Thursday, November 3, 2011

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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