Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Seminal Status of "Doc" Smith's Lensman series

"The Seminal Status of "Doc" Smith's Lensman Series"

(c) 2007, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior

E. E. "Doc" Smith is today sometimes dismissed as "merely" a pulp science fiction writer who produced "cliche" space operas. What is not commonly realized is the extent to which he actually originated many ideas which were so widely copied by other writers that they became "cliche." Here is a quick listing of some of his most important ideas

I.  Most importantly, the Lensman series was the first to put forward and explore in detail (1) the concept of a multi-species interstellar federation as a future civilization. (2) This idea is very common today, largely because of the near universality of its acceptance by both science fiction fans and mundanes as a plausible model for an interstellar civilization. It's the clear inspiration for the Federation of Star Trek, Central Control of Andre Norton's space opera stories, Poul Anderson's Polesotechnic League, etc. Even when you have something nastier (such as Anderson's Terran Empire) it exists in an auctorial awareness that better things are possible.

Before "Doc" Smith, it usually was TAKEN FOR GRANTED that if different species met the only possibilities would be (a) genocidal warfare, as in Wells' War of the Worlds or (b) domination of most species by a "master race," as in the situation on Barsoom and by implication in most 1930's multi-racial Solar Systems (for that matter, Smith's first two Skylark novels tended to assume that humanoid oxygen-breathers couldn't get along with non-humanoid or non-oxygen breathers).  This concept was part and parcel of the rise of illiberal philosophies starting with 19th-century Romanticism, darkening with Marx, Gobineau, Spencer and Nietzsche, and reaching its full horrible depths in the decades from 1914 through 1976, leading to the rises of Lenin,Stalin, Hitler and Mao, and systematic murder on the most massive scales.

When reading the science fiction of the interwar era it is important to realize that the (non-Commuinist) dominant intellectuals of that age considered some sort of fight for racial supremacy to be normal and historically necessary.  (The Communist ones considered some sort of fight for class supremacy to serve the same role).  "Doc" Smith was bucking the intellectual trends of the 1930's by asserting that the applciation of a liberal idea of racial equality, even across species, was possible.

Smith was one the first science fiction writers to see that there was, inherent in sapience, the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the struggle for survival between species, and was most certainly the first science fiction writer to make this the theme of a major work. Note that one BIG reason Civilization triumphs over Boskone is that Civilization can make use of the talents of all its races, while Boskone (which is strictly hierarchical) keeps most races in such subjection that they cannot fully develop their capabilities.

II.  Smith was one of the first writers (3) to grasp the immense scales of energy, time, and distance which were inherent in cultures with atomic power and interstellar spaceflight. In the Lensman series, fleets comprised of thousands and eventually millions of large warships (made possible because they are produced by two warring cultures each of which contain dozens of major and thousands of minor production planets) clash in campaigns which span tens of thousands of light years and battles which sprawl out across whole solar systems.

They attack and defend with energies and explosives utterly dwarfing anything producible by planetbound, 20th century Man. Against their awesome forces, no more primitive culture could hope to last for an instant (in The Vortex Blaster, Cloudd ends a lower-tech interplanetary war by using a Civilization lifeboat's engines offensively) (4)

III.  Smith was one of the first science fiction writers to grasp the inherent (i.e. institutional and systematic) advantages which free societies have over unfree societies (5). As such, he can be argued to be the true father of not only space opera but also of libertarian science fiction (6).

This is a major theme of the series, and one which is implicitly and explicitly repeated in every book. Time and time again, whether conceptually (as in the case of the repeated underestimation of the rising Civilization by Boskone) or physically (as in the negasphere duels) Boskone's rigid and hierarchical nature dooms the Boskonians to defeat. Time and time again, whether on the grand scale (Virgil Samms' willingness to regard the Rigellians and Palanians as fit partners for the Triplanetary League) or the most personal (Kinnison's mercy towards Ilona of Lonabar), the essential humaneness and tolerance of Civlization gives it major advantages and wins it new allies and vital information.

I'll note here that Smith's ideas in this regard were very advanced -- most Western intellectuals wouldn't come around to his point of view until 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall exposed the rottenness at the heart of the 20th century's greatest totalitarianism -- and ended the long nightmare the West had been in since 1914.  Smith's own universe had the Cold War end in World War III, but it is obvious that Civilization itself is far more descended in terms of culture, economy, and political system from the Free World than it is from the Communist one, and one may assume that the "Tyrant of Asia" (actually an energized flesh-form of Gharlane of Eddore) ruled as some sort of Communist.

IV.  E. E. "Doc" Smith was one of the first sf writers to realize the tremendous potential capabilities of propaganda, subversion, terrorism, and psychological operations in large scale warfare. You could argue that he was merely copying the real-life events of World War II here, except that the series originated conceptually as a future police story, and Galactic Patrol (copyright 1939, and hence written before the Second World War started) already has drug dealing subversion and terrorism as major elements of the Boskonian attack on Civilization. In his stories, both sides make extensive use of this sort of warfare -- Boskone inflitrates Civilization repeatedly from the start, and Kinnison repeatedly infiltrates Boskone (most importantly in the last part of Second Stage Lensman). In the conquest of the Second Galaxy, Civilization repeatedly converts Boskonian worlds to Civillized norms by intensive propaganda, and in the last phase of the war, Boskone uses systematic terrorism to destablize numerous Civilized worlds.

V.  E. E. "Doc" Smith was one of the first sf writers -- or indeed military affairs writers! -- to recognize the immense importance of what is today termed C3I (command, control, communications, and intelligence) in large scale military operations. His concepts of the plotting tank and of the "Directrix" were not only revolutionary in fiction, they have been credited by the US Navy as seminal influences in the development of REAL-LIFE ship-board Combat Information Centers!

His fiction in general stresses the importance of intelligence (both intellectual and espionage) in warfare, and in battle after battle, Civilization prevails owing to a superior command structure -- which in turn, as I've noted before in this mini-essay, comes from its superior social structure.

VI.  E. E. "Doc" Smith was one of the first (though not THE first) science fiction writer to realize that, owing to the escalating energies present on the battlefield, it would eventually be impossible for unprotected and unaugmented humans to survive combat. All his combatants wear at least "space armor" (which note, by the time of the main story cycle, includes duralloy armor and a personal force field) if there is a serious fight brewing, and specialized combatants (such as the Valerian Space Marines) are fighting in what amounts to man-portable legged tankettes. He was one of the first sf writers to predict powered armor, which Kinnison develops first for his personal use. (7).  At several points in the series, power-armored combatants are able to defeat much larger soft-skinned enemy forces.

Smith was one of the first sf writers to realize that, if psychic powers were really possible, they could be scientifically studied and utilized in large-scale "psi-tech" type applications (8) (the most obvious example being the Lens itself, and some lesser ones being Worsel's handy-dandy miniaturized death-ray, the Triplanetary Service's meteor badges, and the Patrol's tele-projectors). Note that in Smith's world, it was possible for the utterly materialistic and mechanistic Eddorians to deduce and employ both psionics and (if you take Kyle as canon) necromancy on a large scale. Note the essentially materialistic description of the climatic psionic attack of Civilization against Eddore, at the close of Children of the Lens.

This is one of the sources of virtually every science fictional use of psionics since.


Well, that's all I can think of at the moment. I'll note that even ONE of these achievements would be enough to win any other science fiction writer fame for life -- and we're talking here about SEVERAL such achievements in just ONE of the series of an author who wrote several series in his lifetime.

E. E. "Doc" Smith was one of the greatest minds the genre has ever known -- a giant in his field, and the originator of many ideas in our genre -- and even some in our civilization as a whole.


(1) - Aside from being really good adventure stories, the various episodes involving Kimball Kinnison's undercover missions are vehicles for exploration of Civilization itself -- we learn a lot about the various planets, races, cultures and subcultures of Smith's world from the bottom up (sometimes literally as Kim starts a mission as a street bum or ordinary worker and wiggles his way up through the levels of an enemy organization).  The high command strategic scenes display important features of the politics and economics of Civilization, giving a top-down view.  In Second Stage Lensman, we get to see the Boskonian culture as well. 

Edmond Hamilton created something like Civilization as early as the late 1920's, but he used it merely as a backdrop for world-wrecking adventures of alien invasion; he did not go into detail about his universe the way that Smith did. Nevertheless, he must have strongly inspired Smith, a fact I learned after the first publication of this essay.

One could argue that Olaf Stapledon's Galactic and Universal Minds worked sort of like Civilization, except that in Stapledon's universe a race had to be incredibly superhuman AND able to move itsr whole planet to engage in interstellar travel or to get along peacefully with sapients not of your own species. Note that the super-moral Second Men and the Martians couldn't get along, even his Fifth Men had to exterminate the Venusians, and the ultimate (and passionately sympathetic) Eighteenth Men, who were each superhumanly intelligent, routinely formed 98-fold thinking-and-mating groups, and could on occasion form a World Mind, didn't have the jets to swing to flee their dying Solar System -- and they DID try to launch starships, they just weren't up to the job.

By contrast, Civilization easily incorporates something like half a dozen sapient races in the Solar System alone (especially if you take Spacehounds of IPC to be in the continuity at least in terms of its description of the Jovian System) before even developing FTL travel and concludes its first interstellar war with a rational peace treaty, incorporating its former foes into its own culture. (all in Triplanetary!) By the time of Kimball Kinnison and the Children, exceedingly alien races like the Rigellians and Palanians cooperate with the more humanoid races smoothly and as a matter of course.

(2) - Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson wrote early stories of the naval and military forces of interstellar civilizations, of which Edmond Hamilton's was a peaceful multi-racial federation along the lines which Smith would later draw his Civilization, and Williamson's a more humanity-centered culture protected by the Legion of Space.  Neither provided much detail about their cultures, compared to Smith. 

Olaf Stapledon, who was working under the handicap of his own snobbish refusal to read the science fiction magazines, which meant that he was insulated from many of the best ideas of his era, depicted interstellar federations but only of vastly superhuman beings and only on the broadest scope.  Unsurprisingly, 1930's and later science fiction writers mined Stapledon's novels for ideas.

(3) - The others, obviously, were Olaf Stapledon (who was working under the handicap of his own snobbish refusal to read popular sf, which meant that he was insulated from many of the best ideas of the pulp and Golden Age eras) and Edmond Hamilton (who was nicknamed "World Wrecker" for this reason).  "Common sense" notions of the limits of the application of energy were based on our familiarity with merely chemical energy sources:  our culture was slow to grasp the difference in quality when one can convert mass to energy.  To be fair, we only learned that it was possible in 1905:  in the 1930's, the mass-energy equivalence was as recent a discovery as is, say, quark dynamics today.

(4) - Smith was one of the first sf writers to see that the scale of energies required to enable spaceflight would be utterly devastating compared to unaugmented humans. And in real life, the Apollo missions lifted off atop rockets each of which contained about as much energy as an atomic bomb.  Cloudd's lifeboat was capable of greater levels of thrust.  H. G. Wells' movie Things to Come may have anticipated the point with the classic scene where a whole rioting mob is (presumably) blown to bits by standing too close to the firing of a Moon-capable Earth-based launch cannon.

(5) -  And note: he began writing the series in the late 1930's, at a time when most intellectuals were wondering not if liberal democracy could survive (they ASSUMED it to be doomed) but rather whether it would be Communism or Fascism that would dominate the world. Reading the series today, his arguments for the inherent superiority of freedom over totalitarianism seem very modern; by contrast Stapledon's slavish worship of socialism seems very old-fashioned.

(6) - While Civilization seems very authoritarian and militaristic in the stories, this is because they focus on an interstellar WAR -- it is explicitly stated in one of the books that under normal circumstances the tax rate is something like 1% and in another that most citizens of Civilization go throughout their lives without ever seeing anything more violent than a fistfight).  The extreme hostility of Civilization to drug production and smuggling is in part derived from the propaganda Smith read growing up, and in part from the fact that narcotics are being used against Civilization as a Boskonian tool of subversion to crash Civilized cultures.

(7) - Robert A. Heinlein, who immensely respected and was was immensely inspired by "Doc" Smith, would of course be the first sf writer to develop this notion in detail, in Starship Troopers. John Ringo, in his Posleen vs. Terran novels, has recently taken the whole notion a lot further.

(8) - To be fair, the concept of "psi-tech" could also be said to date back to the "Lost Race" science fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "Vril powered" Atlantean airships were a staple of these tales, Lovecraftian "magic" worked on this principle (see especially "The Dreams in the Witch House" and "The Shadow Out of Time"), and Stapledon's "psychic gravity" could be viewed as (accidental and disastrous) terraforming on a very large scale!

Also, an even earlier example of fictional psi-tech comes from Hodgson's The Night Land, in which much about the human soul is scientifically understood. Hodgson may have pioneered this notion, in this work and in his Carnacki the Ghost-Finder stories.

Smith himself used the concept of psionics, as a higher-order energy form, in his earlier Skylark series.  In the later books it becomes utterly vital to the plot.


  1. You do know that Heinlein and Smith were friends right? Smith was an engineer and Heinlein was also the only person, other than Smith's wife, he told the ending to the Lens Series to (Smith died before he completed it). Heinlein never told what that ending was, saying it was up to Smith's wife to reveal it, as it wasn't his place to say.

  2. it is important to realize that the (non-Commuinist) dominant intellectuals of that age considered some sort of fight for racial supremacy to be normal and historically necessary

    Lots of Communists thought it too. Marx himself approved of the Mexican-American war on the grounds of American superiority. Engels cheerfully spoke of "non-historic peoples" whose task was to "perish."

  3. You do know that Heinlein and Smith were friends right?

    Yes. I read an essay by Heinlein about Smith (in which, among other things, he revealed that Smith was an utterly-terrifying driver, which puts those Rigellian roadways in perspective). I'm pretty sure that the space armor and powered armor in the Lensman verse was one of Heinlein's inspirations for the powered armor in Starship Troopers.

  4. Lots of Communists thought it too.

    Good point. Though by the 1930's most of the Communist intellectuals had begun to argue for racial equality -- possibly honestly, possibly because Stalin was looking to fish in troubled waters by encouraging subject races to revolt.

    But yes, there was a strongly racist angle to all the revolts against classical liberalism. Marx and Engels and Wells arguing that "lesser races" would have to be subjugated or perhaps exterminated because they were at too primitive a "historic stage" to generate the classless society; the racist nationalism of the Japanese Imperialists, the Italian Fascists and the German Nazis; Wilson's segregation of the US Federal civil service in the 1910's, and the American Eugenics movement, which actually got sterilization laws passed and enforced on a large scale.

    Science fiction of the interwar era was torn between two tendencies. As Communists, Socialists, Progressives or Technocrats, they believed in ruthless action to enforce the rule of the "superior races." As some of the first people thinking seriously about humanity as a whole as one species trying together to survive in an infinite and perhaps-hostile universe, they tended to take racial distinctions less seriously than did most other humans of their day.

    Some of the writers who are commonly accused today of being particularly "racist" weren't, at least not for their day. For example, "Doc" Smith himself does not go on about white superiority or non-white inferiority (as would have been normal in much 1930's science fiction), and he insisted on keeping a sympathetic Japanese character in the Skylark series during the period of World War II and the decade after when the Japanese were much disliked by Americans. Edgar Rice Burroughs was also much-maligned for supposed racism, though (atypically for stories from the 1910's to 1930's) he usually had both sympathetic and unsympathetic characters belonging to any given race he depicted -- he was a strong believer that good or evil was an individual quality, rather than a racial one.

    Things really didn't start to change until World War II and the revelation of the Nazi horrors, which discredited racialist theories across the political spectrum. Many of the great science-fiction writers of the Golden and Classic Ages actually participated in World War II, and thus felt a very keen hostility toward racialism.