Although Books 3, 4 and 5 of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s famed six-part LENSMAN series followed one another with 1 ½ to two years of time in between each, and with story lines that picked up mere seconds after their predecessors, Book 6 would eventually differ in both respects. The author’s final installment in what has been called one of the greatest of all space operas originally appeared around 5 ½ years following Book 5’s serialization. Like Books 3 – 5 (Galactic Patrol, Gray Lensman and Second Stage Lensman), this culminating installment, Children of the Lens, originally appeared in the pages of Astounding Science-Fiction — in this case, the November 1947 – February ’48 issues — this time as a four-part serial. And as before, the first issue featured cover artwork by Hubert Rogers. Like its predecessors, the novel first appeared in book form as a $3 hardcover from Fantasy Press, in 1954, again with wonderful cover art by Ric Binkley. And, yes, at the risk of sounding repetitious, the incarnation that this reader was fortunate enough to lay his hands on was the 1983 Berkley edition, with beautiful cover artwork by David B. Mattingly.
Not only did readers have to wait longer than usual for the culmination of this saga, but the time setting in this last installment would be pretty unusual, as well. Children of the Lens hardly picks up moments after the events of Book 5, but rather, a full 20+ years later — a greater length of time than that between the prequel Books 1 and 2, Triplanetary and First Lensman, but probably not as great as the indeterminate time span between Books 2 and 3. And whereas Books 3 – 5 had concentrated their focus almost exclusively on the exploits of Lensman Kim Kinnison, Children of the Lens scatters its action across a half dozen parallel story lines that eventually do come together nicely.
In this setting, two decades following Kim’s and Clarrissa MacDougall’s marriage ceremony, which had sweetly ended Book 5, we see that the happy couple has given birth to no fewer than five redheaded children: their oldest son Chris, and two sets of fraternal twins, Kathryn & Karen and Camilla & Constance. We are made privy to the fact that these children are the ultimate products of the Arisians’ millennia-long breeding program, of which Kim and Clarrissa had been the penultimates; the superrace’s best hope in their 2 billion-year campaign against the evil race known as the Eddorians. Whereas Kim and Clarrissa are both possessors of extraordinary mental abilities (they are thus so-called Second Stage Lensmen), their kids have even greater talents, putting them in the L3 range … especially when the quintet combines their mental forces and becomes “the Unit.” You might think of the five, hence, as some kind of proto-X-Men type of team, each with his or her own superpower.
Thus, Chris is the organizer of the team; Kathryn possesses the most dynamic energy; Karen can put out an impenetrable mental block; Camilla can send her mind out to detect anything, anywhere in the two galaxies; and the youngest, Constance, can emit mental bolts of astounding lethal strength. When combined, their abilities are made even greater, gestaltwise, especially after each goes to the planet of Arisia for his or her Lens, as well as for some advanced mental training by the four-ply Arisian entity known as Mentor.
During the intervening 20 years between Books 5 and 6, the “Boskonian menace” had been quiescent, largely due to the destruction of the Eddorian puppet races — the Delgonian Overlords, the Onlonians and the Eich — in Books 3, 4 and 5. But as Book 6 commences, galaxywide problems begin to erupt again: spates of homicides, kidnappings, hallucinations and mass hysterias have been breaking out on planet after planet, and Kim and his four fellow Second Stage Lensmen decide to investigate, secretly abetted, long range, by the kids. (And when I say “long range,” I don’t just mean from a few miles away, but rather, thousands of parsecs!)
Thus, the sextuple-story-line format previously mentioned: In the first, Kim, aided by Kathryn, goes undercover as a science fiction writer (!) named Sybly Whyte on Radelix (the planet prominently featured in Book 4); prevents a presidential kidnapping there and engages in a furious battle inside a hyperspatial tube; goes undercover again, this time as a drug runner named Bradlow Thyron, on Phlestyn II; and much later, becomes hopelessly trapped in a hyperspatial realm outside both Time and Space. (Think of the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards stuck in the Negative Zone.) Meanwhile, Nadreck, the ice-blooded Palainian, assisted by Karen, goes after the Onlonian chief Kandron, who’d escaped the devastation in Book 5. The barrel-shaped, tentacle-armed Rigellian named Tregonsee, at the same time, and assisted by Camilla, searches the galaxy, using cold logic and powers of perception, to hunt down the entity known as “X.” And the dragonlike Velantian named Worsel, aided by Constance, mops up the last of those sadistic Delgonian Overlords; kicks butt on some remaining Eich; and investigates a phenomenon known as the “Hell Hole in Space.” As for Clarrissa, she returns to the matriarchy on Lyrane II, rescues our old “friend” Helen after an uprising, and looks into the possibility of Boskonian “Black Lensmen” on Lyrane IX. And Chris, while all this is transpiring, goes to no less a planet than Eddore itself, to do a little reconnaissance work. As I mentioned, all these story lines do eventually converge, in three back-to-back-to-back set pieces: the defense of Arisia, the Battle of Ploor (the last of the Eddorians’ puppet races), and finally, after six books of waiting, the confrontation with the Eddorians themselves!
So, I can almost hear you asking, does Children of The Lens serve as a suitably fitting and epic culmination to top off the almost 1,300 pages of story that had preceded it? Well, yes and no. Although I am usually a fan of those types of novels in which the author jumps from one parallel story line to another, leaving us in breathless suspense as each chapter ends, here, I found the device of using six such almost too much to follow. Smith packs an awful lot of detail into each one of his six parallel plots, to the point where when, say, the Tregonsee action picks up again, it’s difficult to remember what had come before. Thus, the strictly linear plots of Books 3 – 5, featuring Kim fairly exclusively, are jettisoned here in favor of a multiple story line that is rather diffuse, to say the least.
There are other problems. The entire matter of the Black Lensmen just kind of peters out, sadly, and that’s a shame, because the idea of Boskonians equal in abilities to the Galactic Patrol’s best is a good one. Here, though, the Black Lensmen are used just as a means of giving Kim & Co. some additional clues as to the Boskonian menace. This reader was also disappointed by the fact that, although the existence of the Eddorians was unknown to the Galactic Patrol and all of Civilization in Books 1 – 5, here, Chris inexplicably seems to know all about them. One can only assume that Mentor clued Chris in during one of his training sessions on Arisia, but really, it would have been nice for us readers to have been privy to that momentous revelation! On a similar note, I was also a bit confused as to why the children, at the book’s end, feel the necessity of covering up the vanquished Eddorians’ existence from the galaxies at large. What could be the harm, once the danger has passed?
And, oh … in this final installment, we learn that minor villains Prellin and Crowninshield, from Book 4, had been blue-skinned Kalonians (as had archvillain Helmuth been in Book 3); the only problem is, Smith had never described them thus, earlier. And one more thing: Has anyone else found the scene in which Chris gives his mother Clarrissa advanced mental training a bit … well, icky? After praising his Mom’s looks and figure, and calling her “Gorgeous,” Kit penetrates her mentally, as Smith gives us such suggestive language as “…her hands clutched his and closed in a veritable spasm … [Chris] stabbed relentlessly into the deepest, tenderest, most sensitive centers of her being … boring in and in and in, [he] knew exactly what to do … he drilled new channels everywhere … then, and only then, did [Chris] withdraw….” Oh, I don’t know … maybe it’s just my dirty filthy mind, but I still wish one of the four daughters had been giving Clarrissa her lesson instead!
But despite these problems, Children of the Lens still does deliver the requisite goods. Several scenes can stand as some of the best in the series: Kim’s furious battle inside that hyperspatial tube, Nadreck’s supercool killing of Kandron, and those three great battle sequences over Arisia, Ploor and Eddore. Those space battles, by this point, have advanced pretty far from the starship/space ray dukeouts of the earlier books. Here, those awesome space set-tos are more apt to feature Negaspheres (planet-devouring globes of antimatter), inertialess planets (entire worlds thrown around at the speed of light!), and the Patrol’s newest trick: inertialess worlds drawn through hyperspace and cast off, essentially becoming planet-sized antimatter bombs! But this installment’s greatest, newest weapon must be the five children themselves, and their mental bout with the Eddorians, if not the epic, pyrotechnic culmination some readers might reasonably have been expecting, still manages to satisfy.
The book also pleases by bringing back minor characters from Book 3 (Kim’s cadet classmates) and that librarian lady from Book 4. Smith also throws in some welcome bursts of humor, such as Kim using a Yiddish word (“tokus”), and the excerpt that we get to see from Sybly Whyte’s novel should make any fan of Golden Age sci-fi chuckle out loud. And speaking of choice words, Children of the Lens also gives us one of my favorite words, “steatopygous” (the companion word of my even more favorite “callipygous”), and who could ever dislike a book that does that? Also pleasing here is the fact that we get to see Mentor more in this book than in all the others put together, and its presence is indeed a fascinating one. And, oh, that sequence in which Kim is marooned in that otherdimensional realm after zipping down the “Hell Hole in Space” is just too trippy and psychedelic for words, almost prefiguring astronaut David Bowman’s colorful journey down the Star Gate in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a sign of just how very seminal the LENSMAN series is that its six books hint at Star Trek, Star Wars, Marvel comics and 2001; truly, a space opera for the ages, which Book 6 brings to a close.
But wait… for those wanting more of the LENSMAN universe, there does seem to exist one more volume from Smith: the 1960 short story collection The Vortex Blaster (aka Masters of the Vortex). These stories supposedly feature none of the characters from the main series, and though they are set in the same universe, they are said to be only slightly related, at best. Still, having now read what has been deemed for almost 70 years one of science fiction’s greatest space operas of all time, I would surely like to experience that parenthetical volume one day.
And now, in closing, I will leave you with the ultimate blessing that one Galactic Patrolman can give to another: “Clear ether!”