Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review - First Lensman by E.E. "Doc" Smith

Short review: The forces of evil are up to no good, but the Arisians give Lenses to superhumanly incorruptible men who lead the fight for good.

Now we are Lensmen
The paragons of virtue
Let's rig elections!

Full review: First Lensman is the second book in the classic Lensman series, picking up more or less where Triplanetary (read review) left off. The story follows the doings of the "First Lensman" Virgil Samms, an incorruptible paragon of bravery and virtue chosen by the Arisians to be the first individual to wear their super-science "Lens".

Virgil Samms has a dream. He wants to establish the Galactic Patrol and protect civilization from the forces of evil. He needs to have a symbol for the incorruptible men he wants to be in his Patrol. Finally, he is guided (by the intuition of one of his trusted subordinates) to Arisia, a heretofore off-limits planet where he is tested by the benevolent and telepathic Arisians who award him a "Lens". Those who wear a Lens, a super-science device that can only be worn by the truly virtuous attuned exclusively to its intended wearer that allows him to communicate telepathically with any being, become the focus of all the remaining stories in the series. Samms is charged with locating all "Lens worthy" individuals and directing them to Arisia to have the boon bestowed upon them. In a bit of sexism that firmly attaches the story to the 1920s, women aren't psychologically able to wear a Lens, but that's okay, because any Lens worthy woman will apparently have such highly developed "women's intuition" that they won't need one.

Once he has a cadre of Lensmen available to defend civilization, Samms uses them to combat drug traffickers. Oddly, despite the various evil designs being plotted against the Earth - including the attempt to politically take over the planet, threaten it with an invading fleet, and assassinate Lensmen - the Lensmen consider the trade in "thionite", a mind altering drug, to be the most pressing problem needing to be addressed. Since they are the good guys, breaking the thionite ring turns out to be the key to handling all the other threats, but it seems odd to be using the sorts of resources the Lensmen have at their disposal to try to break up what amounts to an interstellar coke smuggling operation.

On the way, though, the Lensmen visit alien planets and encounter bizarre life forms (and attempt to recruit representative members of many species as Lensmen), build a massive fleet, and engage in a satisfyingly massive space battle before winning the crucial election that ensures the creation of the Galactic Patrol and the safety of Civilization.

Although the perfection of the Lensmen is annoying at times, and the sexist attitudes of the 1920s crop up here and there (such as the amazingly easy dispatch of a a pair of supposedly dangerous female mercenaries), the story carries the reader through the action at a pace that never lets up. Just as one has to simply accept the benevolence of the Arisians to make the story work, one must also accept the goodness and incorruptibility of the Lensmen as well: Otherwise some of their actions in the crucial North American election look a lot like voter intimidation.

First Lensman kicks the Lensman series in high gear, building the actual Lensman organization that will be the background for all the remaining books, while at the same time delivering an exciting story chock full of exotic aliens, evil villains, and space battles.

Previous book in the series: Triplanetary
Subsequent book in the series: Galactic Patrol

1951 Retro Hugo Award Nominees

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