This note was last modified Monday, 14-Mar-2016 14:30:38 PDT.
This note contains spoilers for the series.
One of the greatest achievements of science fiction, and published quite early (the series started in the September 1937 issue of Astounding Stories).
The Lensman series was written by one of the three novas of science fiction, Edward E. "Doc" Smith (though there are four authorized books set in the universe by others).
In original publication order (which starts with Galactic Patrol, now identified as the third book of the series), the story arc is monumental. Each book ends with Kinnison triumphantly destroying the top of the Boskonian hierarchy—and the next book begins with the discovery that that wasn't the top at all. In the original magazine version, the Eddorians don't come up until much later (however, in the book versions, they're revealed from quite early).
The universe in which this takes place is rather different from ours, in ways that reflect Smith's age. People don't, basically, change during their lives; not just rarely, but not at all; not in any "fundamental" way. Lensmen could select among babies in their cradles the people worthy of being Lensmen, and those people cannot possibly go bad later. Also, human women are entirely incapable of being Lensmen, they don't have...something. Probably the degree of killer instinct needed, but that's never specified.
(Amusingly, or not, the books also say that some argue that giving women the full rights that everybody has is the most basic consistent difference between Boskonia and civilization.)
On the other hand, given that people are so stable they can't be broken by life, he's got a good thing going here. Basically, what the Lensmen impose on humanity (and the rest of civilization) is rule by philosopher kings—with a guaranteed certifier of whether somebody is in fact a philosopher king (the Arisians won't make a lens for anybody who doesn't measure up). The setup is "democratic", but the Galactic Council is open only to Lensmen, so in some real sense it doesn't matter at all who gets elected. At least, none of them are capable of being corrupt, dishonest, or displaying any sort of moral turpitude. (Given how Kinnison himself does mental therapy on people like Eddie the Meteor Miner and Dessa Desplaines, it seems like people can change in significant ways; but perhaps it's only Lensmen who are that stable. In fact, that's almost hinted at by the discussion of minds stable at the third level of stress in Children of the Lens.)
There's an anime film using the title. I haven't seen it, but it's reputation is that it has very little to do with the actual series.
It's also said that the Lensman universe is to some degree the inspiration for the Green Lantern Corps.
The Lensman FAQ, composed by the redoubtable Gharlane of Eddore and kept going at various mirror sites since his untimely death, is one of the best resources on the Lensman Series. (The link in this paragraph goes to a different mirror from the link in the sidebar above.)
I'm accumulating the references to "space gods", Klono and Noshabkeming, and related material, here.
I'm accumulating interesting vocabulary tidbits as I come across them here.
Five short stories and a longer piece (which was adapted into the Lensman universe). If you're doubtful about the Lensman books or Doc Smith, don't start here.
On the other hand, the WWII-era story is one of the best things I've ever read. Chemist goes to work in an explosives manufacturing plant during WWII, earns the respect of the technical people, and runs into wartime bsiness politics.
Another piece of backfill (Galactic Patrol was written and published first), but this one is a very good piece of backfill. This tells the story of Virgil Samms realizing the need for the lens, and being given it by the Arisians. And his trips to various other planets to try to recruit lensmen of other species. And it also contains the story of Rod Kinnison's run for President.
Galactic Patrol[Fantasy Press hardcover cover]
This is the official beginning of the series, and the debut of Kimball Kinnison. I started reading here myself. Nothing about the Eddorians, and little about the Arisians, is revealed in this book, though Kimball Kinnison does go to Arisia for advanced mental training.
At the end of the last book, Kinnison thought everything was pretty well cleaned up, but this turns out not to be the case; the problem is larger, wider, and deeper than he thought.
Second Stage Lensmen
Children of the Lens
Kimball and Clarissa have finally had children, and in fact their son Kit has just graduated as a Lensman. Finally, a set of beings exist who can bring the conflict between Arisia and Eddore to a conclusion.
Masters of the Vortex
Not a part of the Lensman series, but set in the Lensman universe. The scope is smaller, but the writing and characterization are classic Doc Smith, and there is perhaps a greater level of playfulness. How the mismatched set of individualists "Storm" Cloud assembles into his crew manage to work together is pretty enlightening.
There's also a lovely sequence on cheating at cards and roulette, and a good introduction to what "random" really means.
Finally, and contrary to what's said in pretty much every other Doc Smith book, the big plot arc here is Storm Cloud realizing, after losing his wife and kids in a terrible accident, that it is possible to love another woman just as much. This is in stark contrast to the flat-out statements that perfect pairings happen to you only once that all his other books seem to contain.