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Interstellar Warfare - E.E. 'Doc' Smith and the Lensman Series

Updated on December 8, 2016

Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith was a writer whose popularity has varied dramatically over the course of time, but whose influence on the development of science fiction is undeniable. The view of the universe and of galactic civilizations that he developed in the Lensman series during the 1930s transformed the genre, and virtually all subsequent space opera owes at least a portion of its concepts to him.

Smith’s first novel was The Skylark of Space (1928), which began the shorter and less impressive Skylark series. The scale of events was considerably smaller than in the Lensman series, concentrating primarily on the rivalry between two human scientists, Richard Seaton and Blacky Duquesne, the latter of whom is the recurring villain, though partially redeemed much later on. The Lensman books were much more influential, populating an entire galaxy with disparate races.

It is difficult for contemporary science fiction readers to understand the impact of the Lensman series which virtually invented the galactic empire and the general attributes of future interstellar civilizations reflected in almost every similar book that has followed.

Second Stage Lensman - art by Chris Foss
Second Stage Lensman - art by Chris Foss

The series consists of six titles, although Triplanetary (1948, magazine version in 1934) is a prequel of sorts and not part of the main story line. The remaining volumes, in chronological order, are First Lensman (1950), Galactic Patrol (1950, magazine version 1937), Gray Lensman (1951, magazine version 1939), Second Stage Lensmen (1953, magazine version 1940), and Children of the Lens (1954, magazine version 1947).

The universe is dominated by two alien empires, the Arisians and the Eddorians. The former are benevolent and are engaged in a program of development of the other races of the galaxy, hoping to build a vibrant, powerful community of worlds that will be capable of resisting the encroachments of the less altruistic Eddorians. The Arisians are selectively breeding some individuals who will have talents and abilities far beyond those of others of their kind and who will become warriors against the Eddorians and their front organization, Boskone.

These selected individuals will also be fitted with a Lens, a technological marvel that provides telepathic and other psi powers. One of those receiving this gift is Kimball Kinnison, a human, who is the protagonist for most of the series. Kinnison is initially unaware of his greater role, because the Arisians are hesitant about providing too much information early in the development of their client races.

Grey Lensman - art by Chris Foss
Grey Lensman - art by Chris Foss

Triplanetary introduces the conflict on Earth, a war between two alien influences that is conducted without the knowledge of most of the human inhabitants, who are not even aware that aliens are among them. The action properly gets underway in First Lensman, after humans have achieved the ability to travel about the galaxy.

Although the interstellar culture is largely open and free, the planet Arisia has always been shrouded in secrecy and closed to human visitors. All that changes when one specific human, Kinnison, is summoned there for a visit in which he receives a Lens and is told only part of the story of the conflict with the Eddorians. The reluctance of the Arisians to tell the full story is a plot device that allows Smith to reveal new wonders and layers of complexity in the subsequent volumes.

Kinnison is serving a kind of interstellar police force in Galactic Patrol, ostensibly this time battling a band of interplanetary pirates who use highly advanced technology to conduct their raids. The source of their superior equipment is ultimately revealed to be the Eddorians, who resort to every possible method to subvert the stability of Arisia and its allies.

The Galactic Patrol squares off against another criminal organization in Gray Lensman, this time destroying a major tool of the Arisians, as Kinnison begins to suspect the scale of the conflict into which he has been thrust. He resorts to infiltration in Second Stage Lensmen, penetrating into the heart of another Eddorian-linked front group and dealing their plans a further setback, although the Arisians and their allies will not be completely triumphant until Children of the Lens, in which Kinnison’s children are actually at the forefront in the climactic battle.

Children of the Lens - art by Chris Foss
Children of the Lens - art by Chris Foss

E.E. “Doc” Smith, who is often called the father of space opera, wrote very crudely by contemporary standards. His characters, particularly the females, are sketchily drawn, one-dimensional, and invariably noble or evil as their roles in the stories dictate. The scientific content was superficial and the plots often involved contrived situations and solutions. All that notwithstanding, he was far ahead of his contemporaries, in his abilities of conception and execution; despite the shortcomings of his novels, they have been in and out of print several times and still find an interested audience.

Smith wrote several other novels, none of which rival the stature of the Lensman series. The Vortex Blaster (1960, also published as Masters of the Vortex) consists of several shorter pieces set in the same context as the Lens series, although it does not share characters or contribute to the main story.

As an innovator and storyteller, E.E. Smith was possibly the single most influential writer other than H. G. Wells in the genre’s history because of the way he gave form to a collective view of the universe that has been pervasive in science fiction ever since.

Chronicles of the Lensman - art by John Berkey
Chronicles of the Lensman - art by John Berkey


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    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      And the only movie based (loosely) on the series as far as I know is the anime - Lensman (1984). Which I have on video. :)

      Thanks for commenting.

    • My SciFi Life profile image

      My SciFi Life 6 years ago from London, UK

      One of my most favourite series and one that I have read and re-read over the years. While I agree that writing style wise it leaves a bit to be desired by today's standards, it is a really good and easy read.