Gray Lensman: Book 4 of one of the greatest space operas

Gray Lensman by E. E. “Doc” Smith science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsGray Lensman by E. E. “Doc” Smith science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsGray Lensman by E. E. “Doc” Smith

Although the events of Book 4 in E. E. “Doc” Smith’s famed LENSMAN series, Gray Lensman, pick up mere seconds after those of its predecessor, Galactic Patrol, this latest installment actually first appeared over 1 ½ years later. Whereas Galactic Patrol had initially appeared as a six-part serial in the September 1937 – February 1938 issues of Astounding magazine, Gray Lensman had its debut as a four-part serial (even though it is a longer story than that in Book 3) in Astounding’s October 1939 – January 1940 issues, the first two issues featuring beautiful cover artwork for the serial by famed illustrator Hubert Rogers. Gray Lensman was first published in book form in 1951 as a $3 hardcover from Fantasy Press, featuring still another minimalist cover from Ric Binkley, and like the other five books in this most famous of all space operas, has seen numerous incarnations since; this reader was fortunate enough to acquire the 1982 Berkley paperback, with beautiful cover art by David B. Maddingly. The book, as it turns out, is a wonderful sequel, expanding on the story line of Book 3 while introducing new characters, new planets, a fresh set of enemies, and the many titanic space battles that readers might be expecting at this point.

As I mentioned, Book 4 commences scant moments after Galactic Patrol had wrapped up … but only after author Smith gives his readers a highly detailed, 11-page synopsis of the events that had transpired thus far. And then it’s off to the proverbial races, as the book proper delivers an opening page that is meant to stun the reader. In it, we learn that Kim Kinnison’s and the Galactic Patrol’s destruction of archvillain Helmuth’s base in star cluster AC 257-4736, just outside our own galaxy, is being observed by an even more diabolical people known as the Eich; a “scaly … toothy … wingy” race that had been tangentially mentioned in a previous volume as allies of the ancient evil race of the Eddorians. (The 2 billion-year-old conflict between the Eddorians and the benevolent, Lens-giving Arisians is at the heart of all six books, although the Eddorians are never mentioned in Books 3 and 4 at all.) It is indeed a startling moment, as the reader is made to realize that Helmuth had been just a small-potato hireling in a much bigger game. As critic John Clute eloquently tells us in his introduction to the 1998 Old Earth Books edition of Galactic Patrol,Gray Lensman by E. E. “Doc” Smith science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviews

This first paragraph must have had an astonishing impact, one we can never quite replicate in our own imaginations … in 1939, sequels were still uncommon in the sf world, and nothing would have prepared readers for the explosive vista of this opening, which swallows its predecessor whole…

After the destruction of Helmuth’s base, and the inadvertent obliteration of much of the planet, Kinnison makes a preliminary investigation of the nearby “second galaxy,” Lundmark’s Nebula, from which communications had been sent to Book 3’s archnemesis. While there, he and his crew of the Dauntless come to the aid of planet Medon, which is under attack by the so-called space pirates of Boskone, and later receive the welcome gift of advanced technology from that beleaguered world … including an apparatus that will enable an entire planet to travel at faster-than-light speeds! Using that remarkable machinery, Medon is moved into our own galaxy in record time, while Kinnison begins his new campaign. He has come to realize that although Boskone has been defeated militarily in our own galaxy, their threat remains a very real one, due to the insidious influx of drugs (particularly the hyperaddictive thionite, which had been dramatically showcased in Book 2, First Lensman).

Kinnison, thus, goes undercover in a variety of guises, working himself ever higher up the chain. He pretends to be a bar bum in the capital city of Ardith, on Radelix; does a lengthy bit of surveillance work on Bronseca; becomes an asteroid miner/alcoholic/eater of the illicit drug bentlam at the Miner’s Rest complex on the asteroid Euphrosyne, under the name Wild Bill Williams; rubs elbows with the upper crust at the Crown-on-Shield resort on Tressilia; learns that the galactic head of the Boskonian drug operations is a blue-skinned Kalonian (as Helmuth had been) named Jalte, and infiltrates his desolate base world; and finally, using his gifts of telepathy and mind control, discovers the location of the Eich themselves. And while Kim is not busy with all that, he is convening a scientific conference to construct a new superweapon, the Negasphere, and leading a raid upon the Delgonian Overlords (who were seemingly wiped out in Book 3, but whose remnants have entered into an alliance with the Eich). Oh … and reluctantly furthering his romance with nurse Clarrissa MacDougall, who he’d been squabbling with all throughout Galactic Patrol. And Kim manages to emerge from all of these adventures relatively unscathed … until, that is, he is captured by the Eich and Delgonians on the Eichian homeworld of Jarnevon, is tortured pretty horrendously, and has such monstrous organisms inserted into his arms and legs that when his body is returned to the Galactic Patrol hospital on Earth, all four of his limbs have to be summarily amputated! But Kim’s adventures, and Book 4’s, are far from done…

This Book 4 of the LENSMAN series, it should be added, ups the game of previous volumes as regards weapons of superscience and futuristic technology. Thus, besides that Negasphere (a vast circular nothingness of what one can only assume to be antimatter, and that is capable of gobbling whole planets) and the ability to transform abandoned/useless worlds into faster-than-light missiles of war (!), Smith here gives us a vast improvement of the engineering and weaponry in the Patrol’s ships (courtesy of those superadvanced Medonians) and, thanks to Phillips the Posenian, a means of regenerating body parts. (You didn’t really think Kim was to remain a basket case for the duration of the series, did you?) Kinnison’s abilities have also been greatly improved in this installment, as he soon discovers that he is capable of mental marvels even when not wearing his Arisian Lens! And those newfound abilities sure do come in handy here, as he reads secret Boskonian files from a great distance, and communicates with a spider and a worm, on two different occasions, to give him some much-needed assists.

Gray Lensman by E. E. “Doc” Smith science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThis volume features any number of remarkable space battles, as mentioned; besides the one over Helmuth’s base, the one at Medon, and the destruction of the Delgonians, we have the cataclysmic battle in the Bronsecan capital city of Cominoche, during which drug czar Prellin’s base — as well as most of the city — is converted to slag; the attack on Jalte’s world, using the Negasphere; and the final battle against the Eich, using those “missile worlds” previously described. (Golden Age writer Edmond “the World Wrecker” Hamilton might have beamed at the conclusion of this battle with great approbation.) These battle sequences, and Kim’s capture, torture and convalescence, are surely the book’s high points. And Smith even makes sure to drop in some occasional glints of humor here and there, such as when he refers to a “crackpot science-fiction writer” of Kim’s day as “Wacky Williamson” … a not-so-subtle joke, perhaps, at the expense of another Golden Age writer, Jack Williamson? And if so, Williamson is not the only Golden Age sci-fi author thus mentioned, as there is also a reference that Kim makes to “[Abraham] Merritt’s Dwayanu,” from his 1932 classic Dwellers in the Mirage. (Interesting that that novel managed to survive Earth’s WW3 devastation in Book 1, Triplanetary, and that Kim was a reader of such material!)

And speaking of reading science fiction when young, I have heard that many folks seem to have enjoyed these LENSMAN books when they were in their very early teens, and must say that I cannot quite fathom that, as I am finding these books to be rather densely written and complexly plotted … putting aside the $2 words that Smith loves to throw around, such as “bourne,” “esurient,” “wight” and “yclept.” These are hardly Tom Swift novels, to put it mildly! Or maybe I was just a tad slower than the average 8th grader? Personally, I find Smith to be much more than just a merely capable writer; indeed, he is apt at any time to come up with a strikingly lovely passage, such as this description of intergalactic space:

There were no planets, no suns, no stars; no meteorites, no particles of cosmic debris. All nearby space was empty, with an indescribable perfection of emptiness at the very thought of which the mind quailed in incomprehending horror. And, accentuating that emptiness, at such mind-searing distances as to be dwarfed into buttons, and yet, because of their intrinsic massiveness, starkly apparent in their three-dimensional relationships, there hung poised and motionlessly stately the component galaxies of a Universe…

For this reader, these books are elegantly written in the best Golden Age manner, and if the characterizations therein take a backseat to the plotting and world building (or, rather, galaxy building), as some have maintained, it is a pardonable offense.

Still, some other minor matters do crop up here and there; some seemingly inevitable flies in the ointment. There are sections of the book that are rather on the dry side, for one thing, and I never could properly visualize that darn Negasphere as it was being constructed in space. (Forget about understanding how it works; as Smith mentions, a whole new system of mathematics had to be invented by those conference scientists when they planned it on paper, and I still have problems with the old system!) And try wrapping your head around how fast Kim’s ship, the Dauntless, is said to travel: 100,000 parsecs an hour! And since one parsec equals 3.2 light-years, and one light-year equals 5.8 trillion miles … well, try doing that math (my calculator doesn’t go up that high!) and tell me if you can visualize or conceive of that rate of travel! And then there is the matter of the high-powered zap guns that Kinnison is always toting around, the DeLameters. The only problem is, Smith never gives us a good idea of the diameters and the parameters of those DeLameters. (OK, I’m just kidding; I’ve been wanting to write that since a few books back!)

Quibbles aside, however, Gray Lensman is, for the most part, tremendous fun. By its conclusion, the galaxywide drug scourge has been largely eliminated, the Eich have been vanquished, Kim and Clarrissa have avowed their love for one another and are ready to wed, and Kinnison has been put in charge of matters in that entire second galaxy. And thus, with two galaxies’ worth of races from which to draw, and the Arisian/Eddorian conflict still very much up in the air (or, rather, ether), wherever can author Smith take us to now? I suppose that I will just have to proceed on to Book 5, Second Stage Lensman, to find out…

Published in 1951. Two thousand million or so years ago, at the time of the Coalescence, when the First and Second Galaxies were passing through each other and when myriads of planets were coming into existence where only a handful had existed before, two races of beings were already old; so old that each had behind it many millions of years of recorded history. Both were so old that each had perforce become independent of the chance formation of planets upon which to live. Each had, in its own way, gained a measure of control over its environment; the Arisians by power of mind alone, the Eddorians by employing both mind and mechanism. The Arisians were indigenous to this, our normal space-time continuum; they had lived in it since the unthinkably remote time of their origin; and the original Arisia was very Earth-like in mass, composition, size, atmosphere, and climate. Thus all normal space was permeated by Arisian life-spores, and thus upon all Earth-like or Tellurian planets there came into being races of creatures more or less resembling Arisians in the days of their racial youth. None except Tellurians are Homo Sapiens, of course; few can actually be placed in Genus Homo; but many millions of planets are peopled by races distantly recognizable or belonging to the great class of MAN. The Eddorians, on the other hand, were interlopers—intruders. They were not native to our normal space-time system, but came to it from some other, some alien and horribly different other, plenum. For eons, in fact, they had been exploring the macrocosmic All; moving their planets from continuum to continuum; seeking that which at last they found—a space and a time in which there were enough planets, soon to be inhabited by intelligent life, to sate even the Eddorian lust for dominance. Here, in our own space-time, they would stay; and here supreme they would rule. The Elders of Arisia, however, the ablest thinkers of the race, had known and had studied the Eddorians for many cycles of time. Their integrated Visualization of the Cosmic All showed what was to happen. No more than the Arisians themselves could the Eddorians be slain by any physical means, however applied; nor could the Arisians, unaided, kill all of the invaders by mental force. Eddore’s All-Highest and his Innermost Circle, in their ultra-shielded citadel, could be destroyed only by a mental bolt of such nature and magnitude that its generator, which was to become known throughout two galaxies as the Galactic Patrol, would require several long Arisian lifetimes for its building…

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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4 comments

  1. When I was reading as a teen, I loved stories with complicated plots. It meant I could sink all of my attention into the book. It sounds like I wasn’t alone. And it’s also possible that they (we?) didn’t really grasp all that complexity at the time.

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