(Book 4 of the Lensman Series)
Another confirmation that I was wise to start working my way through Hugo/Nebula winners.
Was this the Neuromancer of its time, opening up a whole new approach? Not in terms of its massively dated masculine/feminine heroic stereotypes (and occasionally appalling dialogue), but in terms of SCOPE! I can see why Smith has been at times cited as the father of Space Opera (a slippery term, but I’m using it more to allude to the operatic (as opposed to the melodramatic) aspect – epic, transgalactic – my first experience of this was with Verner Vinge).
Where Smith starts is ordinary, bordering on offensive (not always bordering) – here’s a hero, he’s better than everyone else (he just is, OK), and he is the superman of the Republican political ideal: leave capitalism to thrive, keep government and taxes relatively small, but (due to the booming economy) direct most of the still gargantuan tax dollars towards the military, who will proceed to win rather than negotiate, by pouring resources into the elite. Politics are not complicated or nuanced: goodies are goodies, baddies are baddies, and our clever generals will work out the right answers. I poured a bit of scorn on Poul Anderson’s Ensign Flandry for similar undercurrents.
But where Smith goes with this is wonderful. His aliens, for example, aren’t the usual essentially humanoid forms (much as the marine lensman buddies’ personalities are disappointingly routine), but may have utterly bizarre bodies. Or alien minds – the Arisians are wonderfully blasé about things centrally important to humans, and their telepathy just dwarves much of the military paraphernalia. Thank goodness they don’t, like, say, Star Trek’s Q, then inexplicably become obsessed with humans: where their own ends are not going to be served, mostly they couldn’t care and will get noble seekers to just bugger off. Smith’s technology is huge and highly imaginative – not just little tweaks and innovations: there’s so much more than ray guns and warp speed. There’s also a cool arms race deal going on that you know that the moment you use your new secret weapon your enemy will copy and counter it. But more than this, he throws the door open to imagination: if you’ve got a whole universe to play with, why just have Mars? Smith does a great job of playing with whole systems, imagining battles of a scope and type that I’m not aware of anyone else writing about before that time. And if you can use your imagination, why just battle with better versions of traditional weapons: instead mind defence and attack – also in ludicrous scale – is thrown about gleefully. I think Ian M. Banks plays with scale in a more sophisticated way, but I suspect he’d doff his cap to Smith for paving the way.
And another thing that places Smith a world above his political soulmate Anderson – the ride. I really enjoyed the ride. Sometimes there was a bit of the absurd pseudo-scientific gobbledegook explanations that really aren’t explanations, but the action around them was usually gripping. The notion of Kim going undercover to be a rough-and-tumble ornery cowpoke/outlaw (in this case essentially a prospector out on the lawless pioneering fringe) could have been (and occasionally was) the very western ripoff that Galaxy swore they'd never print, but in adding all the drug torment that goes with the disguise Smith went somewhere quite original (and, of course, extreme). But the book moves from barroom brawls to Ender style galactic battle (but without a hint, here, of any moral difficulties with genocide). Apparently (read: according to wikipedia) Smith is one of those SF writers illuminati who can say that their speculative ideas became reality – in his case even better than prediction: some high up in the US Navy were influenced by his idea of a ‘Tank’ – a 3D image representing the wider conflict so someone conducting the battle wasn’t distracted or bogged down in the infinite detail of coordinating massive fleet action but could see important trends – that they worked up their own versions in battling the Japanese in the Pacific.
Interesting that in his lifetime Smith received much acclaim, and he’s influenced many contemporary writers, but his general fame has declined so that even having an uberfan like Babylon 5’s writer/producer J. Michael Straczynski writing several draft scripts, Universal can’t justify the ludicrous sum it would have to come up with to make a movie.
By the way, even though it will make mine look bad, this is an excellent review:
It even has pictures.