(1950/ 2019) E. E. 'Doc' Smith, Gollancz, £8.99 / Can$17.99 / US$14.99,
pbk, x + 269pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22470-4
The space-pirates of Boskone raided at will, menacing the whole structure of interstellar civilization. Master-minded by a super-scientist, their conquering fleets outgunned even the mighty space cruisers of the Galactic Patrol. When Lensman Kim Kinnison of the Patrol discovered the secret Boskonian base, it was invulnerable to outside attack. But where a battle-fleet would meet insuperable resistance, a single infiltrator might penetrate the Boskonian defences - if he had the guts to take on million-to-one odds. Kinnison had guts enough to take on the odds - even with the future of the civilized Universe riding on his shoulders…
If anyone remembers those Gollancz science fiction books of old with the yellow covers, these “Golden Age Masterworks” series of books sort of hark back to those times with a partly yellow spine and a mostly yellow back cover. These reprints all feature an introduction by Mike Carey or M. R. Carey as he is known in posher circles since The Girl With All the Gifts was published and Carey remembers his teenage self, searching the bookshops of Liverpool in the 1970s to try and satisfy his voracious reading appetite. What we get from Carey is his love of these stories, how he fell out of love with them, and how he rediscovered his love for them once more, as they are what they are, products of the 1930s and 1940s when they were serialised in magazines like Astounding, written when dark clouds were gathering in Europe before the Second World War started and before America entered the fray. Perhaps Smith was alluding to the rise of the Nazis and the war against them with some of his exotic, alien races. Clearly they were written in a racist and sexist time, and Carey does point out in his introduction the problem he has with the way women are portrayed in the stories and the problem Smith has writing realistic female characters throughout the series.
Here, our hero, Kimball Kinnison, is graduating as a Lensman, a sort of space-age secret agent, law enforcer who comes across as a mixture of the three “J”s”- James T. Kirk, James Bond, and Judge Dredd. Yes, he really does - in a sequence that is slightly shocking - judge and execute someone after reading their mind and learning they committed murder. How does he do this? Well, he has powers bestowed upon him by being a lensman, and what is a lens, well…
The Lens is a lenticular structure of hundreds of thousands of tiny crystalloids, built and tuned to match the individual life force—the ego, the personality—of one individual entity. While not, strictly speaking, alive, it is endowed with a sort of pseudo-life by virtue of which it gives off a strong, characteristically-changing, polychromatic light as long as it is in circuit with the living mentality with which it is in synchronization. Conversely, when worn by anyone except its owner, it not only remains dark but it kills—so strongly does its pseudo-life interfere with any life to which it is not attuned. It is also a telepathic communicator of astounding power and range—and other things.
I’m not really a science fiction scholar, particularly of Golden Age writing, but many believe this book to be the true start of the Lensman series, even though it is the 3rd of the series and was serialised in the pages of Astounding Magazine back in the 1930s. Triplanetary (1948), regarded as the first in the series, was rewritten to connect them to the series and the second novel, First Lensman (1950), was written to connect Triplanetary to Galactic Patrol.
Confused? Well, you probably won’t be as these are pretty straight-forward, action-packed tales, serialised in magazines and the pulp fiction equivalent to those Saturday morning Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers serials that played in cinemas at that time. This tale and the series is slightly repetitive in that they usually involve an intergalactic arms race and a fight with the baddies to develop bigger and faster ships, and bigger and more deadlier weapons. Here, the baddies are the Boskonians who have a new space drive that makes their ships faster than the Patrol’s. Kinnison is given a mission to capture one of their ships, which will involve much deering do, making friends, making enemies, promotion up the Lensman ranks, acting like a blockhead, and even…love!
While somewhat dated in style and social commentary, virtually all of space-opera science fiction owes a huge debt of the works of E.E. “Doc” Smith, and much of established science fiction – Star Trek, and Star Wars - have their roots in these stories. They are great fun, slightly bonkers, but buckle up, because another one is coming along shortly, same Lens time, same Lens channel.
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