Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review - Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Short review: Hari Seldon has predicted the collapse of the Galactic Empire, but he has a plan to make it less awful.

And the fall of the Empire
A plan to save all

Full review: It is hard to properly review Foundation, as it is so influential a work within the science fiction genre. It is also one of the first "serious" science fiction books I read years ago when I was barely in double digits in age, and I have read it more than once since. The book details the Foundation, established at the request of Hari Seldon, a mathematician who discovered how to accurately predict the behavior of humans in large numbers using mathematical formulas. Seldon predicts the collapse of the Galactic Empire, which is considered treason, and is put on trial. He makes a deal with the prosecution, and the Foundation is built on a planet named Terminus located on the edge of the galaxy.

The alleged reason for the Foundation's existence is to compile all human knowledge into a galactic encyclopedia which (Seldon asserts) will allow the period of anarchy following the collapse of the Empire to be reduced from thirty thousand years to a mere one thousand years. The structure of the book is a series of short stories that cover important developments in the Foundation's history. It turns out the encyclopedia is entirely a ruse, and Seldon, via a series of prerecorded holographic lectures, appears every so often and explains what he predicted would be happening (via psychohistory), and offers vague suggestions as to how to proceed in the future. Though mineral poor, Terminus leverages its wealth of knowledge to take over or dominate the surrounding areas with its superior technology.

The episodic format of the book works well by allowing for the Foundation's story to progress without long tedious periods being detailed. The books have been compared to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which Asimov says influenced the work. The only thing I found to be silly was the concept that is introduced in one of the stories that one of the nearby "barbarian kingdoms" remains an interstellar power despite having "lost" atomic power (i.e. they don't have the know-how to produce atomic power). At the time Asimov wrote the books, atomic energy seems to have been something of a buzz word in science fiction, and losing it was clearly supposed to show how far the Foundation's rivals had fallen, but the depiction just brought to my mind the incredibly silly image of coal fired or gas-turbine starships. As usual for the era's science fiction, no one predicted the microchip revolution, and scientists are still using slide rules and computers are the size of buildings (or cities) while atomic generators are made the size of belt buckles.

Technology weirdness aside, this is one of the foundational (note the pun) works of science fiction. It is a must read for any science fiction fan.

Subsequent book in the series: Foundation and Empire

Hugo Award Winners for Best Novelette

1943 Retro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 2018)

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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review - The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov

Short review: A robot is destroyed and Baley and Olivaw are sent to solve the mystery. Again.

Back for a third time
To solve a robot murder
Tie things together

Full review: This is the third of the Elijah Baley/R. Daneel Olivaw murder mystery novels, and the one that opened the door for connecting the robot series with the Foundation series. It is better than many of the Robot-Foundation crossovers because although the crime to be solved also probably the weakest of the three Robot mysteries, the story contains a frightening depiction of the dysfunctional nature of spacer society.

The mystery at the heart of the book concerns the destruction of the human form robot Jander on the planet Aurora. Once again, Lige Baley is teamed with Olivaw to hunt down the culprit, but the mystery serves mostly as a vehicle to explore the oddity of the spacer culture. Once on the outwardly utopian Aurora, Lige delves further into dysfunctional nature of spacer society revealed in The Naked Sun. Gladia, introduced in The Naked Sun, turns out to be Jander's owner, and is so distanced from human contact that she took Jander as her lover and "husband". The murder mystery leads Lige into Auroran politics, featuring a struggle between Aurorans who believe that colonizing the galaxy is their destiny, and others opposed to such a goal.

Along the way, Lige discovers attempts to construct further human form robots to further the goal of colonizing the galaxy, the seeds of the idea that will be developed by Hari Seldon as psychohistory, and a love triangle. The intersection of these elements, especially the attempts to construct human form robots without the assistance of the one roboticist who knows the secret of their construction, proves to be the thread that ties together the answer to the mystery. Unfortunately, the answer, and Baley's handling of the dénouement of the book is mostly just a set up for the various Foundation-Robot crossovers that came later.

The weakness of this book is not necessarily contained in the story or characters in the book, but the implications that the story has for other Asimov works. The introduction of psychohistory here, thousands of years before Seldon, lessens the "revolutionary" insight that got Seldon arrested and put on trial in Foundation. The introduction of Olivaw and Giskard as more or less benevolent robot-gods shepherding humanity through a crisis begins the process that ends with the omniscient robot guardian of Foundation and Earth. While the story contained within the book itself is well-crafted, the connections it makes with other works serves only to cheapen them.

Previous book in the series: The Naked Sun
Subsequent book in the series: Robots and Empire

1984 Hugo Award Nominees
1984 Locus Award Nominees

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Monday, November 28, 2011

Review - The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov

Short review: Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw are back to solve another murder, but this time they are on Solaria instead of Earth.

Isaac Asimov
An extreme agoraphobe
As is his hero

Full review: The Naked Sun is the sequel to The Caves of Steel, once again featuring Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw as they attempt to solve a seemingly impossible murder. Unlike The Caves of Steel, which was set on Earth, this time the pair head to Solaria, the most extremely "spacer" of all the spacer planets.

As before, the mystery in the novel is well-crafted, and the process of solving it is well-written. Much of the book serves to contrast the conditions on overcrowded impoverished Earth where the bulk of the population is hostile to robots, agoraphobic, and live in an almost communal manner, to those on wealthy Solaria, with strict controls limiting the human population of the entire planet to twenty thousand people, where robots outnumber humans tens of thousands to one, and where face-to-face human contact is regarded as obscene.

As usual for Asimov's robot novels, the plot revolves around the meaning and application of the Three Laws of Robotics, and some frightening implications those laws have that had not been previously considered which are fully explored much later in Foundation and Earth. The mystery also allows Asimov to explore the problems of Earth culture (exposed by Baley's contact with the Solarians), and the troubles faced by the dysfunctional Solarian culture specifically, and the spacer culture in general.

While this book isn't quite as good as The Caves of Steel, it remains one of Asimov's best.

Previous book in the series: The Caves of Steel
Subsequent book in the series: The Robots of Dawn

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review - The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Short review: A spacer is killed and it is up to a robot and a human to solve it. Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics come up a lot.

A spacer gets killed
A robot to help solve it
And Earth is dirt poor

Full review: The Caves of Steel is the first and best of Asimov's Robot mysteries. Essentially an exploration in novel length of the ideas introduced by Asimov in his various Robot short stories, the novel details human detective Elijah Baley, an Earth native, and his partner, spacer robot R. Daneel Olivaw (the "R." stands for robot) as they try to solve the politically sensitive murder of a spacer ambassador.

While the mystery is more or less a classic closed-door mystery that is well-written and interesting, the book mostly revolves around showing an overpopulated impoverished Earth in which everyone lives in giant underground cities (the caves of steel of the title) and the arrogant wealthy spacer culture that is contrasted with Earth. The book, as with most Asimov books featuring robots, is concerned with the effects of the Three Laws of Robotics, which, of course, prove to be the key to unraveling the murder.

The book is the first introduction of R. Daneel Olivaw, a character who, I believe, appears in more Asimov books than any other - although his appearances in later books are somewhat of a disappointment. The book also introduces a fairly common theme in Asimovian fiction - the poverty of those on Earth compared to those who have ventured out into space. This is one of my favorite Asimov books: The mystery is good, the characters interesting (although a bit too much time is spent obsessing over bodily functions), and the competing cultures described are both plausible and frightening.

Subsequent book in the series: The Naked Sun

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Review - L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume XXVII by K.D. Wentworth (editor)

Stories included:
The Unreachable Voices of Ghosts by Jeffrey Lyman
Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee by Patrick O'Sullivan
The Truth, from a Lie of Convenience by Brennan Harvey
In Apprehension, How Like a God by R.P.L. Johnson
An Acolyte of Black Spires by Ryan Harvey
The Dualist by Van Aaron Hughes
Bonehouse by Keffy R.M. Kehrli
This Peaceful State of War by Patty Jansen
Sailing the Sky Sea by Geir Lanesskog
Unfamiliar Territory by Ben Mann
Medic! by Adam Perin
Vector Victoria by D.A. D'Amico
The Sundial by John Arkwright

Articles included:
How to View Art by L. Ron Hubbard
Making It by Mike Resnick
Creating Your Own Destiny by Robert Castillo

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Short story collections are prevalent in speculative fiction - much more so it seems than any other publishing genres. As a result, someone who reads and reviews science fiction is often going to find himself reviewing one of these collections, which can be problematic. Many collections have a defined theme, or are the collections of the works of a particular author, or a particular time period, and so you can try to look for some sort of unifying theme to them. But the Writers of the Future theme is simply this: writers of speculative fiction who entered the Writers of the Future competition and have not previously been professionally published. As a result, this particular collection is more or less a grab bag of whatever fiction happened to be the best in the submission pile that quarter.

That said, there are a few commonalities to the stories, which is only natural given that they were all evaluated by the same panel of judges. A couple of stories which seem to evoke an older era of science fiction are the hard science fiction stories The Unreachable Voices of Ghosts by Jeffrey Lyman and Sailing the Sky Sea by Geir Lanesskog, both of which evoke the kind of engineering fiction of the early works of Asimov, Heinlein, and Niven. The Unreachable Voices of Ghosts envisions a future in which desperate or nihilistic individuals set out into the Kuiper Belt in tiny ships to hunt for miniature black holes in voyages that last for years, and for those who don't find their elusive quarry, are one-way. Against this backdrop Lyman builds a cozy love story between two people who had both given up hope of having a human connection again. The story is not bad, but a bit formulaic and the romance feels a bit forced. In Sailing the Sea Sky the protagonist finds himself having to figure out a way to rescue himself from falling into the heart of Uranus after the floating platform he had been working on was destroyed by a surprise attack. He picks up some unexpected help along the way, and as each problem comes up, he and the group he falls in with manage to buy themselves just a little more time even though it never seems to be quite enough to get them to safety. The story wraps up fairly well, and is one of the better crafted stories in the volume.

While the focus of the Writers of the Future contest seems to be mostly science fiction, there are a handful of fantasy stories in the volume as well. The first, Maddy Dune's First and Only Spelling Bee by Patrick O'Sullivan, is a kind of paranormal mystery with a youthful protagonist who participates in a magical contest despite some fairly obvious prejudice against her species. The contest serves as a framing device for the real story, involving a strange competitor in a cabinet, but the story is just a little too mysterious and never really seems to come together. The second fantasy story, An Acolyte of Black Spires by Ryan Harvey, seems more like a snippet of a much larger story than a story on its own. All in all, Harvey seems to try to take on too much to reasonably accomplish in the space he has to tell the story. An alien culture, an alien political structure, a strange alien racial curse, all of which are crucial to the plot. So much background has to be explained in the story that little actual action takes place, and what does happen seems to leave so many unanswered questions that the resolution is somewhat unsatisfying. The final fantasy story, The Sundial by Joan Arkwright, is a tale of love and death set against the backdrop of the U.S. Civil War built upon Egyptian mythology. The story takes a bit to get going, but it is the best of the fantasy stories in the volume.

The volume has two stories featuring humans trying to understand an alien culture, which is fairly well-trodden science fiction territory, and consequently both seem more or less formulaic. The first, The Dualist by Van Aaron Hughes, is about an envoy sent to a planet by a humanity seeking to obtain resources from an alien planet, but also charged with preventing one of the resident alien races from killing the other resident alien race. The difference between the two factions basically boils down to a theological difference that seems so slight to human eyes as to be negligible but is clearly a huge issue for the aliens. After stumbling about, the envoy solves the conflict by essentially ignoring the cultural mores of both alien races, leading to a fairly cliched resolution. The other, This Peaceful State of War by Patti Jansen, also revolves around a human envoy trying to make sense of an inexplicable conflict between two alien species. There is also a religious element in the story, but this time it comes in the form of meddling humans who think they know what is good for the aliens based upon little more than their own prejudices. The mystery of the alien conflict comes to a head in a way that won't really surprise most science fiction fans - the source of the "conflict" was fairly well telegraphed - and makes one wonder how stupid the human characters really are and as a result just didn't work form me.

In a post 9/11 world coupled with the undercurrent of anti-authoritarianism that runs through a lot of science fiction, it is almost de rigeur to include stories about plucky  hero confronting a vast government conspiracies. The Truth, from a Lie of Convenience by Brennan Harvey features a washed up reporter covering the memorial observances on the tenth anniversary of a horrific terrorist attack that sparked Lunar independence. As the story unfolds, our hero uncovers a sloppy cover up that unravels almost immediately. The story is very reminiscent of the sort of tales told by the fringe lunatics that go under the label of "9/11 Truthers", with the distinction that in the imagined reality of the story the people ranting about a shadowy conspiracy are actually right. The story proceeds in a fairly linear fashion to a mostly predictable conclusion. The other conspiracy story is Vector Victoria by D.A. D'Amico, a tale set in a dystopian cyperpunkish future in which the heroes are covertly spreading a counter-virus to counteract the evil viruses the government is spreading among the populace. They run across a government agent, and through the rest of the story the confused viewpoint character (and the reader) learns that what they thought was true may not actually be the real story. The story ends on an ambiguous note and is thoughtful and thought-provoking.

In addition to Vector, Victoria, the collection has a few other explicitly cyberpunk style stories, including Bonehouse by Keffy R.M. Kehrli, a cyberpunk story about what happens to the bodies of those who jack into cyberspace permanently. The story delves in to how those who are left behind react to their loved ones being sucked into a world that they don't approve of or even necessarily understand. The protagonist is ostensibly acting on the right side of the law and on behalf of concerned loving families, but as events unfold it becomes clear that the law, and the protagonists profession, may be out of step with where they should be. But only maybe, because Kehrli doesn't make either side of the issue clearly correct, which is one of the marks of a strong story. The other cyberpunk style story in the volume is In Apprehension, How Like a God by R.P.L. Johnson, featuring a murder mystery at an institution run by a group of monastic academics who maintain the information net that underpins civilization. The story is filled with interesting ideas - the biggest of which is that the information net is actually an outgrowth of the Higgs field, and consequently anything that exists in reality is incorporated directly into the next as long as someone takes the time to do it. Against this background the murder investigation is fairly mundane, and given the identity of the killer seems a bit too easy to unravel. On the other hand, once the murderer is uncovered, it becomes clear that there is no reason for the murderer to fear exposure, and one doubts the security of humanity's future. It is an unsettling tale, even if it is executed somewhat blandly.

Unfamiliar Territory by Ben Mann is a space based mystery involving a protagonist working for a space salvage company tasked with guarding the engineers who actually do the salvage work. Our hero is teamed, to her dismay, with a rookie engineer. Despite the fact that this element is harped upon a fair amount in the story, it turns out to have almost no impact on the actual plot. Ships start mysteriously turning up derelict, and our hero is sent to investigate. The story meanders along until there is a dramatic but poorly explained turn of events and the story ends. The story seems promising, but it appears the author tried to pack a story that should have been larger into a short story format, and it just doesn't work very well. Finally, Medic! by Adam Perin is a fairly standard tale of military science fiction featuring a medic pressed into service in a war against an alien race. It turns out that the protagonist was given a choice to enlist or go to prison had been given a quota of lives he had to save before he could go home. In the story he is coming to the close of his term of service and desperate attempts are being made by the military hierarchy to get him to reenlist, but all he wants to do is go home to the love of his life. The "twist" ending at the end is horribly predictable, and on the whole, the story is nothing particularly memorable.

The handful of essays in the volume are fairly bland. The reprint of How to View Art, an essay written by L. Ron Hubbard, is mostly noteworthy for the worshipful and unintentionally hilarious introduction that claims that at one point Hubbard's name was "virtually synonymous" with American popular fiction. The essay itself is pretty bland, but I suppose it might be of use to someone who had never thought about art before. Making It by Mike Resnick is about the process of getting your writing into print, and Creating Your Own Destiny by Robert Castillo is about taking control of your creative life. Both are serviceable, but neither was particularly noteworthy.

Many short story collections are decidedly uneven in quality. Coupled with the fact that this volume is comprised of authors unified only by the fact that this is their first professional sale, this is very much true with respect to this collection. While none of the stories are great, a number, including Bonehouse and Sailing the Sky Sea, are quite good, and the rest are decent despite some niggling problems. The only really subpar elements of the volume are the essays, which are mostly bland and uninteresting. One has to wonder if the other uninspiring essays contributed by contemporary writers were chosen for their blandness so as not to expose the utter banality of Hubbard's included essay. Given the limited number of venues for finding debut speculative fiction these days, for anyone interested in seeing new writers it is always worth picking up the annual volume of Writers of the Future, and this year's edition is no exception.

Previous book in the series: L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, Volume XXVI

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Friday, November 18, 2011

Review - Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein

Short review: Hardball politics result in a lifelong deception of epic magnitude.

Out of work actor
A political kidnapping
Epic deception

Full review: After the debacle of the 1955 Hugo Award being handed out to They'd Rather Be Right, the next year the ship was righted and in 1956 the award was handed out to Heinlein's Double Star, a work of political science fiction featuring a kidnapped politician, an actor pressed into service, and a lot of discussion about the dirty business of parliamentary politics.

The story is fairly straightforward. Lorenzo Smythe, an out of work actor is approached by a spacer named Dak in a bar with what he thinks is a routine proposition for work. When he goes to meet his contact, he finds himself involved in a high stakes game of political intrigue in which the participants are willing to play to the death. Due to the exigencies of culture and politics, John Bonforte, the leader of the Empire's loyal parliamentary opposition, must appear at a specific event or his political career will be ruined and discord possibly resulting in substantial loss of life will ensue. Knowing this, and seeking to derail his political faction, unknown forced have kidnapped Bonforte. Due to the similarities in appearance between Bonforte and himself, Smythe finds himself part of a plan to replace Bonforte with a double to fill in for the event and stave off political disaster, with Smythe in the role as Bonforte's double. Soon one event becomes two, and as the story progresses circumstances seem to conspire to keep him in the role of Bonforte for longer and longer periods, until finally Smythe ceases to exist and all that is left of the man formerly known as Smythe is a reborn Bonforte.

Double Star is quite brief - my copy only runs to 128 pages. But in that handful of pages, Heinlein is able to describe a Solar system spanning empire, two alien races (although one is described in a very cursory manner), an entire political system, all in addition to the specific details that make up the plot of the novel. Heinlein accomplishes this, as he does in many of his novels, by mostly eschewing explanation until absolutely necessary. When a Martian shows up early in the book with a "life-wand", Heinlein doesn't stop to explain what a life-wand is, or what it can do. He just has the characters react to it as an element of their world and trusts the reader to pick up what it is from context. By doing this throughout the book, Heinlein is able to move the story along at a rapid clip and avoid getting bogged down while characters spend time doing the equivalent of explaining to one another how a combustion engine works.

One interesting thing about the story is that there's not a whole lot to it that really had to be science fiction. The particular psychology of the Martians is a plot point, but that element could have been transferred to a non-science fictional one without too much difficulty. Just about everything else about the book could have easily been moved to a contemporary political thriller without any substantial effort. Mostly the book is an excuse to talk about politics and the psychology of campaigning and governing. By using Lorenzo Smythe as his lens into the story, who is both a capable actor and student of how to influence human emotion as well as a political neophyte, Heinlein is able to introduce the reader to his take on the political process one step at a time. And while one might not agree with Heinlein's take on politics, he does lay out his positions and the reasoning behind them clearly (including his explanation for why having a Constitutional monarchy can be justified).

The only real weakness the book has is that it was written in the 1950s, and it shows. Despite imagining a government that covers Earth, the Moon, Venus, Mars, and beyond, Heinlein, like most other writers of his era, completely failed to anticipate the advances in computing that the next few decades would bring. As a result, he imagines people calculating election result probabilities with slide rules, vast archive vaults full of millions of rolls of tape, and a system for keeping track of other people comprised of piles of manila folders stuffed with typewritten sheets of data - all of which make the book feel very dated. The typically sexist attitudes of the 1950s also poke through - Penny, the one female character in the book, is Bonfort's secretary (and consequently, Lorenzo's secretary) who we later learn is both highly educated and a member of the Imperial parliament. But in Bonfort's office she is only qualified to serve as a secretary who is  hopelessly smitten in-love with her boss. I suppose it is somewhat progressive that Penny is a member of parliament at all, but then again, the FDR administration had a female cabinet secretary already, so one might consider Penny's position to be par for the course at the time. In addition, several of the other member's of Bonfort's staff, who are all male, are also members of parliament (and some, quite pointedly, are not), so Penny holding a mundane staff position while serving in the government is not unique to her.

From a certain perspective it seems somewhat odd that a book with so little science fiction in its plot would win the Hugo award. On the other hand, political science fiction is one of Heinlein's most common topics, so from that perspective it seems fitting that this was the first of his four best novel Hugo's was for Double Star. Although elements of the book are dated, the novel still holds up as a fine example of Heinlein's better work, and is well worth reading.

1955 Hugo Winner for Best Novel: They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley
1957 Hugo Winner for Best Novel: The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

What Are the Hugo Awards?

Hugo Best Novel Winners

1956 Hugo Award Nominees

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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Follow Friday - The Thirty-Eighth Parallel Separates the Koreas

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Books & Barks and Lauren's Book Blog.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Tell Santa what books you want for Christmas!

I have over seven thousand books in my personal library, so there aren't a whole lot of books that I really want that I don't already have. However, the book I would most like to get is Edgar Pangborn's A Mirror for Observers, which is the only winner of the International Fantasy Award for best fiction novel that I do not own. Unfortunately, the book is very rare and hard to find.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Review - Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov

Short review: Spontaneous time travel results in telepathy and regime change

By flying through time
To irradiated Earth
He changes everything

Full review: Joseph Schwartz is an ordinary man, a retired tailor in the twentieth century. He is catapulted forward in time and winds up on a devastated radioactive Earth that is so poor every inhabitant who reaches the age of sixty is euthanized. This poses quite a problem for Schwartz, as he is sixty-two. Unable to speak the language due to language drift, he is taken to be mentally defective by the first people he meets, and they send him (in exchange for a bribe) to a scientist working on enhancing mental abilities. As a result of the experiments Schwartz becomes much more intelligent and acquires telepathic abilities.

Once able to communicate, Schwartz and the reader learn that Earth is a poverty stricken backwater in a Galactic Empire. Earth is also known for its rebelliousness and is discriminated against. Schwartz then becomes involved in a plot by pro-Earth fanatics to kill everyone else in the Empire with a super-virus, a plot he foils. The novel ends on an up note as the Imperial Procurator of Earth agrees to try to restore the planet by bringing in uncontaminated soil.

Aside from the rather odd time travel element, this is a pretty straightforward story. Some things seem implausible - the ability of humans to survive on the radioactive earth (the improbability of which Asimov talks about in a later added afterward), the implausibility of the plan to restore Earth, and so on, but the adventure in between holds up well.

Previous book in the series: The Currents of Space

1951 Retro Hugo Award Nominees

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Follow Friday - Thirty-Seven Is the Smallest Non-Supersingular Prime

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - Mother Lode and The Book Nympho.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: In light of 11/11/11 and Veteran’s Day, tell us about your favorite soldier and how he or she is saving the world. Fictional or real life.

I'm going to answer this the way I think a lot of people will answer this by tagging my two late grandfathers as my favorite soldiers. Both were World War II veterans.

My maternal grandfather was Paul A. Wright. He had no middle name and chose the middle initial "A" when he enlisted so that he could be at the front of any list of Paul Wrights that was alphabetized. He had to get a special exemption to enlist because he was working in a "war critical" industry at the time (as a truck driver for an oil company). He served in North Africa, but then went to paratrooper school and joined the 101st Airborne just in time to be in the defense of Bastogne. After the war he came home, settled down, got a job working for the oil company and didn't talk about the war very much. He lived long enough to see me get married, but died before either of my kids were born.

My paternal grandfather was Joe Thomas Pound. He joined the Army Air Corps and flew multi-engine planes. My favorite story I heard from him was his first flying assignment. After finishing flight school, he was waiting for orders and saw a notice on the base bulletin board seeking pilots who wanted to volunteer for duty. He was bored and showed up for the meeting. They were looking for pilots to ferry planes to England. Because he had eight hours of experience in this type of plane, and his friend (and copilot) only had four, he was commander for the flight. Having grown up in a small town in Indiana, this flight was his first time out of the United States, and his first time seeing the ocean. The group started with one hundred planes. When they got to England after an all-night flight, they only had ninety-one. No one knows what happened to the other nine planes. They probably got lost somewhere over the North Atlantic and crashed into Greenland or the sea.

He eventually ended up flying supplies from Burma to China for most of the war, taking material to help supply the Chinese nationalist army "over the hump" (as the pilots called the Himalayas). After the war he used the G.I. Bill to go to college and launched my family on a completely different trajectory than it would have been otherwise. He worked as an accountant for a while, and then went back into the Air Force and stayed in the service for most of the rest of his life - he loved to fly. He was one of my favorite people in the world, and he died much too young when I was still in high school.

Go to previous Follow Friday: Thirty-Six Is Six Squared

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Review - The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov

Short review: A man with no memories upsets the unequal political balance between two planets and a now discredited scientific theory features prominently.

Without memories
He's trapped on a slave planet
Matter flows through space

Full review: The Currents of Space is part of Asimov's Galactic Empire trilogy (although they weren't really written as a trilogy as most people use the term today, and they can be read separately without any trouble). I found this to be the best of the three.

The novel is set on Floriana, a planet that is essentially a fiefdom of the planet Sark. Floriana is valuable for a rare and irreproducible agricultural product, and the rulers of Sark have no intention of ever losing control of this valuable resource. Floriana is a heavily controlled society, in which education is denied to all but a handful, and the inhabitants are taught to perceive the "Squires" of Sark as almost godlike beings. Into this situation a man with no memory and no past is found and taken in by the denizens of a small Florinian village. First the stranger's mere presence, and then his slowly recovering memories upset the society imposed upon the Florinians.

Running in parallel to this story is the tale of agents of the Galactic Empire at Trantor seeking to break the power of the Squires of Sark without resorting to war. Eventually, the two sides of the story weave together, until several surprising secrets are revealed concerning the wealth produced by Floriana, the threat it is under, the identity of the mysterious amnesiac stranger, and how all three are interrelated.

This is one of Asimov's better novels - not as good as the Foundation or Robot books, but in the groups that falls right behind them. The characters are well-written, and (unlike those in some other Asimov books) have rational reactions to the events they find themselves confronted with. The story is quite good, both as a story of political intrigue, and a story of the impact of the surrounding environment that affects the skulduggery (although the science behind the science fiction in the book is well out of date). I found it to be an interesting and engaging book that is well worth reading.

Previous book in the series: The Stars, Like Dust
Subsequent book in the series: Pebble in the Sky

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review - The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov

Short review: A student on irradiated Earth gets embroiled in interstellar intrigue and must find an "ultimate weapon" that turns out to be pretty silly.

On the run in space
Fleeing from the Tyranni
And a banal end

Full review: The Stars, Like Dust has what I consider to be one of the most evocative titles of any science fiction novel. Unfortunately, the novel itself is, at best, mediocre. With Pebble in the Sky (read review) and The Currents of Space (read review), this book forms the Galactic Empire trilogy, although there is very little Galactic Empire in this book.

The book is more or less a standard adventure story with a helping of political intrigue, a serving of betrayals and backstabbing, and a somewhat groan-inducing ending (although, to be fair, the attachment of the "ultimate secret weapon" at the end of the novel was apparently not Asimov's idea, but was insisted upon by his editor). The story is, like a lot of Golden Age science fiction, somewhat dated as Asimov didn't anticipate developments in computers, but it is still readable. The Tyranni are a fairly stock enemy, but are drawn malevolently enough to make the fight against them worth reading. Some of the characters are fairly wooden, but the protagonist is reasonably engaging, even if he is overly naive and foolish at times.

The Stars, Like Dust ends up as a serviceable Asimov science fiction novel. There isn't anything particularly good or bad about it. A fan of Golden Age science fiction will find it worth reading, especially to see how the novel bridges the gap between the pulpy adventure stories of earlier science fiction and the more involved stories that came after it - one can see the seeds of stories like Foundation (read review) and The Caves of Steel (read review) in this book, and for that, it is probably worth a read for the science fiction fan.

Subsequent book in the series: The Currents of Space

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Review - Children of the Lens by E.E. "Doc" Smith

Short review: Boskone is down, but not out. Kimball and Clarissa have five children, who become "third level" minds and take on the Eddorians directly.

Bigger than before
The battle still rages on
Now with some children

Full review: Children of the Lens is the sixth and final book in the classic Lensman series. Apparently, it was not necessarily intended to be the last book and some allegations have been made that "Doc" Smith intended to, or actually did, write a seventh book (Heinlein claimed to have seen a draft, however no draft has ever been found). Though there are hints in the text that the story could continue, the story of the series seems to be pretty much wrapped up by the end of the book, and any speculation on the direction the story might have taken would be almost completely speculative.

Children of the Lens takes place twenty years after the close of Second Stage Lensmen, and focuses on the five children of Kimball and Clarissa Kinnison: a boy and two pairs of twin sisters. As Kimball and Clarissa are both lensmen, their offspring are dubbed the "Children of the Lens". They are also, it turns out, the ultimate product of a millennia-long Arisian breeding program that has molded them into "third level" minds with such potential power that not even the Arisians themselves fully understand their capabilities.

The story of the "Children" is intertwined with the story of the five second stage Lensmen: Kimball, Worsel, Nadreck, Tregonsee, and Clarissa. Spurred into action by a series of terrorist events in the Second Galaxy, Kimball asks the other second stage lensmen to help him discover the source. Each of these lensmen, of course, rushes to his aid and each pursues the task from a different angle. Each of the second stagers is more or less covertly assisted by one of the Children. An interesting twist on the previous books is that the second stage lensmen pretty much do all the same things they did before: Kimball is brash and direct, Nadreck is cautious and thorough, Clarissa gets shipped off to Lyrane II (apparently the only lensman-related job she is useful for), and so on. Despite acting in ways similar to the means they used in their successful mission in the earlier books, the second stage lensmen seem to fumble about in this book, as we view events at least partly from the vantage point of the youthful "third-stage" lensmen who are helping them. Eventually each of the Children realizes that they need additional training, and travel to Arisia to meet with Mentor and obtain "third stage" training, after which each is able to help their lensman ally complete his self-assigned mission, which leads all of them to essentially the same conclusion: the hitherto unknown planet of Ploor is the location of the race controlling the remnant Boskonians.

As with the other books in the series, the technology in this book swallows up the technology of the previous books. Whereas in earlier books free planets set astride target planets and sent careening into another planet or negative matter "negaspheres" were the ultimate in weaponry, unique items constructed with great difficulty, in Children of the Lens these weapons are deployed in the hundreds, if not thousands. Eddore finally develops its own version of the Lens, permitting the creation of "Black Lensmen" who (because of what we are told is a basic flaw in the way the Eddorians deal with their servants) turn out to be a surprisingly ineffective set of opponents. The hyperspace tubes, rare in earlier books, are now the standard way to insert an invading fleet into enemy territory. Not only are the massive fleets of Civilization equipped with "primary" and "secondary" beams, they now have super-atomic bombs, also deployed by the thousands. Civilization eventually revisits the strange hyperfast alternate universe and renders two superluminal planets "free" to use as the ultimate weapons destroying both Ploor and its sun, ending the apparent threat.

Except that Mentor of Arisia alerts the Children of the threat of Eddore (and only the Children, this knowledge apparently being too dangerous for any minds below the third level of development to handle), pointing out that unless they are dealt with quickly, they too will figure out the secret of obtaining superluminal planet busters and destroy Arisia, Tellus (as Earth is known) and Klovia in short order. Summoning the combined mental energy of all the lensmen in two galaxies, the entire Arisian race, and possibly all the inhabitants of Civilization itself, the Children combine into a hive mind to penetrate Eddore's defenses and destroy the ancient enemies of Civilization. At this point, Mentor (in a scene that presages the exits of Lorien and Jason Ironheart from Babylon 5) reveals that all the Arisians are passing on and leaving the Kinnison children as the new guardians of the Galaxy. Finally, in an epilogue, Kit Kinnison leaves a message for a future Civilization presumably under threat from a new enemy, but so far in the future that the events of the long struggle between Civilization and Boskone have been forgotten, and possibly even after the nigh-immortal Children of the Lens have died (this, presumably, was the hook for a subsequent book).

The book was written in the 1940s, and in some ways this shows. As with the other books in the series, there is an oddly misplaced drug smuggling subplot. Thankfully, this subplot is given a fairly short shrift. As with most science fiction writers before the 1980s, Smith completely failed to anticipate the rise of the microchip (which I think one can hardly find fault with), and "computers" in the books are not machines, but rather highly skilled aliens who perform calculations in their heads. Some find the fact that most of the human characters smoke, drink, and by preference eat a lot of steak to be unrealistic. I figure that as the books are set in the far future, it is plausible that social mores (and medical technology to offset the deleterious effects of such habits) could easily have changed, so I can overlook these sorts of elements.

The annoying sexism of previous books is back, although given a somewhat mild rationale. Apparently the matriarchy of Lyrane II is the result of Boskonian meddling in an attempt to create a sexless servant race. The book states that the one true weakness of the Eddorian model is the lack of sexes, which means that they are deprived of the differing strengths the two genders are supposed to bring to the table. Women take more of a central role in Children of the Lens, with the two sets of twins making up four-fifths of the titular Children, but for all their "third level" mental powers, they are tied together only through their brother, who is the nexus they rally around when they form their hive mind. Clarissa Kinnison is also relegated to dealing solely with the inhabitants of Lyrane II (the necessity of having an agent who can operate within a man-hating matriarchy seems to be the only reason she was allowed to become a lensman to begin with), and once again proves to be more or less minimally effective in the role. It even falls to her own son Kit, rather than the Arisian Mentor, to give her the complete "second stage" treatment (which, for the record, is the second instance of implied incest in the book). Clarissa is apparently also the only person who can locate Kimball after he was abducted to and trapped in an alternate universe as part of a side plot using not the power of her lens, but rather the feminine "power of love". Still, the sexism is mostly subdued here, and doesn't interfere with the story in any significant way.

Containing swashbuckling adventure, wild imaginative space battles, and space opera on a grand scale, Children of the Lens is a satisfying conclusion to one of the seminal works of science fiction. One can easily see Smith's fingerprints on Babylon 5 (although the Vorlons seem to be a lot more like the Eddorians than the Arisians, and the Shadows a lot more like the Arisians), Star Trek, Star Wars, and even Green Lantern. Almost all filmed science fiction and a large swath of written science fiction can trace its roots to this series, and for that (and the grand space opera adventure), it is a must read for any science fiction fan.

Previous book in the series: Second Stage Lensman

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Follow Friday - Thirty-Six Is Six Squared

It's Friday again, and this means it's time for Follow Friday. There has been a slight change to the format, as now there are two Follow Friday hosts blogs and two Follow Friday Features Bloggers each week. To join the fun and make now book blogger friends, just follow these simple rules:
  1. Follow both of the Follow My Book Blog Friday Hosts (Parajunkee and Alison Can Read) and any one else you want to follow on the list.
  2. Follow the two Featured Bloggers of the week - SkyInk and The Magic Attic.
  3. Put your Blog name and URL in the Linky thing.
  4. Grab the button up there and place it in a post, this post is for people to find a place to say hi in your comments.
  5. Follow, follow, follow as many as you can, as many as you want, or just follow a few. The whole point is to make new friends and find new blogs. Also, don't just follow, comment and say hi. Another blogger might not know you are a new follower if you don't say "Hi".
  6. If someone comments and says they are following you, be a dear and follow back. Spread the love . . . and the followers.
  7. If you want to show the link list, just follow the link below the entries and copy and paste it within your post!
  8. If you're new to the Follow Friday Hop, comment and let me know, so I can stop by and check out your blog!
And now for the Follow Friday Question: Today’s Question is something new, an activity. We want to see what you look like! Take a pic with you and your current read! Too shy? Boo! Just post a fun pic you want to share.

I am lousy at taking pictures of myself. I just can't seem to master the knack of taking my own picture in a mirror. So instead, I will post a picture of me with Catherine Asaro, an author whose books are currently dominating my reading selections.

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Review - Second Stage Lensmen by E.E. "Doc" Smith

Short review: The Patrol takes the fight to Boskone, but when they come across a planet ruled by a matriarchy of naked Amazons they have to induct the first female Lensman into their ranks; meanwhile, Kinnison worms his way into Boskonian leadership to destroy it.

Beat up some women
Kill millions of Thalians
They call you hero

Full review: Second Stage Lensmen is the penultimate volume in the Lensman series, and the last to feature Kimball Kinnison as the most powerful Lensman in the service of the Galactic Patrol. Despite the fact that Second Stage Lensmen features the first female Lensman, the story remains a strange combination of highly imaginative interstellar conflict muddied with the usual mundane drug-smuggling subplot, and incredibly reactionary 1930s attitudes towards gender roles. The story focuses upon the exploits of the "Second Stage" Lensmen: those who have gone through the advanced training Kinnison underwent in Gray Lensman. These superior Lensmen, including Kinnison, Worsel, Tregonese, and Nadreck, are armed with mental powers allowing them to control the minds of others and see, hear, and feel without using their physical senses: the "sense of perception". This elite cadre allows Civilization to tip the balance against Boskone.

The story picks up immediately where Gray Lensman left off as Kimball and Clarissa are heading off to get ready for their impending nuptials. Mentor or Arisa spoils the fun by commanding Kim to "think" before he acts, and Kim, of course, immediately realizes (having been prodded that way by Mentor) that Boskonia was not destroyed when Jarnevon was cracked between two other planets and still poses a grave threat to Civilization. The wedding is put on hold as Kinnison and the other Lensmen set about coming up with a defense for the expected attack upon Earth. Since one of the themes of the series is that as soon as one side develops a particular weapon, the other figures out how to build their own in short order, the Lensmen assume that Earth will be subjected to an attack using two free planets used like a nutcracker (as they did against Jarnevon) after being transported through a hyperspace tube to achieve surprise. As typical for this series, the ultimate weapon featured in the previous book becomes merely the fodder for the opening stages of this one, and newer, more powerful weaponry is developed to deal with the danger: the entire output of the sun is converted to a massive beam weapon and used to vaporize much of the Boskonian fleet when it does show up. Every book's technology swallows up the advances of the previous books: by now everyone has "thought shields" rendering the ability of the Lensmen to read others minds only useful when the opposition is captured or sloppy. Kinnison is handed a super-weapon, allowing him to kill hundreds (or possibly thousands) with a thought, and apparently he is the only being in the galaxy thought responsible enough to have it (even by Worsel, who invents the thing). And so on.

And then, as usual, the story changes from Star Wars to Miami Vice as Kinnison returns to tracking down the drug traffickers that Boskone, for some reason, continues to rely upon to form the underpinnings of their operations in the "First Galaxy" (i.e. the Milky Way). His investigations take him to the "exotic" planet of Lyrane, ruled by a matriarchy of women indistinguishable from human women save for the fact that they eschew the company of men, go about naked, have advanced mental abilities, and apparently have no art, literature, music, or other cultural assets. Presumably when women are bereft of the uplifting association with men, they become bitter, soulless harridans intent on killing anyone new they meet: the Lyranian who meets Kinnison when he lands immediately tries to kill him, as does every other Lyranian. Kinnison, of course, handles their attacks easily, and threatens to kill them all if they don't cooperate in handing over the "zwilnik" (the series slang for a Boskonian drug dealer) he came for. Some claims have been made that Lyrane is the way it is because of Boskonian interference in their culture, attempting to eliminate the "gender equality" that exists in Civilization (although by any standard, even that of the 1930s, the "gender equality" of Civilization leaves a lot to be desired), but there isn't anything in the text of Second Stage Lensmen that would support this in any substantial way. In fact, Lyrane comes under attack by a Boskonian force and the helpless women have to ask Kinnison and the Patrol to come and bail them out.

It is difficult to decide which is the most sexist depiction of women in the book: is it (a) the Lyran matriarchy, populated by nasty, ignorant, and soulless women, (b) the captured zwilnik Illona, an empty-headed drug moll whose only real talent is exotic dancing, or (c) Clarissa MacDougall herself, who, despite being described as the most capable woman in the galaxy, deems herself entirely unworthy to be chosen as a Lensman (and is chosen solely because the Patrol needs an operative on Lyrane), and to confirm her opinion proves to be mostly ineffective in that role, unable to convince the Lyranians of much of anything. Her great accomplishment appears to be locating points on a map.

After a healthy dollop of sexism, and mucking about with the drug trade subplots, Kinnison and Nadreck set about actually dealing with the main Boskonian threat, and Port Admiral Haynes sets about invading the Second Galaxy with his Grand Fleet. Nadreck journeys to the headquarters of the helium breathing Eich, the frigid world of Onlo (where he is at home, being a helium-breather himself) and sets about carefully fomenting discord by tampering with the minds of the various Eich he finds there. Kinnision, on the other hand, infiltrates Thrale, inhabited by a near-human race that forms the core race around which Boskone's strength is built. Kinnison is absurdly reckless, and has a surprisingly easy time climbing the ladders of power to become Tyrant of Thrale (with a minor detour to deal with some wayward Delgonians and a hyperspace tube that requires Mentor's direct intervention to rescue him from). Once there, to fool the mentally super powerful prime-minister Fossten (the real power on Thrale), he directs the construction of a massive fleet to attack the Patrol's foothold in the Second Galaxy: the massively fortified Klovia. Of course, he keeps the Patrol advised of the construction via his Lens, so when Thrale launches its attack, it is beaten quite handily. During the battle Kimball faces off against Fossten, who apparently turns out to be a renegade Arisian. Kimball, of course defeats the villain, and then, exhausted, grills himself a thick juicy steak to recover (really). Having orchestrated the death of millions of Thralians, Kimball returns to Thrale with agents of the Patrol by the boatload in tow and announces that the citizens will be reeducated by the Lensman so they can appreciate everything that Civilization has to offer. Leaving aside the Orwellian overtones of having thousands of Lensman mentally modify the populace of an entire planet into compliance, one wonders why Kimball thought it necessary to go through the charade in the first place as he presumably could have gotten rid of Fossten at the beginning of the process rather than at the end (as the entire charade was orchestrated merely to fool Fossten). Further, one wonders at the Thralian response to learning that Kimball, acting as their leader, arranged for the deaths of millions of their sons, husbands, and fathers, the Thralians seem to do little more than give a collective shrug of resignation.

The more interesting battle (in my opinion) of Nadreck in defeating the Eich is simply glossed over and handled entirely off-stage, which is a tremendous disappointment. But Nadreck isn't Kinnison, and if you aren't Kinnison in the book, you presumably aren't very important. The book ends with Kinnison being made Galactic Coordinator of the Second Galaxy and finally marrying MacDougall, who has some embarrasing scenes near the end of the book shopping for clothes.

This book contains as much swashbuckling space opera action as any of the books in the series, but suffers because the sexism, more or less latent in the other volumes, takes center stage for significant chunks of the book. In addition, Kinnison's actions on Thrale seem in many cases to be needlessly cruel. Although some half-hearted explanations are made for his decision to unnecessarily condemn millions to death, they seem pretty weak considering the monstrosity of what the reader is expected to accept as the actions of a heroic figure. The superscience introduced, while more powerful than that in previous books, isn't quite as cool as using planets as nutcrackers, or creating a sphere of negative matter. In many ways, Second Stage Lensmen feels like a rehash of Gray Lensman, just bigger and more extravagant. Somehow, the book still ends up reading like a diminished version of its predecessor. Despite its flaws, the book remains a classic of the genre, and worth reading for anyone who can overlook the 1930s sexism and loves stories chock full of massive space battles, square jawed heroes, bizarre aliens, and dastardly villains.

Previous book in the series: Gray Lensman
Subsequent book in the series: Children of the Lens

1943 Retro Hugo Award Finalists (awarded in 2018)

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

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

Short review: The forces of Boskone threaten Civilization again and Kim Kinnison, super-human Lensman, single-handedly unravels their plans.

Let's rescue a world
Moving it between galaxies
Drugs are the real threat?

Full review: Gray Lensman is the fourth book in the classic Lensman series and the second to focus on the adventures of Lensman extraordinaire Kim Kinnison. While the novel is colored by 1930s sensibilities (including a healthy dollop of sexism) it remains an exciting space opera complete with lantern jawed heroes, bizarre aliens, scheming villains, and colossal space battles.

The action in Gray Lensman picks up immediately where Galactic Patrol left off, in the middle of the battle against Helmuth's forces as they uncover clues as to the location of his backers, and deal with a deadly parting trap left by the now dead Helmuth. The clues (plus some deduction about the effects of colliding galaxies) lead Kinnison to mount an expedition aboard the newly constructed super dreadnought Dauntless into another galaxy where he thinks the true Boskone resides. The Dauntless locates a planet under attack and comes to its aid, destroying the Boskonian forces and discovering that the entire planet is capable of going "free" (that is, inertialess, the method used in the Lensman books to achieve interstellar and intergalactic space travel). As quickly as they arrived on Boskonian turf, the Lensman return to the "First Galaxy" (the Milky Way) with the space-faring planet and its grateful residents.

Having made an expedition into a Boskonian-held galaxy (and making the assumption that pretty much all of the galaxy save for the one planet they brought back is under Boskonian control) and returned with an entire planet, Kinnison decides that the greatest threat the Patrol should deal with is, once again, the traffic in the illegal drug thionite. Despite the numerous galaxy spanning space battles, the key, according to Kinnison, is to quash the presumably Boskonian backed trade in narcotics. Of course, this being a space opera, he is completely correct, but it does seem quite silly.

The novel then turns in to "Kimball Kinnison: Undercover Vice-Cop" as Kinnison tries to infiltrate the Boskonian drug network. Along the way, Kinnison learns something else new: he no longer needs his Lens to do Lensman things like read minds or communicate telepathically, adding still more powers in the repertoire of this ridiculously super-powered space hero. Kinnison suffers some setbacks, and has to assume a couple different identities, eventually one requiring him to learn to drink and use drugs with no ill effects. Eventually he uncovers the information leading him to the boss of all Boskonian drug traffic in the galaxy.

Oddly, there is a minor interlude in the middle of Kinnisons undercover work in which the Delgonian overlords seem to have returned. Kinnison, of course, is asked to lead the expedition to hunt them down, and the reptilian Worsel comes along (Worsel becomes his constant sidekick for the rest of the book). The Delgonians are dispatched in fairly short order, and Kim beats himself up over the casualties that he suffered. He quickly recovers and heads back to his assumed identity to complete his drug busting mission, but not before convening all the greatest scientists in the galaxy to work on some weapon development projects (a sequence in which we find out that Kim and Worsel are apparently the most highly rated geniuses in the galaxy). After a certain point in the story, Kinnison’s hyper-competence becomes quite silly: it seems that if there is any job that needs doing, the best man suited for the job is Kinnison, and as a result, he ends up being handed the assignment. One wonders what the other Lensman in the galaxy are up to in the meantime. Actually, with only a few exceptions, the other Lensman who appear in the books seem somewhat less than impressive. Remember, this is a group that is so selective that only a handful of the inhabitants on any given planet will qualify. And yet many of the run of the mill Lensman (who should be incredibly competent supergeniuses) seem almost doltish.

Kim and Worsel then set out on what amounts to a suicide mission to uncover the location of Boskone. Of course, since Kinnison is involved, the suicide mission doesn't quite kill him. Given the fact that Kim seems to be the only person in Civilization who can foil the evil Boskonians, one wonders what would have happened if he had been killed. It is this sort of “indispensable man” element to the Lensman stories that I believe Asimov was reacting to when he wrote the Foundation series which feature the idea that it is masses of people, not individual supermen, that make up history. To a certain extent, the Mule in Second Foundation seems to be the anti-Kinnison, a study in what a person with such superhuman powers and wide-ranging authority might actually be like. He then leads an expedition to destroy the Boskonian base in the first galaxy (using a negasphere, essentially a black hole) and then traveling to the Boskonian home turf to destroy their fleet and then their home base (using a planet cracker). The book is capped off by the culmination of the romance between Kimball and Clarissa MacDougal resulting in their marriage.

It is the super science where Doc Smith really shines. Considering that the stories were written in 1939, some of the super science devices are quite imaginative: a negasphere, composed of negative energy that consumes anything it touches, using a pair of "free" planets as a nutcracker to destroy a third, a massive command and control ship to coordinate millions of warships, a hyperspace vortex that changes the mass of objects inside it, limb and body regeneration, and so on. From scenes of a battle using space weaponry that levels a city in the process, to a massive engagement in the depths of intergalactic space, Smith writes on a scale that simply dwarfs his contemporaries.

Unusually for a writer of the era, Smith also populates his stories with bizarre and grotesque but friendly aliens. Despite being published in 1939, the Lensman books hold a decidedly xeno-friendly attitude, and one could even infer an undercurrent of anti-racism in them. Unfortunately, one cannot find anti-sexism in them. Clarissa MacDougal, despite supposedly being Kinnison's equal, is relegated to the position of nurse. She's a powerful nurse, to be sure, in charge of other nurses, but she is not allowed to hold any kind of position that is not one traditionally occupied by women. She is also, of course, given the sole job of preparing the wedding when she and Kimball plan to get married. Through this, she displays no resentment concerning the fact that while the various "superior men" who populate the stories have jobs with power and responsibility (and massive credit accounts to draw upon), she is stuck working as a subordinate to random doctors on a hospital ship. Despite the blatant sexism, the story still holds up, one simply has to overlook it as an artifact of the time in which is was written.

The book also has a definite undercurrent of elitism: The Lensman in general, and Kim in particular, are simply better than those around them. They are smarter, braver, tougher, and morally superior. This is not an attitude unique to the Lensman series, but it seems that the elitism of the series has percolated into the wider science fiction world through those stories that seem to be clearly inspired by it: the elite Jedi ruling council in Star Wars, the aristocracy (and mentats, and Bene Gesserit) in Dune, and so on. Effectively, there does not seem to be any kind of democracy in the Lensman universe, just the benevolent rule by the super elite. In the Lensman series, this is supposed to be acceptable, as the Arisians ensure that only the altruistic and incorruptible will become Lensman, and thus, part of the ruling elite, but who watches over the Arisians? In the novels it is a given that the Arisians are wholly good, but without the omniscient assurance of the author, how would one know? The books that take inspiration from the Lensman series and place an elite on the throne (so to speak) rarely seem to take this into account.

Despite the elitist overtones, and the blatant sexism, Gray Lensman remains a classic of the genre. The enormous scope of the action and the incredible range of imagined super-science is simply breathtaking for a novel of its day. As an integral part of one of the most influential series of books in the genre, Gray Lensman is a must read for anyone who wants to truly understand the underpinnings of science fiction. The fast paced action, bizarre aliens, and cruel villains are simply a bonus.

Previous book in the series: Galactic Patrol
Subsequent book in the series: Second Stage Lensman

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