Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Lensman

Children of the Lens

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During World War II, as the use of radar became widespread in battle, the U.S. Navy introduced the Combat Information Center, a shipboard tactical room with maps, consoles, and screens of the kind that we’ve all seen in television and the movies. At the time, though, it was like something out of science fiction, and in fact, back in 1939, E.E. “Doc” Smith had described a very similar display in the serial Gray Lensman:

Red lights are fleets already in motion…Greens are fleets still at their bases. Ambers are the planets the greens took off from…The white star is us, the Directrix. That violet cross way over there is Jalte’s planet, our first objective. The pink comets are our free planets, their tails showing their intrinsic velocities.

After the war, in a letter dated June 11, 1947, the editor John W. Campbell told Smith that the similarity was more than just a coincidence. Claiming to have been approached “unofficially, and in confidence” by a naval officer who played an important role in developing the C.I.C., Campbell said:

The entire setup was taken specifically, directly, and consciously from the Directrix. In your story, you reached the situation the Navy was in—more communications channels than integration techniques to handle it. You proposed such an integrating technique, and proved how advantageous it could be…Sitting in Michigan, some years before Pearl Harbor, you played a large share in the greatest and most decisive naval action of the recent war!

Unfortunately, this wasn’t true. The naval officer in question, Cal Laning, was indeed a science fiction fan—he was close friends with Robert A. Heinlein—but any resemblance to the Directrix was coincidental, or, at best, an instance of convergence as fiction and reality addressed the same set of problems. (An excellent analysis of the situation can be found in Ed Wysocki’s very useful book An Astounding War.)

If Campbell was tempted to overstate Smith’s influence, this isn’t surprising—the editor was disappointed that science fiction hadn’t played the role that he had envisioned for it in the war, and this wasn’t the first or last time that he would gently exaggerate it. Fifteen years later, however, Smith’s fiction had a profound impact on a very different field. In 1962, Steve Russell of M.I.T. developed Spacewar, the first video game to be played on more than one computer, with two spaceships dueling with torpedoes in the gravity well of a star. In an article for Rolling Stone written by my hero Stewart Brand, Russell recalled:

We had this brand new PDP-1…It was the first minicomputer, ridiculously inexpensive for its time. And it was just sitting there. It had a console typewriter that worked right, which was rare, and a paper tape reader and a cathode ray tube display…Somebody had built some little pattern-generating programs which made interesting patterns like a kaleidoscope. Not a very good demonstration. Here was this display that could do all sorts of good things! So we started talking about it, figuring what would be interesting displays. We decided that probably you could make a two-dimensional maneuvering sort of thing, and decided that naturally the obvious thing to do was spaceships…

I had just finished reading Doc Smith’s Lensman series. He was some sort of scientist but he wrote this really dashing brand of science fiction. The details were very good and it had an excellent pace. His heroes had a strong tendency to get pursued by the villain across the galaxy and have to invent their way out of their problem while they were being pursued. That sort of action was the thing that suggested Spacewar. He had some very glowing descriptions of spaceship encounters and space fleet maneuvers.

The “somebody” whom he mentions was Marvin Minsky, another science fiction fan, and Russell’s collaborator Martin Graetz elsewhere cited Smith’s earlier Skylark series as an influence on the game.

But the really strange thing is that Campbell, who had been eager to claim credit for Smith when it came to the C.I.C., never made this connection in print, at least not as far as I know, although he was hugely interested in Spacewar. In the July 1971 issue of Analog, he published an article on the game by Albert W. Kuhfeld, who had developed a variation of it at the University of Minnesota. Campbell wrote in his introductory note:

For nearly a dozen years I’ve been trying to get an article on the remarkable educational game invented at M.I.T. It’s a great game, involving genuine skill in solving velocity and angular relation problems—but I’m afraid it will never be widely popular. The playing “board” costs about a quarter of a megabuck!

Taken literally, the statement “nearly a dozen years” implies that the editor heard about Spacewar before it existed, but the evidence legitimately implies that he learned of it almost at once. Kuhfeld writes: “Although it uses a computer to handle orbital mechanics, physicists and mathematicians have no great playing advantage—John Campbell’s seventeen-year-old daughter beat her M.I.T. student-instructor on her third try—and thereafter.” Campbell’s daughter was born in 1945, which squares nicely with a visit around the time of the game’s first appearance. It isn’t implausible that Campbell would have seen and heard about it immediately—he had been close to the computer labs at Harvard and M.I.T. since the early fifties, and he made a point of dropping by once a year. If the Lensman series, the last three installments of which he published, had really been an influence on Spacewar, it seems inconceivable that nobody would have told him. For some reason, however, Campbell, who cheerfully promoted the genre’s impact on everything from the atomic bomb to the moon landing, didn’t seize the opportunity to do the same for video games, in an article that he badly wanted to publish. (In a letter to the manufacturers of the PDP-1, whom he had approached unsuccessfully for a writeup, he wrote: “I’ve tried for years to get a story on Spacewar, and I’ve repeatedly had people promise one…and not deliver.”)

So why didn’t he talk about it? The obvious answer is that he didn’t realize that Spacewar, which he thought would “never be widely popular,” was anything more than a curiosity, and if he had lived for another decade—he died just a few months after the article came out—he would have pushed the genre’s connection to video games as insistently as he did anything else. But there might have been another factor at play. For clues, we can turn to the article in Rolling Stone, in which Brand visited the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with Annie Leibovitz, which is something that I wish I could have seen. Brand opens with the statement that computers are coming to the people, and he adds: “That’s good news, maybe the best since psychedelics.” It’s a revealing comparison, and it indicates the extent to which the computing movement was moving away from everything that Campbell represented. A description of the group’s offices at Stanford includes a detail that, if Campbell had read it, would only have added insult to injury:

Posters and announcements against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon, computer printout photos of girlfriends…and signs on every door in Tolkien’s elvish Fëanorian script—the director’s office is Imladris, the coffee room The Prancing Pony, the computer room Mordor. There’s a lot of hair on those technicians, and nobody seems to be telling them where to scurry.

In the decade since the editor first encountered Spacewar, a lot had changed, and Campbell might have been reluctant to take much credit for it. The Analog article, which Brand mentions, saw the game as a way to teach people about orbital mechanics; Rolling Stone recognized it as a leading indicator of a development that was about to change the world. And even if he had lived, there might not have been room for Campbell. As Brand concludes:

Spacewar as a parable is almost too pat. It was the illegitimate child of the marrying of computers and graphic displays. It was part of no one’s grand scheme. It served no grand theory. It was the enthusiasm of irresponsible youngsters. It was disreputably competitive…It was an administrative headache. It was merely delightful.

Astounding Stories #1: Galactic Patrol

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Galactic Patrol by E.E. Smith

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.

E.E. "Doc" Smith

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.

Written by nevalalee

March 16, 2016 at 10:03 am

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