Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Rum Punch Review: "Chronicles Of The Lensman, Vol. 1" (Part 1)

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Man, old-fashioned science fiction stories are talky.

Maybe it's because they didn't have all that much science back in the really olden days (before 2002) that characters in sci-fi books spent so much time talking and not doing things. As a guy raised on modern science fiction -- wisecracking smugglers, laser pistols, and muddled endings to otherwise good television shows -- I'm not used to all that talking, although reading every Robert Heinlein novel he ever wrote prepared me for it, a bit.

I had actually heard of the Lens and the Lensmen and, vaguely, E.E. Smith (the guy who wrote the Lensmen stories) before they were re-brought to my attention by a Best of Everything reader. I first heard of the Lens in the book The Number of The Beast by Robert Heinlein, another very-talky (but very good) sci-fi book that follows the adventures of four people -- two married couples -- as they cruise through the multiverse on the run from "Black Hats," aliens that are out to kill them because they've invented a machine that lets them travel in time and space. In one brief interlude in that book, the characters (who learn they can travel to "fictional" worlds that aren't so fictional) visit the world of the Lensmen, the world created by E.E. Smith.

So when Sio nominated "the Lens" as The Best Superhero Gadget, I decided I'd see whether the stories were any good, or if it was a good idea trapped inside a bad book. This being before my current feud with the library began, I checked out the hardbound Chronicles of The Lensmen, Vol 1. Then, because this was checked out from the library, I decided to begin reading it right away, which is why you're getting your Rum Punch Review today of this book, rather than the Rum Punch Review of Playing For Pizza, by John Grisham -- that being the book I was reading before I decided to read this book.

That breaks two of my rules for reading, and doesn't bode well for Playing For Pizza.

Rule 1 for reading is simple: Don't have stacks of books waiting to be read. That's a rule I imposed one day after I skimmed through my Entertainment Weekly to get to the book reviews, which is my favorite part of the Entertainment Weekly -- because I like to see if maybe one of my books is similar to one of the books that's being reviewed, which makes me hopeful that I'll get a publisher soon, or, conversely, to see if I hate the books that are being reviewed and therefore become hopeful that my books represent a countertrend to the flood of memoirs and murder mysteries starring quirky women that flood bookstores these days.

I would get my Entertainment Weekly and begin reading at the front, like you're supposed to, but I didn't really pay attention to anything and would just skim until I got to the book reviews, which I'd read, and then I didn't want to go back and re-read (sort of) the rest of the magazine. So one day, I thought Just read the book reviews first. It seemed so revolutionary, skipping around in a magazine, but I just cast my fate to the wind...

Cue the musical interlude:

I wish I had the technical capabilities to make videos of my pictures like that. I should look into how it's done. (Because I need another hobby, right?)

I cast my fate to the wind and just read the reviews first, then skipped around, reading whatever caught my attention, and it turned out I got a lot more out of the magazine than I used to.

The lesson I learned from that is that if I'm confronted with other things pressing on my attention, I won't read as carefully or enjoyably, and I then applied that lesson to books I liked. When I have stacks of books waiting around for me to read them, it weighs on me. It puts me under a lot of duress to finish this book and get on to that book.

Plus, by the time I get to book 2 or 3 or 4 in the stack, I may not be in the mood for it anymore. I might have been in a nonfiction-y kind of mood when I bought it, but that may have been November, and here it is April and I'm feeling lighthearted-British-comedy-of-manners.

So I stopped having stacks of books waiting to be read, and instead would buy one book at a time, but then I broke that rule not only by checking out "Chronicles of the Lensmen Vol. 1" while already reading Playing For Pizza, but also by buying a couple of used books at the Friends of the Library Sale (when I was still friends with the library) so now I'm reading Lensmen, with Pizza on deck, and then lower on the stack are Corelli's Mandolin and The Everlasting Story of Nory, and it's really starting to weigh on me.

Rule 2 is Don't interrupt reading a book. If I interrupt reading a book to read another book, that's a death blow to the first book. I was reading The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta last year, another book I'd checked out of the library, and I ran out of time to renew it, so I had to take it back to the library and wait a day or so to re-check it out. (No, I don't know why, either. Nobody else had requested it. I just ran out of the arbitrary amount of time the library thinks it should take to read a book. In retrospect, that may have been the root of my grudge match.) So I took it to the library and thought "I'll just go get it in a day or two."

I never did. Any book that's so... uninspiring... that you're willing to give up on it for a while is not a book that you'll seek out again to start reading again. Which is why Lensmen doesn't bode well for Playing for Pizza.

Not that Lensmen is any great shakes yet, either. The volume I have is apparently a collection of serialized stories -- something I think should be brought back to the book world. If it was good enough for Dickens and E.E. Smith, why isn't some publisher out there trying to serialize novels? Especially when things like the Kindle would encourage just that: Reading a bit of a novel at a time.

Some publisher besides me, of course. I'm doing my best to bring that back, 5 Pages at a time.

(I apologize if some of these links seem a little too self-aggrandizing, but two people in recent days have told me they didn't know that I wrote something other than the blog they were reading, and if I've learned anything from Stephen Colbert [and I like to think I have] it's that self-promotion is not a bad thing.

E.E. Smith serialized these stories, or something, and then when they were published as a book, he went back and wrote a long introduction to them to help explain the background a little more, and that's the first part of the book I'm reading. I know all of that because for a change, I read the "Foreword" to the book, written by someone named "John Clute," who's apparently a big shot in the world of science fiction. I could have lived without the "Foreword," as I usually can: I almost never read them and I think they're a waste of time. The only thing worse for me than the "Foreword" are the "Author's Comments" or "Notes" or "Acknowledgements" and the like. I've read a lot of those, too, and I very rarely find them informative or entertaining on their own, or even worth including in there.

I've got nothing, really, against "Acknowledgements" and thank-yous and the like. I can ignore them (unless I think I'm supposed to be in there, but that's never really happened.) But "Author's Notes" and things that are supposed to explain the story I've just read bug me, a lot. Not just because it's the author trying to control my reaction to, and interpretation of, what I've just read -- in complete contravention of the My Aunt's Dog Theorem, which cannot be contravened -- but because it's an author trying to do that in obvious recognition of the fact that the story, or book, or poem, I just read didn't get the point across that the author was trying to make. What other reason could there be for those type of notes?

Or the stories about how it was researched, or written, or compiled. Why? They might make an amusing anecdote if they're particularly interesting, but they're usually not. Unless you're Piers Anthony and explaining how you write in a tiny shack in Florida amidst a horse pasture, I don't really want to hear it. (Piers Anthony gets a pass from me on author's notes because his are entertaining and don't try to explain the book.)

The Foreword for Lensmen does the book a disservice, here: It warns that a big chunk of what you're about to read is boring. It really does: It says "the most unrelentingly 'serious' part of the entire sequence, the most likely portion of the narrative to disengage the contemporary reader, is the introductory section that makes up the first six chapters." That is, the first six chapters are boring.

There are two ways to destroy an experience with art: One, tell somebody they will love it. That raises their expectations and unless what they're about to see is truly great, they'll hate it. Two, tell somebody they'll hate it -- then they go in pre-disposed to hate it.

I went into Lensmen predisposed, then, to be bored by it, to have my contemporary readership disengaged, and, not surprisingly, I was. As I read the overly-talky, hive-mind-y, first couple of chapters, I was actively reflecting not just on the fact that they were overly-talky, and boring, but on the fact that I'd been warned they would be, and also on the fact that maybe if I hadn't been warned that they would be, I wouldn't be quite so bored. The effect was similar to what my parents would say to us at the start of vacations. Day one was usually a lot of driving, so they'd tell us today's going to be long and boring, so settle in, and then we'd be more bored than ever.

The story of Lensmen is cosmic in scope: It begins by describing the dead-on "collision" of two galaxies and the resultant spawning of planets that occurred. I'm not totally sure that's accurately, astronomically speaking, but, then, I'm not totally sure it's inaccurate, either. My one semester of astronomy class (the high point of which was almost being doused in liquid nitrogen) and my one-year subscription to Astronomy magazine haven't really qualified me to know whether galaxies colliding would help or hinder the creation of planets.

As the galaxies collide at the start of time, two civilizations exist: The Arisians, and the Eddorians. The Arisians are good and pure and all that stuff. The Eddorians are shape-shifting evil killers who want to rule everything. That's the basic set-up. The Eddorians have somehow arrived in our universe (only it's not ours yet, because we're not existing yet) and the Arisians discovered them, realized they're evil, wiped the Eddorians memories of the existence of the Arisians, and began a project of growing beings into civilizations.

The Arisians did those things because they recognized that the Eddorians were evil and would destroy the universe, while the Arisians were good and would not -- "good" being a relative thing, I guess, in E.E. Smith's universe, since the "good" beings here think nothing of wiping out memories in another sentient creature's mind, and since the "good" beings in this book also rather casually raise and destroy civilizations.

The Arisians are raising and destroying civilizations because they've somehow forecast the future (maybe? It's kind of confusing, as well as a little boring, when they talk about it) and seen that they will need to create a Lens -- something I already know is a powerful gadget -- but for some reason the Arisians themselves cannot use the Lens, so they need to create beings who can use it, and then have those beings guard the universe against the Eddorians.

While that's going on, the Eddorians are organizing themselves into a dictatorship and taking over worlds, until we get to the point that I'm at, which is the part called "The Fall Of Atlantis," which would be spoiler-y, but it's not because before we get to Atlantis, the Arisians explain that they're going to let that civilization die.

They -- the Arisians -- explain that they have to do that because Atlantis, located on our Earth, has become a great civilization with nuclear power but the Eddorians have discovered Atlantis and Earth and because of that, for ill-explained and ill-defined (but somehow still boringly told) reasons, the Arisians have to let Atlantis be destroyed, or maybe destroy Atlantis themselves. (Like I said, "good" is a slippery thing for E.E. Smith.)

Having set out all that, E.E. Smith then introduces us to Atlantis via a very talky meeting among some higher-ups that rule Atlantis, a meeting that's not only very talky but also designed to show how super-intelligent all these people are and set up a world in crisis: Atlantis exists in a world of various countries that are all on the brink of war, and to avoid the war, or maybe start the war (again, not totally clear, but somehow, still boring) Atlantis sends a single secret agent flying on a cargo plane to another country.

That agent, whose name I forget, sneaks into the country via a very clever and interesting device of stowing away aboard an unmanned hypersonic cargo jet, then bailing out in the most (and only) thrilling action sequence so far in the book -- something that happens quickly and then led back into a lot more talking as he met another agent already in the country, at which point I got bored again and put the book down for the night and watched "3rd Rock From The Sun" reruns until I fell asleep.

So I can't yet recommend The Chronicles of The Lensmen, but I do recommend watching the episode where John Lithgow got power-mad because Mary was promoted to Dean. I miss that show.

I'd like to link to all the other Rum Punch Reviews but that's a lot of work. So if you want to read the others, type "Rum Punch Review" into the search box up there in the left hand corner, and I'll try to work up enthusiasm for linking in the future.


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