Review: First Lensman

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.

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