Astounding Stories #1: Galactic Patrol
Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity here to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience.
Nothing dates more quickly than a vision of the future. This isn’t just because reality has a way of catching up with and passing even the most plausible predictions, or because certain narrative elements, like the constant smoking we find in so much golden age science fiction, become anachronistic even before the prophesied year approaches. It’s because any literary work is inevitably saturated with the era that created it, regardless of genre. Language, cultural attitudes, style, pacing: they all require some degree of mental adjustment, just as a modern moviegoer has to be ready to meet the classic films of the forties halfway. If you aren’t willing to undergo that kind of mental shift, like a viewer who can’t sit through Casablanca because it’s in black and white, you’ve shut yourself off from an entire world of storytelling: anything outside that window—which creeps forward over time, cutting you off from more and more of the past—remains out of bounds. Science fiction, in any medium, is particularly vulnerable to this. If few of us watch When Worlds Collide or This Island Earth for our own pleasure these days, it isn’t just because the special effects seem clunky, but because it’s hard to accept an idea of the future filtered through the idiom of the fifties. Go back further to the pulps, and that cognitive divide looms even wider. And if you’re going to read the science fiction of the thirties, you have to account for the personal equation that separates you from its intended audience, a gap that even devoted fans can have trouble crossing.
This is all my way of leading up to the fact that Galactic Patrol by E.E. “Doc” Smith probably requires less of an adjustment to enjoy today than any other story of the space opera or superscience genre. In other words, it’s a blast, and it’s the first novel I’d recommend to anybody who was curious about what was happening in science fiction before the golden age. Smith, who in his nonwriting life was a food engineer specializing in doughnut mixes, isn’t all that familiar to mainstream readers today, but he was beloved, even idolized, within the fandom for decades, and it isn’t hard to see why. Galactic Patrol is the first installment in the saga of the Lensmen, an interstellar police force tasked with protecting the galaxy from the depredations of a ruthless nation of space pirates. (Just whisper the word “Lensman” and you feel a little internal shiver of anticipation, even if you have no idea what it means.) Each officer wears the Lens, a jewel constructed by an advanced alien race that serves as a universal translator, telepathic communicator, and identification badge. It can be wielded only by its intended user, who is selected after a rigorous training process designed to produce individuals of superhuman bravery, intelligence, and integrity. Galactic Patrol follows Kimball Kinnison, a recent graduate from the academy, on his first mission, and although he starts out by “attacking imaginary foes and actual meteorites with equal zeal”—as L. Ron Hubbard would later do during his own brief command in the Navy—he rapidly embarks on an adventure that dwarfs anything the genre had ever seen.
Because the book really moves. Smith’s conception of interstellar travel is based on an inertialess drive, which instantly accelerates a spacecraft to faster than the speed of light, and Galactic Patrol has what I can only describe as an inertialess narrative. It’s as close as any novel can get to pure action, jumping from one high point to the next without any of the boring parts in between, and it doesn’t let up until literally the very last word. It sends both Kinnison and the reader bounding across the galaxy, and at its best, it’s still breathtaking. In fact, it miraculously manages to evoke both Star Trek and Star Wars, in sort of the same way that the Aeneid contains both the Iliad and the Odyssey, except that Smith is their great originator. It anticipates Star Trek in revolving around a starship and its crew—including an oddly familiar engineer who emerges from below decks, clutching a spanner and asking for some grease soap—but its breakneck pacing and emphasis on action are closer to Star Wars, although significantly more violent. (“As he struck and struck and struck again, the cell became a gorily reeking slaughter-pen, its every corner high-piled with the shattered corpses of the Wheelmen and its floor running with blood and slime.”) Parts of it even look ahead to Dune, with its idea of a single planet serving the sole source of a priceless drug, in this case a kind of superheroin called thionite. It’s all very artless, but thrilling, and it could only have come from the heart. Later, as one of the first in a long line of imitators, John W. Campbell would make his name in much the same kind of story, but in his hands, it feels like hackwork, while Smith writes this sort of novel just because he loves it.
Not every element of Galactic Patrol has aged equally well. There are the obvious moments of dissonance, like the fact that the crew of the spacecraft plots its course using calipers, compass, and slide rule, or that when we’re introduced to a “computer,” it turns out to be a man who computes for a living. Its attitudes toward women are harder to stomach: the Lensmen we meet are exclusively male, and for most of the story, the only women in sight are nurses, decoys, or hostages, along with the unnamed “stenographer” with whom Kinnison collides at headquarters. Only Clarissa MacDougall, the red-headed nurse who becomes Kinnison’s love interest, gets anything like a real speaking part. (It’s worth noting that Smith’s first novel, Skylark of Space, had two significant female characters, thanks in all likelihood to his coauthor Lee Hawkins Garby—another female writer who has fallen out of the history of science fiction.) It’s a boy’s book of adventure in space, sexless and morally unwavering, and once you account for this, it comes closer than any other story to recapturing the excitement of the days in which readers would lurk at newsstands to avidly await the next installment of a serial in Astounding. Later, the genre would leave Smith behind: he was grandfathered into Campbell’s circle of authors as a beloved elder statesman, but he never broke through to a readership outside the fandom. And that’s a real loss. The kind of storytelling that he perfected, for better or worse, is still what occurs to most people when they think of science fiction, even if they know it only through his imitators. And Galactic Patrol gives it to you uncut, like a pure hit of thionite.