Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #11: Edward E. Smith

Some authors were able to make the transition from the largely gadget-and science fiction of the twenties and thirties to the somewhat more people-oriented science fiction of the Golden Age, but many were not. Then there was Edward E. Smith, who pretty much ignored it: The books he wrote in the sixties had much the same gosh-wow feel as what he wrote in the twenties -- and still found an enthusiastic audience.

E.E. Smith wrote the grandest space operas.

It's hard to come up with a clean definition of 'space opera'. It's a subgenre of science fiction in which individuals act on a galactic stage, or larger, and still make a difference. ("Star Wars" is space opera.) There's usually a lot of shooting, and the gadgets -- the props -- tend to get a lot of attention. In a Smith space opera, tension is often maintained through an exponential buildup in scale: In act one a space ship will fight an enemy ship from the next planet but one, in act two a hundred battleships are fighting a hundred enemy battleships from another solar system, and by act four or five a million superdreadnaughts from this galaxy are fighting a million superdreadnaughts from *that* galaxy.

Those of you who encounter E E Smith's books for the first time now will probably look upon them as period pieces, and have to appreciate them inthat light, and that's a real pity. Among his books...

The Lensmen series (***). This is his magnum opus, the work for which he is, deservedly, best known. Lensmen are the very best men in the GalacticPatrol. (Always men. Only one woman ever becomes a Lensman. Sort of like smurfs.) They are granted Lenses which grant them telepathic powers, and use them on behalf of Civilization. The series is the story of Kim Kinnison,who first battles space pirates, then discovers and battles the power behind the space pirates, then discovers the power behind *them*...

There are seven books in the Lensmen series: "Triplanetary", "First Lensman", "Galactic Patrol", "Gray Lensman", "Second Stage Lensmen", "Children of the Lens", and "The Vortex Blaster". The best way to read them is *not* in order, as this gives away too many spoilers. To read the story as it originally appeared, read the middle four novels -- "Galactic Patrol" through "Children of the Lens" -- *without* reading the prefaces, which were added later, and give away the back-story. "First Lensman" is a prequel, which also came later. "Triplanetary" is a prequel to the prequel, combined with a non-Lensmen book that was shoehorned into the Lensmen universe. And "TheVortex Blaster" (aka "Masters of the Vortex") is an independent non-Lensmen book set in the same universe as the main story.

The Skylark series (***) came first. "Skylark of Space" was written in 1911, and published in 1928. Then came its sequels, "Skylark Three", "Skylark of Valeron", and "Skylark DuQuesne", the last appearing quite late. When Richard Seaton stumbles upon a near-perfect energy source, he and a friend use it to build and power a starship. As book follows book, they travel farther and farther afield, meeting increasingly powerful and dangerous civilizations, and needing increasingly bigger and better starships to defeat them. The greatest danger, however, comes from his ruthless nemesis, DuQuesne, who starts book one plotting to steal Seaton's starship and graduates to conquering the Earth, and thence to taking on galaxies.

Smith's non-series books are equally grand, grandiose, and charming. My favorite, for a long time, was "Spacehounds of IPC" (***), about a spaceshipon the Earth-Mars run which is captured by mysterious evil raiders from Jupiter. The ship's computer (ie, a man who's very good at math) escapes and spends much of the novel building a super-radio with which he is able to contact his fellow scientists, and help them develop the technology they need to take on the Jovians. Almost as much fun, in a different way, is one of his later books, "Subspace Explorers" (***), in which the good guys are sorts most often cast as villains, such as the people who own the galactic energy monopoly and the people who own the galactic metals cartel. Honorable mention goes to "The Galaxy Primes" (**). *Dishonorable* mention goes to the "Family D'Alembert" series, which features Smith's name, but not his writing.


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Dani Zweig