Monday, 10 August 2009

E.E. "Doc" Smith: First Lensman (1950)

First Lensman coverEdition: Panther, 1972
Review number: 100

The second novel in Smith's Lensman series, First Lensman is a unified narrative (unlike Triplanetary which precedes it). It follows on directly from the events of the first book, detailing the later stages in the fight against drugs and corruption led by Virgil Samms. (Samms plays a comparatively small part in Triplanetary, which was more concerned with the swashbuckling adventures of his sub-ordinates.)

The first half of the novel is an explanation of the origins of the Lens after which the series as a whole is known. Various problems are beginning to dog the Triplanetary Service. Corruption is taking hold, particularly in the fight against drugs; criminals are impersonating officers of the Service, using faked ids. A mysterious conviction grows that answers to these problems can be found through a visit to the planet Arisia, shunned as a "ghost planet" both by legitimate spacemen and by pirates and drugs runners.

Arriving at Arisia, Samms meets an entity who calls itself "Mentor". He is given a mysterious artefact, a Lens; it is a telepathic crystal, tuned to his mind alone and capable of enhancing the powers that his mind possesses. Mentor assures him that no one will be given a Lens who is unworthy of one, and that only the incorruptible will wear them.

Samms is a bit bemused by this generosity, but the reader knows the background to it: the eons-old war between the Arisians and Eddorians, the Arisians continually trying to build up civilisation, the Eddorians to knock it down.

The second half of the book tells of a North American presidential election (Canada, the US and Mexico together forming a single state) fought by the officers of the Triplanetary Service (as 'Cosmocrats') on the right and the pirates and drugs runners on the left. Smith's politics are one of the most difficult aspects of his writing style for a modern European reader to swallow - as they cater rather more for stereotypical American political viewpoints a US citizen may find them easier to accept. He persistently holds the belief that any intelligent person must support the right, with the left only gaining votes through stupidity, corruption and vote-rigging. It is a view perhaps explicable in an American of his time, who had lived through some of the most corrupt scandals of American town-hall politics. Smith's right wing politics were of a reasonably benign kind, characterised by a strong belief in intelligent capitalism most clearly expressed in Subspace Encounter. He was relatively free from racism, particularly when compared to contemporaries, though this is perhaps debatable given the almost complete absence of non-white human beings in his novels.

The first half of First Lensman is easier to read, then, than the second, though the ins and outs of the political campaign are an interesting change from the standard military space opera trappings of the rest of the series. If Heinlein's novels transfer an idealised American small-town background to everywhere in the universe (see review of Rolling Stones), then this novel takes a similar approach with an American large town.

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