Archive for April, 2024

Review: First Lensman

Thursday, April 18th, 2024

This is the second book of E. E. Smith’s Lensmen series. I got thinking enough about Triplanetary that I figured I’d take the next bite of this series. It is a fascinating core sample of post-WWII SF.

The basic idea is that there are two advanced alien races using the galaxy as a chessboard. One race is dedicated to good and and the other evil. As humanity begins to reach outside its solar system using some annoyingly nonsensical technology the good aliens begin exerting their influence to promote civilization in the human expansion. This is countering the pre-existing and continuing evil alien influence. They do this primarily by bringing together skilled and virtuous humans and gifting them resources, including the lens in Lensmen. That device gives the owner a variety of telepathic powers. The lens is set up as both only being usable by the virtuous and acting as proof of virtue.

First Lensmen is basically the story of how the Lensmen grow and attempt to become leaders of humanity. They plan to essentially take over the fundamentally sound democratic government and military structures that have been overrun by evil alien corruption people.

There are only so many paths to power, and as the novel goes on it’s clear that the paths are independent of the virtue of the people using them. Smith doesn’t ignore that as both sides strategize about things like building military forces and manipulating public opinion in ways that are close. There is a pragmatism to the idealism that is welcome. The evil-alien-driven drug trade is basically the only tactic that’s hard to spin both ways. And though the lens grants credibility, the evil folks predictably claim its effects are hypnosis. The space fights are pretty by the numbers, but the bare knuckled elections are refreshing. There’s some Capra Corn in there as Mr. Lensman goes to Washington, but even at that it’s more interesting than the zap gun fights.

I can mostly look at it as a genre piece of its time, except for the misogyny. There’s only one female character of consequence, and a few with very minor roles. It fails the Bechdel Test without getting the nature of female interaction. No two female characters have a conversation.

The one woman character of consequence is there to verbalize her acceptance of the rule that women can’t be Lensmen though she qualifies in every other way. Then she is captured, tortured, and rescued by Lensmen. After that she basically doesn’t return for the last 100 pages of the book. Infuriating.

There are some interesting ideas to chew on in here about power and public opinion. I did find the characterization wooden at best and the plotting much the same. There are a lot of toxic males debating the merits of solutions to imaginary problems. The election stuff is more nuanced, but it’s a long way in. Overall an interesting thing to have read.

Review: Triplanetary

Sunday, April 7th, 2024

Triplanetary is the retconned beginning of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series, which I’ve always heard of as the prototypical Space Opera. I’ve been meaning to get around to reading the series and a friend recently prodded me to have a look. This is one of those books that my thoughts about it stuck with me more than reading it did. It seems to be a trend in my reviews lately.

And Triplanetary is exactly what I’ve heard it is. It is a Space Opera (primarily) written in the 1930’s about an interstellar war of first contact. The influence of the work is such that I can describe what was a pretty groundbreaking piece of genre fiction in less than 10 words and even a casual fan of the genre knows what’s going on. And I’m not going to split hairs or make claims about who created the Space Opera. Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers are running around already and I’m sure there are others. Triplanetary has the scope and shape of a Space Opera – even without the framing sequences that link it to an emerging serial – and it’s the earliest thing I’ve read that has that shape.

I really didn’t like it much.

I would tell you that I like Space Opera. Star Wars has the formative spot in my history that it has in any nerdy kid’s life who saw it when they were 10. I generally dig the Green Lantern Corps, though I don’t follow it closely. I just wrote a review this year of a Space Opera I quite enjoyed. I like big doings, broad analogies, and morality plays. But, honestly, Triplanetary has shaken me up.

I’m reading along and watching our hyper-competent heroes fighting an alien race that is violently pillaging the solar system for resources while the Big Bad lurks in the background. The good guys get captured and pull a ruse to get access to tools to make an escape, which they do, and on the way out commit a pretty blatant act of genocide. Or that’s what it reads like to me. It jarred me quite a bit.

And I don’t even think it was bad writing. It was clearly established that the bad guys were waging total war as well. They destroy Pittsburgh, where I have family. I know that in times of warfare people do terrible things. But it kind of humanized the scope for me in a way that I don’t feel like the text intended to.

Which got me to thinking about Space Opera in general. And that scale of gratuitous violence and the moral choices it imposes seems pretty baked in to me. The Empire destroys Alderaan as an interrogation tactic just so we know how bad they are. And the good guys kill a lot of folks in return. Both sides in the Space Witch Space Opera I liked are also violent on a planetary scale. And I don’t always think those were bad choices. Leaving the Death Star standing, even if it somehow doesn’t wipe out the base on Yavin isn’t really tenable.

I think that because I disliked the characters in Triplanetary I was more critical of what they had done. But when I went to defend characters I like who had done similar scale things, it wasn’t as easy as I thought. Reasons characters I liked killed a lot of people felt like excuses when I applied them to the Triplanetary characters actions. I don’t think I should let people and characters I like off the hook more easily for their choices. I owe “Doc” Smith for the wake-up call.

Back to the book. The writing is fine. It hits story beats, builds tension, and generally has the shape of a serial. As I mentioned, I didn’t like the characters much. They were pretty one-dimensional action heroes, to the point where I felt like they were on the wrong side of snobs/slobs. The misogyny of the times is on impressive display. The only female character I remember is in the story to tell the hero how manly he is and react to another gigantic loss of life caused by our protagonists.

I usually end these with a recommendation, but this has been less a review than me grappling with my reactions to it in print. Triplanetary is a 1930’s Space Opera. The writing is pedestrian, but effective. It’s influential in the genre – there’s even a board game. If that sounds good and you have a look.

Review: Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?

Thursday, April 4th, 2024

Every couple years I like to check in on Stephen Dobyns. He seems to have made himself a nice career writing interesting crime fiction, including at least one mystery series. Not surprising given that his debut, The Church of Dead Girls fits into that broad category. Girls impressed me with what it hangs off that structure and he generally has something up his sleeve.

Which brings me to Is Fat Bob Dead Yet? It starts off as a crime drama/mystery in the style of Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen. Splashy murder, bombastic characters, lots of organized crime vibes. A good time. But at some point Dobyns starts talking directly to his reader in a way that is more conversational. It’s a nice bit of writing. I mean there was a narrator there the whole time, but there’s a slow shift that imbues that narrator with some character that draws attention to the fact that the reader is being told a story.

Dobyns manages an interesting balance of that metafictive storytelling and entertaining potboiler. I’m not blown away by either side of the approach, but I can’t complain either. The characters are engaging and I wanted to see how it all turned out.


Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2024

I am a huge fan of A Psalm for the Wild-Built, the book that establishes the world of A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. I definitely was excited to see how Becky Chambers built on that phenomenal start.

Crown-Shy takes us farther into the world and fills in more of how a society of sentients who are completely violence-blind works. The society is also cooperative at its root, which provides some interesting ideas on the economics. Even more interesting is how family dynamics evolve in such a world. It’s all interesting but I felt less of the awe of discovery.

I tend not to talk about plot details and characters in when I discuss these books, but that’s not because they’re dull. This is a fun read with interesting characters and dramatic tension. I want to keep turning the pages and follow the twists in the road. But in the long term I find the world chewier.

Strongly Recommended.