I’m a fan of space opera. Have been since I was a starry-eyed teen reading whatever SF I could find in my local second-hand bookshops. This inevitably included Golden Age works – van Vogt, Asimov, Pohl, E.F. Russel and more – with yellowing pages and, at least in my memory, instantly recognisable covers, usually by Chris Foss. Often via the same shops I also read various works of ‘new space opera’: Banks, Hamilton, Greenland, Sheffield, MacLeod and many others.
Coming to both epochs of space opera mixed together in one great melange meant that I had little grasp of how the latter reacted to the former, refracted through the lens of the intervening New Wave and the differing politics of generations and cultures. To me it was all science fiction. Yet whilst I liked much of what I read I enjoyed the new space opera more. A personal reaction, of course, and one reflected on two decades later. I’m just laying the groundwork for a little context, because around that same time I read an E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith book and I thought it was shit.
‘Doc’ Smith is usually regarded as the granddaddy of space opera, and his influence on a lot of works I have loved shouldn’t be understated. I didn’t know this at the time, of course. I just thought that the book I read was terrible. The story as I poorly recall it began with a couple of male engineers and their girlfriends hopping in a spaceship to pursue adventure and science, and culminated with galaxy-smashing energies being flung back and forth in an absurd game of one-upmanship between protagonists and antagonists.
Since I moved to Finland I’ve gotten to know in person a friend I’ve known online for over fifteen years. We’ve spent a lot of time over the years enthusing and arguing about science fiction. A few months back we got onto the subject of the ‘Doc’, and he persuaded me to give Smith another go. He loaned me a familiarly yellowed Panther SF copy of Galactic Patrol, the first actual book in Smith’s most famous Lensman series.
I didn’t like it much.
I get its place in SF history. I truly do. There’s something admirable, in a manner of nostalgia for an era that passed long before my parents were born, in its romance of engineers cracking problems and saving the galaxy. There’s adventure by the plenty, and it’s entertaining enough and briskly told. The concept of the Lensman is one I can see repeated, reflected and re-imagined in scores of other stories. There are nice things you might say about Galactic Patrol, and ten times as many observations you might make about its influence.
In 2019, though, it’s a rather ridiculous novel.
In chapter one we encounter the concept of the Lensmen themselves: highly trained, rigorously conditioned, a million winnowed down to a hundred, all to find specimens who are physically and mentally adept to the most extreme degrees, and most importantly incorruptible. It’s a cute but fundamentally authoritarian moral fantasy, and a discomforting one in an era of militarised police, surging state violence, and the valorisation of the police and military in an era when the inherent institutional flaws of such organisations have never been more clear.
1937 isn’t 2019. Yeah, reader, I get it. Also, it’s a pulp: it’s an adventure story written for starry-eyed kids. But here I am, a grown man reading this in 2019. Honestly, the first thing that came to mind as I read that first chapter were the Judges of Mega City, the peacekeepers, judges, juries and executioners rolled into one, only in a significantly more dystopian and morally compromised context, and one where Judges routinely fail to adhere to similar high standards of incorruptibility. A satire of authoritarian moral fantasy.
There are plenty of other absurdities, all equally easy to wave aside as a product of time and place, but equally irritating. Technological development is a matter only of breaking open an idea; once devised or reverse-engineered, design and fabrication is a simple matter. Forgiveable in a book written before the invention of transistors, before electronic computers, when many complex machines still used primarily large, manually-machined parts? Maybe; I can’t judge that. But I can say this is less of an engineer’s fantasy than a fantasy of the obsolescence of the engineer, where concept transitions smoothly into mass fabrication without a hiccup. The starship as Spitfire or Hurricane, cobbled together out of scrap iron from the home front.
All bar one character is a man. That includes those who are physically described as inutterably alien; mentally, they comport themselves and speak of a muchness. Even those who communicate solely via thought do so in a chummy I-say what-what boy’s-own-adventure diction. (Of course, this can be explained away as the Lens of a Lensman translating into the wearer’s own diction and vernacular, although you see it too in the rare moments where a viewpoint character is not hero Kim Kinnison.)
One character is a woman. She is of course beautiful, and smart, and does her part with spirit when called upon. To describe her as flat is perhaps to misrepresent other characters in a story where all, really, are flat actors playing out their parts.
There’s of course a sexism – it’s a book written in 1937 by an American man – that pervades every moment where women are present or described and, too, the void of their absence othertimes, though when overt it passes beyond grating and into hilarity. With three quarters of the book behind us, the one female character is introduced and almost immediately Kim’s commanding officer and the doctor for whom she works as a nurse spend several pages yapping about the quality of her skeleton and how to best prevent her and Kim falling for each other, at least just yet – though in the future it would be good, actually, for really their stock ought not go to waste. Gross, hilarious, stupid, and probably one of the most entertaining moments in my reading experience.
There’s also a spectacular moment near the climax, which you might see as a non-reflexive example of the colonial attitudes of the book’s origins. Our dear hero Kim visits a planet where his comrades battle endlessly against drug manufacturers and runners, ending their lives for the crime of distributing drugs. Kim discovers that he can communicate with a local lifeform, and almost immediately conscripts it to assist him in his mission by getting it and a group of its fellows helplessly addicted to sugar. This is done with absolutely no sense of irony whatsoever. How’s that war on drugs going, Lensmen?
So, yeah: Galactic Patrol. Important piece of SF history. Amusing curio. Terrible in so, so many ways.