E. E. Smith

Missing image
"Grey Lensman" in Astounding Oct. 1939

E. E. Smith, also Edward Elmer Smith, Ph.D., E.E. "Doc" Smith and Doc Smith (May 2, 1890 - August 31, 1965) was a science fiction author who wrote the Lensman series and the Skylark series, among others.

Dr. Smith was born in Idaho and held a large number of menial jobs before attending the University of Idaho, where he is installed in the Alumni Hall of Fame. He also lived in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida. Some of his biography is captured in an essay by Robert Heinlein which was reprinted in the collection Expanded Universe in 1980.

He was indeed a doctor, donning his doctoral hood in Chemical Engineering from George Washington University in 1919. From 1936 onwards, he was employed as a food technologist (a "cereal" chemist) by the Dawn Doughnut Company before working for the US Army between 1941 and 1945. Persistent but unconfirmed accounts maintain that Dr. Smith developed the first process for "sticking" powdered sugar on doughnuts. An extended segment in Triplanetary, one of his novels, suggests intimate familiarity with explosives and munitions manufacturing.

Robert Heinlein and Dr. Smith were personal friends. Heinlein reported that E.E. Smith perhaps took his unrealistic heroes from life. He reported that E.E. Smith was a large, blond, athletic, very intelligent, very gallant man, married to a remarkably beautiful, intelligent red-haired woman named MacDougal (thus perhaps the prototypes of 'Kimball Kinnison' and 'Clarissa MacDougal'). In one of Heinlein's books, he reports that he began to suspect E.E. Smith might be a sort of superman when he asked Dr. Smith for help in purchasing a car. E.E. Smith tested the car by driving it on a back road at illegally high speeds with their heads pressed tightly against the roof columns to listen for chassis squeaks by bone conduction -- a process apparently improvised on the spot.

His novels are generally considered to be the original space operas and offer almost non-stop action. However they are, to a fair extent, still "true" science fiction, in that they use the extrapolation of known science and, often, the extrapolation of existing and historic social and political patterns of the early to mid-twentieth century. Smith himself expressed a preference for inventing fictional technologies that were not strictly impossible (so far as the science of the day was aware) but highly unlikely: "the more unlikely the better" was his phrase.

In recent years many critics have characterized his writings as cliche-ridden, or as using tired old themes. Dr. Smith, however, invented many of these themes. It is his imitators who made them tired old cliches. They were often totally new when he wrote them. With a little tolerance and imagination, a sense of wonder is easy to recapture, because Smith had it when he was writing his work. His excitement and enthusiasm shine through his writing and make his books well worth reading despite their age and their obvious literary flaws.

The Skylark series includes:

The Lensman series includes:

  • Triplanetary
  • First Lensman
  • Galactic Patrol
  • Gray Lensman
  • Second-Stage Lensmen
  • Children of the Lens

The Lensman novels were particularly interesting for their imaginative use of extra-terrestrial, non-human characters as major heros, another science fiction "first."

Masters of the Vortex is set in the same universe as the Lensman novels, but is not part of the main storyline. Spacehounds of IPC is not a part of the series, despite occasional erroneous statements to the contrary.

Robert Heinlein reported that Doc had planned a seventh Lensman novel, set after the events described in Children of the Lens, which was unpublishable at that time (the early 1960s). Careful searches by people who knew Doc well (including Frederik Pohl, Doc's editor, and Verna Trestrail, Doc's daughter) have failed to locate any material related to such a story. Doc apparently never wrote any of it down. Doc told Heinlein that the new novel proceeded inexorably from unresolved matters in Children, a statement easily supported by a careful reading of Children.

On 14 July 1965, barely a month before his death, E. E. Smith gave written permission to William B. Ellern to continue the Lensman series, which led to the publishing of New Lensman in 1976. Smith's long-time friend, Dave Kyle, wrote three authorized added novels in the Lensman series which provided background about the major non-human Lensmen.

The original video game Spacewar was inspired by the Lensman series.

The GURPS role-playing game includes a worldbook based on the Lensman series.

In his biography, George Lucas reveals that the Lensmen novels were a major influence on his youth, completing the tie from the books to modern popular culture through Star Wars.

As well as influencing the course of popular culture, Smith was also a huge influence on modern warfare. His books were widely read by scientists and engineers from the 1930s until the 1970s. Ideas that arguably entered the military-scientific complex from Smith's work included SDI (Triplanetary), stealth (Gray Lensman) and OODA-loops/C3 based warfare and the AWACS (Gray Lensman). One underlying theme of the novels was the difficulty in maintaining military secrecy -- as advanced capabilities are revealed, the opposing side can often duplicate them.

An influence that is inarguable was described in a letter to Doc from John W. Campbell (the editor of Astounding magazine, where much of the Lensman series was originally published). In it, Campbell relayed Admiral Chester Nimitz's acknowledgment that he had used Smith's ideas for displaying the battlespace situation (called the "tank" in the stories) in the design of the United States Navy's ships' Combat Information Centers. "Your entire set-up was taken specifically, directly, and consciously from the Directrix in your story. Here you reached the situation the Navy found itself in — more communication channels than integration techniques to handle them. In your writing you proposed precisely such an integrating technique and proved how advantageous it could be."¹

The beginning of the story the Skylark of Space describes in relative detail the protagonists research into separation of platinum group residues, subsequent experiments involving electrolysis and the discovery of a process evocative of cold fusion (over fifty years before Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann). He describes a nuclear process yielding large amounts of energy and producing only negligible radioactive waste - which then goes on to form the basis of the adventures in the Skylark books. Smith's general description of the process of discovery is highly evocative of Rntgen's descriptions of his discovery of the X-ray.

Another theme of the Skylark novels involves precursors of modern information technology. The humanoid aliens encountered in the first novel have developed a primitive technology called the "mechanical educator," which allows direct conversion of brain waves into intelligible thought for transmission to others or for electrical storage. By the third novel in the series, Skylark of Valeron, this technology has grown into an "Electronic Brain" which is capable of computation on all "bands" of energy -- electromagnetism, gravity, and "tachyonic" energy and radiation bands included. This is itself derived from a discussion of reductionist atomic theory in the second novel, Skylark Three, which is evocative of modern quark and sub-quark theories of elementary particle physics.

In his later non-series novels, Galaxy Primes, Subspace Explorers, and Subspace Encounter, E. E. Smith explores themes of telepathy and other mental abilities collectively called "psionics," and of the conflict between libertarian and socialistic influences in the colonization of other planets.


¹ Campbell, J.W. Letter to E.E. Smith. As quoted by Verna Smith Trestrail on 29 September 1979 in her keynote speech at Moscon 1. Letter date given as "long after World War II." Original letter in Trestrail's estate, original typewritten speech notes in the Epopt's collection of Lensman source material.bg:Едуард Смит de:Edward Elmer Smith ja:E・E・スミス no:Edward Elmer Smith


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