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Book Note: Edward E. Smith, Galactic Patrol

I read this book about 13-Jan-2004. I've read this book before. The book is copyright 1937. This note was last modified Monday, 19-May-2014 16:37:04 PDT.

This is book 3 of the "Lensman" series.

This note contains spoilers for the book.


The real first book of the Lensman series, the finest space opera of all time. (The "first" two books, Triplanetary and First Lensman, were written much later than the other 4, for their publication as books by Fantasy Press.) These books have been favorites of mine absolutely forever, and I'm quite surprised to see that I haven't re-read this one since I began keeping this log. I've re-read the rest of the series!

The opening scene is lovely—the graduating class of Lensmen-to-be nervously awaiting the starting time, then proceeding formally to the office of the feared Commandant of the school, to take the oath, receive their Lenses—and then participate in a very human discussion with the old curmudgeon, who can finally drop his act and be human to them.

I should probably point out, since looking over what I've written so far it isn't that obvious, that this is one of my favorite books of all time. (Really, I think of the series as one unit, and that's one of my favorites.) I've read it dozens of time, nearly to the point of memorizing large chunks, and the things I have to comment on are mostly infelicities and dated bits; but I still love them.


On page 11, the Lensmen take their oaths to the "Omnipotent witness".

Then Kinnison is appointed to command of the Brittania, and called "Captain"; and we're told he's really only a Lieutenant. And he tells Haynes he knows he's not qualified to command such a nice ship, and makes it clear that such a command is something he yearns for. (Pages 19 and 20 in my old Pyramid paperback, X-1457; plus the reference to "Lieutenant" Kinnison on page 34.) The only trouble with this is that in later books it's quite clear that a Lensman holds no military rank, and is almost never directly in command of a ship (Kinnison has a Captain under him to command the later Dauntless, for example).

Von Hohendorff says that a man never knows why he was dropped from the corps of lensmen, but later (page 29) it's given that Van Buskirk was dropped only because of an inability to comprehend higher math. With an omniscient narrator this might be possible, but the book is footnoted extensively by "E.E.S" in his personna as the "historian of Civilization" (though I haven't found the identification as a historian in this book yet), and it's not justifiable under that model.

On page 25 there's a discussion of how fast they go, outpacing light, and how their instruments work with ultra-waves, converting to light only at the faces of the viewplates. But of course the photons involved there would still get left hopelessly behind. I remember being bothered by this way, way back; before highschool, anyway. You can make some sort of relativistic argument to explain it, but Smith is relentlessly non-relativistic in his space operas, so that won't wash.

On page 54, Worsel mentions their knowing of the existence of the Patrol or something like it only by "the most unreliable and roundabout reports" ; they've dispatched a ship (STL) to take their problem with the Overlords of Delgon to it, but don't really expect anything from this move. I don't recall any followup on the ship, either; it's just left hanging. It's interesting, it suggests that there must have been visitors from off-planet before. Of course the Valentians have interplanetary flight, and know other planets can have life on them, from local experience in their system, but it's still quite a big deal to know other things are out there and you can't reach them.

Page 65-66: "Any real animal, no matter how savage, can be controlled by any wearer of the Lens". By getting in touch with its mind and reasoning with it, it says here. But later, controlling animals is treated as a fairly specialized trick Kinnison uses after he's Second Stage. And when Kinnison is practicing controlling people, he certainly isn't doing it by reasoning with them.

And if this is so, why isn't Tregonsee using the various Trenconian wildlife to help patrol the planet? Then again, in the actual descriptions of his controlling animals, it really does sound like he's promising rewards and encouraging them, rather than actually controlling them. In fact, on page 227 Tregonsee says the turtle people haven't shown any willingness to cooperate with him.

On page 92, Kinnison says "Piracy implies similarity of culture, I would think". Don't tell the Barbary Pirates, or some of the Chinese and Indonesians, who would happily prey on anybody.

Page 109: It's mentioned that Boskone is already intergalactic in scope (this is in narration; in fact in an info-dump). The characters don't actually find this out for a book or two.

Page 117: Only a Lensman can wear his lens. Helmuth has proved it. Yes, but you can run a lens through a wire; there's some kind of "circuit" to the flesh required. Which means you can keep the drugged unconscious Lensman under the table and run a wire up to the lens on the insulating bracelet on your wrist, and sit at the table and be taken as a Lensman. Strange that nobody has tried this. (The "wire" comes from the "whisker" lead used in various times and places later when Kinnison is undercover, before he learns to do without the lens entirely.) Of course, the Arisians may have forseen this and made special (nasty) provisions for it. If so, the spectacular failure should be documented.

Page 118: Helmuth has received thought-screen data from Ploor. This is the first reference to Ploor in publication order, and we have no idea what it means. If you read the two prequels first, however, you know exactly what Ploor is, and realize just how high up this help came from.

Page 121: The Arisians take it as obvious that good and evil are only relative. Meanwhile, the Patrol goes ahead and treats them as important absolutes. And never gets into trouble over it, either.

Page 124 and previous: Helmuth is conducting a search for The Lensman, Kinnison, but he isn't thinking about keeping control of the information that Kinnison took. For example, he doesn't worry about Tregonsee rotating home at the end of his shift on Trenco. But Kinnison has left the tape spool with him, so when he goes home, the data goes with him.

Page 128: "In our eyes, it is fundamentally wrong, but it works—how it works!" The age of the writing is showing; back then, people thought it was possible that autocracies and command economies would be significantly more efficient than free societies. That's not much believed any more.

Around page 128: I really like how quickly engineering projects go in Civilization. This new class of ship, for example, the "maulers", that they build "from the keel up" in a few months. I think; the time isn't really given very precisely. But still. Not years; months, for a whole new class of ship. And later, when his special armor for tackling Helmuth is made, it takes two days to design and build it, and it works perfectly the first time.

Page 130: Kinnison may not truly learn to think just yet (Mentor at least doesn't tell him that until rather later), but this is the first place in the book where Kinnison does any especially long-term or especially good thinking. He's realized that the Lens is their only reliable long-term advantage, and he's realized the need for a detector nullifier and requested one be developed. Haynes doesn't even undertstand why he wants it, and tells him to go ahead. It's nice to have unlimited resources.

Page 134: A war of "merciless extermination". Of course if you came here via First Lensman, there have been surrenders and peace made. But if you're starting here, this is unusual. Letting Blakeslee and a few others surrender is unprecedented. (Luckily, as a Gray Lensman, Kinnison can do it.)

On page 138, Kim's classmate Cliff Maitland is skippering a mauler, which makes no sense given what was said about how Kinnison wouldn't rate command of even the Brittania for years normally.

And on page 141 Kim's commission as captain is cancelled on his Release. Clearly Lensmen were kept within the military structure in the universe described in this book.

On page 172, Lacy and Haynes refer to the historic Samms and Kinnison; the first reference to them, I think, in order of writing.

"Lensmen always went in" seems to first occur on page 178.

Page 183: The famous mention by Mentor of Kim's descendants.

Hey, here's a Zabriskan Fontema! (Page 183). That universe's icon of stupidity, or at least dumbness. It's fun to get the origin story in First Lensman.

Page 185: Reliably convergent evolution? Yeah, right. Even with Arisian life spores permeating this space (not mentioned yet).

And the people of Radelix are described as, if anything, smarter than humans. Later, Lensman Gerrond at least is considered a bit dull and something of a stuffed shirt. And Radelix is a completely unexceptional planet.

I also can't help noticing a Lensman named "Gerrond", and remembering R. Buckminster Fuller's statement "I seem to be a verb". However, the Smith pre-dates the Fuller by some 30 years.

On page 191, Gerrond promises to remember "Kinnison of Tellus". But if he knows the least thing about the history of the patrol, he should connect that name to Rod Kinnison, the Second Lensman (title never used that I know of).

Page 199: Clarissa "knows" it's Kinnison, and "being also women" the other nurses accept her certainty. Good thing she's right this time.

Page 213: Helmuth considers that "The Lensman" has eluded him as easily as a drop of mercury eludes a child's fingers. Boy is that experience out of style!

Page 226-7: Kinnison shows Tregonsee how to get on with the turtles, and gives him a "mental treatment" that lets him explain or show how to do things better. I guess this is probably the seed of Tregonsee going in for his own Second Stage training.

I see the mail-order coupon for buying books direct is missing from the end of this one. I believe I bought this at that short-lived bookstore (the first real bookstore in Northfield, that I remember) that was down by the river, below the bridge, where I bought a lot of books (Tolkien, Dune, and this, for example). I got strongly addicted to Smith, and ordered whatever else I could find. That's how I ended up with the sub-size paperback copy of Spacehounds of IPC, for example. There's probably another coupon or two missing from other books.


So just how long after First Lensman is this set, anyway? I don't think there's much information on that topic. The Patrol has certainly spread, the Galactic Council is fully in control of Civilization, there are a lot of member species, so it must be quite a while later. Of course, this is a universe where new classes of warships are designed in weeks and built in quantity in months, so who knows how fast the diplomats work?

Lacy and Haynes know that Samms and Kinnison are important historical figures and great Lensmen; it's not so long after that that's been forgotten. There's been essentially no social change that I can see, but this seems to be a very static culture, for all the technological change. I don't think we actually get any city names on Tellus; maybe they're all different?

I can't convince even myself of any narrow range of dates it might take place in. Just definitely in the future from First Lensman. I'd guess a minimum of 50 years, 100 more likely. And it could easily be several hundred.

One thing I notice is that in Triplanetary and First Lensman, the earth is still divided into countries. There's no mention of any political organization smaller than the entire planet in the later books. Also no mention of any language other than English (okay, actually no mention of human language at all), and no mention of race or any racial features (everybody described is clearly caucasian, though). And in The Vortex Blaster there is mention of various human languages, including English; so apparently they are still around and in use. If you consider that book canonical.

The rest of the series after this takes place within Kinnison's lifetime, which we are given no indication will be really unusually long.

"...and as the fierce-driven metal slugs tore in their multitudes through his armor and through and through his body, riddling his every vital organ, that was      the end."

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