Saturday, September 13, 2014

E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Galactic Patrol

E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Galactic Patrol was serialised in Astounding in 1937 and published in book form in 1950. It was the first of his famous Lensman books to be written. Smith later rewrote his 1934 novel Triplanetary to make it a prequel to the Lensman series and then wrote First Lensman as a bridge between Triplanetary and the Lensman series proper. Galactic Patrol then became the third book of the Lensman series although it works perfectly fine as a standalone novel.

Galactic Patrol demonstrates very neatly why Smith’s name became synonymous with space opera. This is space opera in its purest form with the emphasis on fast-moving action and adventure entertainment.

Kim Kinnison is one of the handful of cadets to complete his training as a Lensman. Only a tiny fraction of the candidates ever completes the course. He is now an officer of the Galactic Patrol, but he is far more than this. He is now a Lensman. The Lens is now placed on his wrist and only death can remove it. Lensmen are so carefully selected that they are absolutely trustworthy. They belong to many different races but any Lensman can contact another Lensman at any time by pure thought and the Lens allows him to understand any language no matter how alien it might be. It is impossible to steal a Lens - if anyone but its rightful wearer tries to wear it the result is instant death.

The Lens is a badge of office, a symbol of trust and a sophisticated communications device. It is actually far more than that, but as yet no-one has penetrated its secrets or understands its full potentialities.

The Galactic Patrol is a kind of interstellar police force, with practically unlimited powers. It is now even more absolutely essential than usual, with the galaxy being ravaged by pirates. These pirates are, as Kim Kinnison gradually comes to realise, more than mere pirates. They are an empire, and an evil one, and of a power and with technologies that can scarcely be imagined. Their ultimate aims of the pirates of Boskone go far beyond crime, although the exact nature of those aims is uncertain. 

The Lens is the product of the Arisian civilisation, a civilisation so ancient and so advanced that the Arisians seem to operate in the realms of pure thought and to take no active interest in other races or civilisations. The fact that they have devised the Lens and supplied it to the Galactic Patrol does however indicate that the Arisians are not as indifferent to galactic events as they appear to be.

As Kim Kinnison discovers the full powers of the Lens modern readers will discern the very obvious influence of the Lensman series on the concept of the Force from the Star Wars movies. In fact a modern reader will spot many parallels between Doc Smith’s books and the Star Wars saga.

Kim Kinnison has been assigned to command a new immensely powerful but experimental  space battleship, the Britannia. The Galactic Patrol and the Boskone pirates are engaged in an arms race, both sides trying desperately to gain a decisive technological edge. This is an element that gives the book a distinctive flavour compared to most space operas of its era. The outcome of individual battles is of little importance - what matters is to gain access to the enemy’s latest technological breakthroughs while preventing him from getting his hands on one’s own technology.

The great fear of the Galactic Patrol is that will find themselves drawn into a meat-grinder war of attrition with the pirates. Smith was born in 1890 so the war of attrition that the First World War became would have been something that he was all too aware of.

That’s not to say that battles play no part in the story. There are enough battles and enough action to satisfy any space opera fan. Kim Kinnison will go through a series of thrilling adventures. He is not however merely an action hero. He is the man who will finally learn to unleash the full powers of the lens. This is a rousing tale of adventure but it’s also a kind of quest story, with the hero slowly discovering his full potential and moving towards his destiny. This is space opera, but space opera with a bit more to it.

The pirates of Boskone can be seen as having something in common with the totalitarian dictatorships whose shadow loomed so large and so menacingly over the world at the time the story was written, but they can also be seen as a warning of the havoc that results when organised crime gets its hands on the levers of political power.

As a writer Smith had no great literary skills and no gift at all for characterisation but he had other qualities that make him a crucially important writer in the genre. He could tell a story with energy and a great deal of élan, and he could tell stories on a truly epic scale. His imagination was more than sufficient for his task. He could create strange and vivid alien worlds and people them with strange and fascinating alien creatures. He could combine straight-out full-bore excitement with just enough of a philosophical underpinning to add extra zest, and he could seamlessly blend the quasi-mystical element of the Lens into his story.

However rough and ready his style may have been (and his ear for dialogue was very poor) this is space opera of the highest order, immensely influential and still today wonderfully entertaining. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

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