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.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at Galactic Patrol, the first adventure of Kimball Kinnison, Lensman and defender of the galaxy, one of the greatest and most influential heroes in the history of science fiction. If I had to describe this book with one word, it would be “exuberant”—if Doc Smith wasn’t enjoying the heck out of himself when he wrote it, I’ll eat my hat.
I somehow missed this book in my youth but am glad I finally got around to reading it. From the moment it was serialized in in Astounding in 1937 and 1938, the tale has been an influential part of science fiction history. It’s a rollicking adventure from beginning to end, full of action, twists and turns. That being said, it does have some flaws, and I’ll get to those, too…
Galactic Patrol is the first book specifically written to be part of the Lensman series, and as such, it is probably the best jumping-in point for new readers of the series. I’ve already reviewed two prequel books, the first being Triplanetary, a previously written story that was later modified to fit the series (you can find the review here). The second prequel is First Lensman, a book written to bridge the period between Triplanetary and Galactic Patrol, and to cover the founding of the Lensmen and the Galactic Patrol. In that review (which you can find here), I spent some time talking about the series, the order in which it was written, and recommended reading orders. Over the coming months, I will be reviewing the rest of the series, including Gray Lensman, Second Stage Lensmen, Children of the Lens, and finally The Vortex Blaster.
And I must again thank Julie from my local comic shop, Fantasy Zone Comics and Used Books, who found copies of the Lensman books for me, and made this series of reviews possible.
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, which unfortunately does not including a version of Galactic Patrol.
The Perfect Human
One of the implicit themes of the Lensman series is the perfection of the human race, and since the idea of what defines perfection raises some uncomfortable issues, I feel compelled to address them as they arise. The books are a product of their times, the early- to mid-20th Century, and reflect the prejudices of that era.
Galactic Patrol describes how the organization recruits a million 18-year-old young men as cadets every year. Of those, only fifty thousand enter their academy, and while many of those go on to careers in the patrol, only an elite 100 of those become Lensmen. These elite few are determined to be incorruptible, and granted the authority to act as judge, jury, and executioner in the course of their duties, without any checks and balances to restrain them. Lensmen also serve as the Galactic Council that rules the many allied planets and peoples of the galaxy. Now, I myself am the product of some pretty intense winnowing processes during my military career. And I have served with many others in a variety of professions who also went through intensive training and selection processes. Based on all my experience, I say with confidence there is no winnowing process in the world that can find a completely perfect or incorruptible person. While it might make for a more exciting fictional story, in the real world I would find the idea of a system built around “perfect” people to be a frightening prospect. It would take a near-magical device like a Lens to make this possible—but that also opens the risks of taking on faith the good intentions of the mysterious providers of those Lenses.
All the Lensmen are men, and all the ships, especially the warships, are staffed with men. While that sounds strange to most of us now, there are older people (like me) who remember going to sea as part of all-male crews, and a time when any other way of “manning” vessels was unthinkable (even the language we used reflected that gender bias). The only woman with a speaking role in Galactic Patrol is a nurse, Clarissa MacDougall, who treats Kinnison after some severe injuries, and then ends up on a captured hospital ship (to provide him with someone to rescue).
MacDougall’s presence brings up some other uncomfortable aspects of the story. During Kinnison’s treatment for his injuries, his boss, Port Admiral Haynes, is discussing his condition with his physician, Doctor Lacy. During their conversation, Lacy talks admiringly about the perfection of Kinnison’s skeleton. Then Haynes asks for medical files for the nurses who will be treating him, the doctor talks about the perfection of MacDougall’s skeleton, and you begin to realize that the two of them are playing matchmaker, bringing together good subjects for breeding (the concept of HIPAA medical privacy standards apparently does not exist in this society). This obsession with skeletal perfection reminds me of a book I found in the basement when I was young—a book owned by my grandfather, on the topic of phrenology. The now-debunked “science” of phrenology involved measuring features on people’s skulls to determine their personalities and tendencies. I started reading the book, brought it to my dad with a lot of questions, and received a valuable lesson on how scientific efforts can sometimes lead to dead ends and erroneous conclusions. Even today, people still unconsciously and erroneously connect physical appearance with personality and character traits. As a person born with squinty eyes, for example, I bristle at suggestions this is a sign of untrustworthiness.
The matchmaking senior officers, and their efforts to bring together Kinnison and MacDougall, also raise the controversial topic of eugenics, something I will address in future reviews of the series.
The book opens with a graduation ceremony where (first in his class) Kimball Kinnison, with a hundred elite companions, receives his Lens, a device uniquely programmed to his individual physiology, which gives him mental powers that no one, as yet, fully understands. (No one except, of course, for the mysterious inhabitants of the planet Arisia, who have been providing those Lenses.) Just before the graduation, the new Lensmen are invited to a party with the Commandant, where everyone is provided their favorite cigarettes. Seeing these elite graduates encouraged to engage in what we now see as a vice is an amusing anachronism.
The Galactic Patrol is locked in a fierce battle throughout the galaxy with tenacious pirates who represent a mysterious place called Boskone, and while those of us who have read the prequel books know that the evil Eddorians are behind Boskone, that is not essential to the story in this book, so Smith doesn’t mention it. In fact, given the rapid pace of the narrative, very little is explained unless or until it is needed. There is no foreshadowing here to soften the narrative, or background given in advance to make the readers feel they are one step ahead of things.
Soon after graduation, Lieutenant Kinnison is offered command of a capital ship (reminding me of complaints about the new Star Trek movies, where Kirk was seen as improbably young for such an assignment). The ship is Brittania, an experimental vessel with a unique weapons system that could allow her crew to capture and board an enemy vessel. Their mission will be to capture a vessel to discover the secrets behind enemy weapon systems, but the Admiral admits the destruction of Brittania by her own experimental weapons is as likely an outcome as success.
The description of Brittania and her weapons shows that what we now call “technobabble” is nothing new to science fiction. Smith often leavened his descriptions of fictional devices with references to contemporary scientific knowledge, which might have made it more plausible back in the day, but now makes the descriptions feel very dated. So, it may be best for the modern reader to just take the descriptions as given without too much analysis and get on with the action.
Brittania finds an enemy vessel and is successful in capturing her. Sergeant vanBuskirk, from the Dutch-colonized heavy gravity world of Valeria, distinguishes himself in the boarding parties. With Brittania damaged, however, the patrolmen make multiple copies of their data, board lifeboats, and scatter, hoping that at least one boat can make it back with the information that could turn the tide of the war effort.
Kinnison is paired in his lifeboat with vanBuskirk, whose strength and determination will come in handy during their adventures. They are beset by pirates, but are able to capture the pirate vessel, and overhear transmissions from the mysterious Helmuth, who speaks for Boskone, and is leading the search for Kinnison and his shipmates. They land on a nearby planet to hide and find a friendly telepathic dragon creature named Worsel from the planet Velantia. Smith obviously enjoys creating strange aliens, and Worsel is delightfully peculiar, and an engaging character in his own right. He and his people are oppressed by the evil telepathic inhabitants of the planet Delgon. Without taking too much of a detour from his quest to bring his vital information home, Kinnison is able to help the Velantians develop a shield against the Delgonians, freeing their people from tyranny. And the Velantians reward Kinnison and vanBuskirk for their assistance by building a new ship to speed them on their way home. They are also able to contact some of the other lifeboats from Britannia and reassemble their old crew. They can’t make it all the way home, so they head for the nearest Lensman base on the mysterious planet of Trenco, whose entire atmosphere liquefies and falls as rain every night; the planet is also the source of the dangerous illegal drug thionate. The Lensman on duty is Tregonsee, a Rigellian whose barrel-shaped body is festooned with tentacles. You can tell Smith enjoying himself again here, with not only a strange alien but also a strange environment to describe to his readers.
Smith then gives us a glimpse of Helmuth at his Grand Base on the edge of the galaxy and shows how the blue-skinned humanoid is becoming obsessed with finding the mysterious Lensman whose captured information might shift the balance of power. Helmuth also tries to visit the planet Arisia and learn more about the Lenses, but is rebuffed by the seemingly limitless power of its inhabitants.
After assistance from Tregonsee, Kinnison makes it home—the patrol retools their fleet and tactics accordingly, and they take the fight to the enemy with great success. Smith has amazing faith in technology, and describes the patrol fielding new vessels, as well as retooling weapons and propulsion systems, in what seem to be a few short weeks. Kinnison is promoted to unattached Lensman, the highest rank of their organization, accountable only to Port Admiral Haynes. The unattached Lensmen are commonly known as Gray Lensmen because of their distinctive uniforms. And, although you might think Kinnison has already had enough adventures to fill a career, he then heads out for more. He helps a decoy ship defeat pirates. He suffers his first setback fighting a mysterious race of “Wheelmen,” and ends up in the hospital, being nursed back to health by Nurse MacDougall. (The two are always bickering, which is Smith’s way of indicating they like each other.) Kinnison decides he needs more training on Arisia, something no one else has ever attempted, and is rewarded with the ability to use his Lens even more effectively. I’ll dispense with further details here to leave some surprises for those who’d like to seek out and read the book for themselves. Kinnison takes the fight to the enemy again and again in a narrative that is so fast-paced and compact, the words “the end” are even worked into the final sentence.
If you are looking primarily for realism, nuance, or subtlety, then this book is not for you. But if you like battles, action and adventure (not to mention lots of exclamation points!), you will find much to enjoy between its pages.
Galactic Patrol is a thoroughly exuberant story, and a fast-paced read from beginning to end. The clunky feel of the prequels, where the narrative is heavily laden with lumps of exposition, is gone, and the action never flags. Our intrepid Lensman is thrown from one adventure to another, going from academy graduate to commanding officer to Gray Lensman, the highest rank in his organization, in what feels like the space of a few months. At times, the narrative might strain the reader’s suspension of disbelief, but those willing to give the story a chance are rewarded by a lot of action-packed fun.
It’s time now to share your own thoughts on the book: What worked for you, and what didn’t? How does this book stack up against others in the Lensman series? And how would you rank it with other science fiction adventures?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.