A Little Something Extra: Masters of the Vortex 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.

Down in New Orleans, they have a term, “lagniappe,” which Google defines as “something given as a bonus or extra gift.” And that is a perfect description of the novel Masters of the Vortex. It is a book full of new characters and new “scientific” principles, set in the universe of the Lensmen, but not connected to the continuity of the main series of novels. And as it marks the final book in my reviews of the Lensman series, it also gives me a chance to look back at the series as a whole.

The cover of the copy I reviewed (shown above) is another of the paintings by Jack Gaughan that illustrated the reissues from Pyramid Books back in the late 1960s. They were done in the colorful and impressionistic style of the time, and while some appeal to me, others do not. This one, I thought, worked well. Since atomic vortexes do not exist, a realistic approach would not be possible, but this splashy illustration captures the vivid energy described by the author. Masters of the Vortex was titled The Vortex Blaster when it was originally published in book form, and is a collection of three short stories, “The Vortex Blaster” (published in Comet Stories in 1941), “Storm Cloud on Deka,” and “The Vortex Blaster Makes War” (both published in Astonishing Stories in 1942).

While it is not explicitly set within the chronology of the other Lensman books, Masters of the Vortex appears to take place chronologically between the events of Second Stage Lensmen and Children of the Lens. I’ve already reviewed prequel books Triplanetary and First Lensman, which covered the founding of the Lensmen and Galactic Patrol, the three previous adventures of Kimball Kinnison, Galactic Patrol, Gray Lensman, Second Stage Lensmen, and Children of the Lens, which covers the final battle with Boskone and the Eddorians, where the children of Kimball Kinnison and Clarissa MacDougall take center stage.

And one last time, I thank Julie at Fantasy Zone Comics and Used Books for finding copies of the Lensman books and making this review series 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. I included a complete biography in my review of Triplanetary. Like many writers from the early 20th century whose copyrights have expired, you can find quite a bit of work by Doc Smith on Project Gutenberg here, and you can find the text of the short story “The Vortex Blaster” here.

 

The Lensman Series

This review series began last summer when I read Triplanetary, a book I had set aside in frustration during my younger years. Over the years, I have heard so much about Doc Smith, and how the Lensman series was such a big part of science fiction history, that I felt I should give it another try. I discovered that the first few ponderous chapters of the book version had been added on to tie the story into the Lensman universe, and once I got beyond those initial historical vignettes, I found the story to be an enjoyable although dated space adventure story. I could see the attraction of Doc Smith’s kinetic style of adventure fiction, where one action set piece gives way to the next, and each exciting “scientific” revelation outdoes the last.

First Lensman is a solid adventure story, as well, while also being laden with backstory about the grand struggle between Arisia and Eddore. But it features lots of political machinations and space battles that keep the plot moving.

The heart of the series is the trilogy centering on Kimball Kinnison. The story barrels right along, and many aspects of the grand, overarching struggle are initially hidden, and only gradually revealed (a nice element that the backstory of the prequels undermined). There are gigantic space battles, fierce ship-to-ship action, undercover operations, mysteries, and a constant struggle to develop new technologies to keep ahead of the enemy. Kinnison is unfortunately a bit too perfect a character to be believable, and sometimes comes across as somewhat wooden, although his enthusiasm and optimism keep him from being too boring.

The three alien Second Stage Lensmen, on the other hand, are great characters, who almost steal the show from Kinnison at times: Worsel, the unstoppable dragon-like Velantian; Tregonsee, the amazingly perceptive Rigellian; and Nadreck, the coldly emotionless Palainian. And, unusual for her time, Kinnison’s romantic interest Clarissa MacDougall has agency in the stories and becomes a Lensman herself—the acclaimed Red Lensman.

I had some problems with the overall narrative. It becomes increasingly obvious that the humans are pawns of the Arisians, and the breeding program they’ve been conducting in secret was morally ambiguous at best. Plus, while always working for justice, the Lensmen prove to be surprisingly bloodthirsty at times. And when whole planets are being slung at each other, and even solar systems being destroyed, concepts established in the law of war—like proportionality and minimizing collateral damage—are simply tossed out the window. If the Eddorians had not been so drippingly soaked in pure evil, one might wonder if perhaps the Arisians were intended to be seen as the manipulative bad guys.

The final book, Children of the Lens, definitely had to bring the series to a close. The stakes (and casualty lists) were so high, the mental powers so overwhelming, and the weapons so destructive, that there was very little room for the series to go from that point (kind of like the Star Wars movies, which went from a planet-killing Death Star, to a bigger Death Star, to a multi-planet-killing Death Star built into a planet, and eventually to a whole fleet of enemy ships armed with planet-killing weapons). There were some fun moments as we witness the super-powered Kinnison children interacting with their parents and the alien Lensmen, but the main narrative had become a bit ponderous and overblown, and needed to be wrapped up in a satisfying way.

That said, I can now see why the series was so influential. With its grand scope, it basically created and defined the subgenre of the space opera, where the science can be reverse engineered to serve the story, and where action and adventure are the main drivers of the plot. If there is one word that describes the Lensman series for me, it is “exuberant.” Smith was clearly having fun when he wrote it, and it shows. It remains fun for his readers as well (as long as you put the logical portion of your brain on hold for a while).

 

Masters of the Vortex

Since this book is a fix-up, stitched together from shorter stories, it has a very episodic feel to it. We meet “nucleonicist” Neal Cloud at his desk at work. He is reflecting on the fact that lightning rods he installed in his house have attracted a self-sustaining atomic vortex, resulting in the death of his wife and children. That’s right—before the book has even begun, Smith has “fridged” the hero’s entire family, setting him on a path of revenge. He seeks revenge not against a person, but against what appears to be a force of nature (a force of nature we thankfully do not experience in our universe). These vortices are not common, but they are a growing problem; their origin is mystery, and no one has been able to discover a way to dissipate them. Neal Cloud, however, is a mathematical genius who can perform complex calculations in his head at incredible speeds. This should allow him to use explosives in just the right amount, at exactly the right time, to destroy a vortex. And sure enough, in Chapter Two, he does exactly that.

This feat earns Neal the nickname “Storm” Cloud, and makes him one of the most valuable people in the galaxies. He begins to travel to other worlds to help with their vortex problems. At this point, Cloud kind of reminds me of a science fiction version of the famous oil well firefighter Red Adair. Meanwhile, on the planet Deka, a man called Doctor Fairchild has found a way to grow narcotic plants that have previously only grown on the planet Trenco. He’s also figured out how to steer an atomic vortex to cover his tracks by killing people to keep his secret…

On his way to Deka to deal with their atomic vortex problem, Cloud has one of his arms destroyed during a pirate attack (fortunately, as shown in the adventures of Kimball Kinnison, the technology of regrowing limbs has been perfected). Cloud begins to put two and two together and realize that he is not simply battling nature, here. Atomic vortexes might sound preposterous to us, given what we have learned about nuclear energy since the 1940s, but Smith shows his knowledge of statistical analysis to good effect in this part of the book, and that part of the narrative still rings true. For someone who was previously a suburban dad/desk jockey at a laboratory, Cloud demonstrates a knack for action, and soon defeats the drug runners and destroys the vortex (although the evil Doctor Fairchild eludes his grasp).

On his way to another job, in a personal spacecraft apparently provided by the government, Cloud discovers a lifeboat being captured by a previously undiscovered race of bloodthirsty aliens. Again, Cloud shows a real flair for heavy combat, complete with space armor and hatchet, and rescues the lifeboat’s occupants. They prove to be a colorful bunch, and volunteer to help Cloud in his further efforts. Others help Cloud realize that he has a knack for telepathy, an ability he begins to hone. One of them, a Tomingan he nicknames “Tommie,” brings him to her home planet, where they use their abilities to uncover a criminal organization. Realizing that the government is horribly compromised, the crew takes the law into their own hands to deal with the problem. As with many other books in the Lensman universe, if you weren’t explicitly told that these characters were the good guys, you might not guess it from their methods…

Cloud then travels back to Tellus, where the Galactic Patrol has been working on duplicating his abilities. They introduce him to Doctor Joan Janowick, who is working on advanced (analog!) computers that might someday be able to duplicate his calculating abilities. She is a kindred spirit to Cloud, and good-looking to boot, causing him to experience emotions he hasn’t felt since his family died. She is also a telepath, and the two of them begin efforts that not only enhance their telepathic abilities, but lead to a growing intimacy between them. Cloud now has a larger vessel provided by the Galactic Patrol, the Vortex Blaster II, and Joan joins his burgeoning crew.

The team travels to Chickladoria, a warm planet that allows Smith to describe the female characters’ scanty attire enthusiastically (and also to point out that Cloud himself looks pretty fit without clothes). To aid the Lensmen in tracking down a zwilnik, and hopefully get leads to the location of Doctor Fairchild, Cloud and company go to a casino and use their telepathy and calculating ability to ruin it, thus goading the managers into sending a message to their higher-ups that they can then trace. One of the most interesting members of Cloud’s new crew is a Vegian named Vesta, a cat-woman who loves to gamble, and who has a great time helping to bring the house down.

The Vortex Blaster II then travels to Vega to deal with some vortexes there. Joan finally gets her computers to work, offering a new method of ridding the worlds of vortexes. Cloud is increasingly convinced that they are not natural phenomena, but instead have been deliberately created and unleashed. On Vega, the crew attend a reception hosted by the appreciative and very exuberant Vegians, only to learn that Vesta’s brother has been murdered by Fairchild and his associates. The cat-people’s keen sense of smell proves to be the key to Fairchild’s undoing.

The final mystery of the book is the cause of the vortices. Here, Cloud’s growing telepathic powers, which I thought were a digression, turn out to be the key to solving this ultimate riddle. I didn’t see where the story was going in advance, and it wrapped up nicely with a clever twist.

 

Final Thoughts

Masters of the Vortex is a pleasant addition to the Lensman series. It has some hideously outmoded science, although this balanced by some realistic speculation about the power of statistical analysis. Cloud’s ability to do pretty much everything perfectly, not only only in terms of mental acuity but physical prowess, kept gnawing at my suspension of disbelief, but if you’ve enjoyed the other Lensman books, you will like this book as well. The story moves swiftly from one action scene to the next, and the adventures are entertaining, and often light-hearted.

So there we have it! I’ve given you my thoughts on this book and the Lensman series as a whole, and it’s time to offer you one last chance to discuss the series: What did you think of Masters of the Vortex, and the other books in the Lensman series? What were the high points (and the low points)? And what other books and stories would you recommend to those who enjoyed the tales of the Lensmen?

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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