Mass market paperback cover for “Gray Lensman”
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Gray Lensman by E.E. “Doc” Smith (I bought the cheap kindle version) is the fourth book in the Lensman series following Triplanetary, First Lensman, and Galactic Patrol.
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.
Image captured from Amazon
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.
Cover art for the 1968 edition of “First Lensman”
I’ve been reading the legendary E.E. “Doc” Smith‘s Lensman series recently. After Triplanetary (1948 – originally published as a serial in 1934), which really wasn’t about the Lensmen, but did introduce a few key characters, came First Lensman (1950) which still gave off more of a 1930s flavor.
While readers get their first real glimpse into the lives and power of the Lensmen, the tale reveals itself as terribly dated. The “good guys” are very “North American” centric, women don’t have minds compatible with interacting with the lens, and our guys are scrupulously honest and forthright.
As with “Triplanetary,” I sometimes found it difficult to keep track of scene changes and figure out where I was in the story from one point to the next.
Along with the purely space opera aspects, there were heavy political overtones, no doubt reflecting Smith’s actual viewpoints.
Image captured from Amazon
Over 50 years ago, when all the other guys in Junior High were reading E.E. “Doc” Smith‘s Lensmen series, I was reading his Skylark series, and loving it. I tried re-reading Skylark of Space, the first novel in the series, several years ago, going so far as to buy a paperback copy. It was tough to swallow because it was originally written in the 1930s (the stories were originally serialized in the ’30s and then published in novel form in the 1940s – they had a resurgence in the 1960s and became incredibly popular with teenage males), and comes across as extremely dated. I didn’t notice it when I first read the book, but then I was only 14 at the time.
I’ve owned a copy of Triplanetary, the first in the “Lensmen” series, for years, but every time I tried to read it, I never got past the first few pages. I think it was our hero and heroine enjoying a ballroom dance aboard a spaceliner that put me off. Very 1930s.