Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Book Review: First Lensman by E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith

Pros: interesting plot

Cons: often problematic portrayal of women, surprisingly violent good guys 

Note: The edition I’m quoting is the Science Fiction Book Club Chronicles of the Lensmen Vol. 1, which includes Triplanetary, First Lensman, and Galactic PatrolFirst Lensman starts on page 241. 

Virgil Samms has an idea to create a Galactic Patrol that will monitor the galaxy and keep it safe.  When he and several of his men are given Lenses by the alien Arisians, which allows them to speak mind to mind and read the worthiness of others, he knows the time for his Patrol has come.  But first he must confront the corrupt politics of North America, space pirates and a powerful illegal drug. 

This novel has ADHD.  It can’t decide what it wants to do so it does a bit of everything.  First published in 1950, it’s the second novel in the Lensmen Chronicles.  The story jumps from storyline to storyline, character to character.  While Samms and his friend Rod Kinnison are the main players, their children and several peers are also important.  Be prepared for some interesting leaps of logic that lead to actualities (basically if one of the good guys things something may have happened, it has).  

The book starts slowly, with a chapter of backstory on the two alien races that manipulated things in the first novel, Triplanetary.  The further into the book I got, the less certain things bothered me and the more I was able to enjoy the story.  Things get more action oriented and fast paced later on as well.  When several Lensmen go undercover to discover the full operation of the drug trade, I found myself engrossed.  The final chapters, regarding the US election, were also highly entertaining.

There were a lot of things earlier on in the book that made those chapters challenging for me to get through.  The treatment of Jill Samms was a big one.  I was somewhat horrified by how she and Jack Kinnison treat each other when we first meet them.  They’re casually cruel to each other, constantly threatening to physically beat the other in some way or another.  For example, Jack, tells to a friend who’s shown interest in Jill, “You won’t fall for her either, Mase; you’ll want to pull one of her legs off and beat the rest of her to death with it inside of a week…” (p258).  Jill’s no pushover and gives as good as she gets.  When Jack gets mad at her for not playing her best in a tennis match she tells him, “I’d like to smash this racket over your head!” (p257).  She also accuses him of liking women who are, “little, cuddly baby-talkers, who pretend to be utterly spineless and completely brainless…” (p259).  I was overjoyed when she was considered Lensman material by her male peers - and crushed (not to mention peeved) when it was revealed you had to be male to use the devices.  Her acceptance of the idea Lenses can’t be used by women and subsequent trash talk about the one woman in the future who’d be able to wear the device was rage inducing.  “I gather that she is going to be some kind of a freak.  She’ll have to be, practically, because of the sex-based fundamental nature of the Lens.” (p279).

Jack isn’t the only Kinnison who threatens to beat Jill.  His father mentions a potential spanking several times, something that seems highly inappropriate from the father of her friend.  A similar thing happened between a different Lensman and his wife, that I wasn’t quite sure how to take.  Costigan had just gotten back from a long assignment and told his wife he’d be working late again.  She quips that she’s just happy he’s back.  “Costigan looked at her, decided she was taking him for a ride, and smacked her a couple of times where it would do the most good.  He then kissed her thoroughly and left.” (p.449-450)  I’m not sure if this is meant to show Costigan beating his wife, or merely giving her a playful swat for her cheeky answer.  The tone of the scene makes me think it’s a joke, but if so, it’s a creepy joke that wouldn’t be allowed today.

Yet, throughout the book Jill is portrayed as a strong woman - wearing revealing clothing and not taking any gruff from the men.  It also becomes clear as the book goes on that she’d have done well to have a Lens.  On more than one occasion she has urgent information to impart to the lensmen and has to hope one of them contacts her so she can share it.  I did appreciate that she had a roll in the book that went beyond love interest or disappointed potential Lensman.  Though the book’s use of the term psychology seems to imply things the modern term doesn’t.  She’s able to read people’s intentions by touching them (based on the patterns and speed of their blood flow, which she’s apparently learned to feel through clothing and skin using minimal contact).  Like many things in the book this isn’t particularly well explained.

The book has some other jabs a women, like Rod Kinnison’s complaint that he, “stood by, as innocent as a three-year-old girl baby,” (p319) when something bad almost happened.  I’m not sure how a 3 year old boy would have reacted differently, or less obliviously than a girl of that age.  So it’s a bizarre comment.

All of the alien races, even allies, are described as monstrous, horrible to look at and in most cases, with none worthy to wield Lenses.

I was left questioning how good the ‘good guys’ were when you get the Second Lensman saying things like, “In emergencies, it is of course permissible to kill a few dozen innocent bystanders.  In such a crowd as this though [rich politicians], it is much better technique to kill only the one you are aiming at.” (p305).  Though the Lensmen do have a strange sense of chivalry that doesn’t allow them to kill women, even if those women are dangerous and could pose a future threat to them.

The author uses some weird expressions, like ‘developing a mouse under his eye’ (for black eye) and ‘popping off’.  Some of the words and expressions were easier to figure out from context than others, like Mase calling Jill ‘a regular twelve-nineteen!’.  I’m not sure if some (or all) of these are 50s terms, or if he made them all up.

There’s also lots of techno babble, some with definitions, some without.  A detet, for example, is the distance at which spaceships can detect each other.  Battle scenes were full of made up words, with sentences like this: “All of the Patrol ships had, of course, the standard equipment of so-called “violet,” “green,” and “red” fields, as well as duodecaplylatomate and ordinary atomic bombs, dirigible torpedoes and transporters, slicers, polycyclic drills, and so on;” (pp466-467).  Some of the sentences were really cringeworthy.

The end result is that the story is worth reading, but remember when this was written and accept that it has some problematic elements. 

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