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Reading Challenge #6 – Second Stage Lensman, EE ‘Doc’ Smith


I don’t know who to be more embarrassed for: myself, for liking this book when I was young; or the genre, for continuing to revere the series and its author. Because, let’s face it, Second Stage Lensman is not a novel we should be holding up as indicative of the genre. A person who has a low opinion of science fiction is only going to have it confirmed by this book.

Second Stage Lensman is the fifth book in EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s well-known Lensman series. Which was shortlisted for the Hugo Award for Best all-Time Series in 1966 (it lost out to Asimov’s Foundation series). Second Stage Lensman was originally published in Astounding Stories between November 1941 and February 1942. In book form, it was not published until 1953.

It hasn’t aged well.

The hero of Second Stage Lensman is Kimball Kinnison. He is a member of the Earth-based Galactic Patrol, and the Lensman of the novel’s title. (Incidentally, it’s not “Earth” in these books, nor “Terra”. For reasons best known to himself, Smith uses “Tellus”.) A Lensman is someone who carries a Lens, a biological jewel created by the noble, but aloof, Arisians. A Lens gives its wearer great psionic powers, such as telepathy and “perception” (a form of clairvoyance). The corps of Lensmen are one of the weapons the Arisians have created in their ages-long war against the evil Eddorians.

Second Stage Lensman opens with a foreword, describing in broad strokes the events of the earlier four books. Since the story-arc of the series covers the Arisian vs Eddorian war, there’s a lot to get through. The novel then dives straight into the story, following immediately on from the events of the preceding book, Grey Lensman. In fact, Second Stage Lensman opens with a vast space battle in the Solar system between the forces of Tellus and those of the Eddorian conspiracy. This conspiracy is called Boskone, and the Galactic Patrol had thought it destroyed. Second Stage Lensman follows Kinnison as he works his way up another branch to its leaders.

The books of the series are framed as historical documents written by Smith. He refers to himself throughout as “your historian”, at one point writing “your historian is supremely proud that he was the first person other than a Lensman to be allowed to study a great deal of this priceless data”. Despite this conceit, there’s very little rigour to the narrative – the focus pulls in and out with dizzying speed, events not witnessed by the cast are dropped omnisciently into the story, and there are even assorted lecturettes: one chapter opens with, “This is perhaps as good a place as any to glance in passing at the fashion in which the planet Lonabar was brought under the aegis of Civilization“. At one point, Smith writes “… the appallingly horrible sensations of inter-dimensional acceleration. For that sensation is, literally, indescribable”. And then promptly goes on to describe it.

Far worse than this is the novel’s outright sexism. All women – with the exception of Kinnison’s fiancée Clarissa McDougall, the product of a millennia-long breeding programme – are beautiful and brainless. They frequently admit to being unable to “think”. Certainly none, except McDougall of course, are capable of becoming Lensmen. She is given a Lens, despite her protestations that as a woman she has less brains and willpower than a man. Even the alien Lensmen are male. When Kinnison’s investigations lead him to a planet with an entirely female population of humans, they are, of course, all beautiful. And all naked. And they despise men.

Then there’s the dialogue…. The frequent “as you know” moments are perhaps forgivable. But since most of the speech is written in a cringingly-dated slang, it makes it difficult to take the story at all seriously. It’s not just that Smith uses his invented “QX” in place of “okay”, but lines such as, “Save it!” he ordered. “Jet back, angel-face, before you blow a fuse.”

Of course, Kinnison is an absolute paragon. Not to mention a genius. And the most powerful Lensman in all the galaxies. His colleagues are no slouches either. One, Nadrek of Palain, a non-oxygen-breathing alien from a frigid world, often describes himself as “cowardly”, but it’s put forward as something admirable in his case.

There’s very little invention displayed in the book. The various worlds chiefly resemble early Twentieth Century USA but for one or two futuristic details. There are spaceships, of course – ranging from tiny “speedsters” to huge “super-dreadnoughts”. All use an “inertialess” space drive for interstellar, and inter-galactic, travel. However, Smith describes everything that is not inertialess as “inert”, which is not what that word means. He also has a computer working for weeks on plotting courses for all the ships in a fleet, and a communications centre comprising a “million-plug board”.

So why are these books still revered nearly seventy years after they were first published? They’re badly written, the attitudes in them are offensive, they show very little rigour in voice or narrative or world-building, and they’re wildly implausible. But people still read them. Why?

When they were first published in Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories, each new installment introduced a greater and more powerful threat. The story expanded as it progressed. I can understand the appeal of that. Not to mention opening a story with a space battle between fleets containing millions of ships each. It’s the sheer ever-expanding scale of it all. But scale alone is not sense of wonder, and it’s a mistake to confuse the two. In fact, scale can work against sense of wonder – make everything simply too big and it either loses its wonder or becomes implausible. There’s a fine line to be walked between disbelief and wonder. Using planets as mobile fortresses is sense of wonder. A fleet comprising over a million ships is too much to be entirely plausible (where did all the people to crew the ships come from? how long did it take to build the ships?).

I can, sort of, understand why a cast of paragons battling pantomime villains might also appeal to an unsophisticated reader. But. The genre has moved on since then, it has progressed. And the likes of EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s novels are now embarrassments. They are perhaps indicative of the genre at a particular point in time – the 1940s – but they’re not science fiction classics and they are not typical of science fiction as it now is.

Some sf novels remain historical documents, of interest only to historians. Second Stage Lensman is one such sf novel.


22 thoughts on “Reading Challenge #6 – Second Stage Lensman, EE ‘Doc’ Smith

  1. So why are these books still revered nearly seventy years after they were first published? They aren't.

  2. Sadly, they are by some.

  3. Thanks for peeling the cheap bronze and iron pyrite flaking off the so-called "Golden Age". Anyone who puts forward Asimov, "Doc" Smith and Heinlein as the "best" the field of SF can offer is doing the genre a grave disservice. There are far more creditable writers working in SF today than there were from 1930-60. If it wasn't for the New Wave, SF would be a complete write-off until 1970. It's terrific that more and more reviewers and commentators (like you) are demanding that we re-appraise the legacy of the Grandmasters of the past and see them for what they were: sexist, racist, juvenile-minded HACKS, writing as quickly and ineptly as they could to garner their penny-a-word pay checks. "Golden Age"–feh!

  4. The problem with a lot of the bad old stuff like this is that it unfortunately has to be acknowledged as part of the history of the genre, and this makes it hard to promote sf to non-sf readers when this kind of material lends so much fuel to the argument that sf isn't real writing. It's my experience that the instant you say something like 'yes, there *used* to be bad sf, but really it's so much better now' to people outside the genre, you've effectively shot yourself in the foot by agreeing with the notion that sf ever had problems with quality; and this admission itself provides enormous quantities of ammunition who might choose to shoot it down, or have pre-formed prejudices.What to do?

  5. In fact, now I think of it, the old pulp fiction is a bit like the dilemma we sometimes face when a journalist turns up at a convention. You can talk about various current writers of tremendous quality until you're blue in the face, but they're still going to take a picture of the fat bloke dressed up as Conan and stick it in their paper. You don't want them to be acknowledged, but it's unavoidable.

  6. Sturgeon's Law: 90% of SF of is rubbish. In fact, 90% of everything is rubbish.In trying to work out why the bad old stuff is being revived, when you would have expected it to sink and leave only the good stuff behind, there must be a money angle. Is it out of copyright now?The comment about journalists at cons is still true.Cheers

  7. Brian James' piece on Tor earlier today similarly critiqued a work by a revered author (Philip K. Dick). But where you found that EE Smith's ideas weren't all that "astounding", James concluded that in the Dick book interesting ideas made up for a lot of writerly deficiencies. It's completely anecdotal, of course, but that pairing of observations seems to fit the hypothesis that part of science fiction's legitimation into mainstream literature has been about a movement from action fiction to idea fiction."the old pulp fiction is a bit like the dilemma we sometimes face when a journalist turns up at a convention. You can talk about various current writers of tremendous quality until you're blue in the face, but they're still going to take a picture of the fat bloke dressed up as Conan"Yes indeed, and romance has exactly the same problem, rooted in the same pulpy heritage. The conversation goes thusly: "There are some phenomenally well-written new — er, yes, that man IS dressed as Fabio, but listen, the historical novel these days is researched — no, those furries are part of a DIFFERENT convention. Honest."

  8. Cliff: yes, this year's challenge is turning into a exercise in poisoning the well of my childhood. They say the Golden Age of SF is thirteen. The way this is going, I have to wonder if my brain went on holiday that year. Perhaps it was overwhelmed by hormones…Gary: I've complained before about people who think it is right and proper to recommend a sixty-year-old sf novel to a non-reader of sf. Every book they could possibly pick is… crap. There are people who still revere Asimov's Foundation books, and they're just as bad as the Lensman ones.Morva: but the Lensman series is seen as being in that 10%. Yes, they're still in copyright. The books were in print until the 1980s in the UK. The only editions available now – in both the UK and US – are those from Old Earth Books and Cosmos Press, two small presses.RfP: I've found a lot of pre-1970 sf did little more than slap a few sf tropes onto contemporary America when world-building – I made that complaint in my piece on Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat. It's also true, IIRC, of many of Dick's novels. Which makes me wonder when rigour became such an important part of the sf toolkit. I wonder if it was borrowed from epic fantasy….

  9. PKD has, to my mind, at least five novels and ten short stories that would qualify as classics in the field of SF–still as relevant today as the day they were released. How does that compare with Heinlein, Asimov, Smith?A thirteen year old kid picking up one of PKD's best books today would get a helluva lot more out of it than they would MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, FOUNDATION or any of the Lensman series. That shit would just make him/her snigger. The vast majority of SF before the New Wave is badly written juvenilia. Once Ballard et all showed up, the genre grew up in a hurry and for that the field owes them enormous gratitude.

  10. Ok, after reading "Triplanetary", the first part of the Lensman series, I see what you mean about being badly written. Especially the slang; it's so annoying and just helps date it even more.But, it's not just that there's a lot better SF being written now, there was a lot better SF being written even then! What about Van Vogt, Sturgeon, Heinlein and Asimov? I know you don't like Asimov but how you can put him in the same boat as Doc Smith I'll never know. He may have had flaws as a writer but he hardly wrote mindless action romps.I'm not even saying the classics should be held up as the best SF has to offer. But to dismiss the lot as crap, all the authors as hacks, is going way too far.

  11. I've never dismissed them all – I still like van Vogt, for example. It's just that I'd sooner that modern sf was seen as typical of the genre instead of 60-year-old books. I'd sooner that when people said "science fiction", they were thinking of Richard Morgan or Steve Baxter or Al Reynolds and the like, Not Heinlein, Asimov or Clarke….

  12. Well does it have to be either/or? I don't think the gems of the past should be ignored any more than the gems of the present (I'm giving the present the benefit of the doubt since I am still woefully underead in that regard).Perhaps I should just shut up until I've become better aquainted with modern SF and then I will know if it really blows away the past as convincingly as some believe…

  13. If the public face of the genre is all those 60-year-old novels by the likes of Asimov or EE 'Doc' Smith, then people will always have a low opinion of the genre – because they won't know that it has progressed, that it is being written now, that it is as good now as any genre or mode of fiction. Science fiction has grown up, so why do we keep on wheeling out the children to represent it?

  14. I guess I just don't share your embarassment of the classics. Ok, Lensman is a bit embarassing but other classics I think are great and I am proud of them, proud enough to offer them up to new readers to try. Is modern SF so much better than the classics? Like I said, I need to read more to answer that question properly but judging by the likes of Banks, I think not. His best SF hasn't surpassed the greats from the past.

  15. That's where I beg to differ. Iain Banks' novels are streets ahead of anything produced during the Golden Age. Likewise Paul Park, Kim Stanley Robinson, Richard Morgan, Stephen Baxter, Eric Brown, Keith Brooke, Bruce Sterling, Lucius Shepard, Gwyneth Jones, Timmi Duchamp, Paul McAuley, Al Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, Justina Robson, Paolo Bacigalupi, Ted Chiang, M John Harrison, Hal Duncan… and many more.

  16. Hmmm…I've Read Ted Chaing's "Tower of Babylon" and Bruce Sterling's "Swarm". Both were very good.Not read much of the others but can't agree with you about Banks. I guess these things eventually come down to a matter of taste…

  17. The writing style of those old SF writers was so horribly clunky and unrealistic, wasn't it? The works of crap-artists like Wells and Verne and Doyle just don't hold up when compared to our modern writers, do they? And don't get me started about that hack, Willy Shakespeare. It's all so unrealistic; I mean, absolutely nobody talked like that…You people need to rent a clue (because the coin of your uninformed opinions is so valueless that you couldn't afford to buy one.)QX?

  18. Tex, do you normally google for blog posts on EE Doc Smith, and then leave insulting comments if you disagree with the post? Because it seems to me you're the one who needs to get a clue. Go back and reread my post and see if you can find any mention of Shakespeare, Verne, Wells or Doyle in it. Smith was a terrible writer, his books are badly dated, and they're offensively sexist to boot. Only a clueless idiot would revere them.

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  22. One reason why Smith is still revered in the UK (and Asimov, for that matter) amongt readers of a certain age is that they were marketed by Granada (under their Panther imprint) with Chris Foss covers; and at that time, Foss was new and different, and his spaceships had conning towers and aerial arrays and windows. Lots of windows. No mere rocketships here! As marketing it was fantastic, and it does mean I remember Doc Smith in particular with more fondness than he probably deserves.

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