518. The Lensmen (1)

This is one of the fifteen that hit the sweet spot.

Part of this appeared in Alien Autopsy (2), but this is an expanded version.

E. E. (Edward Elmer) Smith’s prose sings. I said that all my selections sing and I’m going to stick to that statement. I also said that that singing was a function of the story being told. Smith’s prose is like a heavy metal band in front of a driving beat, pumping their fists and screaming out in a harsh falsetto.

Doc Smith is the only writer I know above the age of twelve who uses capital letters for emphasis, as in —

All I can say in that you have the most important assignment in the Universe today, and repeat — that information MUST GET BACK TO BASE.     Galactic Patrol p. 23

Admittedly he only uses this sparingly, but if any modern writer were to use it at all, it would be tongue in cheek. Smith is completely serious. 

So why is he on my best list? Because no one is better than Doc Smith at what he does — pure evil, shining good, huge distances, dizzying speed, massive warfare, whole planets reduced to rubble, and a hero that is so perfect that Superman would retire if he ever met him. All this without a single blush; without even knowing that some of his fans might blush for him. That complete lack of a sense of the ridiculous is why the Lensman series works. Mankind is fighting for its life against an evil and overpowering enemy, every man must do his part, and there is no place for half measures.

Like Star Wars on steroids? No, that defames Smith and his work. Doc Smith invented space opera. Star Wars is the Lensman series diluted by a whole ocean.

[That, by the way, is me being over the top in homage to Smith, who lived over the top.]

Let’s take a moment to name the books in order.

                First Lensman
                Galactic Patrol
                Gray Lensman
                Second Stage Lensman
                Children of the Lens

Smith was not available in either of the two libraries that were the centers of my childhood universe, but when I got to college, one of my roommates was a fan. He wisely started me on Galactic Patrol, and I read through to the end of the series, then circled back. Take my word for it — keep the same order. If you start on the putative book one, Triplanetary, you’ll probably never make it past page five.

In fact, books four through six were written from 1937 through 1948, all appearing serialized in Astounding. Smith wrote Triplanetary in 1934, but it was a stand-alone. When he got a chance to get the complete series published in paperback, he rewrote Triplanetary to fit the others, wrote an entire new second book, First Lensman, and tweaked the rest. They fit together, and the first two have moments of excellence, but the last four are the essence of the tale. If you find the style too old fashioned after two chapters of Galactic Patrol, move on; you were born too late to enjoy it.

Continued on Wednesday.


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