Children of The Lens – EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1948)
Probably the quintessential Space Opera of its time, the Lensman series has dated – although not so badly as the work of some of his contemporaries – due mainly, in my opinion, to Smith’s rather one-dimensional characterisation, his dialogue and his depiction of female roles. Paradoxically, given the rather limited characterisation of the humans his aliens are sometimes truly alien. Indeed, the mindsets of some of the non-human protagonists are often far more skilfully depicted than their human counterparts.
Despite that, provided one bears in mind the social climate in which this was written and reads the novel in context, they can still be hugely enjoyable.
The term ‘Space Opera’ is actually used within the text at one point when Kim Kinnison – the hero of the series – goes undercover posing as a writer of the genre. Whether the alter ego was based on anyone in particular is not known.
This is the finale to Smith’s six volume saga. Smith was an early forerunner of today’s ‘Big Concept’ writers such as Greg Bear and Stephen Baxter, and though some of his scientific fabulations seem somewhat preposterous by today’s standards it was Smith and writers like him who created that ‘sense of wonder’ for many readers, not only when this was published as a magazine serial in the Nineteen Forties, but when republished in book form in the fifties and (for reasons unknown) enjoying an unexpected renaissance in the mid-seventies. The series has recently been republished by an independent publisher and hopefully will find a new generation of readers.
Smith’s strength lies in his ability to convey the vastness of Time and Space, his premise being that billions of years ago a race of humanoids – The Arisians – was born in our galaxy and evolved far beyond the point at which humanity now stands.
They learned that by observation and the calculations of their powerful minds they could predict the future to a certain degree. They knew that a galaxy was about to pass completely through their own galaxy, and that the gravitational pull of suns against each other would produce billions of new planets, upon which Life would evolve.
They also knew that another ancient race, the cruel and tyrannical Eddorians, had plans to dominate both galaxies and sate their immortal lust for power.
The Arisians only advantage was that the Eddorians were not aware of their existence, and so was set in motion a plan which was to span millions of years, taking us through the fall of Atlantis, the Roman Empire and thus through the Twentieth Century and beyond.
In essence, this is an epic war of ideologies, in that the Arisians represent democracy and free will, while the Eddorians represent a system of Hierarchical totalitarianism, enforced by a militaristic regime (In this respect it is interesting to compare the physical description of Smith’s Eddorians with Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, who themselves are a metaphor for the forces of Communism. Both are sexless, emotionless amorphous creatures, who reproduce by binary fission, with each new half retaining the memories and skills of the original).
The Arisians’ secret weapon is a selective breeding programme which has been in operation on four different planets since intelligent life evolved.
Only one of the four races can go on to produce the super-beings capable of defeating the Eddorians.
Humans, of course, win the ‘race’ race and the couple selectively bred to give birth to the Homo Superior children are inevitably white and North American.
This idea of selectively breeding humans rather puts a dent into the concept of Arisians as benign Guardians of Democracy, and although one can argue that it was the Arisians’ only option, it is never really addressed as a moral issue within the text.
The Children themselves are four girls and boy who, in their late teens, have to conceal that fact that they are the most powerful – if underdeveloped as yet – beings in the Universe. We are led to believe that the girls will ultimately become the wives of their brother, and the mothers of the race that will replace the Arisians as Guardians of Civilisation.
An oddly incestuous episode also ensues between Kit (the boy) and his mother in a strange scene where she – in need of brain-restructuring and training, for want of a better phrase – allows the mind of her son to enter hers, rather than submit to mental penetration by the Arisians (of whom she has an incurable phobia).
The description of this act is oddly violent and not a little sexual, made worse by the rather stilted professions of love between Mother and son before the procedure.
But Hell, this is Pulp Fiction. It never pretends to be Shakespeare, and despite its political incorrectness I still find it a nostalgic and stonking good read.