E.E. “Doc” Smith
Doc Smith’s Lensman series always comes up in discussions of SF classics and/or early space opera. It’s been on my list to check out for quite some time, but I never seem to get around to it. Half-hearted efforts have, however, scored me copies of Subspace Explorers, the first of a series I probably won’t finish, and Triplanetary, which claims to be the first Lensman book but is nothing of the sort. If nothing else, these provide a clear window into science fiction before the invention of minorities, feminism, or the color gray. Doc Smith: Where the heroes are white and strong, the women are weepy and helpless, and the bad guys twirl their moustachios and probably have small weenies.
First on the psychiatrist’s couch is Subspace Explorers. Immediate point against: psychic powers. As I have written before, I just don’t like psychic powers, psionics, mind-reading, clairvoyance, or anything of the sort. Any book that uses psionics has to use them carefully, or I am instantly turned off. (Unless said powers are used to break men’s wangs, in which case all is forgiven.) Further point against: psychic powers turning up at random and convenient times to move the plot along when no standard trick will do. “Wait, you’re important to the story, and hey, what do you know? Turns out you’re a psychic too and we didn’t know it til now! Great!” By the end of the book, all of the good guys (and their mostly superfluous girls) are psychics, reading each other’s minds, finding hidden treasures, confounding the bad guys, etc.
Next point against: good guys and bad guys. This is probably endemic to the age, and apparently to Smith’s writing in general, but I quickly tired of the Brave and Pure Capitalists. I can understand pinko commie Russians being the bad guys – the Cold War was pretty all-encompassing for me too back in the mid-80s and lots of SF has bad Russians. I get more tired of reading about how liberals, unions and labor are misguided fools while Big Business is full of benevolent, superior beings who just want what’s best for us. Think John Ringo mixed with 1950s TV. “Look Beav, that tree hugging alien has a ray gun! Jeepers!” So not only are the good guys all suddenly psychics and mind readers, they are also large business owners who have only the good of America on their minds, but are constantly thwarted by labor. If I were a Koch brother, I would probably love this book.
My rantings aside, however, Subspace Explorers is what they call a ripping yarn. When I wasn’t gnashing my teeth at the painful dialogue or offensive worldview, the action was amusing. It was good enough that I finished it quickly and still want to read the Lensman books. It wasn’t good enough, though, that I’m diving into the sequels.
Triplanetary is a little more troubling. I only checked it out because the cover said it was a Lensman book; of course it was completely unrelated. Instead, it contains three or four short stories and novellas, the details of which have since departed my memory. I suppose this means they were suitably pulpy, without being excellent. The one thing I do remember is a quote where Smith writes, “And then he comforted her as only a man can comfort a woman.” Double entendre aside, what on earth is that supposed to mean? He watched football and had a beer? He tried to fix her problems instead of just listening? He left the toilet seat up? Back and ear hair? SF is far from perfect on the gender equality thing, but at least we’ve made some progress.
Anyway, E.E. Smith is one of those things we read to appreciate our heritage but then forget about, like Leviticus or something. Some of his stuff is probably memorable, but it’s certainly not Triplanetary. Subspace Explorers is better, but I wouldn’t put it high on anyone’s recommended reading list.
Rating: Uruguay in the 1950s. The original World Cup winner, Uruguay was good at the time but would be torn apart today by better athletes and technicians.