Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Selection of the Month: "Lensmen" by E.E. "Doc" Smith

lensmen.jpg Book Selection of the Month (November 2009): Chronicles of the Lensmen, Vol. I by E.E. “Doc” Smith

Having recently abandoned comics and TV reception, the next step is to abandon sci-fi and fantasy novels (simply because life is short and there are other things in need of doing). I have arguably saved the goofiest for last in the sci-fi department with E.E. “Doc” Smith’s groundbreaking but relentlessly dopey 1930s/1940s space opera, the Lensmen series. (With fantasy, next month, I’ll exit on a classier note, looking at some very mature early twentieth-century novels, including one by one of Tolkien’s fellow Inklings.)

When I call Lensmen dopey, I don’t for one minute mean to sound like an ingrate — either to the author or to blogger X. Trapnel, who let me nab his copy (along with his Aristotle and his David Friedman) before he headed off to Germany for a semester or two. Lensmen was a highly influential sci-fi saga spanning numerous short stories collected as several epic novels, in which two warring races of cosmic beings use humans and other lesser races as their footsoldiers, leading a brain in a vat named Mentor to bestow telepathy-boosting wrist-worn “lenses” on a select few humans and others deemed worthy of these mighty weapons (after centuries of covert eugenic manipulation of numerous worlds). These warriors will in time form a Galactic Patrol, one so effective that it even displaces government, to the frustration of politicians on more than one world.

Incidentally, there are no female lens-wearers (well, one), because their tumultuous minds are not suitable to controlling the lens.

Silly as it all is, I must be grateful to Smith (in this week of gratitude), because his work was an acknowledged influence on the creators of the Jedi, the Green Lantern Corps (the comics characters bequeathed power rings by the Guardians of the Universe), possibly Star Trek (the offhand references to worlds such as Rigel Four seem likely to have been noticed by Gene Roddenberry), and the Legion of Super-Heroes (which has a member named Tellus, the future name of Earth in the Lensmen stories). Even something as far afield as Barbarella likely owes some of his intergalactic police-force backstory to Smith.

And I can’t help wondering whether Seth MacFarlane, before creating American Dad’s finest character, noticed that the grey alien mastermind in the Lensmen prequel, Triplanetary, is known simply and rather oddly as…Roger. (He pilots a vast artificial planetoid not unlike the Death Star and is secretly a disguised tentacled being from an alternate dimension, who ends up at war with a race of fish-men who desperately comb the stars seeking other races’ ships to melt down because they need iron.)

Lensmen is written with such trashy, outsider-art naivete that at times Smith even spells out sound effects, like: “W-H-A-M-!!” With a goofiness bordering on Hitchhiker’s-like parody, he happily depicts even the tentacled, extra-dimensional villains tossing off colloquialisms such as “On the one hand…” The text is replete with phrases almost lurid enough to appear on sideshow marquees, such as: “Fish with brains, waging war!” One chapter title, sounding like it might be an essay by Milton Friedman’s seasteading grandson Patri, is “Worm, Submarine, and Freedom.” One alien Lensman introduces himself with a proud “I, Rularion of North Polar Jupiter, say so.”

Amidst it all, passions flare, death is dispatched with manly callousness, and sleazy political operatives with names like Herkimer Herkimer III try to romantically seduce our heroine, though we know who she is destined to end up with — indeed, superhuman intelligences have assured us that the destiny of galaxies depends upon it. And superhuman intelligences like the mighty Arisians who created the Lensmen are no pikers when it comes to long-term planning: An oddly extended, self-parodic passage features Mentor proving his chessplayer-like ability to predict the future by telling the First Lensman in great detail about the haircut the Lensman will receive at a barbershop in Spokane, WA exactly five years hence. The confident brain in a vat even takes time to note that the shop’s resident cat, Thomas, is actually a female.

E.E. “Doc” Smith clearly knew he was doing something ridiculous, and he did it anyway. More power to him.


Joshua Herring said...

Since you left Babylon 5 off of your list of things influenced by Lensman, and since it wears its Doc Smith influence more proudly on its sleeve than any of the other things you mentioned, I guess it’s safe to conclude you don’t like Babylon 5?

Todd Seavey said...

Are there any blog readers who _don’t_ leap wildly to conclusions?

Pro-B5. Glad the Vorlons and Shadows understand each other just a bit better than the Arisians and Eddorians.

Todd Seavey said...

[...] OK, my Earthlink e-mail seems fine again — and tonight’s Debate at Lolita Bar about NASA just got a little better, too, as I have decided to create a little synergy between this month’s debate and this month’s Book Selection. [...]