Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Rum Punch Review: "Chronicles Of The Lensman, Vol. 1" (Part 3)

Part one of this review is here.

Part Two is here.

Confused about what a "Rum Punch Review" is? Click here.

This is the longest book review ever, I bet, by now.

Part of the problem is that I read slowly, and I also get distracted by other things, like trying recently to begin converting all the videos I have of the kids into a DVD with music and such, an endeavor that for various reasons (reasons which are completely unrelated to software pirating) required me to take my office laptop home briefly and then bring it back to work.

I read slowly because I only get a chance to read late at night, which works well for pulpy serials like this, but also which means that I have to repeatedly renew the book from the library, too, and we all know my troubles with them (they're still claiming that I haven't returned Baby Galileo even though I paid the fine for it), which then makes me nervous.

But it's worth all the trouble, because Chronicles of the Lensman Vol. 1 is good. So good that for a moment, reading it last night, I wished that I could have lived in the era when pulp sci-fi serials were released and the world was filled with entertaining space and horror operas populated with characters like Conway "Spud" Costigan and his girlfriend Cleo, and they fought space pirates like Gray Roger who were actually Gharlane The Eddorian in disguise, and they also engaged in giant wars with the fish-headed cone-shaped Nevians.

That's what's been going on in the book. I finished part II, or the first part, or whatever part I was on. Part II of the book -- "Triplanetary" is the name of the segment -- follows the adventures of a group of Triplanetary officers, "Triplanetary" being like a space FBI. The section divides its attentions about 1/2 to Conway Costigan and his being abducted by the Nevians, then his escaping and reabduction and constant efforts to fight them and/or steal their supership, and those parts are entertaining and written in a fun way. Conway Costigan might as well be named "Flash Gordon" or "Buck Rogers" or any other somewhat generic space hero who is supercapable. At one point [HIDEOUS GASEOUS DEATH OF ALIEN FISHLIKE BEINGS SPOILER ALERT!] Conway tricks the Nevians into giving him a lab to work with, then lulls them into complacency before creating "V2" gas, a deadly odorless gas that he uses to kill thousands of the Nevians en route to [SPOILER ALERT CONTINUED FROM THE LAST SPOILER ALERT ONLY THIS TIME IT INVOLVES STEALING A SPACESHIP!] stealing the Nevians' supership, which he has taught himself to pilot and to fix, plus Conway speaks a little Nevian. It's hard not to like Conway, but it's equally hard to get too attached to him because he's Superman minus the heat vision.

The rest of Triplanetary divides its time among "Cleve" Cleveland, some guy named Rodebush, Gray Roger the Pirate, and a Nevian invasion of Earth that destroys Pittsburgh. [OOPS! RETROACTIVE SPOILER ALERT!]

The destruction of Pittsburgh I couldn't quite figure out. It's kind of standard, nowadays, that when aliens (or monsters) attack, they attack New York, or at least Washington D.C., and why not? Those have all the great landmarks plus the idea, I suppose, is that it's all the more horrifying to destroy the largest city, or the seat of our government.

But in Lensman, the Nevians arrive at Earth and head for Pittsburgh, which they promptly level, and all I could think was Why? Was Pittsburgh really a big deal in the 30s or 40s? Or did Pittsburgh have some connection to E.E. Smith that I don't know about? I do that sometimes as a writer. In Up So Floating Many Bells Down, I set a bunch of the action in Madison, Wisconsin, because that's where I live. I set a bunch more action in Las Vegas because, well, I went there once and it seemed neat. In Lesbian Zombies Are Taking Over The World!, I had God's vacation house set in Tampa because my brother Matt lives in Tampa, or near it, and so when it came time to decide where God's vacation house would be set, I thought "Why not Tampa?"

So I wondered if E.E. Smith had come from Pittsburgh. But he didn't. He was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He lived in Washington and Idaho, and then in Michigan for a while, where he maybe invented a process for making powdered sugar stick to doughnuts...

... which is kind of fascinating itself. I'd never thought about that as a problem, even, and here it was a problem that was maybe solved before I ever knew it existed. Some people even say that Smith didn't invent the process for making powdered sugar stick to doughnuts. Imagine that: Living a life that, at the end of it, was such as to make people debate whether or not you were the person who invented a way to get powdered sugar to stick to doughnuts. I wonder what people will debate about me, after I'm gone (other than was he partially, or completely, nuts?)

He eventually retired to Clearwater, Florida, so I'm left with: why Pittsburgh? Why would he destroy Pittsburgh in the Lensman books?

Smith's biography is fascinating for more than just the fact that he may -- or may not have, I'm not taking sides -- have invented a way to stick powdered sugar to doughnuts. He also was uncomfortable writing romantic scenes, and had a friend of his write those. Having read about 1/2 the Lensman books now, I can say either the friend did the job in one weekend, or Smith chopped a bunch out. The romantic scenes so far amount to about 3 paragraphs, and amount to Conway and Cleo hugging and, possibly, kissing. It's actually hard to tell if Conway and Cleo kissed in the book at all. I think they did, but these were published in the 1930s and 1940s, and so the "sex scenes" fall well short of anything that we'd read today. These are romantic scenes that would seem a little safe for the comic strip Nancy. There are professions of love and claims that one or the other is no good for the person who's not proclaiming things, and at one point Cleo falls asleep with Conway holding her hand, and then he falls asleep, so I guess technically they slept together, but the romance is something safer than "G" rated, if that's possible.

It's hard, then, to picture anyone being uncomfortable writing that kind of stuff. I suppose the mores of the day made Smith (who was born in 1890, after all) feel that handholding and two people very-technically-sleeping together was pretty risque stuff. I live in a world where you can't do a Google search for the name "Cleo" without getting stuff that'll get you fired from work, though.

Part III of the book, this part being titled Arisia and Eddore, starts off slowly. Smith's got a bit where Gray Roger -- revealed as Gharlane the Eddorian -- tries to shoot an Arisian and then they debate things a bit and then Arisia attacks Eddore in a bit of psionic warfare and it's all sort of boring.

Once that's over with, the action shifts back to Earth, where we re-meet Virgil Samms, who is the head of the Triplanetary Service and who, thorugh a lot of foreshadowing, I'm beginning to believe is the first Lensman. But I'm about 1/2 way through the book and I haven't actually gotten to a Lensman, yet. I'd mind that more except, as I said, the book is really very, very good.

The other question that's been bugging me as I read -- beyond Why Pittsburgh -- is how realistic do you think science in science fiction has to be?

I've read some very ultrarealistic sci-fi, or at least stuff I assumed to be ultrarealistic. While I'm fairly knowledgeable about science, my fair-knowledge is at a very general level and I almost failed college chemistry (but I did excellently in college-level anthropology, and astronomy, for what it's worth)(very little.)

The hard-core, very realistic science, science that is explained and detailed and seems to make sense, has its merits: Like Ringworld, by Larry Niven. I'm interested, to a point, in that kind of sci-fi, because I enjoy thinking this could really exist. It's kind of cool thinking that there could be not one, but four planets orbiting the sun in Earth's orbit, each spaced 90 degrees from each other (as some Heinlein characters once proposed.)

But that kind of thing also gets dry, and is the reason I never enjoyed things like Tom Clancy thrillers. They're filled -- I assume, because I've never read a Tom Clancy thriller -- with technical details that bog down the action and divert your attention for days on end. Why would I want to waste my time reading all the details of how a nuclear submarine works? If I didn't pay attention to that in Nuclear Submarine Class, I'm unlikely to pay attention to that in Clear & Present Danger or whatever book Clancy wrote that had nuclear submarines in it.

The other end of the spectrum, though, has things like Star Wars, where science is omnipresent but almost an afterthought. (Then again, almost everything in the Star Wars saga, on inspection, seems to be an afterthought. It still bugs me that Obi-Wan Kenobi referred to "Darth Vader" as Darth in the first movie, only to have it turn out that Darth is a title-- Darth Maul, Darth Sidious, Darth So-and-So. I'm convinced that George Lucas never intended Star Wars to be a series at all; when it was popular, he thought Oh, crap, I've got to come up with a sequel and a story and then he went back and invented all kinds of backstory including that Darth Vader was actually Anakin Skywalker The Boy Wonder, and also that "Darth" is a title... forgetting that Obi-Wan had referred to Darth Vader as Darth, something he did just exactly the way a former teacher would use a former student's name. Suppose the student had been named Todd:

Todd: It is I who have become the master now.

Obi-Wan: You cannot defeat me, Todd.

Would Lucas have later on gone back and had Todd Maul and Todd Sidious? I think he'd have been better off leaving it at Darth Vader and not having Darth Maul at all, who, let's face it, was kind of ridiculous. Everyone goes on and on about Ewoks and Jar-Jar and the fact that at age 3 1/2 Anakin Skywalker was able to wipe out the whole trade alliance, but nobody... nobody says "Wait a minute, what are the odds that there's a race of aliens who look kind of like the devil, and also, what did the rest of that race, the ones who did not become evil Darths, do? Were they grocers, grocers who happened to look like devils, sort of?"

I never liked Darth Maul, even though I have his tie.

Star Wars is that end of the sci-fi spectrum where science exists but leans more on the fiction side of the table: Lasers and Death Stars and X-Wings that can travel through hyperspace (how small, exactly, is a hyperspace drive? When Han Solo was working on his in the Milennium Falcon he was down in a hole in the spaceship and banging things with a wrench, but if a hyperspace drive is small enough to fit in an X-Wing, shouldn't the Falcon's drive have been set on the dashboard like a GPS system or something?), all existing without any real thought to whether "science" would allow for things like that.

Lensman is a lot more towards the Star Wars end of the debate than it is the Ringworld side. There's some science-y stuff thrown in there, like talk about the fission power of iron, and also a lot of talk of beams and screens and things, and there's a very interesting concept of an inertialess spaceship, but most of the science is tossed aside as people develop nuclear reactors on a spaceship and then rebuild them using raw materials on planets, and reading Smith's idea of science fiction backs that up -- he is said to have wanted his stuff to be just barely based on actual science, to have some grounding but move on from there to the fantastic.

Which is where I like things, too. I read for escapism -- especially when I'm reading science fiction -- and grounding it too much in reality makes it less escapist. Sometimes, when I'm reading something by Larry Niven, I start to get the idea that at the end of the section there's going to be a test or discussion questions.

That doesn't happen on Lensman. Other than the repeated question: Why Pittsburgh? But I can live with that kind of question.

1 comment:

Matt said...

It says a lot about how much times have changed, that the answer to "why Pittsburgh?" was so elusive! Way back when Doc Smith wrote the story, if you thought about steel, Pittsburgh would automatically be THE place that came to mind (as opposed to, say, China, nowadays). The Nevians were super-gung-ho on collecting iron, so...

Hope this helps put your mind at ease ;-)