Although a fairly direct sequel to Triplanetary, which is now almost universally regarded as the opening salvo in E. E. “Doc” Smith’s famed LENSMAN series, Book 2, perhaps misleadingly titled First Lensman, was actually the last of the six books comprising this most famous of all Golden Age space operas to be written. As I mentioned in my review of Book 1, Smith had originally written Books 3 through 6 over the 13-year period 1934 – ’47, but then felt that something in the order of a prequel for his remarkably complex story line was needed. Thus, Triplanetary first appeared in 1948, with First Lensman eventually showing up in 1950. Originally released as a $3 hardcover edition by the Fantasy Press publishing house, with cover art by famed illustrator A. J. Donnell, the book has since gone through multiple paperback incarnations; I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on the 1982 Berkley reprint, with a beautiful cover illustration by David B. Maddingly.
Essentially comprising Part 2 of a 500-page backstory to the main events of Books 3 – 6, First Lensman is a tad less thrilling than the first installment had been, although readers who are expecting still more in the way of bizarre aliens and epic space battles will surely not be disappointed. The book is a bit drier than the first, focusing more on undercover police work, politics and criminal activities, but it also introduces us to the concept of the Lens itself, and shows just how the Galactic Patrol came to be… both of which will figure prominently in the later books.
Unlike in Book 1, the multibillion-year struggle between the kindly and philosophical Arisians and the monstrously power-hungry Edorrians is barely touched on here in First Lensman. Many of the characters from the earlier installment do make a welcome return, though, and so we see again Virgil Samms, the Nick Fury-like head of the Triplanetary Patrol, now dreaming big dreams of making his force galactic in scope. Given a tip by Dr. Nels Bergenholm, one of the ace scientists who works in Samms’ organization, and who is in fact a human “possessed” by an Arisian mentality, Virgil makes the trip to the distant world of Arisia, a planet that heretofore had been impossible to approach. And once there, Virgil makes contact with one of the beings of the superrace — a being who refers to itself only as “Mentor” — and is the first to be given a Lens: “a lenticular something” in a platinum-iridium bracelet; “a sort of pseudo-life… in physical circuit with the living entity — the ego, let us say — with whom it is in exact resonance…” Specifically created for its wearer, the Lens gives that person the ability to communicate telepathically with any living creature… and it is inferred that it also harbors other powers, as well.
Thus, Samms becomes the titular first Lensman, and he is instructed to send others to the Arisians to see if they might also be Lens worthy. During the course of the book, Samms seeks out other potential Lens wearers in various worlds throughout the galaxy, with the full knowledge that any future member of his proposed Galactic Patrol really must be so equipped… especially inasmuch as the Lens cannot be counterfeited, and is thus a surefire means of both identification and of excluding potential undercover foes.
But meanwhile, as the galaxywide search for possible Lens candidates continues, Samms & Co. prosecute their intentions of bringing to justice the interstellar drug traffic, in particular the makers, distributors and retailers of the drug called thionite, which is so very addictive in nature that it makes 20th century crack cocaine seem like a Flintstones Vitamin in comparison. Another problem facing Samms and his patrol: the widespread corruption in the North American government, as personified by one Senator Morgan, who had been fleetingly introduced in Book 1. And finally, there is the persistent menace of interstellar piracy to be dealt with. To further their goals in these three arenas, Samms himself goes undercover to Trenco, the insanely harsh world where the broadleaf used to make thionite is harvested; Conway Costigan, one of our heroes from Book 1, goes undercover as a uranium miner on the planet Erinda, from where uranium freighters are being used to transport the processed thionite; Roderick Kinnison — who had also been briefly introduced to us in Book 1, and whose extended family figures so prominently in all six books — decides to run for North American president, on the Cosmocrats ticket, to take on the corrupt Nationalist party; his son Jack Kinnison, along with master electronicist Mason Northrop, also goes undercover and come up against two very dangerous women; and 23-year-old Virgilia “Jill” Samms, Virgil’s daughter, goes undercover as well, as she seduces Morgan’s personal secretary, Herkimer Herkimer III.
Into these multiple and converging story lines Smith gives the reader any number of truly memorable scenes. Thus, the spectacle of Samms’ visit to the incredibly noisy world of Rigel III, the frozen wastes of Pluto, and the bizarre world of Palain, as he endeavors to find suitable Lens recruits. The scene at the Ambassadors Ball, at which Samms is almost assassinated, followed by an all-out nuclear bombardment of Samms’ base of operations, The Hill, in the Bitterroot Mountains of east Idaho. The scene in which the undercover Samms is forced to take a dose of thionite, with devastating results. The scene in which Jill is made to undergo some particularly nasty torture at the hands of that Herkimer, etc., fella. The entire sequence in which we get to follow the trail of the smuggled thionite back on Earth, a la some kind of galactic French Connection. The political campaign waged by Kinnison the elder, and the wonderfully written speeches that he gives, followed by the equally well-written BS speeches orated by Morgan. And last but certainly not least, no fewer than three battles in the depths of space: the first following that attack on The Hill; the second between the Patrol and a pirate vessel (Dronvire the Rigelian is particularly impressive during the null-gravity boarding section here); and the third between the Patrol and a huge force of pirates and Morgan’s adherents, each side surprising the other with tremendous fleets from their secret base worlds (Petrine in the case of the bad guys; Bennett for Samms & Co.). It is all thrilling spectacle, for the most part, if slightly less juicy than in Book 1.
I did, however, have a number of minor problems with this second LENSMAN installment. The science of astronomical measurement has come a long way since Smith wrote First Lensman almost 70 years ago, and so I suppose he can be forgiven the following two gaffes: Aldebaran, as we now know, is 65 light-years from Earth, not the stated 57, and Rigel is 863 light-years distant, not the stated 440. That third battle just alluded to is a bit hard to visualize, what with one side being in a cone shape and the other being in a cylindrical one to engulf “pipe-wise, the entire apex of the enemy’s war-cone…” The mining disaster on Erinda, likewise, was very difficult for this reader to picture. And, oh… as a longtime Big Apple dweller, I was not crazy about hearing that the residents of NYC, of all places, were apparently so naïve and gullible as to go for the Nationalists in that general election. And while I’m carping, in that scene in which Kinnison, Jr. and Northrop rescue Jill from her torture, just how are they arrowing downward through the air and diving headlong from high windows? Jetpacks, I presume? Some mention by the author might have been nice. And, oh, yes… during that assassination attempt, when Rod Kinnison Lenses to his fellow agents “…In emergencies, it is of course permissible to kill a few dozen innocent bystanders”… well, as a potential “innocent bystander” myself, I really must cry foul here! Finally, at the book’s tail end, we learn that a full five years have elapsed since the beginning of the story, when Samms first acquired his Lens on Arisia. The only thing is, for the reader, it feels more like perhaps half a year, at most!
Still, quibbles aside, there is an awful lot to love in Smith’s second installment here. Interestingly, the ships in this offering are not just globular, as in the first, but also torpedo-shaped and teardrop-shaped, as well. The author places pleasing little tidbits into his story as grace notes (such as the hyper-aggressive advertising to be encountered when driving on NYC’s highways, and those strange little fontema creatures that Samms studies on A-Zabriskae Two), and is not afraid to make up his own words to suit the occasion (such as “figmental,” and “duodecaplylatomate,” that latter being some type of weapon or explosive; don’t ask me more). And whereas Book 1 had given us ships’ defensive force screens and tractor beams as possible Star Trek inspirations, in Book 2, we see Kinnison, Jr. giving one of those lethal ladies something very reminiscent of the Vulcan neck pinch! And I just love the notion of a U.S. president being compelled to wear a Lens, so as to preclude any ability to lie to the public:
…a Lensman president could not lie to you except by word of mouth or in writing. You could demand from him at any time a Lensed statement upon any subject. Upon some matters of state he could and should refuse to answer; but not upon any question involving moral turpitude. If he answered, you would know the truth. If he refused to answer, you would know why and could initiate impeachment proceedings then and there…
Oh, how this reader wishes that our current president, Donald Trump, could be forced to wear a Lens and so telepathically communicate his true nature to the American people and the world! A very pleasant fantasy, that!
One of the hallmarks of these LENSMAN books, I have heard, is that each successive volume enlarges on what has come before, opening in scope more and more. Seemingly minor characters mentioned offhand in Book 1 have become rather major players in Book 2. And so, I eagerly await the further developments of Book 3, now that our Lensmen have been formed, the Galactic Patrol has become a reality, and Roderick Kinnison has become president. What can possibly happen next? I guess that I will just have to proceed on to Book 3 now, Galactic Patrol, to find out. After 500 pages of backstory, the main events, one senses, are about to commence…