I decided to read something classic for Vintage Science Fiction Month, and chose one of the Lensmen stories by EE “Doc” Smith — Galactic Patrol. This is one of the oldest stories I’ve blogged about, being serialized in 1937-8 in the pulp magazine Astounding Stories. (If you’d like to see what other vintage works people are reviewing this January, check out roundup part one and roundup part two.)
If you look up the Lensmen series, you will probably see Galactic Patrol listed as book three, so why did I start with it? It turns out that book “one”, Triplanetary, wasn’t originally a Lensmen story, but was later rewritten to fit with the other works. Book “two”, First Lensman, was written after all of the other Lensmen books, specifically to link Triplanetary and Galactic Patrol. So, I chose Galactic Patrol as my starting point.
The pulp magazines are known for action and adventure, so you’d expect Galactic Patrol to be full of both. While it does manage to deliver adventure, it completely drops the ball on action. In fact, I should probably end my review right there, but I feel like I need to go into more detail so readers can decide whether they want to pick up Galactic Patrol.
The Lensmen are a sort of galactic police force. Although the galaxy is made up of many different alien species and political entities, they apparently all accept the Lensmen criss-crossing their territory and enforcing some universal legal code. The story opens with the hero graduating from Lensmen academy and being given his lens, a device built by super-advanced aliens that acts as a combination impossible-to-counterfeit badge, telepathic translator, and telepathic long-range communicator. (The author was really into telepathy, a subject I didn’t find particularly interesting.)
The Patrol has been losing all its fights with space pirates lately, so our hero is given command of a battleship with an experimental weapons system. Apparently the new guy gets the ship because they aren’t 100% sure whether the new weapon will blow up the enemy or the ship it’s mounted on. I thought one aspect of the Patrol’s ships was really strange: they are teardrop shaped, and when they land on a planet, they set down point first, planting themselves into the ground.
Writers today are told they must begin their story “in the middle of things”, but I’ve noticed many older stories give themselves a number of opening pages to set up the plot and lay out setting details, as Galactic Patrol does. Maybe if you’re writing for a modern audience, which has a shorter attention span and more entertainment options, you can’t do this any more. As a reader, I’m happy to read either type of opening, so whatever the author can write best is fine with me.
On to the adventure and lack of action:
A space battle and boarding action occur, but the author really makes the reader’s imagination do the heavy lifting. I don’t have the book with me at the moment to quote, but a battle scene might read something like, ‘They fired their pistols until they were out of power, then finished off the pirates with axes.’ Come on, give me something more to work with! There are occasional action scenes with slightly more detail, but not many and not much more detail.
The adventure, thankfully, kicks in at this point. Our hero and his crew seize the pirate ship, getting the details on the pirate super-tech that’s winning all the battles. But, their own ship is badly damaged and more pirate super-ships are closing in.
Our hero gives each pair of men a copy of the super-tech data, sets his ship on a random zig-zag course, and has the pairs of men bail out in lifeboats, hoping that at least one pair will make it back to HQ. The randomly zig-zagging ship doubles back very close to the hero’s lifeboat, where it is overtaken by the pirates and auto-destructs, wiping out the crew on one of the pirate ships. The hero and his partner sneak aboard this pirate ship and drift away, eventually restarting it, causing the pirates to give chase.
The hero and his partner aren’t going to make it, so they bail out again, landing on a planet where telepathic dragons have been enslaved by an overlord tribe or subspecies of mind-controlling telepathic dragons. The hero and his partner team up with a dragon to wipe out the overlords before resuming their travels.
The hero makes it back to HQ, where the Lensmen build a new high-tech fleet to counter the pirates, and a stalemate war brings interstellar commerce to a halt. The hero goes to the super-advanced alien planet and learns how to use his lens for mind control. He then mind-controls pirates and forces them to blow up two of the bases they are living in.
The rest of the pirates retreat to their main base and put on
tinfoil hats mindshield helmets with redundant battery systems, and the hero can’t mind-control anyone to disable the base’s defenses. But, he realizes he can mind-control one of the pirate’s dogs, so he has the dog unplug the batteries on a sleeping pirate’s helmet, and can then control the pirate. Bad dog!
For some reason, the hero has to wear an armored suit and fight the pirate leader toe to toe at this point, and the pirates are defeated. I’ve probably left out a few adventurous exploits, but as you can see, there was plenty of adventure for our glorious hero.
That’s a lot of adventure, but there were also a couple of slow-paced interludes that I didn’t find interesting in the slightest. The hero was recovering in the hospital at one point, and the admiral and a doctor had to select only the very best perfect-woman nurses to care for him, in case he fell in love with one of them and married her and had children. We can’t have those hero genes wasted on a non-approved nurse.
There was also a chapter where the pirate leader went to the planet of the super-advanced aliens. They told him there was no objective good or evil, then rejected him for being evil. Then they told him they’d let the bad guys take over the galaxy if the good guys were too stupid to learn to use their lenses for mind control.
So, the big question is: will I continue on with the Lensmen series? I’m not opposed to it, but the honest truth is that I don’t know if it will ever rise to the top of my to-read pile. The adventures were wacky, but the action was lacking, and I didn’t enjoy the focus on telepathy. I think there’s a lot of other classic and modern (indie) science fiction I’ll want to check out before I turn back to the Lensmen.
Let me know if you’ve read any of the series, and whether your experience was similar to mine.