After almost 500 pages of back story … after a history of the conflict between the superraces of Arisia and Eddore that stretches back 2 billion years, and includes glimpses of Earth’s lost continent of Atlantis and the Holy Roman Empire … after at least six major space battles, explorations of any number of bizarre worlds, a look at how the Galactic Patrol was formed and how the mysterious, Arisian artifact known as the Lens was obtained by the Patrol … after campaigns against drug smugglers, dirty politicos and space pirates … after all of this and much more, E. E. “Doc” Smith’s legendary LENSMAN space opera finally begins in earnest, in Book 3 of the six-part epic, Galactic Patrol.
As I mentioned in my reviews of the first two books, Triplanetary (1948) and First Lensman (1950), Smith originally wrote volumes 3 – 6 first, only adding Books 1 and 2 later, when he felt that some kind of explanatory prequel had become necessary. And while it is true that the second section of Triplanetary had been written as early as 1934, it was only 14 years later that that section was rewritten to make it fit into the LENSMAN cycle. So, yes, Galactic Patrol does mark the first words that “Doc” Smith wrote concerning his most famous opus. As critic John Clute so eloquently writes in his introduction to the 1998 Old Earth Books edition, “…we plunge headfirst into the heartwood and arterial surge of the vast edifice of the LENSMAN sequence as E. E. Smith first conceived it, in the 1920s, long before he began parcelling his tale out in serial form over a 12-year period (1937 – 1949) through the increasingly dignified pages of Astounding Science Fiction…”
Indeed, Galactic Patrol did originally appear as a six-part serial in the September 1937 – February 1938 issues of Astounding magazine, copping the cover artwork for those first two issues (by famed illustrators H. W. Wesso and Howard V. Brown, respectively). It made its first appearance in book form as a $3 hardcover from Fantasy Press in 1950, with a cover by Ric Binkley, and has seen many incarnations during the intervening seven decades. I was fortunate enough to acquire the 1982 Berkley paperback, with gorgeous cover artwork by David B. Maddingly. This third installment of one of sci-fi’s greatest space operas takes place an indeterminate amount of time following the events of Book 2 (a period of some decades, would be my guess), and indeed, none of the characters from those first volumes makes a reappearance here. Galactic Patrol, thus, introduces us to a brand-new set of acquaintances; personages, it is strongly suggested, who will feature prominently in the later volumes.
This Book 3 cleaves fairly evenly into two discrete halves. In the first half, we have our first glimpse of Kimball “Kim” Kinnison — the latest in a long line of Kinnisons from the first two books, although we never do learn his exact relation to North American President Roderick Kinnison, who’d played such a major role in Book 2 — on the day of his graduation from the Cadet Corps of the Galactic Patrol. After receiving his honorary Lens, which the Arisians have designed just for him, and which gives its wearer the power of mind reading and telepathy, Kim is given his first, almost hopeless assignment. It seems that the space pirates of Boskone have come up with a starship whose speed far exceeds even those of the Patrol, and Kim is now being tasked to capture one of those Boskonian vessels somehow and learn the secret of its propulsion.
Thus, in Galactic Patrol’s first half, Kim does captain his first ship, the Brittania, and, after doing battle with a pirate vessel, is able to send a technical team aboard to get the scientific dope. But getting this information back to the Patrol’s Prime Base on Earth proves to be a much more difficult proposition. Kim decides to send his crew out in a dozen or more lifeboats, each containing two-man crews, to better the odds of someone making it back to the Patrol base safely with the needed data. He and Peter vanBuskirk (an immensely strong native of the planet of Valeria, where the 4X Earth-normal gravity has made its residents capable of almost superhuman feats; think of a modified Alara Kitan or Talla Keyali from the wonderful new TV show The Orville) share one of the lifeboats, and later hide from the pirates on the world of Velantia. While there, they meet the dragonlike telepath Worsel, and help him and his people defeat their cruel Overlords from the neighboring world of Delgon. They later visit the insanely harsh planet of Trenco (a world that readers will fondly recall from First Lensman) to effect repairs and meet a fellow Lensman, Tregonsee, a resident of Rigel IV. We also make the acquaintance of the blue-skinned mastermind of the Boskonian pirates, named Helmuth, and witness his disastrous visit to Arisia to wrest the secret of the Lens from the inhabitants there, while Kim valiantly does indeed make his way back to Earth.
In the book’s second half, the Patrol, with improved weapons of offense and defense, destroys a pirate base on “Neptune’s moon,” and Kim is given the Patrol’s highest honor. He is made a Gray Lensman, meaning that he is now largely independent of all authority. Dressed in his plain gray leather garb, he is now a judge, jury and executioner of justice wherever he travels in the galaxy. Unfortunately, while engaged in his first acts as a Gray Lensman — stealthily tracking a pirate vessel to its base on Aldebaran I — Kim is almost killed, and must spend a few months recuperating in hospital. But while there, he encounters a nurse, Clarrissa MacDougall (the latest of a tawny-eyed lineage whose roots we have traced from Atlantean times), who, it is to be inferred, will be a love interest of Kim’s in future volumes, although their relationship at first is anything but romantic.
Kim does make a full convalescence, however, and is later allowed by the Arisians to return to their planet — the first person to be permitted a second visit — where he undergoes an intensive bit of Lens training. He emerges later with several new abilities — mind control, as focused through his trusty Lens, and what you might call X-ray vision, of sorts — and thus equipped, is able to (a) rescue Clarrissa when she and her fellow nurses are abducted off their hospital ship by space pirates, and (b) trace Helmuth to his secret base world, somewhere just outside our galaxy, and square off mano a mano with the archvillain in a fight to the death…
Okay, I realize that it might sound as if I’ve given away some spoilers here in this lengthy plot synopsis, but trust me, Smith packs so much in the way of detail and incident into the pages of his book that what I have just given you is merely the bare bones of a very meaty story. And as one turns those pages of Galactic Patrol, the realization that the author was right and justified concerning the need for those 500 pages of prequel information grows and grows. Thus, whereas to the 1937 reader the motivations of the Arisians must have seemed mysterious and unknowable, modern-day readers can be well aware of their billion-year campaign against Eddore. (That evil race, by the way, is never even mentioned in Book 3, although it is to be suspected that Helmuth is being controlled by Gharlane the Eddorian, just like Emperor Nero had been!) And when the phrase “if he had the sense of a Zabriskan fontema” pops up — a phrase that must have meant nothing to the book’s original readers — well, we know precisely what is meant, as we recall Virgil Samms’ encounter with the strange little creatures in Book 2. So, yes, I would most assuredly advise potential readers to experience these books not in the order in which they were written, but rather, in the now accepted, internal chronology, as Smith himself later decided was proper.
As usual, Smith loads so very many wonderful set pieces into his book for the reader to marvel at. The highlight in this installment, for this reader, was when Kim gets riddled with high-powered bullets, as well as zapped by ray guns, and then gets blown out of a window, only to plummet 40 feet down and crash onto the floor of a crater on a dead world. Totally busted up and wounded unto death, he must somehow repair his leaking space suit and make it back to his orbiting ship. It is a thrilling sequence, perhaps even more so than the one at the book’s tail end, when he single-handedly infiltrates that secret Boskonian base before his final confrontation with Helmuth. And whereas much of the details of Books 1 and 2 strongly suggest possible inspirations for the Star Trek universe (ship’s deflector screens, for example), Book 3 is most forcefully reminiscent of the world of Star Wars. Indeed, the segment in which Kim is trained by the Arisians for many weeks must surely have resonated with George Lucas before he gave us Luke Skywalker being tutored by master Yoda, and Kim’s resultant skills, 40 years later, might be thought of, by a later generation, as “Jedi mind tricks.” To be sure, this Golden Age space opera of E. E. Smith is seminal in so many ways.
Of course, some minor sticking points inevitably do crop up. For example, as regards that Neptunian moon that the Patrol attacks, whereas Smith makes it seem that it is the only moon revolving around its planet, we now know that Neptune has no fewer than 14 such! The section detailing how ships’ occupants coming out of faster-than-light space drive must be made inert in specially designed nets was a little hard for this reader to grasp; I can’t even begin to adequately describe what I mean here. And, oh … while I have no problem at all with a spaceship traveling at 4X the speed of light, my mind kind of boggles a little at the thought of Kim, in his space suit, zipping through the galaxy independently of his ship at that speed! What a way to travel! And to end this nitpicking, when Worsel is being attacked by those vegetable creatures, and Kim tries to reason with them by thinking through his Lens (since “any real animal, no matter how savage, can be controlled by any wearer of the Lens”) … well, why hadn’t he done so a bit earlier, when he and vanBuskirk were being assaulted by those lizard monsters? But perhaps I am overthinking this.
At bottom, Galactic Patrol is a superlative entry in the LENSMAN series. It is almost impossible to predict where the author will take us to in Book 4, now that Boskone has been defeated, so I suppose that I will just have to proceed on to Gray Lensman now to find out. One senses that the 2 billion-year conflict between Arisia and Eddore is only beginning to heat up…