Books by Smith, Edward E.

Smith, Edward E. Children of the Lens. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1947–1948, 1954] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-14-X.
This is the sixth and final installment of the Lensman series, following Triplanetary (June 2004), First Lensman (February 2005), Galactic Patrol (March 2005), Gray Lensman (August 2005), and Second Stage Lensmen (April 2006). Children of the Lens appeared in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction from November 1947 through February 1948. This book is a facsimile of the illustrated 1954 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised from the magazine edition. (Masters of the Vortex [originally titled The Vortex Blaster] is set in the Lensman universe, but is not part of the Galactic Patrol saga; it's a fine yarn, and I look forward to re-reading it, but the main story ends here.)

Twenty years have passed since the events chronicled in Second Stage Lensmen, and the five children—son Christopher, and the two pairs of fraternal twin daughters Kathryn, Karen, Camilla, and Constance—of Gray Lensman Kimball Kinnison and his wife Clarissa, the sole female Lens… er…person in the universe are growing to maturity. The ultimate products of a selective breeding program masterminded over millennia by the super-sages of planet Arisia, they have, since childhood, had the power to link their minds directly even to the forbidding intelligences of the Second Stage Lensmen.

Despite the cataclysmic events which concluded Second Stage Lensmen, mayhem in the galaxies continues, and as this story progresses it becomes clear to the Children of the Lens that they, and the entire Galactic Patrol, have been forged for the final battle between good and evil which plays out in these pages. But all is not coruscating, actinic detonations and battles of super minds; Doc Smith leavens the story with humour, and even has some fun at his own expense when he has the versatile Kimball Kinnison write a space opera potboiler, “Its terrible xmex-like snout locked on. Its zymolosely polydactile tongue crunched out, crashed down, rasped across. Slurp! Slurp! … Fools! Did they think that the airlessness of absolute space, the heatlessness of absolute zero, the yieldlessness of absolute neutronium could stop QADGOP THE MERCOTAN?” (p. 37).

This concludes my fourth lifetime traverse of this epic, and it never, ever disappoints. Since I first read it more than thirty years ago, I have considered Children of the Lens one of the very best works of science fiction ever, and this latest reading reinforces that conviction. It is, of course, the pinnacle of a story spanning billions of years, hundreds of billions of planets, innumerable species, a multitude of parallel universes, absolute good and unadulterated evil, and more than 1500 pages, so if you jump into the story near the end, you're likely to end up perplexed, not enthralled. It's best either to start at the beginning with Triplanetary or, if you'd rather skip the two slower-paced “prequels”, with Volume 3, Galactic Patrol, which was the first written and can stand alone.

April 2007 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. First Lensman. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1950] 1997. ISBN 1-882968-10-7.
There's no better way to escape for a brief respite from the world of session persistence, subnet masks, stateful fallover, gratuitous ARP packets, and the like than some coruscating, actinic space opera, and nobody does it better than the guy who invented it, Doc Smith. About every decade I re-read the Lensman series, of which this is the second of six volumes (seven if you count Masters of the Vortex) and never cease to be amazed at Smith's talent for thinking big—really big. I began this fourth expedition through the Lensman saga with the first installment, Triplanetary, in June 2004. Old Earth Books are to be commended for this reprint, which is a facsimile of the original 1950 Fantasy Press edition including all the illustrations.

February 2005 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Galactic Patrol. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1937-1938, 1950] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-11-5.
Although this is the third volume of the Lensman series, it was written first; Triplanetary (June 2004) and First Lensman (February 2005) are “prequels”, written more than a decade after Galactic Patrol ran in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction beginning in September 1937. This was before John W. Campbell, Jr. assumed the editor's chair, the event usually considered to mark the beginning of the Golden Age of science fiction. This volume is a facsimile of the illustrated 1950 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised somewhat by the author from the original magazine version.

While I enjoy the earlier books, and read them in order in this fourth lifetime trip through the saga, Galactic Patrol is where the story really takes off for me. If you're new to Doc Smith, you might want to begin here to experience space opera at its best, then go back and read the two slower-paced prior installments afterward. Having been written first, this novel is completely self-contained; everything introduced in the earlier books is fully explained when it appears here.

March 2005 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Gray Lensman. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1939-1940, 1951] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-12-3.
This is the fourth volume of the Lensman series, following Triplanetary (June 2004), First Lensman (February 2005), and Galactic Patrol (March 2005). Gray Lensman ran in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction from October 1939 through January 1940. This book is a facsimile of the illustrated 1951 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised somewhat from the original magazine serial.

Gray Lensman is one of the most glittering nuggets of the Golden Age of science fiction. In this story, Doc Smith completely redefined the standard for thinking big and created an arena for the conflict between civilisation and chaos that's larger than a galaxy. This single novel has more leaps of the imagination than some other authors content themselves with in their entire careers. Here we encounter the “primary projector”: a weapon which can only be used when no enemy can possibly survive or others observe because the mere knowledge that it exists may compromise its secret (this, in a story written more that a decade before the first hydrogen bomb); the “negasphere”: an object which, while described as based on antimatter, is remarkably similar to a black hole (first described by J.R. Oppenheimer and H. Snyder in 1939, the same year the serial began to run in Astounding); the hyper-spatial tube (like a traversable wormhole); the Grand Fleet (composed of one million combat units); the Z9M9Z Directrix command ship, with its “tank” display 700 feet wide by 80 feet thick able to show the tactical situation in an entire galaxy at once; directed planetary impact weapons; a multi-galactic crime syndicate; insects and worms as allies of the good guys; organ regeneration; and more. Once you've experienced the Doc Smith universe, the Star Wars Empire may feel small and antiquated.

This edition contains two Forewords: the author's original, intended to bring readers who haven't read the earlier books up to speed, and a snarky postmodern excretion by John Clute which is best skipped. If you're reading the Lensman series for the first time (this is my fourth), it's best to start either at the beginning with Triplanetary, or with Galactic Patrol, which was written first and stands on its own, not depending on any of the material introduced in the first two “prequel” volumes.

August 2005 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Masters of the Vortex. New York: Pyramid Books, [1960] 1968. ISBN 978-0-515-02230-8.
This novel is set in the Galactic Patrol universe, but is not part of the Lensman saga—the events take place an unspecified time after the conclusion of that chronicle. Galactic civilisation depends upon atomic power, but as Robert A. Heinlein (to whom this book is dedicated) observed, “Blowups Happen”, and for inexplicable reasons atomic power stations randomly erupt into deadly self-sustaining nuclear vortices, threatening to ultimately consume the planets they ravage. (Note that in the technophilic and optimistic universe of the Galactic Patrol, and the can-do society its creator inhabited, the thought that such a downside of an energy technology essential to civilisation would cause its renunciation never enters the mind.)

When a freak vortex accident kills ace nucleonicist Neal Cloud's family, he swears a personal vendetta against the vortices and vows to destroy them or be destroyed trying. This mild-mannered scientist who failed the Lensman entry examination re-invents himself as “Storm Cloud, the Vortex Blaster”, and in his eponymous ship flits off to rid the galaxy of the atomic plague. This is Doc Smith space opera, so you can be sure there are pirates, zwilniks, crooked politicians, blasters, space axes, and aliens of all persuasions in abundance—not to mention timeless dialogue like:

“Eureka! Good evening, folks.”
“Eureka? I hope you rot in hell, Graves…”
“This isn't Graves. Cloud. Storm Cloud, the Vortex Blaster, investigating…”
“Oh, Bob, the patrol!” the girl screamed.

It wouldn't be Doc Smith if it weren't prophetic, and in this book published in the year in which the Original Nixon was to lose the presidential election to John F. Kennedy, we catch a hint of a “New Nixon” as the intrepid Vortex Blaster visits the planet Nixson II on p. 77. While not as awe inspiring in scope as the Lensman novels, this is a finely crafted yarn which combines a central puzzle with many threads exploring characteristics of alien cultures (never cross an adolescent cat-woman from Vegia!), the ultimate power of human consciousness, and the eternal question never far from the mind of the main audience of science fiction: whether a nerdy brainiac can find a soulmate somewhere out there in the spacelanes.

If you're unacquainted with the Lensman universe, this is not the place to start, but once you've worked your way through, it's a delightful lagniappe to round out the epic. Unlike the Lensman series, this book remains out of print. Used copies are readily available although sometimes pricey. For those with access to the gizmo, a Kindle edition is available.

February 2009 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Second Stage Lensmen. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1941–1942, 1953] 1998. ISBN 1-882968-13-1.
This is the fifth installment of the Lensman series, following Triplanetary (June 2004), First Lensman (February 2005), Galactic Patrol (March 2005), and Gray Lensman (August 2005). Second Stage Lensmen ran in serial form in Astounding Science Fiction from November 1941 through February 1942. This book is a facsimile of the illustrated 1953 Fantasy Press edition, which was revised from the original magazine serial.

The only thing I found disappointing when rereading this book in my fourth lifetime expedition through the Lensman saga is knowing there's only one volume of the main story remaining—but what a yarn that is. In Second Stage Lensmen, Doc Smith more overtly adopts the voice of “historian of civilisation” and from time to time departs from straight story-telling to describe off-stage action, discuss his “source material”, and grouse about Galactic Patrol secrecy depriving him of important documents. Still, there's enough rays and shields space opera action for three or four normal novels, although the focus increasingly shifts from super-weapons and shoot-em-ups to mental combat, indirection, and espionage.

It's here we first meet Nadreck, one of the most fascinating of Doc Smith's creations: a poison-breathing cryogenic being who extends into the fourth dimension and considers cowardice and sloth among his greatest virtues. His mind, however, like Kinnison's, honed to second stage Lensman capability by Mentor of Arisia, is both powerful and subtle, and Nadreck a master of boring within without the villains even suspecting his presence. He gets the job done, despite never being satisfied with his “pitifully imperfect” performance. I've known programmers like that.

Some mystery and thriller writers complain of how difficult the invention of mobile phones has made their craft. While it used to be easy for characters to be out of touch and operating with incomplete and conflicting information, now the reader immediately asks, “Why didn't she just pick up the phone and ask?” But in the Lensman universe, both the good guys and (to a lesser extent) the blackguards have instantaneous, mind-to-mind high bandwidth communication on an intergalactic scale, and such is Doc Smith's mastery of his craft that it neither reduces the suspense nor strains the plot, and he makes it look almost effortless.

Writing in an age where realistic women of any kind were rare in science fiction, Smith was known for his strong female characters—on p. 151 he observes, “Indeed, it has been argued that sexual equality is the most important criterion of that which we know as Civilization”—no postmodern multi-culti crapola here! Some critics carped that his women characters were so strong and resourceful they were just male heroes without the square jaws and broad shoulders. So here, probably in part just to show he can do it, we have Illona of Lonabar, a five-sigma airhead bimbo (albeit with black hair, not blonde), and the mind-murdering matriarchy of Lyrane, who have selectively bred their males to be sub-sentient dwarves with no function other than reproduction.

The author's inexhaustible imagination manages to keep these stories up to date, even more than half a century on. While the earlier volumes stressed what would decades later be called low-observable or stealth technology, in this outing he anticipates today's hot Pentagon buzzword, “network-centric warfare”: the grand battles here are won not by better weapons or numbers, but by the unique and top secret information technology of the Z9M9Z Directrix command vessel. The bizarre excursion into “Nth-space” may have seemed over the top to readers in the 1940s, but today it's reminiscent of another valley in the cosmic landscape of string theory.

Although there is a fifteen page foreword by the author which recaps the story to date, you don't really want to start with this volume: there's just too much background and context you'll have missed. It's best either to start at the beginning with Triplanetary or, if you'd rather defer the two slower-paced “prequels”, with Volume 3, Galactic Patrol, which was the first written and can stand alone.

April 2006 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Skylark DuQuesne. New York: Pyramid Books, 1965. ISBN 0-515-03050-3.
This book is out of print; use the link above to locate used copies. Paperbacks are readily available in readable condition at modest cost. The ISBN given here is for a hardback dumped on the market at a comparable price by a library with no appreciation of the classics of science fiction. Unless you have the luck I did in finding such a copy, you're probably better off looking for a paperback.

May 2003 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. The Skylark of Space. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, [1928, 1946, 1947, 1950, 1958] 2001. ISBN 0-8032-9286-4.
“Doc” Smith revised the original 1928 edition of this book for each of four subsequent editions. This “Commemorative Edition” is a reprint of the most recent (1958) revision. It contains a variety of words: “fission”, “fusion”, “megaton”, "neutron", etc., which did not figure in the English language when the novel was completed in 1920 (it was not published until 1928). Earlier editions may have more of a “golden age” feel, but this was Smith's last word on the story. The original illustrations by O.G. Estes Jr. are reproduced, along with an introduction by Vernor Vinge which manages to misspell protagonist Richard Seaton's name throughout.

August 2002 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Skylark of Valeron. New York: Pyramid Books, [1934, 1935, 1949] 1963. LCCN  49-008714.
This book is out of print; use the link above to locate used copies. Paperbacks published in the 1960s and 70s are available in perfectly readable condition at modest cost—compare the offers, however, since some sellers quote outrageous prices for these mass-market paperbacks. University of Nebraska Press are in the process of re-issuing “Doc” Smith's Skylark novels, but they haven't yet gotten to this one.

March 2003 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Skylark Three. New York: Pyramid Books, [1930, 1948] 1963. ISBN 0-515-02233-0.
This book is out of print; use the link above to locate used paperback copies, which are cheap and abundant. An illustrated reprint edition is scheduled for publication in 2003 by the University of Nebraska Press as ISBN 0-8032-9303-8.

December 2002 Permalink

Smith, Edward E. Triplanetary. Baltimore: Old Earth Books, [1948] 1997. ISBN 1-882968-09-3.
Summer's here (though you'd never guess from the thermometer), and the time is right for some light reading, so I've begun my fourth lifetime traverse of Doc Smith's Lensman series, which now, by Klono's gadolinium guts, has been re-issued by Old Earth Books in trade paperback facsimiles of the original Fantasy Press editions, complete with all illustrations. The snarky foreword, where John Clute, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, shows off his pretentious post-modern vocabulary and scorn for the sensibilities of an author born in 1890, is best skipped.

June 2004 Permalink