This article contains major spoilers for the Lensman books. If you haven’t read them yet and are looking for advice on reading order, I’ll say here that I’m currently mostly, and cautiously, recommending that one start with Galactic Patrol, and then loop around to pick up the “first two” if you want to when you get to the end. This is reading in roughly but not precisely publication order. The reasons why are themselves spoilers.
There are some considerable difficulties in recommending a suitable reading order for Edward E. “Doc” Smith’s famous Lensman series. These are caused partly by the content of the books themselves, and partly by their somewhat convoluted publication history.
The story “Triplanetary” was published in 1934 Amazing Stories starting in January 1934. I originally thought that it was not part of the Lensman universe in its first publication (I thought it was later revised and repurposed), but the Project Gutenberg release of the original magazine text shows that I was wrong about that. The original version mentions Samms as the head of the Triplanetary Service. Samms is mentioned, as having been First Lensman, in Galactic Patrol, so this is clearly an intentional linkage by Smith. “Triplanetary” has no reference to Rod Kinnison, or to Nils Bergenholm. Many of the other references in common (Costigan himself, his wife Clio, the Nevians, V2 gas, and such) only show up in First Lensman, which was written last, and don’t clearly show what Smith was thinking when “Triplanetary” was first written. I now think that the original “Triplanetary” was a definite precursor to the Lensman series, and that relatively few details were taken from it to start the real series; and then it was tied back in more strongly by putting common characters, planets, species, and ships into First Lensman.
Galactic Patrol (1937-38), Gray Lensman (1939), Second Stage Lensmen (1941-42), and Children of the Lens (1947-48) were originally published in that order, in Astounding.
When read in this order in the original text, the Arisians at first appear simply as friendly superior beings; the war with the Eddorians and the multi-million-year breeding program are not mentioned, to the characters or to the reader. The real situation doesn’t become clear until the final book. The structure of the story is a sequence of anti-cliff hangers—each book ends with a resounding, total, victory, and the next book begins with discovering that the victory of the last book was small, partial, possibly even a mistake. This is terribly cool.
When the first hardcover publication was being assembled, some drastic changes were made. Two more books were prepared, which go at the beginning of the series. Those books completely and totally give away the whole Arisian / Eddorian war, the breeding program, and so forth. Introductions and footnotes were added to the later books which also give away this material. (The first book, Triplanetary, contains the story of that name as its last entry, plus six new stories. The new material amounts to only 34% of the pages.)
The 1960s Pyramid paperbacks, which I first read, are essentially the hardcover text. The release order, if you can believe the book numbers, was…peculiar:
|X-1262||Second Stage Lensmen||November 1965|
|X-1294||Children of the Lens||February 1966|
|X-1456||First Lensman||December 1964|
|X-1457||Galactic Patrol||August 1967|
However, the release dates given in the books (or at least the 4 that I can find plus one from isfdb) do not support Pyramid publication in book-number order (they define another different strange order).
Unfortunately, Galactic Patrol is not one of the most sparkling books. It’s nearly all action-adventure, and Kinnison is a terribly earnest young squirt. I confess that I don’t have a lot of favorite passages out of this book, the way I do even from The Skylark of Space, a much earlier book. The series grew more depth later, I think.
Triplanetary is highly uneven. The eponymous novella at the end is not particularly good, and the first two (“Arisia and Eddore” and “The Fall of Atlantis”) aren’t either. And neither is “19—?”. That leaves “The Fall of Rome” which is pretty good (or at least I have a definite fondness for it), “1918” which is okay, and “1941” which is brilliant (presumably based on Smith’s actual experiences in an ordnance plant during WWII).
First Lensman is one of my favorites—but a lot of that was from encountering the backstory for lots of things (particularly words) that had been used without explanation in the other books. I’m not sure that would make it a good point of first encounter for somebody new to the series.
Possible Reading Orders
The classical choices, of course, are to read in order ofpublication, or in order of internal chronology.
Publication order reproduces the impact the work had on its original readers (which presumably lead to the work having the status that is leading you to want to read it now), and is the order the author knew the works would be read in (unless we’re dealing with posthumously published works). Furthermore, it presents to you any changes the author made in his conception of the universe, the characters, and how to write in general, in the order they occurred.
Internal chronological order presents events as the characters would have perceived them. Things should make sense when perceived in the time-order of the imaginary world, and it makes it easier to keep track of things.
You see where this is leading; publication order of modern editions starts you with a somewhat shallow book, and forwards and footnotes soon give away some of the big surprises that hit the first readers. However, order of internal chronology starts you with a book that’s mostly not very good, and then a good book that I’m worried about as a reader’s first introduction to the series. And then the somewhat flat book that I was already worried about!
So that doesn’t leave any really good options, I don’t think.
I’ve had people bounce off the series in several orders (though I can’t of course be sure they’d have liked it enough to keep reading in the other order in each case).
I’m coming to think that starting with Galactic Patrol is the right approach, even using modern editions. And the total spoiler doesn’t occur in that book, I don’t think (I’m being hampered by not being able to find the Pyramid editions of Galactic Patrol or Gray Lensman just at the moment; they’re missing from the library upstairs), it’s at the start of Gray Lensman.