From the atomic age in Atlantis to a world remote in space and time, two incredible ancient races, the Arisians and the Eddorians, are in the midst of an interstellar war with Earth as the prize. The Arisians, using advanced mental technology, have foreseen the invasion of their galaxy by the corrupt and evil Eddorians, so they begin a breeding program on every planet in their universe. Their goal...to produce super warriors who can hold off the invading Eddorians.
Edward Elmer Smith (also E.E. Smith, E.E. Smith, Ph.D., E.E. “Doc” Smith, Doc Smith, “Skylark” Smith, or—to his family—Ted), was an American food engineer (specializing in doughnut and pastry mixes) and an early science fiction author, best known for the Lensman and Skylark series. He is sometimes called the father of space opera.
I've heard people rave about how Doc Smith's work was one of the early space operas and that it influenced many later science fiction masterpieces. This may be true, but I'm thinking that just because it was influential, doesn't mean I have to like it. And I don't much.
It's been pointed out by others that this book hasn't aged well, and maybe that's my problem with it. Then again, the Hardy Boys haven't aged well, and I still (guilty pleasure alert) like some of the series. But I read those as a child, so there's a bit of nostalgia that goes with my reading of the Hardy Boys. Not so with Smith's novel, Triplanetary. I wasn't a child when Doc Smith's first works came out, so I don't have that glittering/blinding cloud of nostalgia around his work, like the one that engulfs me when I read Hardy Boys.
Maybe seeing Flash Gordon reruns at about the same time that Star Wars came out back in the '70s caused a rift in my mind, a gaping gulf between "then" and "now" (or what was "now" at the time). Pan Star Wars all you want, but the original movie is both derived from the old Flash Gordon serials and a reworking of the trappings in a beautiful and brilliant "new" (again, speaking relatively of time) packaging. I loved it, and still do. Flash Gordon is laughable, and was laughable even when I was a child. And because it's laughable, I kind of enjoy the campiness of it all. But I don't take it as seriously as it takes itself.
And maybe that's my problem. Perhaps I went into this book ready to take it seriously, hence I was seriously disappointed. I can't look back on it and glory in the unintentional silliness of it all - the chauvinism, the absolutely terrible dialogue, and the deus ex machina (and here, I mean literally "machine") that jerks the plot in unlikely directions and destroys pacing. All of this makes for an agitating read full of overstimulus, like overdosing on cocaine or deciding, against all better judgement, that you should take the plunge off the 3 story tall water slide only to find that it wasn't such a good idea just as your butt clears the drop. Smith's attempts in this vein seem like a way to buy off, rather than reward the reader for patience. And I know not everyone wrote like that back in that day and age, so don't feed me the "His writing was a product of the time" line.
The one aspect of the book that I did enjoy didn't involve the human characters at all. I actually quite liked the alien race, the Nevians. But the whole mess between Triplanetary (the human alliance) and these amphibian aliens could have been avoided, had someone just stopped for a moment and talked about the abundance of iron resources available in the asteroid belt. Why didn't anyone think of that? Can't we all just get along?!?
So I finished the book. I can honestly say that. I won't be reading any more of E.E. "Doc" Smith's work, however. I've had enough. Too much, in fact. I can only be force-fed so many unlikely twists and perfect saves before declaring: "Doc Smith is to hyperbole in science fiction what Monty Hall was to giveaways."
Still, I liked the aliens. At least they made sense. In fact, rather than destroying the galaxy, the aliens are saving a bit of the galaxy by keeping my rating of this book at two stars, rather than one.
Don't trust my rating of this book; it's part of my childhood, when I read it over and over again, and I have no way of objectively rating it.
For reasons I no longer recall, I got rid of these books at some point, probably during a house move when I was trying to de-clutter. I found all seven in the series in a second hand book shop a few years ago and, struck by nostalgia, I bought them all. Reading them again, I found that the clunky writing, the cardboard characters, the outdated social mores, the bad science - everything that should make me drop this book like a venomous snake - was just charming. I was a kid again, thrilling to the adventures of Kim Kinninson and his spaceship crew.
The golden glow of summer afternoons in the garden and dimly-lit late nights in bed (I had a thing then for dozing off while reading by candlelight - luckily no fires!) so I could get to the end of a chapter (and just one more... maybe another one), illuminates this book with fond memories. It's just not possible for me, the adult, to betray me, the child, by giving this (and the rest of the Lensman series) anything less than 5 stars. Forgive me, you more discerning readers.
Super Spy Scandal! 19 yo Socialite Sparks Interstellar War! "Miss Marsden will have a lot of explaining to do when she gets back home." - Triplanetary Tattler.
Supreme Council Shocker! We Are Not Alone! "These so-called 'Arisians,' fancy themselves our equals. Of course, we will soon demonstrate our superiority." - Eddorian Bugle.
Watchman Howler! N-Dimensional Chess Game Abandoned! "Well, we were kinda left considering an infinite number of moves..." - Arisian Post
Re-reading this classic from my youth. It's been a real trip down memory lane.
Smith is great with his hooks. The first third of this book is more or less a series of snapshots to provide backstory and world building. But each chapter is its own story and often begins with an analogue of 'The siren wailed!' and then the action starts.
The danger with such a strategy is, of course, the risk of shallow characterization and I've seen some other writers draw very 2-dimensional characters surrounded by explosions and cannon fire. (... not looking in the mirror here ...) Fortunately Smith has an antidote to poorly drawn characters, and that is commitment unto death, and high purpose, every one of his Main Characters (on the Good side) have these traits.
The heroes are uniformly very brave, and driven by high ideals. For my somewhat cynical/stoic disposition this could easily be seen as naïve, however there are people in our real world that match the characterizations (e.g. Exemplars) provided by Smith. He draws these traits well enough and against such villainy that they come across as authentic and hence draw you in.
I'd forgotten just how visceral Smith's writing is. He doesn't shy away from robust descriptions of violence and horrific scenes. There are Christians burning on crosses as torture candles. There are naked dismembered human torsos hanging from trees, and battlefields composed of churned up mud and shredded human flesh and bone.
Authenticity is a key word for Smith's story telling, and for me he hits the mark with his villains. The Eddorians are the ultimate high-functioning psychopaths. Utterly selfish, ruthless, intelligent, determined, callous, and efficient. They are not evil because they are mad, sick, or have suffered a past trauma that was never resolved. They are simply the epitome of evil. Something a lot of modern writers seem to shy away from in favor of portraying evil as something else... (like madness for example ...)
I'm so pleased to see a story where the villains have not had their villainy excused with a white wash of authorial cowardice. If we are as a culture ever going to come to grips with the nature of evil we have to draw evil as it is - not as we would like it to be.
Speaking of evil, eugenics and transhumans are a key feature of the series, as humanity is being deliberately cultivated in a war against an explicitly evil foe. Compare with https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.ph... for notes. This is quite a deep topic that I will revisit over the course of the series.*
On a pop-culture note. The Galactic Patrol and the Lens are precursors to the whole Green Lantern concept.
The only quibble I have is the way that new generations of science and technology are mastered in hours or days struck as a tad 'inconceivable,' but the enthusiastic joy of the writing is undeniable, and does sweep you along.
Recommended. 4, 'Gosh, Go Get 'Em,' stars.
*And the time has come. Given this series was written during the 1930s-1950s we have in the last volume a set of characters (Children of the Lens) who have become living gods that transcend humanity in the same way that each of us transcend Australopithecus. For Smith, these children were an essential weapon of the Arisians vs the Eddorians, and the manipulation of humanity's evolution to produce them is simply a necessary element of the war between 'Good,' vs 'Evil.'
On a personal note, I view the idea of eugenics and 'superior stock,' with a great degree of trepidation. Such views can easily lead to the most vile of outcomes, as we have seen in the 20th century, and frankly, we may see again in the 21st.
While I valorise the story (Lensman series), I retain a grain of salt for some of the underpinning ideas. Those are my thoughts on this topic.
Reading Bishop Barnes's rather interesting Scientific Theory and Religion earlier this evening, I was reminded of E.E. Doc Smith's dreadful space opera series. Both authors, writing in the early 30s, are extremely concerned about current theories of planetary formation; this was the period when most scientists believed that the Solar System started when another star had a near miss with our own sun, dragging matter out of it by tidal forces. I am kind of surprised that so many people took this theory seriously, since Laplace had given good reasons for doubting it over a century earlier; but there were technical problems with Laplace's theory, which meant that it was temporarily out of favor.
The "near-miss" theory turned out to be wrong in a variety of ways, but the one which most upset both Barnes and Smith was that stellar encounters would be extremely rare, so hardly any suns would end up with planets. Barnes does a mathematical analysis and concludes that a new solar system would be formed in our galaxy only about once every five hundred million years. This offends his complex religious sensibilities, and (arguably for the wrong reason), he concludes that the "near-miss" theory is incorrect.
But Smith has no time to think about the niceties of astrophysics; he's got an SF epic to write, and he needs lots of planets for his cool aliens to live on! He comes up with the ingenious idea of letting two galaxies collide with each other. If this happens, he says, you'll get plenty of near misses and an adequate supply of solar systems.
The things SF writers feel they need to explain! Later on, we get faster-than-light travel by means of the "inertialess drive", and Smith hardly even bothers to whitewash it. But somehow he was unhappy about a lack of planets. I wonder why.
This review is of the shorter, original version, because I somehow grabbed that one instead of the other one from Project Gutenberg.
Whether or not Triplanetary is a good book depends on one’s expectations, I guess. I was expecting, due to it’s age, a pulpy adventure. That’s exactly what I got. If you are wanting something more cerebral or otherwise more suited to modern tastes, I suggest reading something else.
The characters are pretty much archetypes, but such wonderful examples of them that I found it hard to be annoyed. And Clio . . . I’ve read lots of much later sf where the female characters were more purely ornamental than her. She wasn’t quite an action hero on her own yet, but in her you see the elements that began the path to females who didn’t need a man to rescue them.
And I think I’ve got a crush on Costigan. He was so utterly heroic and devoted to Clio. I miss heroes who were just heroes. Why must they all be so tormented these days?
The plot was a little too coincidence driven, but, as I said, I was expecting pulp and that’s what I got. That said, it did stress my suspension of disbelief that everything was so quickly reverse engineered all the time. And a lot of violence could’ve been avoided had the Nevians or humans gone “Hey, can we talk?” much, much earlier, but that is acknowledged, at least.
Now, for my favorite thing about this book: The descriptions! Why, oh why, did descriptions like this go out of style?! “Above her, ruddy Mars and silvery Jupiter blazed in splendor ineffable against a background of utterly indescribable blackness--a background thickly besprinkled with dimensionless points of dazzling brilliance which were the stars.” The descriptions alone have sold me on Doc Smith’s writing style, and I’ll certainly be reading more by him just to get to experience more of it.
Personally, since I like my fiction on the pulpy side, I think this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. If you like your fiction a bit more serious, more carefully constructed and all that . . . you probably won’t like it, I’m sorry to say.
I really started something when I picked up this book. We were in NYC. It was 3 weeks after our wedding. I found The Lensmen series at one of those New York bookstores you go to just so you can say you have been there and I bought the first three books in the series. I read a lot of these old pulp science fiction series back in high school, Doc Savage being my favorite. My new husband was a fantasy fan, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Zelazny's Amber books. I had no idea he was going to latch onto these books and the next TWENTY-EIGHT years of my life were going to be a Kim Kinnison festival. Yes, we both were hooked, launched into Doc Smith's larger than life struggle between good and evil on a galactic level. For years no family trip was complete without hunting for a second hand bookstore in hopes of snagging a copy of one of the books we hadn't read yet. Eventually, my interest flagged. My beloved's didn't. I paid him back by adding the search for the elusive yarn store in the woods that turns out to have closed three years ago to the eternal vacation waste of time. Then the internet happened. We had kids. We made them watch the animated Lensmen series. It was horrible, btw. But, hey, it made up for all those trips tracking down "Dragonball Z" voice actors for autographs.
So, a warning: I'm not sure "Triplanitary" will affect your life as strongly as it did mine, but I would think carefully before attempting reading it.
I'm not terribly ashamed to admit I like Doc Smith, since I'm in good company (see Robert Heinlein's "Larger than Life"). Heinlein's apology for Smith covers most of the usual criticisms: the hackneyed dialogue, the Mauve Decade values, the liberal use of space opera stereotypes such as bug-eyed monsters (although note, please, that these hadn't been overused yet during Smith's time).
But I secretly hope that, in a different life, I too might wear the Lens....and in any case, to be a credit to the Patrol.
In its article on the subject of "Space Opera," my beloved "Science Fiction Encyclopedia" describes the genre thus: "…loosely applicable to any space adventure story, but particularly to those in which the scale of the action is extravagant...." It is as good a working definition as any, but had the authors of this scholarly tome wished to do so, they might just as easily have explained the term by showing pictures of the six book covers of E.E. "Doc" Smith's famed Lensman series. Written over the 16-year period 1934 – 1950, it is the crowning creation of the man who has been called "The Father of Space Opera," and a series that has been embraced by generations of readers. The six books that comprise the Lensman series have been sitting unread on my bookshelf for many years now, intimidating me by dint of their supposed epic scope and monumentally detailed story line. But seeing as I have been on something of a sci-fi Golden Age kick as of late, I figured that it was high time to pull up my space boots and plunge manfully into this crown jewel of the era, and you know what? I just loved the series' opening salvo, "Triplanetary," to bits!
This first entry of the legendary series has a somewhat complicated publishing history. By the time it first appeared in book form in 1948, Books 3 through 6 of the series had already appeared serially in the pages of John W. Campbell's "Astounding" magazine. The book's second section, itself entitled "Triplanetary," had appeared as early as 1934 in Hugo Gernsback's "Amazing Stories" (the first magazine dedicated solely to science fiction), and had nothing to do with the future Lensman series whatsoever. Feeling that his four-part series needed a backstory of sorts, Smith rewrote "Triplanetary" to fit it into the grand scheme, prefacing and expanding it with around 100 pages of even more explanatory material. Thus, "Triplanetary" the novel and its sequel, "First Lensman" (1950), would eventually comprise what is, in essence, a 500-page backstory transpiring before the main events in Book 3 even begin. And yes, it is a sign of the grandioseness of Smith's vision that his saga requires so many pages of detailed prequel action before the central story actually commences. And yet, it is a prologue containing so much in the way of story, spectacle, action and adventure that even standing on it own, it would, I feel, be quite a feather in "Doc" Smith's cap. This series, of course, was not the first far-flung space opera that the Sheboygan-born, one-time food chemist (a specialist in pastry and doughnut mixes!) had delivered to the world--that would be his famed Skylark series of 1928 – 1935--but it is the one that supposedly proved so very mind-blowing to readers back when, each succeeding book (as I've heard) expanding the scope of what had preceded it.
As I mentioned, the story line here is a bit intimidating, but I will endeavor to synopsize it for you. Two billion years ago, it seems, our galaxy and another had interpenetrated, each one only containing one form of sentient life. From our galaxy had sprung the Arisians, whose Earth-like world gave birth to a people of farseeing intellect and a philanthropic bent. From the other galaxy had sprung the creatures of Eddore, sexless, amoebalike, form-shifting monstrosities of equally great intellect, but "intolerant, domineering, rapacious, insatiable, cold, callous, and brutal." The Arisians predict that the creatures of Eddore will one day manage to conquer the nascent worlds of both galaxies unless something drastic is done, and so prepare a long-range plan, one requiring many millions of years. Their plan entails subtly steering the histories of several key worlds, while at the same time permitting the Eddorians (who are unaware of the Arisians' existence) many victories, all in an effort to strengthen Civilization, allow for the formation of a "Galactic Patrol," and lead to bloodlines that will result in a chosen few who will be able to wield a weapon only referred to here as the Lens.
Thus, in the book's first section, we see how the plan of the nearly immortal Arisians begins to play out, while Gharlane, one of the highest-ranking of the equally long-lived Eddorians, does everything it can to destroy and tear down. We are privy to the fall of Atlantis, a nuclear power that was annihilated by a war secretly provoked by Eddore. We witness a failed gladiator revolt against the Emperor Nero, who, we later learn, was actually Gharlane itself! We then jump to furious action in the fields of WW1, where Captain Ralph Kinnison (a forefather of the Kinnison clan that will figure so largely in all the later books) is sorely injured during a heroic mission. Then, it's on to WW2, where Ralph encounters major obstacles while working as an inspector in a munitions plant. (Smith himself had run into the same exact difficulties during his own WW2 service.) And finally, it's on to WW3, in which another Kinnison, Ted, is killed in his fighter rocket while attempting to knock down incoming, transpolar A bombs. It is to be inferred that every setback, in every age, has been the result of the machinations of Eddore, while the omniscient Watchmen of Arisia give up these pawns for the good of the larger game.
But it is only in the book's second, "Triplanetary" section that things really start to take off. "Triplanetary" is somewhat tripartite in nature, offering up three distinct story lines that come together wondrously. In the first, which takes place long after the atomic destruction of WW3, Conway Costigan, an agent of the Triplanetary Patrol, is kidnapped, along with the beautiful, 19-year-old Clio Marsden and Captain Bradley, from their interplanetary space liner, the Hyperion, by a gang of pirates. These pirates are led by a man with the wholly imposing name of, uh, Roger, and brought to the pirates' lair, an artificial planetoid in deep space. Oh...did I fail to mention that Roger is actually Gharlane itself, still up to its dastardly business, now many thousands of years after Atlantis' fall? In a second story line, the amphibianlike denizens of the planet Nevia, searching the galaxy for the iron that is so scarce on their home world, attack the pirates' stronghold and later take Costigan, Clio and Bradley back to Nevia as prisoners. And in the third and parallel story line, Virgil Samms, the Nick Fury-like head of the Triplanetary Patrol, from his base protected by force screens deep in the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho/Montana, pushes to have his organization build the Earth's first faster-than-light starship. He is aided in this task by Lyman Cleveland, an ace at ultrawave communication, radar and the like, and Fred Rodebush, a nuclear physicist. Their new supership, the Boise, will not only feature an "inertialess" drive system, but will be able to withstand the crimson rays that the Nevians use to instantly convert iron to an "allotropic," liquid state, and enough firepower--"torpedoes...canisters of penetrating gas...atomic bombs...armor-piercing projectiles...shattering flasks containing 'the quintessence of corrosion'"--to take on the fish/lizard people. And this task cannot be finished quickly enough, as another Nevian ship soon appears in the sky over Pittsburgh, and commences to turn that most ferrous of metropolises into an allotropic mess, ready for storage in the Nevian starship's hold....
Into his first Lensman novel, which again is in essence 250 of 500 pages of prequel backstory, Smith pours enough action and spectacle to fill a half dozen regular sci-fi tales. Highlights include the travails of a male-and-female secret agent team engaging in breakneck danger to avert a nuclear disaster in Atlantis (unsuccessfully, of course); extremely violent WW1 warfare; Costigan & Co.'s escape from Roger's planetoid and, later, the Nevian home world; and any number of battles, both in outer space and over the skies of Earth and Nevia, employing colossal ships and the technologies of superscience. Thus, a three-way battle between Roger's planetoid, the Nevians and the Triplanetary forces; a battle between the amphibian Nevians and the deeper-sea fish folk; the battle between the Boise and the Nevians over Pittsburgh; and the final battles royale between the Boise and Roger's second planetoid and the Boise and the Nevian planet itself, culminating in a destructive climax perhaps partly inspired by the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few years earlier. It is all thrilling, awe-inspiring stuff, finely depicted by Smith, who easily engenders that elusive "sense of wonder" so highly prized by pulp readers back when.
And the author also peppers his story with any number of pleasing grace notes and imaginative tidbits. I just love when Roger and his pirates touch down on an uncharted planet to effect some repairs, and encounter ravening flora and the bloblike residents of that world. The romance between Costigan and Clio is a touching one, too, their love scenes being written in swooning language to make the ladies sigh; and yet, the author is still capable of delivering a romance line guaranteed to make the reader snicker, such as Costigan's "If we ever get out of this jam I'm going to kiss you, but this is no time to be taking off your helmet...." Curiously enough, most of the starships depicted in Smith's story, whether Terran or those built by Gharlane the Eddorian, are globular in shape; apparently, Smith could not conceive of a spacefaring vessel that looks anything like "Star Trek"'s Enterprise. (The Nevian ships, oddly enough, ARE fish shaped.) But speaking of "Star Trek," "Triplanetary" also gives us ships that are protected by defensive force shields, and that are capable of holding on to other ships using their "tractor beams." I'm not sure if these were the first ships in science fiction to be so equipped, but they still predated the Enterprise by many decades.
By the conclusion of "Triplanetary," the Eddorians have finally, after 2 billion years, become aware of the Arisians' existence, and have decided to intensify their efforts to destroy "what the weak and spineless adherents of Civilization consider the finest things in life -- love, truth, honor, loyalty, purity, altruism, decency, and so on,” using as their weapons "vice...drugs...greed...gambling...extortion...blackmail...lust...abduction...assassination...ah-h-h!" The ages-old rivalry between the two superraces has finally become an open one, leaving the reader breathlessly wondering what could possibly happen next. I guess that I'm just going to have to proceed on to Book 2 now, "First Lensman," to find out....
(By the way, this review originally appeared on the FanLit website at http://www.fantasyliterature.com/ ... a most ideal destination for all fans of E. E. "Doc" Smith....)
I only heard of the Lensman series recently. In his introduction to the copy of Foundation that I just read, Isaac Asimov said he was surprised when his series won the Hugo Award for best series of all time in 1966, because he was sure J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings would win. (This didn't make sense to me, since Tolkien's work isn't sci-fi, it's fantasy, but whatever.) The other series that were up for consideration were Robert A. Heinlein's "future history" series, Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Barsoom" series, and E.E. "Doc" Smith's "Lensman" series.
So when I found a pile of the Lensman books sitting on top of someone's trash while I was out walking the dog, it made sense to grab them.
I felt adrift in this narrative for the first 90 pages. I'm not sure how this novel was constructed, but it feels piecemeal. Triplanetary was published in 1948, with revisions by Smith to make it a prequel to the Lensman series, but was originally serialized in Amazing Stories magazine in 1934.
The first section of the book gives an overview of the Arisians and Eddorians, two alien super races who are good and evil, respectively. The Wikipedia entry for this book currently says that the Arisians resemble giant human brains, but Smith clearly writes that they are "distinctly humanoid," so maybe that changed over time. The Eddorians are nebulous, shifting creatures, and can assume a variety of human forms.
Gharlane of Eddore occupies several nasty humans, including Nero (Wikipedia claims he is Hitler during the section of the narrative that takes place during World War II, but Hitler is never mentioned in Triplanetary).
The reason I felt adrift is because the short sections that take place during the fall of Atlantis, the fall of Rome, the Great War, the Second World War, and World War III aren't really connected in any way. Most confusingly, the Atlanteans possess futuristic technology, such as planes and jeeps. The next bit, in Rome, however, is a straightforward story of gladiatorial combat and a slave revolt.
It wasn't until the meat of the narrative -- the long story called "Triplanetary" -- that I settled in and enjoyed this book in any way.
Smith's prose is clunky, but it's vigorous and exciting enough once the reader finds its rhythm. It's also fun to read such an old science fiction book that contains so many elements that would become standard in space opera; tractor beams, view screens (here called "plates"), force fields (here called "screens"), faster-than-light space travel (here called "inertialess flight"), beam weapons (here called "projectors"), and even a metal planetoid filled with automatons led by a single evil figure (sound familiar, Star Wars fans?).
The science and technology are pretty interesting, too, since they're products of their time. For instance, spaceships in Doc Smith's world run on allotropic iron.
All the elements of Triplanetary that related to the larger series, such as Arisia and Eddore, felt tacked-on, and left me confused. After finishing this book, I still don't know what a "lens" is in Doc Smith's world, or how one might wield it.
I plan to read more of the series, not least because I have the whole stack sitting on my shelf at home, but I didn't feel as if this was a great introduction. Many "prequels" aren't. But if the next couple of books in the series are this slapdash and vague about the big picture, I can't see making it through the entire thing.
I have to give the Lensman books at least four stars for their nostalgia value, and that they began me on a life of love for science fiction. I'll have read them first in my very early teens, probably around the time of the original Star Wars trilogy, on which they are no doubt a huge influence. I think these are probably the finest of 'Doc' Smith's ripping space adventures - powered by derring do and the fight for justice, with square jawed heroes and their beautiful women, a World's Fair-type optimism of technology and a complete lack of regard for the laws of physics.
The good guys practically wear white hats, perfect physical and mental specimens that could adorn a recruitment poster for the US Army or the Wehrmacht. The women are strong and intelligent, too - strong enough to tell the men off for being overly macho (with a glint in their eyes that says how much they love it really) and smart enough to know that they should let the menfolk go off to do their duty while they stay behind to make sure the home is looked after.
Smith told the stories with a vibrancy that left the reader breathless at the adventure and heroism, with enough scientific gobbledygook to instill a sense of wonder - silvery teardrop shaped spacecraft powered by and 'intertia-less' drive that could fling them out of the solar system in a matter of seconds, ray guns that dealt death to the bad guys (but only after refusing the chance to change their ways, of course) and the mighty Lenses - weapon, communication device and symbol of the Galactic Patrol's righteous power, handed to humanity by the ancient peace-loving alien civilisation the Arisians to fight the evil Eddorians.
I've been meaning to re-read them all for some time, but perhaps they should be left in the past, infused with the fond glow of childhood discovery, remnant of a mythical time without cynicism and postmodernism, when we could ignore the complexities of the real world and pretend that all problems could be solved if people would just accept that granite jawed white men were always right. So I'll just remember watching a couple of episodes of Flash Gordon on Saturday morning TV (with Larry 'Buster' Crabbe, of course), maybe see Errol Flynn best the Sheriff of Nottingham, then ride my bike to the top of the hill and sit reading about the noble Lensmen.
I had heard that this series had dated badly but didn't think that would be a problem for me but I think for once it was. It's not just that the science that has dated (and boy has that dated), it's the dialogue too. 1930's American slang really began to grate on me after a while and demonstrates a truism I think; steer clear of the slang (either real or imagined) because, no matter how cool it might seem at the time, it will only look silly in years to come.
But at the end of the day, it's not just that it's dated. It's quite badly written too. The story lurches from one event to the next, crisis to crisis, in an erratic fashion. Plausibility was no constraint on the story telling. Just plain terrible characterisation and dialog.
In a funny sort of way, the characterisation of this book reminded me of that in E. R. Eddison's "The Worm Ouroboros" only with less humour and less eloquence.
It wasn't all bad though, there were epic space battles with imaginative forms of weaponry. There was enough action and suspense to keep me reading and I'll probably check out the next in the series but it won't be for a while.
In a collision of galaxies, two powerful races begin eons-long opposition, played out through manipulation of lesser races, including humans. Much later, the Triplanetary government of Earth, Mars, and Venus, deploys its immense fleet against pirates, but is devastated by a number of mysterious and unexpected opponents.
E. E. Smith's Lensman series, which begins here, is a classic of pulp science fiction. It's one I grew up with, several decades after its first appearance. It's a great, fun series, but only if taken in the context of its time - the leadup to World War II, and a time with very different values than we enjoy today. The women are smart, plucky, and essentially decorative. The men are strong, brilliant, and brave. Most moral decisions are clearcut, and when they aren't, the way forward is nonetheless obvious. Government is good and always acting for the best.
The two powerful races that start the story (in epically dense prose), the Eddoreans and the Arisians, encapsulate the ethos perfectly. The Eddoreans are selfish, arrogant, greedy - the epitome of everything cruel and evil. The Arisians are wise, generous, kind - they can do no wrong, even as they see their own shortcomings and plan for a stronger successor. That's pretty much the style of the series, and certainly of this first book (retrofitted to the series when novelized) - you'll never be in much doubt as to whom to root for. There's an attractive simplicity to that. In a time when we are blessed with SFF characters who travel in shades of grey, it can be relaxing to return to a series where good is good, and that's all there is to it.
The sexism in the series is a pervasive product of its time. It's not as easy to settle into that aspect of the book, but give Smith the benefit of his time, and focus more on the plot action, and you'll get past it. The characters here aren't deep - they're staunch and loyal, and they always do the right thing. It's the tractor beams and blaster fire that are important.
I'd forgotten just how rapidly the technology develops here. I could have sworn that shears and pressors and the inertialess drive took much longer to emerge, but they all come in right in this first book, seemingly developed over a matter of weeks by geniuses who need only one look at an enemy's polycyclic shield to immediately understand both its foundational principles, and the technology needed to go it one better.
Again, though, the Lensman series is not about credibility. It's about good beating evil. That was something people needed to hear in the middle of the last century. It's something we can stand to dream about again now. If you haven't read this series, you should. It's Science Fiction 101, and if you read it as a creature of its time, it's a lot of fun.
1.5 stars. Classic "space opera" by one of the fathers of the genre. First in the Lensman Series. Not horrible (though the dialogue at times made me wince), but I didn't really like either. This seems to be the weakest entry of the Lensman saga though it does set the stage well for the later novels.
Many (many) years ago my grandfather tried to interest me in E.E. Smith's Lensman series. He failed then, but the books somehow remained with me, always hovering at the edge of my consciousness. Now that I've finished Triplanetary I can honestly say: Grampa, you were so right! This is military-type, space-opera SF at its pulpy best. The pacing is lightning quick, the action unrelenting. It's a really, really fun read from first page to last. Yes, the characters are a bit "stock", but the plotting is extraordinarily imaginative, the writing style fluid and propulsive. And the Kindle e-book is free! Why are you hesitating? If you like Heinlein's military stuff (e.g. Starship Troopers), give Triplanetary a try. I can't wait to pick up First Lensman and keep reading! Thanks, Gramps, thanks!
"In which scientific detail would not be bothered about, and in which his imagination would run riot," Smith’s biographer Harry Smith said of the Lensman stories. And how.
Interesting more as a historical document than as literature, this includes the 1934 story which was the first Lensman story of classic science fiction. The writing is over-the-top, the characters heroic and chauvinistic, but it’s all great fun. The books influenced military development and future science fiction. (George Lucas read the Lensman series as a youth.)
Three stars is a gift. I wouldn’t have finished such an outlandish tale if written today, but it was hot stuff back then.
I tried to like this, I really did. Some books age well but this one does not stand the test of time. I can see the seeds that planted in later sci-fi authors and there are some great ideas here, but I found it was poorly written and at times the author really didn't seem to know where he was planning on going and it meandered a lot.
I suppose it was about time for me to read this first volume in the famous Lensman series. After all, I’m pretty sure this epic science-fiction series was the inspiration for Steve “Slug” Russell’s Spacewar!, arguably the template for computer games as developed in the early ‘60s. But I kept trying to fill in the gaps in the series before I started it and now, I have all but one of the volumes. So, I read Triplanetary. It was a surprise.
It was a surprise because the first 80 pages or so served merely as set-up. E. E. “Doc” Smith posited two transcendent civilizations, the cerebral Arisians and the consuming Eddorians. He redefined human warfare in terms of this cosmic struggle and didn’t really introduce the real protagonist, Conway “Spud” Costigan,” until after this set-up. As a result, I didn’t find myself emotionally engaged in the book until after this point. It would have been a lot of exposition to backtrack onto if he hadn’t started this way, but things didn’t really get hopping until the latter two-thirds of the book.
Triplanetary was also a surprise because this pre-Korean Conflict novel presents an interesting perspective on the early atomic age. Although Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in October of 1947, breaking the sound barrier must still have been a big deal in 1948 when Smith published Triplanetary for the first time. Witness this description of defensive rockets: “The rocket shivered and trembled as it hit the wall at the velocity of sound, but it did not pause.” (p. 83) In that section, Smith captured some of the flavor of the Cold War without guessing exactly how Strategic Air Command would work. However, he did forecast a base within a mountain with something of the same function (but on a broader scope) as the NORAD Alternate Command in the Cheyenne Mountain region (see pp. 170-1). But once Smith moved beyond the history that we know and he couldn’t possibly know, his ideas of alien beings and civilizations really begin to shine.
Particularly amusing was the fact that Smith visualized a modern video game move long before it appeared in Quake. Note the description of what is essentially a “rocket jump:” “…as he floated ‘upward’ he corrected his course and accelerated his pace by firing backward at various angles with his heavy service pistol, …” (p. 115). But I wasn’t nearly as amused by the idea that Costigan smuggled out 30 pounds of allotropic iron in his boot (p. 157)—even its gamma form would need to be heated so hot it would have been impossible to touch). It just didn’t seem likely to me. Another interesting, but peculiar, speculation was that if an alien technology could absorb all the iron found in any given area, it would absorb all the iron in an individual’s bloodstream, leaving it white (p. 167).
But the heart of Triplanetary is a romp through the galaxy or galaxies where Costigan teams with his ship’s captain, Captain Bradley, and his romantic interest, Clio Marsden, to thwart the machinations of an advanced amphibian society and escape from them in time to get vital information to Triplanetary Command and save humanity. Several of the scenes involving the two male protagonists and Clio reminded me (and caused me to visualize retro-images associated with) Flash Gordon, Dale Arden, and Dr. Zarkov (except in this case, Costigan takes on the role of both Flash and Zarkov).
It's easy to see why Triplanetary is considered an iconic work in science-fiction, as well as how it inspired one video game and “predicted” a maneuver in another. It’s also easy to see how it inspired a Japanese anime film and television series, but wonder why there isn’t a live-action, CGI choreographed version in pre-production today. I’m also not sure how I could call myself a legitimate science-fiction fan without having read this classic. And, for those who think I rated Triplanetary too low, please recognize my protest that if I were rating the last part of the book it would have been, at least, four stars. Still, I liked the entire novel even though the long, slow set-up wasn’t as inspiring as the mid-20th century science-fiction adventure toward the end.
Nutshell: first third chronicles intergalactic duel between super-species, through proxies on earth, mostly; remainder involves virtually unrelated space opera contest between overachiever earthlings and trespassing pisceans.
Advertised as the first Lensman book, I’m not really seeing any of the items made famous by that series. Opening section indicates that super-species brought down Atlantis and Rome, and then are involved with the three world wars of the 20th century. No idea what all that has to do with the later space opera, which is more concerned with the fish-aliens, who are iron-maruaders. One super-species has a proxy in the solar system during the time, a faux pirate who acts the mad scientist.
Pisceans have some kind of evil ray gun that divests enemy fleets of their ferrous properties, including hemoglobin. Human military is therefore annihilated on first encounter. But captives on fish-ship are able to discern the principles of the ferrous-stealing raygun and deliver it to humans, who build a new “supership” in a few weeks (no shit!) and use that ship to defeat the fishes. W00t! Fucking uppity fish!
For a pulp sci-fi novel, it's very well-written. What became tedious to me, though, was scene after scene of vast, hideous destruction, described in pretty much the same terms every time, and in such a way that it somehow failed to be horrible.
What I mean is that hundreds, thousands or millions of humans or aliens were being killed, and because they had no names and no faces and the named characters were all stiff-upper-lip about it, the horror of war was minimised and it became mere fireworks. I imagine that being written just after World War II had something to do with it.
I first read this book probably 40 years ago now, as a young lad. I enjoyed it then and enjoyed it again this time. Whilst it has dated a little even from the 70s if you bear that in mind it is still a far reaching and enjoyable book. Looking forward to the rest of the series I got for my birthday. Woo hoo.
Probably one of the worst books I've ever read. The first half was stapled on in 1948 as a sort of prequel to the Lensman novels. The back half was the original story from 1934. Most fascinating is the anti-fascism fears mixed with cold war era fears as a result of being written at different times.
This review is for any modern reader who didn't grow up reading pulp fiction from the 1930's. This probably isn't the story for you. "Triplanetary" is a classic science fiction story, but it doesn't hold up well compared to modern fiction.
I was born in the seventies, so this story is about forty years ahead of my time to begin with, but I'm a big fan of pulp sci-fi. While a lot of it is cheesy and thin compared to works of today, I enjoy the over-the-top action, and lack of concern for scientific accuracy. If they wanted to have green bug-eyed Martians flying around space in hot air balloons, they did it, and didn't think twice about whether they'd be proven wrong. That's kind of refreshing with the hard sci-fi of today. But even compared to pulp fiction of the time, this story is pretty weak.
The novel starts with a cruise ship attacked by space pirates led by a mysterious man known only as Roger. Roger has advanced technology, including a moon-sized starship base, and an army of human-like robots. Using deadly "Vee-Two" gas, he seizes secret agent Costigan and Costigan's love interest Clio, along with the ship's captain. But before they can escape, an amphibian alien warship arrives, determined to drain every last molecule of iron from the solar system. They even drain the iron from buildings, spaceships, and human blood. Costigan has to lead his team to escape the alien menace and save the Triplanetary systems from iron-stealing aliens and Roger.
Some of the scifi concepts are still in use today, like laser beams (called "rays") and video screens (called "plates"). But other technical inaccuracies are unintentionally hilarious. Like space is filled with "aether." At one point, someone actually says, "It's a good thing that space isn't an absolutely perfect vacuum..." To which I said to myself, "Yes, it is." Also, iron is the most powerful atomic energy source in the universe. And at one point, a spaceship has its "inertia" removed (which even the characters admit is impossible), which somehow allows it to shoot across the galaxy beyond light speed.
The dialogue is full of terms that probably sounded very hip and contemporary when it was written, but now sound almost incomprehensibly dated. This is an actual line from the book: "I'll pick those jaspers off with a pencil ray and then stand off the bunch that's coming while you rub out the rest of that crew there and drag Bradley back here." If that doesn't make immediate sense to you, then you'll have a hard time reading the story.
The characters are little more than vague stereotypes. The hero Costigan is a swashbuckling, two-fisted tough guy. No details of who he is or how he became a secret agent or even what motivates him. His girlfriend Clio is even worse. I don't even know what her job is. She's just a swooning pretty girl who is constantly in need of rescue. Roger is a ruthless sociopath with no redeeming qualities. He barely has emotions, save for lecherous appetites towards Clio.
Their relationship amounts to Costigan saying things like, "Well, twenty-three skiddoo, you're the bees knees! I love ya, but I'm too much of a tough guy to marry you, beat me daddy, eight to the bar!" And she responding with, "Oh my darling, you're simply wonderful! You're so handsome and strong, and oh I'm so frail and delicate! I so love you, too, oh! I'll follow you to the end of time, oh!" Repeat that a few hundred times, and you've got the romantic subplot. No real sense of why they love each other or even how they related to each other before the novel began. They're dropped into the story in love, and it runs in circles from there.
Another big problem is the magical technology. All the problems are resolved through the use of some obscure gadget instead of actual logic or effort. I can describe it this way: A character is locked in a room. They don't have a key. They use the objects in the room to build a machine that unlocks the door. They're now outside. The bad guys attack. The bad guys are wearing armor. The heroes build weapons that are strong enough to melt through their armor and kill them. They need to get to the shuttle craft to escape. They use a machine that lets them escape unnoticed to the craft to escape. They're being chased by the enemy. The hero uses a machine that makes the shuttle go faster so they escape. It's just a series of deus ex machina where the heroes carry an assortment of devices that let them overcome any problems. If they don't have it, the heroes are virtual McGyvers who can actually build whatever they need from whatever they have. At one point, the hero manages to create a toxic gas (the aforementioned fictional "Vee-Two") capable of wiping out entire cities from the random stuff in his prison cell. Literally.
Roger is a danger because he has technology that borders on magic, like robots that look and act exactly like humans, invisible spaceships, and beams that can move objects from entire spaceships to human beings. The solution is for the heroes to have even more magical technology, like guns that can burn through anything, and "spy rays" that let them see through any object and can't be detected.
The space battles are actually numerous and exciting. Lots of spaceships blasting each other and grappling each other with rays. Although they also have magical technology so battles tend to revolve around, "Hey, their weapons are really powerful. Fortunately, my weapons are even more powerful!" But it can be good.
Honestly, I can see why this book would have been great in the thirties and even fifties, but right now it's borderline unreadable. If it were released today, even with adjustments to keep up with modern science and dialogue, it would be on the level of bad fan fiction or "Fifty Shades of Grey."
But for those who love bad pulp fiction, it's great.
Supposedly the granddaddy of all space opera, I was steered onto EE Doc's series hoping to do find the great opus that inspired everything from Babylon 5 to the Green Lantern. Unfortunately, the years have not been kind to this dusty piece of 30s pulp.
The stories were apparently standalones to begin with, but rewritten and retconned into his big lensmaster series to cash in. This isn't done very successfully, especially in the first few where it all seems very tacked on. Yet even were it all seemless, the stories themselves are no great shakes.
The first few stories are alright taken as they are, an ancient Roman gladiator story, a war story, but not much SF to be found there. The final and most substantial story is a messy space saga with a contrived mix of space pirates, iron craving fish aliens and a ridiculous reliance on deus ex machina. massive coincidences and inexplicable stupidity are all leaned on to push the plot along. Our heroes encounter highly technology advanced adversaries, but a quick scan with a spy beam and humanity can easily build even more powerful weapons in a matter of weeks.
Most striking is the abysmal portrayal of women, whose roles are limited to swooning at our rugged all American space heroes as they figure out how to beat the bad guys. That's when they aren't going into hysterics of course.
The pros were so cheesy and the plot so hamfisted that it was a real chore to struggle through to the end. I think I'll leave the rest of the lensmaster series for braver souls to read. I'm content to leave these relics in the museum of sci-fi history. Admire them for their influence on later, better works, but please don't feel obliged to actually read them.
I really liked this book. It did take me a little while to get into it, but once I did I was really hooked.
I love the idea of epic stories, histories that span the eons. This is just such a story. Eddore and Arisia have been in conflict since before the dawn of man. Unknowingly, many of our battles throughout history have actually taken place on a larger galactic stage, and have had puppet strings pulled by greater masters.
I loved the idea of the galactic power struggle. I loved how it shaped human history. And, I really loved when we got to see humans battling space pirates and the amphibious Nevians. Crazy, good, fun stuff.
I'm excited to read the rest of the series.
Amusing side note: I read this because the third book in the series was nominated for the 1939 Retro Hugo award. Naturally, I assumed the preceding books in the series were written before 1939. My mind was blown when this book talked about the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Then, I did some research and found that this book was published in 1948. Mind less blown.
I am a bit deceived with this one, but it is my fault. I assumed that classic was synonymous with quality but this is not the case. Triplanetary deserves its place in the history of the genre for the innovative approach at the time and because serialized space operas (pulps) were a very popular form of science fiction in its beginnings.
In a near future, I hope, a bit more explained on the blog: girotix.blogspot.com.es V'ger willing ;-)
This book is something of a fix-up, and, as a result of how it was expanded, it is decidedly episodic.
E.E. Smith took an early short novel, from 1934, which provides the cover title, dusted it off, revised it to serve as Book Three, and fitted it with preludes in the form of Book One ("Dawn") and Book Two ("The World War"), each of which contained three short stories. It appeared as a book in 1948, from the short-lived Fantasy Press, part of a small but important wave of reprinting magazine science fiction, mainly by fan-based publishers. (Other examples were Isaac Asimov's "Foundation Trilogy," and "I, Robot," from Gnome Press, also fix-ups, which were later picked up by Doubleday.)
All this activity was in the interest of turning it into an explanatory prelude to the original form of Smith's "Lensman" series, which ran in the science fiction magazine "Astounding" during the late 1930s and 1940s (and was enormously popular). As published there, it consisted only of the (serialized) novels "Galactic Patrol," "Gray Lensman," "Second-Stage Lensman," and "Children of the Lens."
Besides bringing the originally independent "Triplanetary" into the series, Smith also wrote a bridging novel, "First Lensman" (which, confusingly, is the second volume), and made changes in the pre-existing works to bring them closer in line to his final conception. All of this later activity was part of bringing the series to book publication, a form in which it was sometimes described as "The History of Civilization" -- the "Civilization" in question being an interstellar one.
These early hardbacks were later supplemented by the Pyramid Books paperback edition of the mid-1960s, the form in which I, as part of a whole later generation of science fiction fans, first encountered them.
(Perhaps including George Lucas, given the sometimes detailed parallels with "Star Wars." Along with Jack Williamson's "Legion of Space" series -- which Pyramid also published -- and several other early space operas, it is probably too late for faithful screen adaptations -- they would look too derivative.)
These late revisions of "Triplanetary" and the rest of the series involved a major change in the presentation of the stories. In the magazine versions, the reader gradually became aware (along with the protagonist) of a greater struggle secretly going on behind the scenes, so the series had the impact of a long mystery, not finally resolved until the last installment of the last novel. Now it was all set out from the beginning.
Don't worry -- I'm not planning on giving anything away for those who manage to avoid the blurbs and other spoilers accompanying the Kindle edition.
Not everyone thought that this revision of "Triplanetary" in particular was a great idea. For one thing, some of the new short stories were rather weak -- although I think a couple of them contain some of Smith's better writing. It did, however, give Smith an opportunity to give the series a wonderful opening paragraph for an epic science fiction story, a pithier version of the opening sentences of "Galactic Patrol":
"Two thousand million or so years ago two galaxies were colliding; or, rather, were passing through each other. A couple of hundreds of millions of years either way do not matter, since at least that much time was required for the inter-passage. At about the same time -- within the same ten-percent margin of error, it is believed -- practically all of the suns of both those galaxies became possessed of planets."
Originally published on my blog here in July 1998.
This, the first of the Lensmen series, is a real classic of science fiction. In common with Smith's Sklyark series, it set far wider horizons for SF than readers were used to; not just interplanetary, but interstellar and intergalactic in scope.
In many ways, the series defines science fiction as the genre it is considered to be by outsiders: it is not great literature, but it is exciting; it uses space travel and the idea of war in space; it is more interested in technology than people.
Triplanetary itself is really a prologue to the main part of the series, and consists of two major parts. The first explains the background to the whole series, a huge war of mental power between the evil Eddorians and the benevolent Arisians, carried out through the history of an oblivious humankind on Earth. Smith takes five defining events: the fall of Atlantis (through a nuclear war), an attempted coup in Rome against the Eddorian-controlled Nero, the First and Second World Wars, and, finally, a nuclear Third World War. In each of these periods he tells part of the story of the two families who will be of immense importance later on, and who will produce the two people who are the culmination of the human genetic pool, Kimball Kinnison and Clarissa MacDougal.
The second part, which was originally published as a magazine story, takes up the tale after civilisation has been rebuilt with the covert help of the Arisians. Mankind is beginning to reach out into the solar system, setting up colonies and fighting a war with the Adepts of North Polar Jupiter, only to face a new menace. The Nevians are the ampibious dominant race of their planet, many lightyears distant from the sun. The planet is desperately short of metals, and a spaceship sets out to try to obtain more - say from an asteroid. Instead, they find the ships of the Triplanetary Service (Earth, Mars and Venus in alliance) at war with the fleet of a surviving Adept; from ships and men every atom of free or combined iron is taken.
This means the death of every person in the fleet, and is followed by the same action taken against the Earth city of Pittsburgh. It is up to one man to save the human race, one of the three captives taken alive by the Nevians as zoological specimens.
I've always enjoyed the Lensmen series; they're something to read on an evening when half asleep.