Review: Triplanetary

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.

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