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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  1. I love the way you review an entire series in order. Really meets my OCD needs!

  2. @Julia: Mine too! I try to do books in a series in order if I can. Sadly, that's not always possible. But I do my best.