Thursday, 15 December 2016

The First Lensman by E.E. "Doc" Smith



My expectations on sitting down to this book were not high. The previous Doc Smith book I'd read was not that impressive and had a bunch of casual racism, even though it was, for the time period, not too bad for how it depicted women.

Image result for first lensman
We've had a bit of a flip here. In a book about the formation of the first intergalactic police force, and the opposition it faces, we find out that the Galactic Patrol will recruit from all different races found across the universe...but women are just too different to ever qualify. That there will be one woman who will in the future, but that'll only be because she'll be a mutant. So we're literally being told that women are more alien than aliens.

Thanks, Doc Smith.

There's little racism, because no race is ever mentioned in the book. I presume most of the characters are supposed to be white - they're certainly endowed with good ol' Anglo-Saxon names.

Part of the formation of the Galactic Patrol is fighting off attacks from people who are used to having power on Earth unethically, often through drug-selling. (The drug of choice here is called thionite, harvested on another planet.) Of course, one might think that there might be valid objections to forming a new supreme power in the galaxy with most of the guns and the power, even if they claim they're going to be policing (ruling) from morally pure centres.

That, however, is not how it's portrayed. All the people who agree with their enemy's claims (quite valid claims, even if they're being made for less-than-valid reasons) are shown to be incredible dupes, too dumb to figure out that the Galactic Patrol is selfless and pure and good and total white hats, just because they say so. Let's get rid of all the complexity that might be at play in being afraid of a new power with overweening force, shall we?

It gets worse because Smith himself sidesteps all the issues that might come along with massive military power and just appearing as a new force with no oversight - no one can sit on the Galactic Council but a Lensman, and the Galactic Patrol is made up of Lensmen. It also means, if you're paying attention, that the new ruling body is entirely  male, since women can't be Lensmen.

So really, damned good reason to be suspicious. The Lensmen try to paint their opposition in much the same way as Trump voters are depicted, but with even less reason. Dismissing your opponent's entirely valid worries about a new unigender ruling class that is picked by the new police force might...not give you the moral high ground.

Instead, Smith gives us a hand of God disguised as an alien species, who gives to worthy men of different alien races a lens that allows them to communicate telepathically. They only give them to worthy, pure, morally upright men. There can be no question about their worthiness, because God aliens know all and can see into the hearts of men.

So power is shown here as something that can be wielded uncritically by the Lensmen, because they are Certified A+ Good, and should be wrested away from the evil corporations and politicians who presently are trying to set up a kleptocracy.

Can I vote for a third party? Would it make a difference?

The uncritical acceptance of power as the God alien-given right to an intergalactic police force that looks like it'll become the unopposed political power makes this book beyond problematic. As a rousing space adventure, it's not bad, if you like the kind of book where there's no question about the heroes and the villains and the most satisfying outcome is winning and crushing your foes through overwhelming force. This is no David and Goliath story. It's a Goliath and bigger Goliath story.

That's not my bag, so....

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