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After my binge read of James S.A. Corey’s nine-book The Expanse saga, I realized I hadn’t read a Lensman book in over a year. Part of the reason was that they’re hard for me to read. They’re really old fashioned, to the point of being almost farcical.
But they are also an important part of science fiction history and the development of the classic space opera.
This particular book was originally published in serial form in Astounding (later Analog) magazine in 1939. It made it to book form in 1951 and to the paperbacks I became familiar with in the 1960s.
As I’ve mentioned before, in the mid to late 1960s, while all the other guys were reading the Tarzan and Lensman books, I was absorbed in the Barsoom and Skylark books, by Edgar Rice Burroughs and E.E. “Doc” Smith respectively.
I felt like I owed myself a trip back to my childhood and to see science fiction again through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy.
“Gray Lensman” takes up right where “Galactic Patrol” left off, with a terrific battle.
This novel, like just about anything else Smith wrote, at least as I recall, has three or four main parts.
- Battles in Space
- Battles on Planets
- Long, technical exposition (made up technology)
- Really awful romantic and angst sequences
There were also some “undercover” missions our hero Kim Kinnison undertook.
The actual events are almost unimportant, because the stories follow a sort of cookie-cutter pattern. Although not invulnerable, Kinnison, even for a Gray (unattached to a particular authority) Lensman, he has stupendous, marvelous, and unparalleled abilities of mind and body. He increases his power so he doesn’t always have to wear his lens in order to perform feats of extraordinary physical and mental prowess (I’m using colorful adjectives because that’s how the book is written).
Conversely, he’s a hammerhead where his girlfriend is concerned. She’s the strong and demonstrative type, but prone to breakdown into emotional fits when alone or under incredible stress (Don’t worry, they get married at the end of the story).
The bad guys (aliens) are completely evil and deserve to be utterly destroyed. In fact, at one point, they torture our hero, gouging out his eyes and mutilating his limbs to the point where they had to be amputated. Interestingly enough, Smith didn’t describe the most gruesome parts of the torture, and even mentioned the readers in explaining why.
Even though Kinnison is incredibly heroic, he tends to be too hard on himself. If any other people in the Patrol are hurt or killed in one of his missions, he blames himself. Yet he’s also fully aware of how magnificent he is compared with other people, even other Lensmen, and certainly the cruel and obnoxious enemy.
Technology is fantastic, allowing ships to travel from one galaxy to the next in a matter of days or weeks. Weapons are devastating, allowing the Galactic Patrol to destroy whole planets (remind you of Star Wars?) and even to manipulate two planetary bodies to crash into a third.
By modern standards, this book and the rest of the series are a disaster.
But there were times when I was reading it that I had flashes back to when I was a kid and reading similar stories. In spite of the over-the-top lack of realism and the melodramatic flare of the writing, there’s something that pulled me in. I was still cheering Kim on, wanting him to succeed. I was really concerned when he was terribly mutilated, but my every experience with Smith’s writing told me he’d recover completely in the next chapter and go on to win.
As I write this, I can really see how Lucas might have used Smith’s stories as part of his inspiration.
If I’d never read or even heard of the “Lensman” series, it wouldn’t be a bunch of books I would choose to read at this stage of my life. But I’m glad I’m revisiting them, because I’m also revisiting the kid I was almost fifty-five years ago. It’s a little like time travel, like me going back in time and seeing “Gray Lensman” through those different eyes.
But only a little.