GRAY LENSMAN by E.E. Doc Smith.

We continue down memory lane to the far future of galactic and intergalactic war, if there are any of you old enough to remember 1939 (the same year Superman came out), This essay will continue the format of my previous essay, where I speak a little bit about the book in question, and then rant about some unrelated topic, such as bimetallism or the Caledonian war.

Most second books, especially those in a multivolume series, suffer from a certain set of understandable defects: the characters no longer enjoy the freshness of having been recently introduced, the plot must grow out of the previous book but at the same time go in a new direction, and the antagonist is either a new villain, in which case the reader has no emotional investment in booing him, or is an old villain, in which case the reader has already seen him defeated once, which makes him less able to inspire fear.

Usually the second book is weaker than the first; in this case, it is stronger. Indeed, I will be bold enough to say that if it were not for GRAY LENSMAN and its sequels the first book, GALACTIC PATROL, would have been largely forgotten. That is, more largely forgotten.

E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith handles all these problems with an adroitness so skillful and yet so understated that it might not be noticed at first, and so clever that it is frankly astonishing that no other writer has copied these solutions.



First, Smith handles the character development between his space hero Kinnison and the gorgeous redheaded nurse MacDougal, now sector chief, by having Kinnison so horribly wounded in the middle of the second act (blinded and with a quadruple amputation, not to mention infected with space spores) that the relationship comes to a crisis: she realizes that his job is too deadly for them to have a normal life, and he is not willing to offer her a life as the widow of a hero.

In a similar vein, the character arc has Kinnison suffer doubts as he reflects on the men under his command who die quickly or die horribly, whose lives he seeks to protect. In other words, merely by injecting a solemn note into the space opera, his old characters take on depth, more than is usual for books of this type.

Second, by having Kinnison be universally competent at every possible job of space warrior, superscientist, and space policeman, the plot can throw the hero from a war story into a police drama with no loss of pacing.

Third, by having the villain organization be multilayered and multileveled, the plot can move into a new direction that is organically connected to the old, but enter into richer territory.

Finally, in the sequel Smith dramatically expands the scope of the problem from interstellar to intergalactic: Boskone is still the villain, but now they are not just pirates. In GRAY LENSMAN by E.E. Doc Smith we have, if my unaided memory deceives me not, the first depiction in science fiction of war not on an interstellar but intergalactic scale. I believe not even STARMAKER by Olaf Stapleton had such a thing.

As mentioned previously, Smith in his Lensman series has accomplished something unique, writing a story that is both a serialization and a sequelization, by which I mean each volume can be read and enjoyed separately, with no loose plotthreads dangling, or the sequence of four books can be read as one story, with no sudden jars or breaks.

This is done by the clever mechanism of having the first chapter of each volume open with a scene where our stalwart space hero realizes that the villain defeated in the last chapter of the last volume was not the Big Bad Wolf, but only the lieutenant or chief henchman of an even bigger, badder, and wolfier villain.

This second volume in the adventures of the Lensman replays the final scene of GALACTIC PATROL but with one added element: the evil boss of the space pirates, Helmuth, who speaks for Boskone, is actually in radio contact with the Boskone for whom he speaks, the dread and dread Eichlan, leader of the Eich, who is giving orders for the destruction of Sol III.


This is an interior illustration from the September 1939 issue by Charles Schneeman, depicting Lan of the Eich and Helmuth communicating by intergalactic force ball.

Let us delve into the purple prose for a paragraph. This is the opening:

Among the world-girdling fortifications of a planet distant indeed from star cluster AC 257-4736 there squatted sullenly a fortress quite similar to Helmuth’s own. Indeed, in some respects it was even superior to the base of him who spoke for Boskone. It was larger and stronger. Instead of one dome, it had many. It was dark and cold withal, for its occupants had practically nothing in common with humanity save the possession of high intelligence.

In the central sphere of one of the domes there sparkled several of the peculiarly radiant globes whose counterpart had given Kinnison so seriously to think, and near them there crouched or huddled or lay at ease a many-tentacled creature indescribable to man. It was not like an octopus. Though spiny, it did not resemble at all closely a sea-cucumber. Nor, although it was scaly and toothy and wingy, was it, save in the vaguest possible way, similar to a lizard, a sea-serpent, or a vulture. Such a description by negatives is, of course, pitifully inadequate; but, unfortunately, it is the best that can be done.

The entire attention of this being was focused within one of the globes, the obscure mechanism of which was relaying to his sense of perception from Helmuth’s globe and mind at clear picture of everything which was happening within Grand Base. The corpse-littered dome was clear to his sight; he knew that the Patrol was attacking from without; knew that that ubiquitous Lensman, who had already unmanned the citadel, was about to attack from within.

“You have erred seriously,” the entity was thinking coldly, emotionlessly, into the globe, “in not deducing until after it was too late to save your base that the Lensman had perfected a nullifier of sub-ethereal detection. Your contention that I am equally culpable is, I think, untenable. It was your problem, not mine; I had, and still have, other things to concern me. Your base is of course lost; whether or not you yourself survive will depend entirely upon the adequacy of your protective devices.”

Nothing like this had been done before in science fiction. The audience of the time was surprised (and delighted) with the development. It would be as if Tolkien in the Hobbit gave the details of the fall of Dol Guldur and the flight of the Necromancer to Mordor, only to discover to the reader of a larger, stronger, colder and darker fastness called Barad Dur. We will later discover that this grand base occupies the eternally nighted side of the Neptunian and tide-locked planet Jarnevon, which is not in our galaxy at all.

In other words, the remorseless space pirate chief Helmuth is not a pirate at all, nor is he the chief of anything but the military operations in this galaxy of what turns out to be an empire larger than Civilization, intergalactic in scope.

The enemy was called pirates because they were preying on shipping; but it turns out they were preying on shipping as merely one part of a multilayered scheme to destroy civilization both by open means and by secret.

One might wonder how Civilization ends up in a war with Boskone without knowing Boskone is anything more than a large criminal pirate organization.

But consider the premise of the story: Civilization is composed of mutually alien beings with nothing in common, not history, not language, not biology, not psychology. Their only glue is pure reason, that is, the mutual understanding of the mutual benefit of political alliance. Boskone likewise is composed of mutually alien beings with nothing in common but fear of torture and destruction at the hands of their mutual master-race, the Eich. When the advance flotillas of Boskone come across starships of sophisticated design in interstellar space, if there is no Lensman aboard, there is no way to produce mutual communication: and so the Boskonians, using the only rules they know for inter-species interaction, would attack, enslave, loot or destroy them.

There could be no declaration of war or formal request for surrender between humans or dragons from warm, small worlds and spiny sea-monsters or shapeless amoeba from Neptunian or Plutonian environments, because these enemies could have no emotions or language in common. The Tellurians would mistake Boskonians for pirates because the Boskonians have no other way to react to outsiders encountered but to attack them. The Boskonians would regard Civilization as escaped slaves, as free-range prey, or as an anarchic threat.

And in any case, the natural secretiveness and paranoia endemic to totalitarian states would make the higher ranks reluctant to have the underlings even know of their existence, especially as they live in a universe where mind-readers and planet-destroying weapons are frequent dangers. The normal motive of self-aggrandizement would not be present in a multiracial alien empire: what would the chlorine breathing amoeba care whether the cold blooded python people or the Plutonian sea-cucumbers or the blue men or the amazons adored and saluted them or not?

Hence it comes as a vast surprise when Kimball Kinnison discovers that Helmuth was not the innermost of the Russian Dolls of evil, but only the outer shell of a more sinister threat: With Helmuth dead and their military arm smashed, the Council of Boskone now concentrates on their attempts to undermine civilization in much the same way as the British undermined the Chinese in the Opium Wars, by means of addictive drugs. This transfers vast wealth into the coffers of the drugrunners, while corroding the private and then the public virtue of the addiction-weakened society.

The Eich have made contact with the Overlords of Delgon, the race of mesmeric sadists addicted to torture and psychic vampirism, who survived the previous book. Again, the two races have nothing in common, and cannot tolerate the atmosphere or environment of each others’ worlds without airtight armor. But here E.E. Smith introduces a note of bitter realism, and mentions that while poets speak of love overcoming all boundaries, hate can do the job as well, as here, where the two advanced alien races combine against their mutual foes. The Overlords form the basis of the Eich rebuilt military arm, and are equipped with ships that can bypass normal three dimensional space via a hyperspatial tube.

More subtle is their drug smuggling operation, under control of Jalte, a Kalonian of the same blue-skinned humanoid race as the late, unlamented Helmuth. The psionic technology allows the Boskonians to equip their minions with thought-screens, sufficient to hinder the otherwise unstoppable mental powers of Kimball Kinnison of Tellus and Worsel of Valentia.

GRAY LENSMAN is also a more complex story than GALACTIC PATROL, because Smith is balancing three parallel plotlines. First and foremost is the plotline of Kimball Kinnison as an undercover narcotics agent, disguised as ‘Wild Bill’ Williams, Meteor Miner, slowly and carefully working his way from the frontier saloons of the lowest of low-life to the fancy casinos of this upper crust of the high life, attempting to find Jalte, Helmuth’s replacement. We get to see Kimball addict himself to drink and drugs and carousing among the lumberjacks and roughnecks of space. If the story were told these days, these scenes would be considerably darker and grimmer, and I doubt many a modern writer would have the stomach simply to denounce the drug abuse as the pure quill evil that it is.

The second plotline is the piracy story: the Overlords, now equipped with the Boskonian hyperspatial tube, are able to materialize their warship near any vessel, but by maintaining their location partway in the fourth dimension, they are immune to any possible attack, but are close enough to use their hideous mind-powers to abduct crews and kill them by slow torture.

The third is the war story, and in this plot thread Smith shows his unique skills as a writer. The war in now intergalactic in scope: the warship Dauntless crosses the intergalactic void, whose less dense medium allows the starship to make the voyage in a reasonable time, to discover an entire galaxy run by the Boskonians.

A single beleaguered world, called Medon, is found resisting the evil empire, and in a masterfully understated scene (and a personal favorite of mine) after the Dauntless eliminates the besieging ships, the Medonians neutralize the inertia of their entire world, rendering it a faster than light object, and drive their globe across the intergalactic abyss to a friendlier location, namely, orbiting Alpha Centauri, next door to Tellus. The Medonians have developed perfect conductors and perfect insulators, so that hair-thin wires can hold a charge equal to what Tellurian technology requires vast bus bars and yard-wide silver coaxial cables to handle.

The Medonian invention has battlefield application. Because the worlds keep their intrinsic velocity, which reasserts itself once the interialess field surrounding them turns off, two planets with equal and opposite vectors can be positioned around enemy worlds and released.

This is a perfectly logical but perfectly unexpected application of the speculative technology Smith has already established for his universe. It is neither obvious nor arbitrary, and as just hits that happy medium all science fiction writers try to hit. What makes science fiction different from pure fantasy or pure adventure is this element of investigating the unexpected side-effects or applications of unrealistic ideas.

This is not the only weapon of mind-boggling superscience that crops up in this nifty volume: E.E. Smith makes a not-very-accurate guess as to what a mass of anti-electrons (he calls them negative Dirac holes) would be like, but his anti-gravitic antimatter is an orb of absolute nothingness possessed of negative mass.

The Asteroid Belt of Sol is swept up into the creation engine of the Negasphere which is made equal in volume to a whole world, a globe composed of a substance nothing made of positive matter can touch. Smith does make an accurate description of the mutual annihilation giving rise to two quanta of cosmic rays.

In the final battle scene where all the planetary flotillas of the million member worlds of Civilization, including battleships, maulers, supermaulers and dirigible planets and the hideously unstoppable Negasphere, approach the Second Galaxy and meet an armada equally as large, it is the organizational ability, namely the command and control headquarters of the Directorix Z9M9Z, lovingly described in some detail, which wins the day.

Here again Smith shows his superiority to other space opera writers, who would be happy just to stun the reader with the magnitude of the fleets and firepowers involved: he is one of the few writers who takes the sheer mind-boggling numbers involved in a million-flotilla fleet seriously, and ponders what kind of command and control would be needed to coordinate it. Ironically, real naval officers during and after the Second World War, when the revolution in radar and electronics was taking place, took notice of some of his ideas, and incorporated them.

I hope it will not spoil any reader’s enjoyment if I mention that the drug-lord Jalte’s invulnerable war base is annihilated, the evil planet Jarnevon is obliterated, the Eich are destroyed, and their massive war fleet wiped out, and so the Council of Boskone will trouble outer space no longer.

Kimball and Clarissa are now free to wed, and go skipping tra-la off to a happy ending!

(Not to worry, space-action fans; in the first chapter of the next volume SECOND STAGE LENSMAN, the happy couple is interrupted before they make it to the elevators, and the war escalates to the next highest pitch of fury and magnitude).

The drawbacks, such as they are (they do not seem like drawbacks to me) present in the first volume are repeated in the second.

The cornball but futuristic space-slang, especially in gin joints and opium dens of the lowlife roughnecks and crooks, is made embarrassingly more cornballish because it is allegedly rougher than the swearing of space marines, but such things were not put in print in boy’s adventure stories back in the healthier and less vulgar days of yore. A genius like Professor Tolkien can have his orcs talk in a jarring rhythm of angry expletives which manages to sound crude without actually being crude; Smith lacks this knack.

The romantic dialog between Kim and Mac is even more cornball and slangy, and even more embarrassing. You either like it because it is so appallingly tin-eared, as I do, or you wince and turn the page waiting for the next scene where a whole planet is blasted into asteroids, as I also do.

However, the characterization, while never meant to be anything other than two dimensional, is nonetheless a little better filled out in the second volume.

We also get to see more of the bad guys, and their personalities come on stage, and here again is one of Smith’s strong points: writing in a day and age when all the intelligentsia was infatuated like slobbering dogs over the glories of totalitarianism and the futuristic efficiency of beloved comrade Stalin’s utopia or glorious Chancellor Hitler’s, it took a rare and bold insight to say that totalitarianism by its very nature is self-destructive. Any system where there the leaders and followers live in mutual betrayal and mutual fear of betrayal, encourages followers not to report failure, not to report anything aside from what the leaders want to hear, and also encourages the leaders not to trust their followers, not to delegate responsibility, not to heed advice. Every totalitarian, like Hitler during the war, ends up trying to micromanage everything himself.

This idea is played out in the text, but without being blatant or heavy handed. Each time the Gray Lensman infiltrates and blasts some drug-lord, it is not reported up the chain of command. As with Helmuth, when the Boskonian Council discovers that the Lens is the source of the Tellurian power, they dispatch their Leader to the haunted planet Arisia to investigate, with the same grisly results. The First of the Eich overestimates his abilities just as arrogantly as did Helmuth his minion, and suffers a worse fate.

Another weak point, if it is a weak point, is the absurd strength of the main character. The Tellurian military has ranks up to a certain level, but then certain Lensman are just so awesome that they are ‘unattached’ or ‘gray’ lensman, and they select their own missions, commandeer any material or equipment they like, overrule all other authority from beat cops to fleet admirals, and they set policy, make strategic decisions, conduct investigations, organize scientific conferences, and just do whatever they see fit, including going on month-long drinking-and-drug sprees as part of their undercover work. Uh-huh.

In this universe, there is apparently no possibility of two or more gray Lensman having any difference of opinion or judgment about any operations of police investigation, military tactics, or espionage priorities. There is only one Negasphere, so how come Kinnison gets to say which planet to plash with it, rather than Worsel or Trigonsee?

I cannot see how you would run a baseball team, much less a galactic Republic at war, with a ‘Gray’ player who could pitch and play shortstop and pinch-hit and coach, all as he and he alone saw fit, but then again, I have not been selected by the super-advanced and ultra-smart super-beings from Arisia to be outfitted with a Lens. I assume the Gray Lensmen all coordinate their activity via Lens, but it does not say in the text how jurisdictional disputes (or any disputes) are handled. Perhaps mutual telepathic hypnosis settles everything?

And, of course, Kimball can do everything from plainclothes detective work to meteor mining to repairing a broken space engines to organizing interplanetary scientific conferences to impersonating a falling-down drink-soaked drug addict (by actually becoming addicted to a drug!) to being the commander in chief of the combined galactic fleet, because he is …. Just … That … AWESOME!

(We do not find out until a later volume that Kimball Kinnison is the Kwisatz Haderach, that is, the end product of a ten thousand year long eugenic breeding project by the Arisians to produce the superman, which sounds pretty damned creepy to me.)

On the other hand, if you want to read a story about a pirate-hunting paladin warlord detective hypnotist superscientist demigod, wells, shucks, you have to be willing to suspend your disbelief about whether or not one man can be an expert pirate-hunter, soldier, secret agent, detective, commander-in-chief and superhero all at once. Teams of specialists star in stories with more characters and less goshwow.

I mean, c’mon, once we start complaining about how unrealistic it is that one hero can do everything, the next thing you know, we will be saying that Bruce Wayne cannot be a better boxer than Gentleman Jim Corbett, better detective than Sherlock Holmes, better gadget-maker than Tom Edison, while being richer than Croesus; or saying that James Bond cannot be an expert baccarat-player with an expert knowledge of fine wines, racecar driver, jetpack pilot, marksman, frogman, horseman and lady’s man; or saying Captain Kirk should not leave the bridge to go down to the planet’s surface and brawl with the natives; or saying Clark Kent cannot both build superman-duplicate robots at his fortress of solitude at the North Pole and be an ace reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper!

Another weakness, or, at least, something that made me raise my eyebrow, was the casual use and abuse of the mind powers, including the way Kinnison rewrites the memory chains of a zwilnik (that is future slang for drugrunner) dame whose brain was erased by a vile drug hidden in a hollow tooth. He also adds a compulsion for her to react with hysterical violence against anyone else attempting to meddle with her mind.

The text does not say what he invents by way of her taste in music or taste in men; or memories of vacations on the Aldebaranian Riviera; or memories of her First Communion of whatever denomination he picked for her; or her wedding night of whatever husband he picked for her; or her mother’s funeral; or the time her girl scout troupe was ripped to shreds by Rigelian Cateagles; but it does seem uncouth and unnatural that he would inject his own invented memories into her brain instead of telling her she’s been mind wiped and sending her back to school. Or just inject the schooling and leave the rest blank, and send her to a sanitarium. Or tell her the freakish truth and sign her up as in the Galactic Patrol to help the war effort against those that did this to her.

I suppose if Gray Lensmen are so Awesome that they can do whatever they want to anyone’s mind without asking the by-you-leave of her relatives, attorneys, or what-not, but the idea is creepy as hell. And this is the goodguy.

Like the creepy eugenics that crops up later, back in the happy days of the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, the Polio epidemic, and the rise of world Communism, I suppose the science fiction ideas were new enough and cool enough we need not to dwell on their nightmarish abuses. There would be time enough for that in 1948, when George Orwell hit his stride.

I should also mention, again, that the most shocking thing to the modern reader, aside from the purple prose, is that the women in this book are portrayed as something other than he-men who happen to be female.

Reading online reviews of this book is something of a shock to me, because I tend to forget that moderns love to be shocked at things like, you know, reality. To the moderns, reality is optional, and they react to books (even make-believe space opera books) written back when reality was real, or at least taken seriously, with a mixture of disgust, confusion, disbelief, and dumbfoundedness mingled with self-righteousness. It would be an amusing spectacle were it not so sad.

The modern reader is an amnesiac. He has been conditioned to believe, or to talk as if he thinks he believes, that all previous cultures for all of time either were misogynistic and “sexist” (a word that apparently refers to race hatred directed not against a foreign race but against the opposite sex) or accepted the emptyheaded Lefty shibboleths abolishing all distinction between the sexes in the name of equality.

It will shock moderns to learn that this is not the majority view, not even today, neither worldwide nor here in America; indeed, it is not the majority view outside of the special climate-controlled hothouse of opinion-control maintained in universities and the mass media. Moderns spend more time watching the telly than talking to their neighbors, so they think all their neighbors think whatever the opinion-control mechanisms of the telly tell them to think. It is not so. And if the telly tells them that Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, why, then, so we have, and it has never been any different.

The women in this book are none of them, neither the gorgeous heroines nor the gorgeous villainesses, damsels in distress or fainting Victorians. They are much more like the pioneer women of American history, tough as nails and able to do whatever nasty job is needed to survive, but not deceiving themselves into thinking that they are cut out to be Daniel Boone and wrestle a bear. That is men’s work.

They are, however, gorgeous. If you are going to find fault with that, you will have to find fault with every female in every space opera from Princess Aura of Mongo to Princess Padme of Naboo (roughly from 1939 to 1999).


That has not changed and is not likely to change.