This sequel to ‘The Weapon Shops of Isher’ was originally serialised in Astounding Science Fiction in 1943 and revised for novel publication in 1952. It is set some seven years later where Robert Hedrock, immortal agent of the Weapon Shops, discovers that he is to be sentenced to death by The Empress Innelda Isher following his lunch with her and her advisors. However, he manages to talk his way out of this, but finds himself also under sentence of death by the weapon Shop Council who have discovered his immortality and suspect him of being an alien spy.
The main plotline hinges around the suspected invention of an interstellar drive, the disappearance and search for its inventor and attempts by all parties to get their hands on the technology for their own various agendas.
There is genuine excitement in this novel, and a semblance of plot, since Hedrock has to use his weird-science inventions and his ingenuity to get him out of a series of cliffhangers. Many of them are, to be honest, Deus ex Machina plot devices which do not bear close logical or scientific scrutiny, but with van Vogt, it hardly matters as it’s what he does best and it seems somehow to work.
At one point Hedrock, having escaped Innelda’s troops in a small ship powered by the revolutionary drive, is captured in interstellar space by an advanced race of telepathic spiders and for a time exists in a world of virtual reality while the aliens test and examine him.
It is revealed, somewhat obliquely, that Hedrock not only founded The Weapon Shops but has also been the husband of previous Isher Empresses and the father of their children, which brings a somewhat disturbing and incestuous flavour to the mix.
Again, in terms of regular van Vogt devices, we have the fifty-mile long spaceships, the great phallic building (within which is hidden the interstellar ship), powerful female aristocrats, the superman/logical hero and van Vogt’s annoying philosophy of masculine superiority.
Hereditary monarchies and aristocracies pepper van Vogt’s work. I have mentioned elsewhere that those writers who exhibit a fondness for monarchist systems tend to be those who live in countries without them, and don’t have to suffer the reality of it. This may not be true of van Vogt, being Canadian, although he did move to the US in 1944.
The Empress is the only female character in the novel. Her ‘court’ is exclusively male, as is the Weapon Shops Council and although this reflects the attitudes of the time and is related to the demographic of the readership, van Vogt regularly appears to emphasise the inferiority of women. It is not so evident here although not entirely absent. The Empress Innelda, ruler of Earth, Mars and Venus, is essentially a powerful dictator but in van Vogt’s view is not complete until she has found a man to sort her out. That man, as is suggested early on, is Hedrock, a man who is also some kind of ancestor several times over.
Putting aside the innate sexism and some rather complex incest issues, it is one of his better novels, remains highly engaging and hasn’t dated too badly.
What has made this novel in particular one of van Vogt’s most discussed works is the final line, uttered by the interstellar spider-beings. ‘Here is the race that shall rule the Sevagram’.
It’s a brilliant and original touch, as the Sevagram is never mentioned anywhere else and would have left readers of the time, and up to the present, somewhat open-mouthed at this lack of conclusion, this vast open question guaranteed to leave the book hanging in one’s mind. As John Clute points out in his overview of van Vogt in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia ‘this resonantly mysterious Slingshot Ending, which seems to open universes to the reader’s gaze, may well stand as the best working demonstration in the whole of genre sf of how to impart a Sense of Wonder.’
Hal Clement’s genius was in his talent to write rounded likeable characters and set them into a background of realistically thought out planets and environments.
This is no exception and can be seen as a kind of bridge between Stanley G Weinbaum’s ‘A Martian Odyssey’ and Barry B Longyear’s ‘Enemy Mine’.
Young Nils Kruger finds himself stranded on alien world. He had earlier become separated from his colleagues on a survey expedition and they now believe him dead.
This world is highly volcanic and part of the complex orbit of one planet and two suns.
Not far away is Dar Lang Ahn, an alien male whose glider crashed while he was travelling back to his home in the Ice Ramparts carrying valuable books for his people.
Nils finds the alien sick and dehydrated, and shows him how to get water from the analogue cactus plants that stud the desert, which makes Nils suspect that Dar might not be a native of this world either.
Communicating at first in gestures and drawings, the two begin their journey toward safety and knowledge of each other.
Clement throws in cosmological and anthropological mysteries along the way which are not fully explained until quite near the end.
To a certain extent novels like this shame many of today’s writers who, it seems, can’t be bothered to world build or create credible alien lifecycles, preferring to employ ‘Star Trek’ aliens who are essentially humanoid with two genders – although they may be lizards or birds – or just human with a few bumpy ridges on their noses.
Clement does worldbuilding in the truest sense and this is almost a masterclass in designing a species that has evolved to survive on a world with an eccentric orbit involving two suns.
The bonus is that it is also highly enjoyable.
‘Valeron’ takes us more or less straight on from the end of Skylark Three, although we see the denouement from the perspective of Duquesne, who has captured a Fenachrone war-vessel and is hiding among their fleet. Thus, he witnesses the destruction of the entire Fenachrone race. While Seaton and his chums are racing off to pursue the final Fenachrone ship (which is attempting to flee to another galaxy) Duquesne returns to Earth and takes control of the planet.
We then rejoin Seaton, Martin, Dorothy and Margaret as they continue their adventures. Having destroyed the last of the Fenachrone, they then encounter the pure intellectuals, beings composed of energy and, in order to escape them, rotate themselves into the Fourth Dimension.
They are there captured by a fourth-dimensional civilisation. Unable to communicate, they are forced to escape. Seaton manages to rotate them back into our universe in the nick of time but finds that they are so far from their own galaxy, they are lost.
In a nearby galaxy however, they discover the planet Valeron, peopled by nice white humanoid types and currently under siege by the Chlorans, green amoeboid type beasties from a neighbouring planet.
Smith is pretty much repeating plotlines continuously but does so, it has to be said, in a very entertaining manner, despite his rather casual attitude to genocide, which he is happy to carry out with gay abandon in most of his work. He also quite cleverly interweaves what appears to be logical scientific theory and laws of physics with complete techno-nonsense, such as the convenient headsets that one can don to assimilate all the knowledge and expertise of a friendly scientist chum.
It’s juvenile hokum that is typical of – but generally far superior to – most of the contemporaneous work that was being published in the mid Nineteen Thirties.
The tale was first serialised in ‘Astounding’ in 1934 and published as a novel in 1949.
An interesting fix-up here which is loosely or partly based on Robert Graves’ ‘I, Claudius’, and has been assembled from five stories (“A Son Is Born” (May 1946), “Child of the Gods” (Aug 1946), “Hand of the Gods” (Dec 1946), “Home of the Gods” (April 1947) and “The Barbarian” (Dec 1947)), all originally published in Astounding.
On a far future Earth a child, ‘Clane’ is born to Tania, the daughter of the Lord Leader of Earth. The child is malformed as a result of his mother’s exposure to radiation.
Normally children such as this would be out to death but Jonquin, one of the scientist priests who maintain the temples of the God Metals, convinces the family to allow the child to live in order that he can study the development of such an unfortunate.
van Vogt here postulates a far future Earth where the automated production of power from nuclear materials continues in temples of scientist priests, although no one appears to understand the principles behind the science and attributes the power to Gods who control the God Metals. Following a war with an alien race known as The Riss, humanity has fallen into a stagnated society of ignorance. Nuclear powered ships travel from world to world despite the fact that the secrets of their construction have also been lost. It’s a bit of a hard pill to swallow, it has to be said.
The Lord Leader discovers Clane to be highly intelligent despite his nervous tics when in unfamiliar company, and takes his advice on military strategy when the Earth forces are under siege when trying to conquer the human population of Mars. As pointed out, it loosely follows events in at least Graves’ account of the life of Claudius. The Lord Leader’s exiled stepson, Tewes, for instance, is clearly Tiberius and the Lord Leader, the Emperor Augustus.
Clane fits in to the usual van Vogt ‘logical hero’ template and becomes adept at anticipating and deflecting assassination attempts and, when he finally assumes the position of Lord Leader, defeating invading barbarian armies from Jupiter. In retrospect it might have been far more interesting if van Vogt had kept to the Claudius template. Claudius avoided death because the schemers and plotters around him found him a harmless and somewhat ludicrous figure, which was far from the case. van Vogt has Clane control his nervous reactions very early on, and his physical abnormalities are concealed under voluminous clothing, and so may as well not be there.
Rather like the conclusion to ‘The Weapon Makers’ van Vogt throws in some surreal non-sequitors at the finale. Clane has been captured by the Barbarian leader Czinczar who brings in a package containing a deformed possibly alien body packed in ice. Clane proves that he has complete control of a ball of light which hovers within the room by killing the guards who try to harm him and then the Barbarian surrenders his entire forces to Clane. Is this body an alien threat from outside the Solar System, or one of the Riss?
They were the greatest trio of swashbuckling adventurers ever to ship out to the stars! There was giant Hal Samdu, rocklike Jay Kalam and the incomparably shrewd and knavish Giles Habibula.
Here is their first thrilling adventure – the peril-packed attempt to rescue the most important person in the galaxy, keeper of the vital secret essential to Humanity’s survival in the deadly struggle against the incredibly evil Medusae.’
Blurb from the 1983 Sphere paperback edition
ER Burroughs employed a device of using a prologue to explain to the reader how his ‘factual’ accounts of John Carter’s exploits on Mars managed to find their way to a publisher. Here, Williamson does much the same thing as the first chapter, set in a contemporary USA, tells of old John Delmar, who is convinced of the fact of his death within a matter of weeks. John Delmar, it transpires, is receiving telepathic broadcasts from the future and has been writing the future history of his family. Pioneers and scientists, they eventually found an Empire within the Solar System and become despotic and corrupt rulers before being overthrown and replaced with a democratic system.
Our hero, John Ulnar, is a descendant of this future historian and is embroiled in a plot to restore the Empire. A young girl, Aladoree Anthar, is the hereditary guardian of the secret of a simple but devastating weapon known only as AKKA. To gain control of AKKA and implement a coup, the Ulnar family (unbeknown to John) have made an alliance with the Medusae from the hellish world which orbits Barnard’s Star. Aladoree Anthar is kidnapped and it is up to John and his trio of companions to travel to the world of the Medusae, rescue Aladoree Anthar and stop the great tentacled beasties in their secret plan to invade and conquer Earth.
It’s a simple but effective tale which suffers from rather obvious errors such as humans being able to live and breathe in the open atop a three thousand foot building on the Martian moon, Phobos, or indeed on Pluto’s moon, Cerberus.
One also wonders why Williamson’s Falstaffian character Giles Habibula is never told to shut up, since his rambling oratories and complaints appear with depressing regularity from his first introduction.
‘Poor Giles Habibula, aged and crippled in the loyal service of the Legion, now without a place on any planet to rest his mortal head. Hunted through the black and frozen deep of space, driven out of the System he has given his years and his strength to defend. Driven out to face a planet full of green inhuman monsters. Ah me! The ingrate System will regret this injustice to a mortal hero!’
He wiped the tears away, then, with the back of a great fat hand, and tilted up the flagon.[p70]
On the positive side, Williamson’s settings are colourful and inventive and in describing larger cosmological issues such as the functions of dust-clouds and nebulae as the wombs for the creation of new star systems, he is very much in tune with current thinking on the issue.
It’s a novel which seems very hastily written for serialisation in ‘Astounding’ and not subsequently revised for book publication. This does however, give the story a fast-paced edge.
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.
‘Few authors have made such an impact as EE ‘Doc’ Smith did at his first appearance in 1928, or have continued so long to delight a host of fans. Indeed, his novel ‘The Skylark of Space’ opened the door for the most extravagant excursions of super-science into the remotest regions and led the way for ‘space opera’. Even now the sweeping epics of ‘Skylark’ arte still relished for their sheer exuberance, their cosmic imagery and the rip-roaring adventure.’
Blurb from the 1975 Orbit paperback edition
To the Far Reaches of Space (from The Skylark of Space, 1928)
Robot Nemesis (Thrilling Wonder Stories 1939)
Pirates of Space (from Triplanetary)
The Vortex Blaster (from Vortex Blasters)
Tedric (Other Worlds Science Fiction Stories – Mar 1953)
Lord Tedric (Universe Science Fiction – Mar 1954)
Subspace Survivors (Astounding July 1960)
The Imperial Stars (from the Imperial Stars)
It was always likely to be a problem producing ‘Doc’s obligatory ‘Best Of..’ volume since although he published prodigiously in the usual American publications his writing was generally serialised and later ended up as various series of novels.
Thus the only piece of singular fiction here is ‘Robot Nemesis’.
Having said that, this volume is a fascinating overview of Smith’s work which is often disparaged by those who think that SF should be somewhat more intellectual, noble and ever-so-slightly sacred. Music fans hold generally the same prejudices, sneering at the work of Chuck Berry or Kraftwerk without knowing or caring that that had it not been for these people the music they currently enjoy might not exist, or would be at the very least, far less complex and diverse.
Ok, I have to confess I have a soft spot for Smith who gave me a whole universe to escape into during some very troubled teenage years, and I owe him for that, but in any case his legacy and influence was immense.
From 1928 when the Skylark first took flight he managed to open up the universe in a way that few writers of the time could manage (many don’t manage it today) and here is a selection of excerpts from most of his major works.
There is a wonderful introduction which gives an overview of Smith’s life. He was a man who suffered financial adversity at various times and who wasn’t afraid of physical work: a man who spent several years working on developing commercial doughnut mixes while all the time dreaming of his next scientifiction adventure story.
In a postscript Smith gives us his own account of how he goes about writing ‘space epics’ and very interesting it is too. It’s fascinating to discover for instance that when writing the Lensman series he used a group of SF fans as essentially a focus group, as well as some actual scientists and fellow SF writers.
Finally there is a very comprehensive bibliography which explains the rather complex publishing history and chronology of the Lensman saga in magazine terms which seemed to start in the middle, then go back to the beginning and was subsequently re-edited for book publication.
For today’s readers, the stilted dialogue and the wholesale transference of Nineteen Fifties American moral standards to Outer Space might seem either jarring or amusing, but the sense of wonder still holds, and I am surely not the only one who finds something very cosy and comforting about flitting out into the galaxy with Kim Kinnison into almost certain deadly peril.
‘It started in 1990…
Cheap atomic power was a reality.
Hydroponic farming ensured enough to eat.
So everywhere men left the cities, abandoning the ancient huddling places of the human race.
At last, man was free.
And left behind – in the dead and empty cities – man’s memories remained as symbols of the childhood of the race. The Golden Age had come at last after generations of war and toil.
And yet…IT WAS ALSO THE PRELUDE TO THE DAY WHEN MAN WOULD BE SUCCEEDED BY ANOTHER RACE’
Blurb from the 1965 Four Square edition
City is a fix-up novel culled from the pages of Astounding and comprising of eight related stories and additional linking text.
The first story, ‘City’, is a tale of men, a tale which is being analysed in the linking text by a group of sentient dogs who believe the tales told by Dogs of the race of Men to be merely fables and Man himself to be a myth.
Simak’s naïve and somewhat surreal view of the future is based very much on his love for small-town America and its communities and values, and is often tinged with nostalgia for a way of life which has passed. Simak often depicts an Earth which has been abandoned by man, where Nature has been allowed to grow back over the scars which Man created.
The City of the title story is represented by one of its residential areas, a place of suburban houses and lawns which, like the rest of the City, is almost abandoned. Centralised automated farming technology has made vast tracts of land free for habitation and this, combined with the bizarre concept of an atomic plane for every home has lured people away to private estates in the country.
The worthy officials of the City Council however, refuse to accept that their City is dead and are in the process of evicting the last remaining residents (who have been labelled criminals and vagrants) who are squatting in the empty houses, unwilling to abandon the community where they spent their lives.
It’s a strange and unreal tale reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, and is full of poetry and atmosphere.
‘Huddling Place’ take us further into the future, to where descendant of one of the City’s characters has become an agoraphobic recluse in his country house, where he lives with his robot butler Jenkins. Having abandoned the cities, humanity is now abandoning the Earth, either for Mars or the interiors of the their homes from where they can travel ‘virtually’ via a holographic projection network. His agoraphobia prevents him from flying to Mars to save Juwain, the ancient Martian philosopher who was on the verge of producing a practical philosophy for humanity which would occasion the transformation of the race.
‘Census’ takes us forward in time again to the same house where the Webster grandson has surgically (rather than genetically) altering dogs enabling them to speak. Mankind is now heading for the stars while isolated groups of mutated humans live quietly in the wilderness.
Simak is again enjoining a return to a mere pastoral existence in which technology is only employed as a means to that end.
Technological developments here have allowed those with pioneering spirit to leave, those who were restricted (physically and spiritually) by existence within the city have been freed, allowing others the space to breathe within and alongside Nature.
In this section, Richard Grant, seeking the final clue to complete Juwain’s philosophy for humanity, meets the mutant Joe, a man of extended longevity, high intelligence and yet exhibiting no empathy with his fellow sapients, but rather a shocking amorality.
And so it goes on… Humanity, partly as a result of Joe unleashing the Juwain philosophy across the earth, is transformed, and is converted into a near-immortal form of life of high intelligence which can live on or in the planet Jupiter, abandoning the Earth to a handful of humans, the Dogs, the mutants and the robots.
Simak was never a writer for technical details. Jupiter is described as having a surface, and the Jovian ‘conversion process’ is hastily drawn with little explanation as to the nature of the process, something which no doubt would be explained as ‘genetic engineering’ today.
James Blish used a similar premise in his collection of related tales ‘The Seedling Stars’ while Frederik Pohl’s ‘Man Plus’ employs a combination of surgical and mechanical techniques to convert a man into a creature capable of living unaided on the surface of Mars.
‘City’ is a novel which is ultimately flawed by internal confusion of identity. The linking text implies that the stories are fables from ancient Dog History, and their content supports this, but the style seems at odds with the somewhat fairytale nature of the later stories in which talking bears, wolves, racoons and squirrels bring a rather schmaltzy Disney-esque sentimentality to the narrative.
Having said that, Simak attempts to explore the issue of what it means to be human. The humans, en-masse, chose the path of enlightenment offered by the conversion to Jovian forms, a path rejected by the Webster family (whose genealogy links all these stories) and a handful of others.
The legacy of humanity lies with the robots who are dedicated to developing the race of Dogs, unpolluted by human values and failings. Man is seen to be a creature willing to kill for what he wants, as when one of the Websters considers killing the Jovian ‘prototype’ Fowler in order to prevent the human race’s mass exodus to Jupiter, or John Webster’s solution to the problem of Joe the mutant’s experimental ants (who eventually threaten the entire planet) which is to poison them.
This may be reading far too much into what is at the end of the day a rather patchwork construction which, though poetic and inventive, fails to provide a satisfactory denouement. Flawed though it may be however, it is still a strange masterpiece that holds its own against the mainstream SF novels of the time.
‘Man has conquered Space and spread throughout the galaxy. Many civilisations on several thousand planets are joined in a vast confederation whose very existence is now threatened by The Rull – a paranoid, murderous race from beyond the frontiers of human territory.
Equal to Man in intelligence, The Rull have a technology that may even be superior. Their spaceships have already captured several hundred planets. The final titanic showdown that will decide Man’s fate and the fate of the whole galaxy is imminent.’
This is one of Van Vogt’s more successful fix-up novels. Earlier published stories – Repetition (1940), Cooperate or Else (1942), The Second Solution (1942), The Rull (1948) and The Sound (1950) – have been re-edited and combined with fresh material into a novel-length narrative.
David Pringle, former editor of Interzone, describes Van Vogt as a ‘slapdash’ writer, and in some cases, one can’t argue with this. Van Vogt’s hastily-written work can be easily spotted and examples of it can be found here.
Van Vogt has other flaws also. The innate sexism in this novel in particular jars somewhat. The hero, Trevor Jamieson, when trapped (with a woman intent on killing him) on a moon teeming with predators, manages to overpower her. The woman accedes to his male superiority and Jamieson who ‘knows women’, is sure that she won’t try to kill him again, and indeed she doesn’t.
Later, Jamieson’s son is kidnapped by the alien Rull. He keeps the news to himself, sure that his ‘very feminine’ wife will not be strong enough to handle such news.
Of course, this is not a flaw exclusive to Van Vogt. Such misrepresentation of women was more or less the norm and in many cases was presumably endorsed or policed by editors with such views. Radical portrayals of women may well have been frowned upon.
Jamieson of course, is the hero, and despite the aforesaid flaws in the writing he is an unusual hero in that the solutions to his problems come from logic and reason.
It is logic and deduction which convinces him that the monstrous three eyed six-thousand pound six-limbed Ezwals of Carson’s Planet are not just dangerous beasts, but are highly intelligent and telepathic.
The human race is at war with The Rull, a shape-shifting insectoid race from another galaxy, and Carson’s Planet plays a key defensive role.
Jamieson’s character is very much in the mould of Gilbert Gosseyn (The Pawns of Null-A) in that he refuses to allow emotions to sway his judgement.
He moves from one adventure to another from the outset where he is stranded on a hostile planet with a hostile Ezwal – wanting to kill Jamieson to preserve the secret of Ezwal intelligence, but forced into an alliance with him in order to survive.
The best section is probably ‘The Sound’ set in The City of The Ship where for decades the people of the city – including Jamieson and his family – have been hard at work on a vast spaceship on which they will all eventually leave.
A rite-of-passage ritual has developed where once a year younger children are allowed to stay out all night to hunt for the source of the sound which permeates their lives.
This stands out from the rest of the novel for the attention paid to both the background and the detail.
The final section sadly, is the weakest and provides a far from satisfactory denouement, certainly not the ‘titanic showdown’ promised in the blurb.
The end depends far too much on unbelievable coincidence, a ‘Deus Ex Machina’ alien composed of electrical charges and little else.
Before you know it, the century long war is over, Jamieson has saved the galaxy and The Rull are pulling their forces back.
Having said that, this isn’t a bad novel. The disparate stories have been conflated cleverly into a single narrative, one of the bonuses of which is that we are given glimpses of various parts of Van Vogt’s huge Universe. They are tantalisingly brief and – particularly in the case of ‘The Sound’ – add an unexpected touch of realism to events.
The development of the Ezwal sub-plot is handled well but suffers from any conclusion in that we never get to discover how Jamieson’s Ezwal ally fares in negotiating with his own people.
Looking at this book from another perspective it does also show once more a view of diplomacy which is intrinsically American.
The Ezwals want the humans off their planet and so launch guerrilla attacks, killing many humans. Jamieson, after eventually befriending an orphaned Ezwal child, tells him that that if the Ezwals (who have a purely pastoral civilisation) develop a machine civilisation and can defend themselves from the Rull, then the humans will leave. No negotiation. No leeway. Essentially, the ‘American’ view is that if you develop your culture to be just like us, we’ll go away.
‘Kim Kinnison, Number One man of his time, had faced challenges before – but rarely one as daunting as this. To him fell the perilous task of infiltrating the inner circle of Boskone, stronghold of galactic civilisation’s most deadly foe. Kinnison had to become a loyal Boskonian in every gesture, deed – and thought. he had to work his way up through the ranks of an alien enemy organisation, right into the highest echelons of power. Then it would be he who issued the orders – orders that would destroy his own civilization…’
Blurb from the 1973 Panther paperback edition
Kinnison’s wedding is rudely interrupted by Mentor of Arisia who enjoins him to ‘THINK!’ in big letters. The Patrol, of course, were a little premature in thinking that the forces of darkness (i.e. Boskonia) had been defeated.
Kinnison, having thunk, comes to the conclusion that the Earth will be attacked via hyper-spatial tube, and sets up defences in the nick of time. Then, following a zwilnik trail he discovers the planet of Lyrane, a matriarchy of powerful telepaths whose males are aggressive mindless animals.
Nadrek of Palain VII appears here, a character of whom Smith did not make enough use. As a child I was totally captivated by Nadrek’s outlook and philosophy, which was one of avoiding danger whenever possible.
Clarissa McDougall becomes a Grey Lensman and is posted to Lyrane to report on zwilnik activity.
There is another battle with the fiendish overlords of Delgon, some of whom are hiding out in Lyrane’s polar regions.
Kinnison, going undercover again, works himself into the retinue of Alcon of Thrale and eventually supplants him as head of Boskonian activities. However, behind Alcon of Prime Minister Fossten, who is revealed to be none other than Gharlane of Eddore.
What is interesting, given America’s recent policies on dealing with problems in the rest of the world is the Patrol’s idea of dealing with alien cultures.
‘Let’s civilize ‘em!’ as I think one of the military commandos puts it later in the novel. The US has, it seems, always been keen on forcing its culture on the rest of the world which, by the time of the Galactic Patrol, it has, since Earth has a world government which is very much US-controlled. Of course, one has to look at this from a historical and social viewpoint and not really expect Smith, revising and updating work from the Nineteen Forties, to be overly concerned with the future of the rest of the world, given that he considered his fan base to be young American men.
However, if one considers SF to be to a certain extent, the subconscious of the culture at the time at which it is written, it says a lot about the arrogance of US culture, an arrogance which sadly persists in some authors to this day.
The whole series, after all, is an ideological struggle between two cultural models, neither of which can tolerate the existence of the other. It doesn’t take Freud to work out what parallel models were in operation at the time.
It’s also worth noting that the Kinnison wedding is an unashamedly Christian one, the implication being that, with the exception of the alien Lensmen, all his human colleagues, family and friends are Christian also.
No Jewish Lensmen then?