Thursday, October 27, 2011

Review - Galactic Patrol by E.E. "Doc" Smith

Short review: Boskone and the space pirates have a technological edge, but Lensman Kimball Kinnison will do his best to foil their plans.

Kimball Kinnison
Incorruptible and brave
And a sexist jerk

Full review: Although it is the third book in the Lensman series, Galactic Patrol, along with Gray Lensman, forms the heart of the series and revolves around the exploits of Lensman Kimball Kinnison. The stories in this volume were the first parts written as part of the Lensman saga - although portions of Triplanetary were written earlier, they were not originally part of the Lensman story and was only later revised to connect it to the rest of the series. First Lensman was written later to bridge the events in Triplanetary to those in Galactic Patrol.

Kimball Kinnison, the hero of the book, graduates first in his class from the Academy, and is fitted for a Lens - the quasi-living symbol of authority that allows a Lensman to communicate telepathically (among other sundry powers). He is offered a big but dangerous assignment captaining an experimental ship with orders to capture a "pirate" Boskonian ship and extract information concerning a new power source that is allowing the pirates to run roughshod over the hapless patrol. Kimball is successful in capturing a ship, but must flee the converging pirate raiders. Much of the first third of the book is taken up with his efforts to evade his villainous pursuers and return his priceless information to Tellus (as Earth is known to the inhabitants of Civilization). In the process, Kinnison frees a previously unknown enslaved race from their previously unknown masters, making valuable allies. He also destroys several pirate ships, completely frustrates the main villain of the book "Helmuth speaking for Boskone" and deduces the location of one of the pirates' secret bases.

Kinnision, of course, successfully returns to Earth, and is promoted again, to the exalted rank of "Gray Lensman", endowed with virtually unlimited powers. He immediately sets out to infiltrate what he believes to be the main pirate base. Unfortunately, Kinnison is in over his head and the telepathically inclined "Wheelmen" who man the base discover and almost kill him before he can escape. At this point, the 1930s sensibilities of the story kick in, as Kinnision is assigned the pretty but tough nurse Clarissa MacDougall to help him convalesce. He behaves badly, and is rude and condescending to her, but this is, of course, excused with a sort of "boys will be boys" attitude. Kinnison, once recovered, goes to Arisia to learn how better to use his Lens (unknowingly following an earlier trip by Helmuth to the planet, although Helmuth's purpose was to uncover the secret of the Lens for nefarious purposes). Kinnison is the first Lensman to be accepted for further training by the Arisians, and leaves weeks later with numerous additional capabilities.

Kinnison turns these capabilities to infiltrating a Patrol base for practice by controlling the minds of those around him. After he reveals himself to the base commander, he is asked to judge a murder case. At this point, what I consider to be the most disturbing thing about these books comes to the fore: as an incorruptible Lensman, Kinnision reads the minds of the two accused parties, determines which one is guilty, and using his mental powers, kills the culprit. This is accepted by all concerned as reasonable - the apparent incorruptibility of the Lensman is given as the reason for allowing them such summary powers. In effect, the rest of the human race becomes wards of the Lensmen, who are the only parties entrusted with true power. This is a sort of elitism that David Brin was reacting to when he wrote his portion of Star Wars on Trial, and it is just as pernicious in the Lensman books as it is in Star Wars. However, when reading the books one simply has to suspend disbelief and accept the premise of the story that the Lensman are an incorruptible bunch who always have the best interests of humanity in mind.

In the end, the enhanced Kinnison locates the evil Helmuth and arranges to destroy his secret base and kill off the villain with apparent ease – his powers making Helmuth no longer a serious opponent for Kinnision. The only saving grace to this somewhat anticlimactic ending is that Helmuth's defeat is fairly satisfying, and the reader can rest assured in the knowledge that he is not the true power behind Boksone (as evidenced by the three subsequent novels in the series).

Later science fiction is replete with stories that draw upon the Lensman series – in Babylon 5 the organic technology of the Vorlons (standing in for the Arisians) is reminiscent of the quasi-life of the Arisian-made lenses. The shields that form the basis of military technology in the Dune series of books, impenetrable to bullets yet vulnerable to blades, is strikingly similar to the shields found in these books. And the Jedi Knights in the prequels to Star Wars seem to operate in a manner very similar to the unattached, enhanced Kinnision, a parallel I believe that Lucas intended. It is also quite likely (in my mind) that story of the Star Wars prequels, concerning the Jedi fall from grace, was a reaction to the assumed incorruptibility of the Lensmen.

The Lensman series, as the granddaddy of all Space Opera, has proven to be incredibly influential on the field of science fiction, most notably science fiction on the screen (whether television or movies), and as a result, this book is a must read on that basis alone. The fact that the first two-thirds of the book is a series of exciting roller-coaster adventures makes the books that much better.

Previous book in the series: First Lensman
Subsequent book in the series: Gray Lensman

1939 Retro Hugo Award Nominees

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  1. I just started trying to read all the Hugos in order to get a sense of the evolution of the sci-fi novel. Hit a snag when "They'd Rather Be Right" turned out to be so elusive/expensive, but I just found a copy for .75 in a used book store budget bin! So, onward!

  2. @Kelly: I should get back to reading through the Hugo award winners. I've been sidetracked, but I have Double Star sitting on my desk ready to go, so I should get to it.