Friday, December 02, 2016

Forgotten Books: Triplanetary - Edward E. "Doc" Smith, Ph.D.


A few years ago I got an email from someone whose name I didn't recognize. Normally I'd think that was just spam, but the subject line had to do with the Lensman books, the famous science fiction series by Edward E. "Doc" Smith, so I was curious enough to open it. When I read the email, I could tell that it was part of an ongoing conversation about the series that had somehow wound up in my inbox. I had gotten the email equivalent of a wrong number. So I replied to the guy to let him know and mentioned that while I hadn't read the Lensman series myself, I'd been meaning to get around to it for a long time. I wound up trading several more emails with him, intentionally this time, talking about Doc Smith and SF. My new-found friend advised me to skip the first two books in the series and start with the third one, GALACTIC PATROL, and to read the original pulp versions if I could.

Well, there are two problems with that. First of all, my OCD makes it difficult for me to just skip books in a series like that, and second, I don't own the pulp versions of any of the Lensman books. I do, however, have the Pyramid paperback reprints from the Sixties, and so finally, at long last, being in the mood for some classic SF, I read TRIPLANETARY, which is, chronologically, at least, the first book in the series. (The scan above is the copy I read.)

Most of you probably know this, but for those who don't, some quick background: TRIPLANETARY was originally published as a stand-alone serial in the pulp AMAZING STORIES. Three years later in ASTOUNDING, Smith began the Lensman series with GALACTIC PATROL and wrote several sequels to it. In the late Forties, those novels were reprinted by a small publisher called Fantasy Press. At that time, Smith took TRIPLANETARY and wrote a new opening sequence about 30,000 words long that ret-conned it into the Lensman series. He also wrote a new novel, FIRST LENSMAN, that fits between TRIPLANETARY and GALACTIC PATROL.

Based on all that, it's easy to see why my email friend suggested that I start with GALACTIC PATROL, then go back and read the others later if I wanted to. But that's not what I did.

Actually, it's easy to separate the later additions from the original material. The new opening sequences lay the groundwork for a long war between two super-intelligent and super-powerful galactic empires, the Arisians (the good guys) and the Eddorians (the bad guys). As you'd immediately assume, a small, backwater planet called Earth is going to turn out to be vital to both sides. Throughout our history, from the fall of Atlantis to the fall of Rome to the world wars in the 20th Century, events were actually being manipulated by the Arisians and the Eddorians.

Jump ahead a few centuries, and our solar system is governed by the Triplanetary League, an alliance between Earth, Mars, and Venus. The main section of the novel involves a space pirate named Roger waging war on the solar system and the efforts by various Triplanetary agents to stop his reign of terror. Then, out of the blue, a bunch of aliens called the Nevians show up to attack the solar system and try to steal all our iron, which they use as a power source. The Nevians aren't really bad guys, though, just so far advanced they regard humanity as an annoyance to be brushed aside. They find out different, though, since our human scientists are smart enough to turn the Nevian technology against the invaders, while still battling Roger and the space pirates.

Smith did some rewriting in this section, as well, to make Roger a pawn of the Eddorians who's actually being controlled by one of them. You can tell what the book was like in its original version, though: stalwart heroes versus evil space pirates versus invaders from another galaxy. Adding the Arisia/Eddore war just widens the scope and sets up the later books.

Is TRIPLANETARY worth reading? Well . . . all the things Smith was notorious for can be found in this book: the clunky prose, the minimal characterization, the tin-eared dialogue. But the things which make him one of the most influential figures in science fiction history are here, too: the vast ideas (every "warring galactic empires with Earth caught in the middle" book and movie owes something to Smith), the super-weapons (Roger has a warship the size and shape of an asteroid, sort of like . . . oh, the Death Star, anyone?), the universe-spanning force of agents dedicated to battling evil ("In brightest day, in blackest night . . ."), armed with a super-powered lens instead of a power ring like the Green Lanterns. If you can overlook the shortcomings, and for the most part I could, TRIPLANETARY definitely has that sense of wonder I look for in science fiction. The space battles are great, and even the stodgy characters are sort of likeable. I don't know if I'll ever make it to the end of the series, but I plan to push on and read more of the Lensman saga.

12 comments:

Keith West said...

I have toyed with reading at least some of this series because of its impact on works that came later. I've seen the suggestion (more than once) that a certain young filmmaker ripped off the Lensmen series rather extensively, along with the Foundation series and several other series from that period.

The thing I would have trouble getting past as a phyicist is the idea of using iron as a power source. It takes more energy to initiate a fusion reaction in iron than you get out of the reaction. This is why stars go supernova. *resists urge to explain*


Still, if I can get in the right frame of mind, I would probably enjoy the series.

Walker Martin said...

I have to admit the clunky prose, poor characterization, and silly dialog defeated my attempt to read Doc Smith and I even started with the so called better serials in ASTOUNDING. He's a hopeless writer and I found him unreadable. Concerning the great ideas argument, Stapledon was far better.

I know many readers like Doc Smith but he is really dated and even John Campbell realized this and stopped using his work in ASTOUNDING back in the forties.

Charles Gramlich said...

I have this exact cover copy of Triplanetary. I read it long and long ago and liked it well enough. I think I did start with one of the later in the series though, because our small town library didn't have them all. Smith certainly gave rise to many of the most enjoyable tropes in SF. For me at least. But yes, clunky work in many ways.

George said...

I read TRIPLANETARY way back in the 1960s. Then I read the whole LENSMAN series. Loved it! Armchair Books just published a new edition of TRIPLANETARY in a very nice format.

Stephen Mertz said...

Sounds like SF's Carroll John Daly!

James Reasoner said...

I think Daly was a much better writer than Smith. As Keith said above, being in the right frame of mind may be the key to enjoying Smith's work. The same might be said of Daly, especially his early stories. He seems to me to have gotten better as he went along.

Steve Oerkfitz said...

I agree with Walker. I found Smith unreadable even as a teenager when I was devouring both sides of every Ace double.

Walker Martin said...

Carroll John Daly and Doc Smith! Now there is a twosome! But I have to agree with James about Daly being a much better writer than Smith. For instance the dialog in a Doc Smith novel often sounds like two kids talking. But in Daly, I may hate it when Race Williams starts to talk directly to the reader, but I don't see the dialog as a teenage boy talking.

Speaking of Daly, the new Altus Press second volume of the Race Williams series from BLACK MASK is out. The book looks like a big, black tombstone and is called THE SNARL OF THE BEAST. A must buy if you have any liking for hard boiled literature. Too tough sure, but once you read Race, you never forget him. Joe Shaw didn't like him but the readers loved him...

Ray Radlein said...

Given that Triplanetary is in the Public Domain, I've occasionally thought that rewriting it into non-purple prose with somewhat more modern gender sensibilities would make a good NaNoWriMo project.

Anonymous said...

I was a precocious reader and was given Galactic Patrol by my father when I was 9 years old. I loved it, and the Lensman series, with the unbounded love you can only feel for something at that age. I re-read the books several times before I got out of junior high (middle school to today's kids) and moved on.
But I could never bring myself to read the final volume, Children of the Lens. Haven't read it to this day and am sure now that I never will. I loved that series too much to see it end. Be kind of foolish to go back and break that magic spell today.

John Hocking

James Reasoner said...

I have FIRST LENSMAN ready to go on my Kindle. Probably be a while before I get to it, though.

Duane Spurlock said...

I read the SKYLARK series in junior high. I've tried multiple times to read TRIPLANETARY but have never made it past the first chapter. But no one has ever suggested I start with GALACTIC PATROL. Maybe I'll try that . . .