In some ways, E.E. “Doc” Smith’s third Lensman novel Galactic Patrol feels like the first “real” Lensman novel. I suppose that’s largely due to the character Kimball Kinnison having a central role in the book. He is the Lensman hero I think all of my friends looked up to when these books were popular when I was in Junior High in the late ’60s. Of course I also think these novels were better consumed over 50 years in the past by boys between the ages of 12 and 14 than they are by a fellow in his late 60s today.
It also hung together a bit better than the previous two (“Triplanetary” and “First Lensman”). That said, most of the book felt incredibly episodic. It was like a television show where the season hadn’t been plotted out cohesively from start to finish. A great deal of the action bounced all over the place, introducing seemingly random characters, planets, and events throughout the first two-thirds of the story.
Eventually, Smith was able to tie (most) things together showing relationships in the last third, but even that seemed rushed.
We meet Kinnison’s “love interest,” the nurse Clarissa MacDougall when the Lensman is critically injured and recovering back on Earth. Kinnison is a total pig to her and she deeply resents it, but it seems inevitable that they’re eventually going to “hook up”. I didn’t see how this was going to be done until she, and a bunch of other nurses, are captured by the pirate group called Boskonians.
By this time, with a little coaching from the race who have him the Lens, a telepathic jewel of incredible power, Kinnison has honed his skills enough to read minds and even take over the bodies of enemy pirates (or anyone else). In a series of heroic feats only possible in novels of the distant past, Kinnison, performed a daring rescue and escape. But based on a past defeat, he realizes that his greatest challenge is yet to come: invading and destroying the main enemy base and his worst foe, their leader Helmuth.
There’s a great deal of build up and even a backing down initially once Kinnison finds that the Boskone base is impenetrable. Helmuth, being really cagey, figures out Kinnison’s powers and orders all of his men to wear telepathy blockers.
Of course our hero finds a way around that by taking over the minds of their dog-like creatures and organizing an all out space fleet offensive against the pirate base.
On my kindle fire, there was something like 4% of the story left and Kinnison still hadn’t faced Helmuth. A detailed description of the destructive power of the Earth fleet is glossed over, as if Smith didn’t have the skills to describe that level of devastation (or maybe he just didn’t want to be overly graphic).
When the final confrontation eventually takes place, it’s really only a few paragraphs long and then Helmuth is no more. Wow, that went quickly. It was quite the let down.
This story was first published in book form in 1950, but it still had a 1930s feel to it, kind of like Smith was stuck in that style of writing. It’s no wonder that my first juvenile attempts at writing science fiction fell so flat with this as its model.
Don’t get me wrong. If there was no E.E. “Doc” Smith and no Lensman series, a great deal of science fiction foundational work would be missing and the trajectory of the genre would have taken an unpredictable course. However, that form of writing wasn’t sustainable by the time the 1970s arrived which is when I really got the writing “bug” for the first time.
We end our story with Kinnison retaining the status of “Gray Lensman,” unattached. Sort of like a Ronin, a feudal Samurai without an Emperor to serve.
Other priorities will prevent me from immediately digging into the next novel in the series, Gray Lensman, but it will be interesting to see if the characters and series evolves as it moves forward in time.