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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