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 look at Gray Lensman, the next installment of the continuing adventures of Kimball Kinnison, star-traveling lawman extraordinaire. In the last installment, Galactic Patrol, immediately upon being commissioned as a Lensman, Kinnison rocketed up through the ranks, helped in the development of new weapons system, discovered powers that no other Lensman had yet unlocked, and single-handedly killed Helmuth, the leader of the evil Boskonian space pirates. There were secret missions and space battles galore. But if you think Doc Smith had written himself into a corner, you’ve got another think coming: Even bigger and more exciting adventures are ahead for our plucky adventurer.
The cover I’ve included above, an illustration created by Hubert Rogers for the October 1939 issue of Astounding and the first installment of Grey (sic) Lensman, is not only one of the most iconic illustrations created for the series but, in my opinion, is one of the most iconic illustrations of a science fiction story ever. Kimball Kinnison is described by Smith as a model of human perfection, and the picture delivers that: a man who is tall, handsome, and determined. It gives the gray leather outfit described in the text a silvery science-fictional finish, and you can see circular emanations from the Lens on his wrist. His trusty DeLameter blasters hang from each side of his belt. The only anachronisms are the jodhpurs and riding boots, which were commonly used in the day to suggest that a hero was a man of action, even when there was nary a horse to be seen. The round doorway, metal stair treads, and switches in the background evoke the future as envisioned in the Art Deco-influenced 1930s.
Gray Lensman is the fourth book of the Lensman series. I’ve already reviewed Triplanetary, First Lensman, and Galactic Patrol, which covered the founding of the Lensmen and Galactic Patrol and the aforementioned meteoric rise of young Kimball Kinnison to the highest ranks of that organization. And in coming months, I will be reviewing the rest of the books in the series: Second Stage Lensmen, Children of the Lens, and The Vortex Blasters. I’d missed reading these books in my youth, so this is my first visit to the exuberant adventures of the Lensmen.
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, making this review series possible. Your local independent book and comic stores have suffered mightily during recent months, and I urge you to go out and support them as they begin to reopen.
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. I included a complete biography in 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 include a version of Gray Lensman).
Scientific Speculation Run Amok
From the very beginning, the Lensman series had scientific speculation at its core, and while that focus on technology often goes off in improbable directions, it is based in the actual science of Doc Smith’s time. While I first went to sea in the 1970s, it was aboard a World War II-era Coast Guard cutter, and we had many items of original equipment, like the radiotelegraphs we used to communicate while at sea. So I am very familiar with the level of technology Doc Smith used as the baseline for his speculation. And I find it amusing when someone in the book pulls out a slide rule, or uses electrical or communications technology from my younger days, back before printed circuits, microchips and computers. (As an aside, if anyone could shed light on the use of the abbreviation or prosign “QX,” I would appreciate it. In the Lensman series, it is used as kind of a synonym for “OK.” While I remember a series of “Q” codes, they were three-digit codes, and I have not been able to find anything on the internet that would explain the origin of “QX.”)
In Triplanetary, the search for an identification badge that cannot be counterfeited foreshadows the use of the Lens for that purpose. The military forces utilize ray beams, “dirigible” torpedoes, and defensive screens. They use three-dimensional formations with lurid names like the Cylinder of Annihilation and the Cone of Battle. They encounter aliens, the Nevians, who can destroy anything made of iron, and who have developed a way to draw atomic power from that element. The military (on the fly) develops countermeasures, which are quickly installed on ships of their fleet as it goes to war against the aliens. And they finally perfect the inertialess faster-than-light space drive, first developed by scientists Lyman Cleveland and Frederick Rodebush, through the addition of a generator developed by Dr. Nels Bergenholm—or rather provided by the Arisians, who sometimes used Dr. Bergenholm as an avatar to give aid to the humans. In the remainder of the series, the credit goes to the latter scientist, as the inertialess generators are thereafter known as “Bergenholms.” These advances allow a human super-ship, Boise, to take the fight to the Nevians. Doc Smith describes these scientific and engineering efforts with just as much, if not more, enthusiasm as he uses for his battle scenes.
In First Lensman, we find the Triplanetary Service building their headquarters under the Rocky Mountains, predicting the creation of the USAF command center at Cheyenne Mountain. The humans are given “Lenses” by the mysterious Arisians that serve as foolproof identification for Lensmen, and also as devices that unlock mental powers of mind-reading, translation, long-range communication, and persuasion. Military spacecraft capabilities grow by leaps and bounds. The mountain above the headquarters is burned to slag during a luridly described space battle using duodec, a substance that can convert its mass directly into energy (basically, an atomic bomb). We find the evil Boskonians are working to undermine humanity by trading in the ultimate narcotic, a substance known as “thionite.”
In Galactic Patrol, the Boskonians have developed a new, faster space drive that sets the Patrol back on its heels. So they develop Britannia, an experimental ship with a new weapon system (tractor beams that hold the enemy close, and a “Q Gun” that fires duodec to disable their craft). Their aim is to defeat and capture an enemy ship in order to examine the drive system. And they discover the Boskonians have developed a new type of space drive that draws power from cosmic radiation, so they immediately begin to refit their entire fleet using this technology. Having had a little experience with shipyards, I find the speed at which the Patrol adopts technology both mind-boggling and exhilarating. But the Boskonians are also willing to invest in technological jumps, and each time the opponents meet, the battles are different, bigger, and more intense.
If a technology is described in a Lensman book, the reader should take note. Before long, it will be perfected, fielded, and in many cases, weaponized. As I have read each book of the series in turn, I found myself looking forward to those technological leaps. So as I opened the pages of Gray Lensman, I did so with great anticipation, and found myself richly rewarded.
Having broken the military might of Boskone in our “First Galaxy,” Kimball Kinnison returns home to Tellus (or as we call it, Earth) to participate in a celebratory formal dance. Dances with women ignorant of space give him a chance to offer them (and the readers) some exposition about the technology of space travel. But one of the major purposes of the dance is the opportunity for Kimball’s superiors (the Patrol’s Port Admiral and Chief Surgeon) to throw him together again with the lovely and capable red-haired nurse Clarissa MacDougall. His superiors’ (somewhat creepy) plan, blessed by the mysterious beings of Arisia, is to breed the two as part of a program to create the ultimate Lensman. And we get some romantic drama that would not be out of place in the lurid romance comic books stores used to carry beside the superhero books, with corny dialog from Clarissa like, “A…Gray…Lensman. He can’t love anybody as long as he’s carrying that load. They can’t let themselves be human…quite…perhaps loving him will be enough…”
Then the Patrol sends Kinnison aboard a new ship, Dauntless, to explore the nearby “Second Galaxy,” still dominated by Boskone. They have theorized that the density of matter will thin between galaxies, allowing even faster travel, and that proves correct. Of course, a page or so later, they also find that energy is being converted into matter between galaxies, a cornerstone of the steady-state model of the universe in vogue at the time (but generally abandoned by the 1960s). How the thinning of matter that allows rapid travel squares with that creation of matter is never reconciled.
Dauntless and her crew find a friendly planet under attack and come to its aid. They discover the inhabitants have developed an incredibly powerful advanced version of the inertialess drive that can move their entire planet, and accompany it back to the First Galaxy (the reader should remember that planet-moving trick). And yet again, with this new technology, the Patrol is soon refitting its warships (I pity their poor overworked yardbirds). While Boskone is on the retreat, they’ve redoubled their efforts to disrupt society through their drug operations, so Kinnison uses a couple of aliases to go undercover to track the “zwilniks,” or drug runners. These interludes are a bit clichéd, but one of the personas, “Wild Bill Williams, Meteor Miner,” is entertaining, and Smith describes asteroid mining operations as being something akin to the California Gold Rush of the 19th century. Kinnison finds his burgeoning mental abilities allow him to imbibe drugs and alcohol as part of his “Wild Bill” cover without suffering addiction or other ill effects.
At the same time, the Patrol is making advances in helping people regrow limbs and organs that have been damaged (another technology that will become important later). Kinnison also requests construction of a non-ferrous and non-reflective stealthy spaceship that can be used to infiltrate behind enemy lines. Also, following a hunch, he has the Patrol gather a group of the greatest geniuses from across the galaxy. They develop something they call a “negasphere,” which sounds a bit like a cross between a black hole (something not even guessed at in Smith’s era) and anti-matter. And like antimatter, it will annihilate anything it encounters.
Kinnison and his dragon-like fellow Lensman, Worsel, use that new stealthy spaceship to infiltrate a zwilnik headquarters, but Kinnison is cruelly tortured and left an invalid. Fortunately, that new medical technology has come along at just the right time…and so has Kinnison’s girlfriend, nurse Clarissa MacDougall, who by unhappy coincidence is called upon to help him at his worst, and aid him in healing his shattered body (refreshingly for the era, it is the woman gets to rescue the man). This time, while they still shy away from commitment, they at least profess their love to one another.
Kinnison heals in time for one more assignment, another “final” battle with the forces of Boskone. He is assigned to Directrix, a battleship built around a gigantic operations center so complex that only the intellect of the most powerful of Lensmen can comprehend it (a development that sounds a lot like the naval combat information centers perfected during the Second World War). The time has again come for new battle formations and new superweapons, as each side throws everything they have against the other. If Kinnison is to survive to rejoin his beloved Clarissa, the Patrol will have to triumph in the most colossal battle of the series so far.
I won’t tell you how it ends, but somehow, no matter how massive the battle is, I have a feeling Doc Smith will again find a way to top himself in the next installment.
Gray Lensman is yet another exciting installment in the series, full of the over-the-top action, outrageously exaggerated scientific developments, and rapid pace that keeps the reader turning pages. Plus, I was able to finish the book in my sunny backyard, a perfect venue for a good adventure book. I look forward to reading the sequels as the summer progresses.
And now, it’s time for me to finish my comments and for you to start yours. What are your favorite aspects of the Lensman series? Is it the action or the super-science that brings you back for more? And what other science fiction works do you see as being inspired by the Lensman stories?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.