on 29 June 2008
This book (and all its predecessors and successors in the sequence - Triplanetary, First Lensman, Galactic Patrol, Grey Lensman, Second-Stage Lensman, Children of the Lens, and Masters of the Vortex) are a perfect example of the sci-fi genre so often dismissed in their time as pulp fiction, and therefore ignored by mainstream book critics and their ilk for decades, and yet they have an enduring appeal for the space-obsessed wannabe astronauts in all of us, written in a banging style that hardly leaves you room to breathe, yet you dare not put the books down in case you miss the next bit!
Although they are obviously written over a significant time period, from the mid-'40s through to the late '50's, there seems no lag in pace and continuity from one book to the next, indicating that Smith had the whole intricate Lens saga plotted out long before he ever put thought to paper.
The language used throughout, and the references to drug smuggling and sexual themes (there is no sexual content to speak of, just references to sexual matters in a way that even the most rabidly conservative southern baptist would have found inoffensive) seems strangely anodyne and speaks loudly of the times in which the books were written.
Today, the storytelling seems a little insipid to one who grew up reading (and watching) slightly more adult treatments of similar themes (Ancient evil empires, God-like benevolent superbeings, a race to develop more lethal technology and ever more destructive devices, planet-wrecking, mind control and galactic culture-shocks - is it me, or is there starting to appear a similarity to a certain 6-film cycle?).
That aside, the books do tell a good, old-fashioned tale of Good versus Evil, (although the insistence in the earlier books of portraying american values and culture as the only possible alternative to intergalactic evil and anarchy strikes a more than slightly ironic note these days), and, if read in the order above, present a tale of the fight for control over the universe stretching from the depths of prehistory to the far distant future. I have read and re-read these books, in sequence and individually, many times since I first came across them in the mid-70's, in my late teens, and became boyishly attached to them long before I realised how dated they really were - not that I cared!
I think that if I were asked to read them for the first time today I might not be so charmed by Smith's dated and simplistic moralising, given what we are asked to swallow in these days of global disinformation and spin-speak by governing regimes who are obviously unable even to believe themselves when handing down assurances and platitudes about how well off we are under their care and protection. Read these books and slip back for a while to a simpler time.
All in all, a good, thud 'n' blunder space opera, with lashings of handsome, Marlowe-esque goodies, rayguns, strange aliens, thoroughly evil baddies, Galactic overlords, faster than light space ships, wormholes and tough-talking fair maidens with guns of their own!
(If you have read any of Mick Farren or William Gibson, think of of them as the antidote to this kind of sci-fi, but don't make any value judgements until you have actually read them side by side. These books are a product of their time, and there are possibly no finer examples of their genre, so give them a try.)