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.
A few months ago, I reviewed Doc Smith’s Triplanetary, a book I had started but never finished in my youth. I quite enjoyed it the second time, through, and there was a positive response to that review (you can find it here). Many people also chimed in with their opinions of Smith’s famous Lensman series. So, we decided that over the coming months, reviews of the rest of the Lensman series will be interspersed between my other columns. This time around, we’ll look at First Lensman, a “prequel” book written after the main series which goes back to the founding of the Lensmen and their Galactic Patrol.
Before I start the discussion, I must thank Julie, who with her husband runs Fantasy Zone Comics and Used Books, my local source for geeky entertainment. Recent acquisitions had left her science fiction inventory somewhat disorganized, but because of her knowledge of the stock, she was able to find paperback versions of all of Smith’s Lensman books for me, many of which can be hard to locate. You may be able to find them at used bookstores, as they were widely available in the 1960s as paperbacks and re-released in a two-volume hardback omnibus by the Science Fiction Book Club.
There are several recommended reading orders for the Lensman books—however, for the purposes of this review series, I’m going to cover the series in an order aligned with internal chronology, as follows: Triplanetary, First Lensman, Galactic Patrol, Gray Lensman, Second Stage Lensmen, Children of the Lens, and finally The Vortex Blaster, which contains tales from the Lensman universe that don’t appear in the main series.
Some recommended reading orders suggest that new readers start with Galactic Patrol, the first book in the main sequence, and then go back and reading the prequels at the end (kind of like a newcomer to the Star Wars movies starting with episodes IV, V, and VI). Now that I’ve read Triplanetary and First Lensman, I can see the wisdom of that approach.
About the Author
Edward Elmer Smith (1890-1965), often referred to as the “Father of Space Opera,” wrote under the pen name E. E. “Doc” Smith. For more biographical information, I would refer you back to my review of Triplanetary.
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 First Lensman.
The Creation of the Lensman Series
While he apparently didn’t realize it at the time, Smith launched his epic Lensman series when he wrote the novel Triplanetary, which was published in installments in the magazine Amazing Stories in 1934. Just like J. R. R. Tolkien, who did not initially intend his stand-alone novel The Hobbit to start off the epic Lord of the Rings series, Smith did not as yet have a plan for the larger series. Smith’s first foray into the larger Lensman universe came with the publication (also in installments) of Galactic Patrol, which appeared in Astounding Stories in 1937 and 1938. This was followed by the publication in Astounding Science Fiction of Gray Lensman (appearing in 1939 and 1940) and Second Stage Lensmen (appearing in 1941 and 1942). At about the same time as Second Stage Lensmen appeared, Smith wrote some other stories set in the Lensman series that appeared in Comet Stories and Astounding. These stories were later collected in the book The Vortex Blaster. The next book, Children of the Lens, appeared in installments in Astounding Science Fiction in 1947 and 1948.
In 1948, the publishing house Fantasy Press issued a new edition of Triplanetary, starting with new chapters that presented past conflicts where the Eddorians and Arisians competed to influence the development of human civilization. The only book in the series that originally appeared in book format was First Lensman (published in 1950), which bridged the gap between Triplanetary and Galactic Patrol. The rest of the series was re-published in hardback book format between 1950 and 1960. In the 1960s into the 1970s, multiple paperback editions issued by Pyramid Books (many with impressionistic new covers by Jack Gaughan) introduced the books to a new generation of readers.
As with the opening chapters of Triplanetary, this book is packed full of background information on the Lensman universe and the titanic struggle between the kindly Arisians and the evil Eddorians that spans the entire history of the galaxy. But, unlike the vignettes that opened the last book, here there is a consistent cast of characters throughout, and quite a bit of action that keeps the narrative moving in a compelling direction. The book opens with the Eddorian Gharlane, who had previously used the body of the pirate Gray Roger as an avatar, using another human avatar to gain entry into the Hill, the Triplanetary Service’s military headquarters buried deep under one of the Rocky Mountains (and while this might remind modern readers of the USAF Cheyenne Mountain command center, the book predates the existence of that actual facility). Gharlane confronts Doctor Bergenholm, a human who also acts as an avatar, but for the Arisians. The two have a short conversation that recaps the events of Triplanetary, and after a short expository lump that recaps their long conflict, the Arisians abandon their previous policy of minimal intervention and kick Gharlane’s spirit right back to his home planet.
We are then re-introduced to Solarian Councilor Virgil Samms and Triplanetary Service Commissioner Roderick Kinnison, who led Triplanetary forces during the battle with Gray Roger, and during the first disastrous contact with the alien Nevians. We are also introduced to their children, Jack Kinnison and Virgilia (or Jill) Samms. The two younger characters have what looks like a love/hate relationship, and while they deeply care for each other, they bicker and insult each other constantly. I’ve seen this type of interplay before, so I went to the often helpful TV Tropes site and found the entry titled “Belligerent Sexual Tension.” The site illustrates the trope with a quote from the original Star Wars, where Han says about Leia, “Wonderful girl! Either I’m gonna kill her, or I’m beginning to like her!”
Samms has an idea that, now that mankind is spreading out to other solar systems and encountering other civilizations, the Triplanetary Service needs to grow into a Galactic Patrol, and discusses it with Rod Kinnison. This would be a space navy that also exercises law enforcement powers (similar to the U. S. Coast Guard). Doctor Bergenholm, the man responsible for the scientific breakthrough that revolutionized space travel, arrives already knowing what they are talking about and tells Samms that he must travel to the planet Arisia, a planet no one has ever been able to approach. The other men are baffled, not aware that Bergenholm is acting as an Arisian avatar, but decide to trust his message. So, they board their flagship, Chicago, and head out for the mysterious Arisia.
Samms has a long and surreal conversation with an Arisian who gives him a Lens of Arisia, which he will wear on his arm; the Lens will equip him with formidable psychic powers (although we later find that, when the plot requires it, those powers can be blocked by opponents). The Arisian also gives another Lens to be used by Rod Kinnison. When they return to Earth, they immediately start picking the next team who will become Lensmen, including not only the plucky Conway Costigan, who saved the day in Triplanetary, but also their children, Jack Kinnison and Virgilia Samms. This had me hoping that we might see a female Lensman, but alas…while the Arisians might have transcended physical form, they had apparently not yet transcended the sexism of the 1940s, and Jill is not given a Lens.
The newly minted Lensmen begin reaching out to aliens from other parts of the universe in order to expand their new Galactic Patrol beyond just human-occupied worlds. They contact the Nevians, Rigelians, and also the Palainians who have colonized Pluto. They soon realize that the powerful Senator Morgan—a powerful North American politician with ties to organized crime and the corrupt organization Interstellar Spaceways—could destroy their fledgling organization before it truly begins. There is a long digression where the protagonists visit Rigel, and you can tell that Smith is having a lot of fun speculating on what differences and similarities humans might discover upon encountering an alien race. Virgilia, while she is barred from being a Lensman, becomes an intelligence operative, collecting information on their newly emerging opponents. An assassination attempt carried out by Senator Morgan’s forces show that he is beginning to fear the burgeoning power of the Lensmen. And while we know the Lensmen are the good guys, I can see why not only corrupt people would be unsettled by their rise to power, as the new Galactic Council is made up entirely of Lensmen, which is kind of like putting the military Joint Chiefs of Staff fully in charge of the United States.
A mysterious fleet attacks the Earth, focusing their efforts on the Hill in another attempt to destroy the fledgling Galactic Patrol. The attack is described in lurid detail, full of nuclear detonations, and although the Hill survives, the reader is left wondering if the attack would have also rendered much of the continent uninhabitable. This is neither the first nor last time Smith describes horrendous battles without fully considering the potential or probable consequences. Eventually, the Lensman fleet beats back the mystery fleet. In the aftermath, the Galactic Patrol decides they must create a secret shipyard to increase their fleet, turning an entire world into an industrial powerhouse (the source funding for this endeavor, however, is left to the imagination of the reader).
Lensman Olmsted goes on a long undercover mission with Interstellar Spaceways, uncovering a complicated network that is running drugs throughout human space. And Lensman Samms reaches out to the Palainians, perhaps the most inscrutable race he has yet engaged with, and finds that only one of them—a Palainian who is considered to be insane—is even remotely suited to be a Lensman. The Lensmen also spend some time tracking down the source and meaning of some mysterious messages. There is an exciting space battle with space pirates, and the Lensmen begin to comprehend the shape and composition of their opponents. Samms decides that Morgan’s puppet president of North America must be opposed and convinces Rod Kinnison to run for the office. The election pits the Lensman-supporting Cosmocrats against Morgan’s Nationalists, competing to lead Earth’s most powerful nation. (Again, the idea of a senior naval leader running for civilian office without resigning his commission and leaving the military is to me an inconceivable breech of democratic norms, but Smith seems immune to considering the issues and consequences surrounding such an action.)
We see the rather brutal kidnapping of Virgilia, who is rescued by the Lensmen before any further harm can come to her, and Conway Costigan (a favorite character of mine whom I thought Smith had forgotten after equipping him with a Lens) resurfaces, going on an undercover mission that includes a thrilling mining disaster. Ties between Morgan and the evil Eddorians become even more clear, and we learn that Morgan’s organization has also been building a huge war fleet in secret. There is a huge space battle which requires all the newly constructed forces of the Galactic Patrol, and the North American election comes right down to the wire on the West Coast… I’ll leave it there, without spoiling the ending, although with good and evil mapped out in such stark terms, it is easy to imagine where Smith’s narrative is going.
First Lensman is certainly dated, but was a lot of fun to read. Smith has an exuberant style that draws the reader in, and the broad brushstrokes of his narrative are easy to follow. The sexism of the times sometimes puts your teeth on edge, but the female characters here do have more agency than in other tales written in the same era. The space battles get bigger and bigger as the book goes on, promising some epic conflicts in future installments. And Smith’s enthusiasm for speculating on advanced technologies and alien races is contagious.
So, there are my impressions, and now it’s time to share your own reflections and opinions with the rest of us. If you’ve read the book, what aspects did you like about First Lensman, and what parts didn’t you care for? And what are your thoughts on the series in general?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.