Triplanetary by E.E. “Doc” Smith
Pyramid Books, 1970
Also Halcyon Classics, 2010
Originally published in Amazing Stories, 1934
Price I paid: none and unknown
Eddore and Arisia fought desperately to control the Universe. The ultimate battleground was a tiny, backward planet in a remote galaxy―Earth.
And only a few Earthmen knew of the titanic struggle―and of the strange, decisive role they were to play in the war of the super-races.
Here is the beginning of “Doc” Smith’s famous Lensman series―the first of the celebrated novels that set a pattern for science fiction.
“So, Thomas,” you might be saying, “finally dipping into the father of Space Opera, are you?”
The answer to that is, of course, yes! Enthusiastically! This book―and the rest of “Doc” Smith’s work―has been on my to-read list for untold ages. To put it into perspective, the Kindle copy of this novel that I have has been on said Kindle since 2011 and is no longer available for some reason so I couldn’t figure out how much I paid for it. It was probably $1.99.
I also have a paperback copy that Joachim Boaz sent me. That edition bears the cover that graces this review. The Halcyon Classics one on the Kindle had a rather bland cover that I wasn’t super thrilled with. Likewise, I grabbed the cover image from the Internet Speculative Fiction Database because I left for vacation and forgot to scan it myself. My bad. I might update it when I get home, if I remember, which means I probably won’t update it when I get home.
So this is the first time I’ve read two editions of a book at once. See, I’d read the Kindle version until the battery went dry, at which point I’d switch to the paperback. I also carried the paperback version around with me and read it in sips while, say, in the car or in line at the grocery store. I know that one of the Kindle’s major selling points is its portability, but I’m just the kind of guy who assumes that every person I meet in public is secretly plotting to steal my technology. It’s not a trait I’m proudest of.
It was an interesting experience in its own right. To sum up the differences in the text: the paperback had more typos but the e-book steadfastly refused to use any italics. I know that’s not from lack of ability. Lots of Kindle books use italics. But these people chose not to. I’d say that it was because it was a half-assed OCR-and-throw-on-the-store job, but it didn’t have any of the other typical signs of that, mixed-up letters and weird hyphenation being the two main ones.
You know what? I bet they just cribbed it from the .txt on Project Gutenberg. I’d lay money on it. And maybe that’s why this particular version isn’t available anymore. Somebody got mad.
I bought that Kindle version before I had the good sense to make sure it was any good. I’m also a bit upset that I could have just downloaded it for free. Urgh.
There was a lot going on in this book. A lot a lot. At first I had trouble keeping up. I was aware of the Lensman series before I started reading. It’s got a wide-ranging reputation and, furthermore, I’ve read several listicles that point out that the Green Lantern Corps. are a Lensman ripoff. I happen to really like Green Lantern comics, so I figured I’d enjoy Lensman, assuming I ever got around to reading them.
Welp, it turns out that in a way I still haven’t gotten around to reading them. The story of Triplanetary first appeared in abbreviated form in Amazing Stories in ’34 as a fairly standard Space Opera where some kickass space cops deal with a dastardly space pirate named Roger. Later, Doc wrote the Lensman books and they were popular, so in ’48 he went back and redid this story, adding lots of bits to flesh it out and make it fit into the Lensman universe. He mostly added backstory and tacked the word “prequel” on it and boom, we have what I was led to believe was the first Lensman novel, one that didn’t have a single frikkin’ lens in it.
I know I sound grumpy about this turn of events―it’s because I am―but let me tell you what: Despite all that, this book was a rootin’ tootin’ space opera that never let up. At least, it was once we got past all the prequel setup stuff.
It starts by telling us about the Eddorians and the Arisians, two powerful races that sprang up in different galaxies before any other life did. These galaxies eventually collided, causing the stars in them to create planets which eventually led to there being more life in the universe than just those two groups. The Arisians are the good guys and are described in this one as roughly humanoid. Later books, I’m led to believe, depict them as giant brains. The Eddorians, on the other hand, are amoeboid and evil. On the plus side, they’re not “Hahahaha eeeeevil” but rather grasping, ambitious, callous, and arrogant. They’re also from another universe.
First contact between these two races didn’t go over all that well, so the Arisians wiped all memory of themselves from the Eddorian hivemind. Knowing they couldn’t personally defeat the Eddorians themselves, they set themselves to eons-long breeding programs (nothing like Space Opera to tout eugenics programs for the survival of the cosmos) so that “lesser” races might one day wield the power to finally defeat the Eddorian menace. For their part, the Eddorians also interfere with the development of lesser races to pursue their own ends.
So the first half or so of this novel is all Earth history and how a specific Eddorian, Gharlane, has been messin’ stuff up. For instance, Gharlane was personally Nero and brought about the fall of Rome. Other bits of this prologue feature the fall of Atlantis in nuclear fire and tidal waves, and the first three World Wars. Like the downfall of Atlantis, the Third World War also ended in atomic hellfire.
These bits were all well-written enough on their own, but I spent way too much time trying to figure out what the point was. There were also lots of talking-head bits that I didn’t mind because they reminded me a little of one of my favorite Poe stories, “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion.”
I realized some time later that these chapters were also setting up the bloodline that would, I assume, lead to some Lenspeople.
Finally we get to the meat part of the story, the part that was original to it. Even here there’s so much going on that it was a bit hard to keep track of. There are two separate stories going on, and while they do intertwine, it still seemed like there was just too much to deal with. I’m going to put this down to the serialized nature of the original story.
First off, there’s a pirate operating somewhere in space, a guy named Roger the Gray. One of the things that Doc retconned into this story is that Roger is also Gharlane the Eddorian. This was not in the original. Roger has some scary technology and he’s using it for some nefarious purposes. One of his things is sneaking a pirate onto a ship and pumping deadly “Vee-Two” gas (the hyphen seems to be optional for the editor of this book) into the atmosphere, paralyzing and killing the crew. Roger also has incredible weapons and something not unlike a cloaking device at his disposal, which he uses to terrorize the Solar System.
Note: The titular “Triplanetary” refers to the alliance of Venus, Earth, and Mars. Also of note is that Earth is consistently referred to as “Tellus,” something I’d never seen before. I liked it.
Our main protagonists are Conway Costigan, Clio Marsten, and Captain Bradley. They’re on board a ship called Hyperion when it gets hit by one of Roger’s pirate attacks. Thanks to Costigan’s quick thinking, the trio manages to survive the attack, although they are taken to Roger’s planetoid. There’s some drama. Conway and Clio begin to fall in love, but it’s that kind of Space Opera love where the scruffy Conway Costigan can’t believe that a renowned beauty like Clio Marsten, heir to the Marsten fortune or something like that, could ever love a man like him.
Also, Clio spends the majority of the book being scared and emotional and thanking Conway for rescuing her and being so manly and wonderful. It’s pretty gross.
A large-scale space battle erupts and the Triplanetary fleet hammers on the planetoid to no avail. Roger’s defenses are just too strong.
It’s here that our third party comes into play, an alien race called the Nevians.
One of the things I have to give Doc a lot of credit for is making alien races that are distinctly alien. We’re not running around a universe where the good guys are humanoids and the bad guys are tentacles. There’s quite a bit of diversity running around, and it’s the kind where all the aliens think humans are disgusting and vice versa. I love that.
The Nevians are an amphibious species. They have four legs, four eyes, cone-shaped heads, and arms that come out of their heads just below the eyes. At least I think that’s how they were described. I wish I had a copy of Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials somewhere around here so I could check it.
The other thing about the Nevians is that they come from a part of the galaxy where iron is a very precious resource. Not only is it rare, but the Nevians have figured out a way to use it as a power source of incredible magnitude. When they finally encounter humans, they assume that humans are a primitive species, partially on the grounds that they use something as incredibly powerful as iron as a building material.
The Nevians show up right in the middle of this battle and just start sucking out all the iron from all the spaceships. They even have enough power to do considerable damage to Roger’s asteroid, despite its massive defenses. Both fleets are almost totally destroyed. Our hero trio gets taken aboard the Nevian ship and meets its captain, Nerado. Communications are slow at first, each species assuming the other is too dumb to talk, but it turns out that the Nevians speak in a much higher register than humans can hear. The reverse is also true. This is finally rectified and the two races begin to learn a bit about each other.
It’s not all great, though, because the Nevians still think we’re dumb and set up our heroes in a zoo. There are several attempts to escape and they all fail. Things begin to look hopeless.
Meanwhile, another Nevian ship is headed to Earth. It fires its iron-eating ray at Pittsburgh and deals untold damage to it.
The humans back at Earth finish work on a new super-ship, the Boise. Powered by a variant of the Nevian iron-reactor and possessing the ability to negate inertia, it is unbelievably fast and powerful. Conway has managed to sneak a message back to Triplanetary forces and has stolen a Nevian vessel. In doing so he releases some Vee-Two gas into the Nevian atmosphere and kills a lot of people. He rescues his lady and his pal and they set off back to Earth, pursued by Nerado and his ship.
Oh, there’s also a bit where it turns out the Nevians have a problem of their own: intelligent fishes from deep beneath the sea who keep attacking their cities and stuff. They’re fishes in submarines and I love it.
The Boise picks up our heroes and continues on to the Nevian homeworld, where it attacks a major city and destroys it utterly. This gesture finally convinces the Nevians that humans are an intelligent enough species to deal with, and they sign a treaty. The two species will probably set up a system of mutually beneficial trade and learning and everything works out really well in the end except for all the people that died in the meantime, of which there were very many.
This book was problematic in a lot of ways, but Doc earned his reputation as the father of Space Opera. It was a fine read, apart from sexism and some implicit pro-Eugenics stuff and a romance bit that was more goofy than anything. I highly recommend this read if you’re into the pulps. If you’re not into the pulps, I can’t imagine you’d enjoy it, but there’s a chance you’ve skipped the rest of this review anyway, so there you go. I get it; tastes are different for everybody. I happen to have a love for this stuff, even though there’s not one pulp novel I’ve read that didn’t have some deep-seated issues.
Really, though, I’m looking forward to the actual Lensman books. I’m not happy that I was tricked into reading a prequel that didn’t have any lenses in it, whatever those actually are. I look forward to finding out!