Monday, September 6, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: Galactic Patrol

Given my recent musings about science fiction, I thought it worthwhile to speak briefly about one of the most famous and influential science fiction series of all time, the "Lensmen" series by Edward Elmer "Doc" Smith. Though Galactic Patrol, which was serialized in Astounding Stories in 1937 and 1938 and collected together in 1950, was not the first "Lensmen" story, either in terms of publication or internal chronology, it's perhaps the most famous of the series. Galactic Patrol introduces the character of Kimball Kinnison, who goes on to be the main character in most of Smith's other "Lensmen" tales. It's also where the most influential aspects of Smith's science fiction universe appear in their most straightforward forms.

Galactic Patrol posits the existence of an interstellar law enforcement organization of the same name. The Patrol is tasked with protecting civilization against threats from within and without. The most impressive of the Patrol's operatives were the Lensmen, so-called because they make use of a psychic device known as a Lens. Lenses enable the Lensmen to communicate telepathically, thus increasing their effectiveness as agents of civilization throughout the galaxy. A Lens will operate only for the specific Lensman to whom it is bonded and, because they are psychically active, no Lens ever bonds with someone who does not exhibit the highest qualities the Patrol promotes. Consequently, Lensmen are paragons of the human race and live only to preserve galactic civilization, regardless of the cost to themselves.

Kimball Kinison, the protagonist of Galactic Patrol, is a newly minted Lensman, fresh from the Academy, where he graduated at the top of his class. A new menace to civilization, the pirates of Boskone, have appeared and they possess remarkable technology that makes their ships faster than anything the Patrol can muster. The Patrol determines that the Boskonians must be stopped, but, to do that, someone must capture one of their ships and bring it back for study. This dangerous mission is entrusted to Kinnison, who, while inexperienced, nevertheless possesses raw talents more impressive than any other Lensman. Kinnison succeeds and finds himself quickly promoted, a promotion that frees him from any sort of oversight from the Patrol, enabling him to wander about the galaxy as he sees fit. He then uses his new-found independence to seek out the pirates of Boskone to deal them an even more serious blow. Unfortunately, though the Lens will not bond with anyone who is venal or vicious, there is nothing to prevent it from bonding with someone who is foolhardy and Kinnison, acting on his own, finds himself in a situation beyond even his remarkable powers. Galactic Patrol tells that story and the consequences of Kinnison's actions for both himself and the larger galaxy.

Reading this story, you can see the seeds of much later science fiction. The Lensmen are quite clearly the inspiration of groups like the Jedi from the Star Wars films, as well as the Green Lantern Corps. Likewise, Smith's larger-than-life setting, where entire worlds are almost casually destroyed, and vast fleets of millions of starships square off against one another, pretty much define what would later become known as "space opera." Furthermore, the origins of the Lenses, created by an advanced but benevolent alien race hoping to guide humanity's evolution so that they could eventually take their place as protectors of civilization, is now a commonplace in many works of SF, but it began with Smith and his "Lensmen" series.

Indeed, if there's one "problem" with reading a book like Galactic Patrol nowadays it's that, as the wellspring of so much that came after, it appears trite and unoriginal when, in point of historical fact, everything else that followed it is what's trite and unoriginal. The "Lensmen" series is big and bold and, while I'd never argue that it's scientific speculations hold much water (though, to be fair, many of its ideas were based on the science of its day), it's nevertheless a fun read. There can be no doubt why it exerted such a profound influence on the imaginations of later authors in the genre. E.E. "Doc" Smith more or less invented space opera and anyone with an interest in that sub-genre of science fiction would do well to read his works, if only to journey back to where it all began.

16 comments:

  1. In 1997 I wrote a short history of space opera, intended for InQuest magazine but never published: "Exploding Worlds!"

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  2. You're like some evil english professor, assigning a reading list to your harried students that is as long as your arm. My local 2nd hand book shop has a complete collection of EE Smith, but I still havn't finished Leiber, CA Smith and Howard.

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  3. Awesome series. Great review.

    It's funny, I never saw Jedi in the book till you just mentioned it. I was always comparing Kinnison to Kirk and the Patrol to Star Fleet.

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  4. I loved how technology progressed in the series, and did so in a logical fashion. Definitely in keeping with Smith's history as an engineer. I remember hearing an urban legend that Smith's description of how they handled command and control for their vast fleets was an inspiration to the US Navy in WWII.

    I also find it interesting that many of the ship-to-ship weapons in his books have never been used in later space operas. Probably because they would be hard to reproduce on screen. It's simpler to have laser cannons and missiles, which everyone understands instinctively. But Smith's space battles had far more diverse weapons for boring through shields, shearing through tractor beams, and pinpoint lancing of important internal systems.

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  5. I'll have to try and reread this sometime. I got lost as a kid trying to figure out what the hell an inertia axe was.

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  6. E E Smith's Lensman books were one of the inspirations behind the early editions of Starfire. Certainly the weapons deployed by ships in that game were very similar: Primary beams that pierced shields, but had to wait a turn between firing; Tractor and Pressor zones for ensnaring other vessels and creating interlocked formations of ships; Shears for cutting Tractors, but totally useless against Pressors; Life Support Holds to keep a ship going ...

    Now I have to go and dig out my old Starfire II campaign notes from over 20 years ago.

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  7. Too bad about that whole "no evil lensmen" rule. Even Star Wars knew that you needed guys like Darth Vader around for dramatic purposes, otherwise your magic ubermensch good guys have no equals and the suspense goes right out the window.

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  8. Oh, and I know the series did later add "Black Lensmen", but they were a little underwhelming, IMHO. :)

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  9. One thing that James' recap of Galactic Patrol brought to mind for me was a certain old arcade game that I played growing up.

    Interestingly, even the game's Wikipedia article doesn't mention the Smith connection.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bosconian

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  10. I keep meaning to read these, but I keep avoiding them. They are so highly regarded that I'm afraid that I'll get the 'didn't live up to expectations' folly. Right now I'm about to restart Clifford D Simak, so these might be next on the list.

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  11. I was a bigger fan of the Skylark of Space books than the Lensmen books, but both were interesting wellsprings of interesting ideas. One of the odd things with modern literature is how fantasy stayed rich and vital whereas science fiction seems to have gotten more moribund in recent years (with a couple of notable exceptions).

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  12. Galactic Patrol was the first Lensman story. As published years afterward in book form, Galactic Patrol is #3, but Triplanetary, written earlier, was retrofitted into the series at #1, and First Lensman was written to fill the gap.

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  13. I actually have a complete set of these, with these '60s covers that I really love (see Triplanetary here: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3072/2417108587_9e01f89228.jpg?v=0). I got through Triplanetary all right, but I gave up halfway through First Lensman on account of its rather heavy-handed nature. Should I keep going on with First Lensman (does it go on to actually be space opera proper?), just jump on to Galactic Patrol and damn the prequel, or am I just not going to get along with this series?

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  14. "Too bad about that whole "no evil lensmen" rule. Even Star Wars knew that you needed guys like Darth Vader around for dramatic purposes, otherwise your magic ubermensch good guys have no equals and the suspense goes right out the window."

    From what I've gathered, this simply wasn't a priority for writers of that era. Back then, the thrill was mostly in the idea of being bigger and stronger than everyone else - not having any serious rivals was the whole point.

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  15. If you've never read these books before, be sure you don't read any forewords or introductions, and definitely skip the "connecting material". Start with the Academy graduation scene. Trust me. You don't want to know any spoilers, and the forewords usually have spoilers aplenty.

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  16. I'm a bit late to the party, but Galactic Patrol sounds a bit like Wylie’s ‘Gladiator’ or Sturgeon’s ‘More Than Human.’ - they are the molds that influenced everything after. Sturgeon, especially, is the blueprint for every Xmen type group of metahumans story that came after it. I'd enjoy hearing your impressions of these works - Gladiator is available at Gutenberg, but you'll have to shopdive for Sturgeon.

    I wasn't too impressed with the early Lensmen tales - modern day tales were dull, but I think they hit their stride with the introduction of the acquatic aliens who used lead for propulsion (I forget the name).

    Love reading your blog - get around to Cordwainer Smith or Brunner's 'Sheep Look Up' if you can sometime.

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