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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Reading List: Masters of the Vortex

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.

Posted at February 21, 2009 22:52