Superscience and Evil Space Pirates: Triplanetary by E. E. “Doc” Smith

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

I grew up in an era when E. E. “Doc” Smith was considered a bit old-fashioned, an author whose heyday had occurred back when Analog was still called Astounding, at a time when science fiction was still in its lurid and overblown youth. But I was also aware that many of my favorite authors listed Smith as one of their influences, counting the Lensman series as some of their favorite books. So, back in the early 1970s, I decided to give the series a try, starting with Triplanetary, which I found in a bookstore with a nifty new cover by Jack Gaughan. I didn’t enjoy the book, and put it down partway through, in fact. But I recently ran into more of Smith’s work in some anthologies, and while it was very pulpy, I enjoyed its enthusiasm. I wondered if perhaps my tastes had changed, and decided to give Triplanetary another try.

At the start of this second approach, it was immediately apparent to me why I’d stopped reading Triplanetary the first time. The book opens with a series of vignettes, the first of these taking place “[t]wo thousand million or so years ago…” It reminded me of the massive books that mainstream author James Michener used to write, which often started out with a description of the geological forces that shaped the region where the stories took place, meandering through pages after pages of history before the main characters were introduced, and then followed whole generations of characters before the book was over. For a reader like me, who cut his teeth on science fiction short stories that got right to the point on the first page, this epoch-spanning approach was like nails on a chalkboard.

While researching this article, however, I found references to the fact that Triplanetary had been rewritten to fit into the Lensman series. I was able to find the original version on Project Gutenberg, and when compared it to the paperback version I had encountered in my teens, and immediately saw the problem: The material that Smith inserted to make Triplanetary fit the rest of the series was what bogged the narrative down. The first six chapters are all backstory for the Lensman saga (which, like quite a lot of backstory, could have remained in the author’s notebooks without any objection from readers like me). The original tale, a pulpy action story that never slows down, starts with the seventh chapter, which boasts the eye-catching title of “Pirates of Space.” So, I’ll divide today’s review accordingly; first covering the backstory, and then covering the good stuff.

 

About the Author

Edward Elmer Smith (1890-1965), who wrote under the pen name E. E. “Doc” Smith, is sometimes referred to as the “Father of Space Opera.” He studied chemical engineering in college, earning a PhD, and spending much of his career in the food preparation industry.

Smith started writing in 1915, began focusing on his fiction in earnest in 1919, with his first novel being The Skylark of Space. It took him a long time to get that novel published, and it finally appeared in three installments in Amazing Science Fiction in 1928.

Smith wrote Triplanetary for editor Harry Bates at Astounding magazine, but when financial problems at the magazine prevented its publication, he instead sold it to Amazing, where it appeared in 1934. Later, back at Astounding, new editor F. Orlin Tremaine, who had revived the magazine, was interested in launching a new series. He committed to buying four novels from Smith—the books that would become the core of the Lensman series, which followed the adventures of an interstellar police force. While some critics argued that Smith’s characters were unrealistically capable and competent, Robert Heinlein, a friend of Smith’s who referred to the author as his “main influence,” said that Smith and his wife were not unlike those admirable heroes. While Smith’s bombastic and colorful writing style went out of vogue as the science fiction field expanded and matured, he continued writing until his death. He was a beloved figure in the science fiction field and a frequent guest at science fiction conventions.

Smith’s two most popular series were the Skylark series and Lensman series. His work also inspired sequels by other authors, including a continuation of the Lensman series, and some of his short works (Subspace, Family D’Alembert, and Lord Tedric) were also later expanded into additional volumes. In 2004, Smith was voted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

As with many authors who were writing in the early 20th Century, a number of works by Smith can be found on Project Gutenberg, including the original version of Triplanetary.

[Note: I had always known that the name of my favorite convention, Boskone, which takes place every winter in Boston, Massachusetts, did not just come from mashing together the words “Boston” and “Convention,” but instead originated in Smith’s Lensman series. What I didn’t know was that Boskone refers to the evil galactic conspiracy behind the Eddorian efforts to control the universe…]

 

Triplanetary (Chapters 1-6; Lensman Backstory)

The book begins by describing how two races, the Arisians and Eddorians, previously alone in their separate galaxies, become aware of each other when those galaxies collide. The Arisians are peaceful and humane, with a benevolent, cerebral bent. The Eddorians, amorphous, asexual creatures, arose on a planet described as poisonous and foul, and while their powers are formidable, they are described as “intolerant, domineering, rapacious, insatiable, cold, callous and brutal.” (There are no shades of grey in this narrative.) There is telepathic contact between the two races, but the Arisians use mental powers to make the Eddorians forget their existence. They do not want to destroy them, but start preparations for an inevitable future conflict.

The Arisians begin to groom four client species to assist them in the coming struggle, one of these being the humans of Earth. But the Eddorians have again become aware of the Arisians, and take measures to thwart their efforts. They assign an operative, Gharlane, to disrupt these efforts and suppress the development of the human race. We encounter a longish vignette where two operatives attempt to stop a nuclear war between Atlantis and its rivals, but they fail, and civilization is destroyed. This is followed by a vignette describing how an assassination of Nero fails, and since Nero is an agent of the Eddorians, the Arisians experience another setback. Then we get a third vignette, set during World War I, in which a pilot named Kinnison is quite heroic. It does not seem to fit the larger narrative unless you know that one Kimball Kinnison, obviously a descendent of this pilot, is the hero of the Lensman series. The next vignette follows another Kinnison as he works as a chemical engineer, manufacturing munitions during World War II (a story reportedly inspired by Smith’s own experiences during the war). And the final vignette follows yet another Kinnison as he and his cohorts attempt to stop a nuclear attack on the United States. They fail, and another dark age begins. When civilization arises again, they rename the planet Tellus and form a civilization centered on three planets: Tellus, Mars, and Venus, the setting of the original version of Triplanetary. All of these historical setbacks were the result of the machinations of Gharlane, and Smith weaves the evil Eddorian into the narrative of Triplanetary by revealing that the evil space pirate that sets the plot into motion is really Gharlane in disguise.

This background section fills 90 pages out of a 240-page book, and it is easy to see why a young reader might get bogged down and surrender. Much of the material, as is often the case in prequels, does not work well for a reader who does not know the stories that come later in the fictional timeline. I would not recommend that someone interested in the Lensman saga start with this book, unless they are willing to slog through a fair amount of exposition and vignettes that won’t make much sense until later.

 

Triplanetary (Chapters 7 through the End; The Good Stuff)

While the early added-on chapters are stiff and sluggish, the narrative begins to fizz with exuberant energy once we finally get to the original story. We join Captain Bradley of the Interplanetary liner Hyperion, who is tense and edgy—ships have been disappearing in this region of space, and he doesn’t want to become another casualty. In the passenger compartments, his First Officer, Conway Costigan, is showing Clio Marsden, a pretty young passenger, how to use a telescope to look back at Earth. He suddenly smells Vee-Two gas, a banned substance that can bring death if not treated immediately. After gasping out a warning to the bridge, he is able to get himself and Clio to safety and revive her. They don spacesuits and make it to the bridge just as the ship is attacked by a pirate vessel. Fortunately, Costigan is an agent of the Triplanetary Special Service, an especially competent agent with some tricks up his sleeve. The Hyperion is destroyed, but the three survivors are taken prisoner and brought before a mysterious gray man who leads the pirates. The pirate leader goes by the rather mundane name of Roger (with all the hyperbolic energy in this story, this was the best Smith could muster?), and they are taken to his secret planetoid headquarters. Clio is turned over to Roger, who is actually the evil Eddorian Gharlane, to be tortured. The two men escape and rush to her aid. Fortunately, Arisians who have been monitoring the situation telepathically up to this point decide to intervene and incapacitate Gharlane, which allows the three captives to escape in a small spacecraft. This abrupt deus ex machina leaves the reader to wonder why the Arisians didn’t also intervene when Gharlane destroyed human civilization so many times in the past…

A Triplanetary League fleet, led by the heavy cruiser Chicago, is searching for the Hyperion when Special Service agent Lyman Cleveland is ordered to reveal his secret identity to the Captain and take control of the situation. They attack the pirates with a variety of ray beams and remote-controlled atomic dirigible torpedoes, using defensive screens to protect themselves. They are gaining the upper hand, when (with not only no warning for the characters in the book, but also no advance clue to readers from the author) a previously unknown ship full of aliens from the solar system Nevia, searching for a material precious to their society, suddenly enters the fray with disastrous results.

The Nevians are amphibians from a water-covered planet, from a system almost devoid of iron. (Never mind the fact that iron is the sixth most common element in our galaxy. Smith, while a chemist, is not letting science get in the way of his fiction.) And the Nevians have found a way to use the disintegration of iron to generate immense power. Nevian Captain Nerado has been given ten precious pounds of the element to power his ship, in the hopes that he can find additional sources in systems that appear to be richer in iron. The ship can generate force fields capable of drawing the iron out of any object, transforming it from a metal into a heavy, viscous red material. The Nevians find an object and draw the iron out of it, only to find that they have destroyed a spaceship. But they don’t think the builders of that ship are advanced beings like themselves, so when they find even more spaceships, containing unthinkable quantities of iron, they continue to gather everything they can. These ships being targeted by the Nevians constitute the fleet of the Triplanetary League, however, which is quickly destroyed. But Roger/Gharlane has no time to celebrate the destruction of his enemies, as the Nevians then turn their force fields on his planetoid. He uses his advanced technology to hold them off for a while, but eventually he must flee. The Nevians capture the space cruiser occupied by the fleeing Bradley, Costigan, and Clio, take them as prisoners for further study, and then head for home, their ship sluggish with the vast amounts of iron they have harvested.

The Nevians and the captives learn to communicate, and Smith gives us a glimpse into Nevian society. It turns out there are also other intelligent species in the deeper parts of the Nevian seas, species that are at war with the amphibians; the captives take advantage of the strife to escape, only to be recaptured again.

Back in the Solar System, the Chicago investigates the destruction of their fleet, and the humans launch the experimental ship Silver Sliver. They figure out what happened to their fleet, and develop systems that can protect them from a similar attack in the future (Lyman Cleveland is a clear inspiration for the science fiction engineers who can whip up a new system or weapon on the fly when needed). The body count begins to rise as the Nevians send another expedition to gather iron from Earth, and their human captives are willing to inflict hideous casualties to escape and return to Earth.

I’ll leave the summary there, so I don’t reveal too much of the ending. Although I doubt too much about that ending will surprise modern readers. It’s amazing how much happens in the scant 150 pages that make up this section of the book. The protagonists barely have time to catch their breaths as they zigzag from one adventure to the next. The evil Gharlane, or Roger, makes for a menacing villain. And while the protagonists are stock characters from central casting, they are very likeable, with Bradley gruff and thoughtful, Costigan competent and resourceful, and Clio brave and plucky. Even the Nevians turned out to be pretty decent sorts, once they and the humans take a break from their conflicts long enough to have a conversation.

 

Final Thoughts

I’m glad that I decided to give this book second chance. Once it got going, it turned out to be a rousing and exuberant adventure tale with lots of fun twists and turns. It has whetted my appetite for more, and I plan to give Smith’s Lensman series another look.

And now, what are your thoughts? Have you read Triplanetary, or other books in the Lensman series? If so, do you recommend that I continue my reading? Are you willing to overlook some dodgy science and hoary literary conventions in pursuit of a good story? And what other space operas have you read that would fit in the tradition of the Lensman books?

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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