The Lensman series is a serial science fiction space opera by E. E. Smith. The series is significant because it was the first set of science fiction novels conceived as a series.



Missing image
The 1948 Fantasy Press edition of Triplanetary

The Lensman series was so innovative and successful at the time of its first publication that it was widely imitated, setting the themes followed by most of the space opera genre since. As a result, to a modern reader it may seem rather dated or clichd. The modern reader may also feel that it is filled with sexist and racist stereotypes.

However, in fairness it is important to note that Dr. Smith wrote most of his best work between 1928 and 1954, well before the antiracist and feminist movements of the 1960s. He portrays powerful intelligent women, operating in traditional roles, rather than hackneyed maidens in distress. His minorities are not discriminated against, so much as out of sight and out of mind. He describes alien races sympathetically, by the standards of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, showing that true cameraderie is independent of species, shape and metabolism. Finally, despite its faults, the reader cannot help but notice the evident enthusiasm and enjoyment which Smith had for his subject matter.

The complete series of books, in sequence, consists of:

  1. Triplanetary
  2. First Lensman
  3. Galactic Patrol
  4. Gray Lensman
  5. Second-Stage Lensmen
  6. Children of the Lens

Originally the series consisted of the final four novels published between 1937 and 1948 in the magazine Astounding Stories . However, in 1948, at the suggestion of Lloyd Arthur Eshbach (publisher of the original editions of the Lensman books as part of the Fantasy Press imprint), Smith rewrote his 1934 story Triplanetary, originally published in Amazing Stories, to fit in with the Lensman series. First Lensman was written in 1950 to act as a link between Triplanetary and Galactic Patrol and finally, in the years up to 1954, Smith revised the rest of the series to make it internally consistent with the new additions for book publication.

Using the same fictional universe, but not as part of the series, he also wrote the Vortex Blaster stories, "Storm Cloud on Deka" and "The Vortex Blaster Makes War" for Astonishing Stories in 1942. This was released in book form, by Gnome Press as The Vortex Blaster in 1960 and later reprinted by Pyramid Books as Masters of the Vortex in 1968.

On July 14, 1965, Smith gave written permission to William B. Ellern to continue the Lensman series, which led to the publishing of New Lensman in 1976. However, many consider Ellern's work unequal to Smith's.

Three additional Lensmen novels that feature the alien Second-Stage Lensmen (the Second-Stage Lensman Trilogy) were written by David A. Kyle and published in paperback between 1980 and 1983:

  • The Dragon Lensman (Worsel, the legendary Velantian dragon)
  • Lensman from Rigel (Tregonsee, the enigmatic alien from the system of the blue star Rigel)
  • Z-Lensman (Nadreck the Palainian, strangest of the three non-human Second Stage Lensmen)

The events in these books take place between Second-Stage Lensmen and Children of the Lens. (A fourth novel, which was to have told the story of the Red Lensman, was discussed, but never completed.) Kyle was a close friend and confidant of Smith, and these novels were written in a style designed to evoke the original series (with the approval of Smith's daughter, Verna Trestrial).

Other appearances

In the DC Comics universe, the Green Lantern Corps bears many parallels to the Lensmen, although its principal creators deny any connection. The original video game Spacewar was inspired by the Lensman series. Comparisons have also been made between the Arisians and Eddorians of Smith's universe with both George Lucas's Star Wars galaxy (an early draft of the Star Wars script refers to the light side of the Force as "Arisian") and the Vorlons and Shadows of Babylon 5. The GURPS role-playing game includes a source book describing how to conduct a role-playing campaign set in the Lensman universe.

There is also a Japanese anime TV series and movie, Lensman. Although this was produced with the knowledge and consent of Smith's estate, they were so displeased with the result that for several years they rejected any other suggestions of adaptation. With Smith's knowledge the parody Backstage Lensman was written by Randall Garrett in 1949.

Plot synopsis

The series opens in Triplanetary. The elder race of our galaxy, the Arisians, using advanced mental science, foresee the invasion of our universe by the evil Eddorians. The Arisians begin a breeding program on every world that can produce intelligent life. The goal is to produce super-warriors who can repel the Eddorians. Triplanetary is the early history of that breeding program on Earth, illustrated with the lives of several warriors and soldiers. It ends with the discovery of the interstellar space drive, formation of the Galactic Patrol, and the first Lens, given to the first Lensman on Earth.

The Lens is a material creation of Arisia's advanced mental sciences. It gives its wearer mind-reading and telepathic abilities, as long as it is connected by an electrically conductive wire or band to the skin of its user. In particular, it is impossible to lie to a Lensman, and Lensmen communicate perfectly in any language to any ethnic group.

A Lens is an ellipsoidal assembly of small cloudy jewels, imbued with a shifting polychromatic light. It is "fitted" on Arisia, and cannot be worn by anyone other than its owner. Shortly after the owner's death, the lens crumbles into dust.

The Arisians fit Lenses only to intelligent beings that are incorruptible, with a high drive to succeed, the highest drive to fight evil, and high intelligence. Evil beings who try to obtain lenses simply never return from Arisia. The Galactic Patrol maintains a service academy. It accepts only the top few percent of applicants. Of those applicants, only twenty or so at the top of the graduating class are ever sent to Arisia. Of those twenty, half are returned unharmed, but without a lens. Perhaps one or two are not returned, and the rest receive a lens.

The first woman sent to Arisia is returned unharmed with the message that no more women are to be sent. She says that "only one woman will ever receive a lens". A significant subplot is usurpation of normal political processes by Lensmen. Given the nature of the Lens and the Lensmen, dishonest politicians hate and fear them.

The rest of the series is a series of revelations. The interstellar pirates and criminals selling drugs and weapons prove to be agents of the Eddorians. A continuing multi-generational war is required to trace the criminals and subject races back to the Eddorians themselves.

The series contains some of the largest-scale space war ever written. Star systems are destroyed with antimatter planets. Huge fleets of spaceships fight bloody wars of attrition. Alien races sort themselves into "Lensbearing" (Allied) and enemy races.

As the breeding program reaches its ultimate conclusion, Kimball Kinnison, the brown-haired, gray-eyed second-stage lensman, with advanced mental powers, finally marries the most advanced product of the complementary breeding program, Clarissa MacDougal, a beautiful, curvaceous red-haired nurse, who eventually receives her own lens.

Their children grow up to be the Children of the Lens, a young man and his sisters. They become a single hive-mind, able to create lenses themselves, and destroy the telepathic, powerful Eddorians with their thoughts alone. In the final book, they attack and destroy the Eddorians' base world, and drive the Eddorians from our universe.

An unresolved plot element at the end of the series concerns the marriages of the children of the Lens, as the young man and his sisters have not found anyone interesting. A bit of text at the end of Children of the Lens points out, however, that one man does exist who is equal to the daughters of the lens. Some readers have inferred the possibility of an incestuous group-marriage between the young man and his four sisters, citing some of the interactions between them as presenting circumstantial evidence of such an eventuality.

In addition, Smith is reported to have told Robert Heinlein at a science fiction convention that there were sufficient unresolved conflicts to write a seventh book, but that he did not think it could be published in the moral climate of the times. Despite strenuous searches of his effects, no trace of a seventh manuscript has been found, so a definitive answer may never be known.

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