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