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Lensman

The Lensman series is a serial science fiction space opera by E. E. Smith. The series is significant for two reasons: firstly, because it is not merely space opera, but 'the' space opera, the one that began the genre; secondly because it was the first example of a set of science fiction novels conceived as a series.

It was so innovative and successful at the time of its first publication that it was widely imitated, setting the themes followed by most of the genre since. As a result, to a modern reader it may seem rather corny. The modern reader may also feel that it is filled with sexist and racist stereotypes. However, in fairness it is important to note that Dr. Smith wrote most of his best work between 1928 and 1954 well before the antiracist and feminist movements of the 1960s. He portrays powerful intelligent women, operating in traditional roles, rather than hackneyed maidens in distress. His minorities are not discriminated against, so much as out of sight and out of mind. He describes alien races sympathetically, by the standards of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, showing that true cameraderie is independent of species, shape and metabolism. Finally, despite its faults, the reader cannot help but notice the evident enthusiasm and enjoyment which Smith had for his subject matter.

The complete series of books, in sequence, is:

  • Triplanetary
  • First Lensman
  • Galactic Patrol
  • Gray Lensman
  • Second-Stage Lensmen
  • Children of the Lens

Originally the series consisted of the final four novels published between 1937 and 1948 in Astounding magazine. However in 1948, at the suggestion of his book publisher, Smith rewrote his 1934 story Triplanetary, originally published in Amazing magazine, to fit in with the Lensman series. First Lensman was written in 1950 to act as a link between Triplanetary and Galactic Patrol and finally, in the years up to 1954, Smith revised the rest of the series to make it internally consistent with the new additions for book publication.

Using the same fictional universe, but not as part of the series, he also wrote The Vortex Blaster for one of Astounding's competitors. This was released in book form as Masters of the Vortex.

On July 14, 1965, E. E. Smith gave written permission to William B. Ellern to continue the Lensman series, which led to the publishing of New Lensman in 1976. Many readers find Mr. Ellern's work unequal to Dr. Smith's.

In DC Comics universe, the Green Lantern Corps was modeled after the Lensmen. The original video game Spacewar was inspired by the Lensman series.

The GURPS role-playing game includes a worldbook based on the Lensman series.

There is also a Japanese anime TV series and movie, Lensman.

Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers!

The series opens in Triplanetary. The elder race of our galaxy, the Arisians, using advanced mental science, forsee the invasion of our universe by the evil Eddorians. The Arisians begin a breeding program on every world that can produce intelligent life. The goal is to produce super warriors who can repel the Eddorians. Triplanetary is the early history of that breeding program on Earth, illustrated with the lives of several warriors and soldiers. It ends with the discovery of the interstellar space drive, formation of the Galactic patrol, and the first Lens, given to the first Lensman on Earth.

The Lens is a material creation of Arisia's advanced mental sciences. It gives its wearer mind-reading and telepathic abilities, as long as it is connected by an electrically conductive wire or band to the skin of its user. In particular, it is impossible to lie to a Lensman, and Lensmen communicate perfectly in any language to any ethnic group.

A lens is an ellipsoidal assembly of small cloudy jewels, imbued with a shifting polychromatic light. A lens is "fitted" on Arisia, and cannot be worn by anyone other than its owner. Shortly after the owner's death, the lens crumbles into dust.

The Arisians fit Lenses only to intelligent beings that are incorruptible, with a high drive to succeed, the highest drive to fight evil, and high intelligence. Evil beings who try to obtain lenses simply never return from Arisia. The Galactic Patrol maintains a service academy. It accepts only the top few percent of applicants. Of those applicants, only twenty or so at the top of the graduating class are ever sent to Arisia. Of those twenty, half are returned unharmed, but without a lens. Perhaps one or two are not returned. The rest receive a lens.

A significant side-plot is usurpation of normal political processes by Lensmen. Naturally, dishonest politicians hate and fear Lensmen.

The rest of the series is a series of revelations. The interstellar pirates, and criminals selling drugs and weapons prove to be agents of the Eddorians. A continuing multigenerational war is required to trace the criminals and subject races back to the Eddorians themselves.

The series contains some of the largest-scale space war ever written. Star systems are destroyed with antimatter planets. Huge fleets of spaceships fight bloody wars of attrition. Alien races sort themselves into "lensbearing" (Allied) and enemy races.

As the breeding program reaches its ultimate conclusion, Kimball Kinnison, the blond, blue-eyed second-stage lensman, with advanced mental powers, finally marries the most advanced product of the complementary breeding program, Clarrissa MacDougal, a beautiful, curvaceous red-haired nurse, who eventually receives her own lens.

Their children grow up to be the Children of the Lens, a young man and his sisters. They become a single hive-mind, able to create lenses themselves, and destroy the telepathic, powerful Eddorians with their thoughts alone. In the final book, they attack and destroy the Eddorians' base world, and drive the Eddorians from our universe.

An unresolved plot element at the end of the series concerns the marriages of the children of the Lens. The young man and his sisters have not found anyone interesting. An interesting little bit of text at the end of the Children of the Lens points out that however, one man exists who is equal to the daughters of the lens.

E.E. Smith is reported to have told Robert Heinlein at a science fiction convention that there were sufficient unresolved conflicts to write a seventh book, but that Dr. Smith did not think it could be published in the moral climate of the times. Despite strenuous searches of his effects, no trace of a seventh manuscript has been found.

It is interesting to compare the Arisians and Eddorians of Smith's universe with the Vorlons and Shadows of Babylon 5.



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