylark DuQuesne was his best single book).

One can give him some latitude on the computers bit, since people like Asimov, two decades later, couldn't imagine miniature computers either; Doc wrote the first Skylark in 1918 though it was published 10 years later, and started the Lensman series only a few years after that. If Asimov was still using "Multivac" in 1955, I think Doc not having supercomputers in 1930-ish is just fine.

The GURPS Lensman RPG supplement addressed that issue directly -- with Mentor deliberately ensuring that no modern computational capabilities would be developed by anyone, in order to further the development of the human (and other alien) minds.