Friday, December 15, 2017

The Origins of Space Opera: Lensman!

If you're disappointed with the Space Opera currently stinking up the theater, then head off to the pulp past! I recommend to you the series that coined that very term and gave every last Space Opera thereafter the standard to measure up to instead: The Lensman series, by E.E. "Doc" Smith.

This is the masterpiece series that founded Space Opera as a genre of science fiction, coining tropes and concepts that would go far beyond the realm where Doc Smith earned his fame. Star Wars, Star Trek, Green Lantern, all the powered armor/giant robot stuff (animated and live-action), and so much more stems from the roots of this literary tree.

Smith wrote for the pulps. As with another favorite here, Robert E. Howard, Smith quickly learned how to write fast-moving stories with plots that gripped you out of the gate and held you fast--turning page after page--until you finished the adventure. His heroes are dashing, hot-blooded men that wouldn't be out of place in Gurren Lagann. His heroines are beautiful, feminine figures full of love and passion in all their variation. His villains--male and female alike--are by turns pathetic, petty, wretched, and vile. The true self-defeating nature of evil is on full display in his work.

And no one has done Space Opera on the scope and scale Smith did here. TV Tropes names two recurring tropes in film and television worldwide after their Lensman examples, where they are either the originator or the codifier. The one dealing with scope and scale is this: The Lensman Arms Race.

We're talking about a war of extinction between two organizations that span two galaxies, weaponize entire solar systems into Death Star-style superweapons, use dead planets as kinetic-kill weapons against inhabited worlds and planet-sized artificial targets, pull off superpower shenanigans that make The Force look pathetic.

The titular Lens is the other big trope: The Empathic Weapon. Perfect identification, power enahancer, truly secure comlink, and able to kill anyone other than its user (and instantly destroys itself upon user death). No one's done this since, and in hindsight it's not hard to see why- it causes as many writing problems as it solves in-setting ones. That's a hard task to pull off, but Smith does it.

If this were something written today, you'd have a six-pack of fat tomes full of fluff and blather that doesn't matter- like Martin's novels. But no, Smith was a Pulp man and Pulp men wrote lean and mean. These novels are pocket-sized in their trade paperback form (which is most of those you will find used), come in at 200 pages or less in that format, and therefore move faster than light to get through their epic plots and the adventures therein.

Thanks to Amazon it's no longer the teeth-pulling task it formerly was to find copies of these books in print, and they are also out in ebook format now if you prefer, so you too can experience these fantastic adventures for yourselves- and then go on to read the rest of Smith's Space Operas (such as the Skylark series). I recommend that you read them in order of publication, which means starting at Galactic Patrol and go forward from there.

You don't need the first two books to get what's going on; go back after you finish Children of the Lens if you want the backstory. You also don't need to read Masters of the Vortex or any other tie-ins; they're wholly irrelevant to the story of the series. Finally, there is an unlicensed anime and manga adaptation; don't bother unless you want a poor Star Wars (Original Triology) ripoff wearing Lensman drag.

And that's very kind of disappointment is what we're trying to escape now, aren't we? Lensman is a classic for damn good reasons, so go read them and experience those reasons for yourselves.

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