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Chronicles of the Lensmen, Volume 1

de E. E. 'Doc' Smith

Sèrie: Lensman: Chronological order (omnibus 1-3)

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No, I'm not done with it. And this is my third attempt to make it through the "Lensman" books.

But I just have to say that, at this particular juncture, what this experience is chiefly making me feel is just how much better-written science (or "speculative" if you prefer) fiction is now. I'm talking orders of magnitude better. I've been going back and forth between "Doc" Smith and a recent issue of Asimov's Science Fiction and, let me tell you, the differences are profound (and speaking of Asimov -- who I love -- "Doc" Smith makes Isaac Asimov look like James Joyce).

Among other things, the late "Doc" Smith wouldn't have known characterization if characterization had bitten him on his doughnut-mix-frosted ass. For me, it is next to impossible to care about people who have no insides, even if they are the ruddy-haired golden/tawny-flecked-eyed saviors of the human race ... and yet here, we are expected to spend hundreds and hundreds of pages with them. Sheesh!

Now, John Clute tells me in his very Clutean (read: erudite, polysyllabic, sometimes faintly ridiculous) introduction that once the main story gets started, it's a roller-coaster ride like no other. Well, I'm still waiting for that first hill. I hope it comes soon, because so far this is like that spinning teacup ride: as dopey as it looks, and ultimately kind of sickening.

In the meantime, one has to slog through an awful lot of rock-jawed heroes, cooing space maidens, evil (and very, very good) aliens, and long-drawn-out space battles (I faintly recall a pretty funny Randall Garrett short story * that parodies "Doc" Smith, describing a spaceship being assaulted with, among other things, "spoons" of "intolerable energy." The sentences that inspired that parody are right there in Triplanetary and they are scarcely less ridiculous than Garrett's send-up).

I really, really want to get through this -- partly because of its historical importance and partly because I've heard that it does eventually get fun (Clute done told me so). But it's a trial near the beginning ... and there's a lot to get through.

UPDATE: Now that I am most of the way through the second book (First Lensman), I'm adjusting my stance somewhat. The characters are still flat, the morals black and white, but ... and it really is a big but ... if you can put your brain in the right place to receive it, "Doc" Smith's stuff really does have a lot to offer in terms of pure entertainment. It really IS just like John Clute says it is ...

I'm used to sf as a literature of ideas, and there really aren't the sort of ideas I'm familiar with here -- not really, at all. But there is fun aplenty. And one has to give Doc credit for trying to provide a host of truly alien aliens (at a time when John W. Campbell was, well, championing a humans-only, or at least humans-best universe).

* it's called "Backstage Lensman" (look it up on Wikipedia) and here is the sentence (or phrase) I was trying to remember: "beams, rods, cones, stilettos, icepicks, corkscrews, knives, forks, and spoons of energy raved against the screens of the Dentless**."

** To his credit, Doc thought Garrett's parody was hysterically funny, and the suggestion for the ship name "Dentless" came from him. :^)
  tungsten_peerts | Jun 23, 2013 |
The Lensmen books are widely considered to be classics, and I'm a big fan. However, these are not really science fiction. While they do feature space ships and ray guns and aliens, they are more appropriately called space opera or space westerns. There's nothing in them about how future society would be different, its basically frozen in the 1930's. Planets produce spaceships at a rate that makes them seem like cell phones, and entire fleets are wiped out with 100% casualties, but the fleets resume the same battles again within months. Things we now focus on way too much like costs and casualties are just ignored.
I still like them and remember them fondly from when I read them when I was younger, but these are best read when you are in your teens and dragged out later for nostalgia reasons. Science fiction has made a lot of progress since these were written. ( )
  Karlstar | Jan 1, 2011 |
Funny. In the introduction, Clute talks about how Smith stuck this clunky, boring prologue onto his nice, exciting story just so the bigger story would make sense - Boskone. Well, that 'boring' introduction is by far my favorite part of the Lensman series. I find Kimball Kinnison rather silly and his adventures simplistic (and the Children of the Lens are total overkill). The prehistory bits are fun, WWI and II are really interesting (and Clute says, probably autobiographical, which makes them even more fun). I like Conway Costigan, Virgil Samms, and Rod Kinnison a lot more than any of the later Lensmen - even Jack and Jill are more interesting than Kim. Still, although I started with an urge to read the WWII section I read the whole omnibus (Triplanetary, First Lensman, Galactic Patrol). Maybe I'll even dig up the later three. And I'll definitely reread Vortex Blaster - that's as much fun as the early books. I just don't enjoy watching superpowers piled on superpowers, with various 'worldshaking' clashes and the people involved eking out existence in a page or two here and there. Not to mention the deus ex machina - every time Kim needs more power he just goes back to Arisia and gets it... dull. Pretty fun overall, though. ( )
  jjmcgaffey | Dec 17, 2009 |
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