Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Rum Punch Review, "Chronicles of the Lensman, Vol. 1" (Part 4)

Part one of this review is here.

Part Two is here.

Part Three is here.

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

I have a bone to pick with Sio, the reader who, on my blog "The Best of Everything," said that the power of the "lens" of E.E. Smith's Lensmen books was, and I quote:

limited only by the inherent level of development of the mind of the wearer -- the more developed the mind, the more they could do, eventually making mind control, clairvoyance, killing with a thought, mental invisibility, and even interdimensional travel, a power the Lens could confer.

(He said that here, nominating it as The Best Superhero Gadget.)

I am about 2/3 of the way through Volume 1 of the Lensmen Chronicles, and I have yet to see anything like mental invisibility, interdimensional travel or mind control or other such cool stuff. All they use this Lens for is talking -- they communicate through telepathy across great distances and compare notes, and, at one point in the most recent episode I read, telepathically communicate with something that's kind of like a barely-sentient Honeycomb rollling across a desert world.

I got to thinking about that over the weekend, about how Sio might have oversold the Lens a bit, and whether he had over sold the Lens a bit.

On one level, Sio clearly oversold the Lens and the Lens is a lot of hype without much actually going for it, kind of like the "Windshield Wonder." With both the Lens and the Windshield Wonder, you'll think two things. First, you'll think Wow, that's kind of neat, and then you'll think But is it really necessary, or even that helpful?

The Lens -- which, as you know if you've been reading these reviews -- is an uncopyable device given to humans (and then other races) to help establish a "Galactic Patrol" which in turn is to help fight against the forces of Eddore in an eons-long fight against evil. Which is all well and good, except... it doesn't do anything!

It just helps people talk. And so far as I can tell, even that's not doing anything helpful. So far in this portion of the book, the Lensmen have been going around first enlisting other Lensmen from other races. The First Lensman, Virgil Samms (who I picture as kind of looking like the Golden Age Superman only without the cape and with a spacesuit) has been traveling around and trying to find other races to help form the Galactic Patrol.

The Galactic Patrol, meanwhile, is mostly offstage, investigating piracy and thionite (a kind of drug) but not doing so with any vigor or excitement.

That's not to say that Virgil's adventures are boring. They're not, at all. He goes to a world where the species can't hear, apparently, and so there's no effort to reduce noise levels and he nearly goes nuts with the loud noises that pummel his senses, at the same time as he's being transported, helter-skelter, on a motorcycle-like thing in a ride that involves multiple collisions for some reason. It's an interesting sequence and well-written, but I kept thinking Why doesn't he use the Lens to protect him or his hearing? Green Lantern would've made some green earmuffs.

And, if the Lens is so good at communicating, why does Virgil Samms have to go to the planet in the first place? Why not just communicate with the race from far away?

Virgil, then, has this Lens that's supposedly all-powerful, but it's all-powerful-osity doesn't help him get to and from planets (he's got a spaceship for that) or get around on those planets (he gets a chauffeured motorcycle or walks in a spacesuit) and even has limitations on its communication abilities, as when he meets an alien that is engaged in some task that he can't even begun to fathom -- not even with the help of the Lens and the alien pantomiming something.

Compare that to what Conway Costigan did without the Lens, in the previous section of the book. Conway, sans Lens, was able to fight off an Eddorian and take over the Eddorian's space station, blowing it to smithereens, and then not once, not twice, but three times was able to escape from the Nevians, a more technologically advanced race. The last time, Conway Costigan, acting alone, killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Nevians en route to stealing their super-spaceship and battling a bunch of other spaceships.

Oh, and as for the Lens' super-communication capabilities? Conway taught himself to fly the Nevians' supership, and also taught himself some Nevian language so that he could communicate with them.

That's what kept running through my mind this weekend: What good is the Lens? (You can see where I am a lot of fun to be around, on the weekends. I'll be playing out in the yard with Mr F and Mr Bunches and these thoughts pop into my head and I've got nobody to talk to about them except two-year-olds, so Mr F and Mr Bunches are now experts on the Lens, too.)

That thought then led to this thought: What good are any superpowers in any books?

Stop and think about that for a second. Have you ever seen a superhero or wizard or other powerful character who, in the end, used his superpowers and didn't have a limitation on them that for some reason required that person to use his or her mental abilities instead of just pounding away?

Throughout literature, characters like Stile The Blue Adept, Gandalf, Superman, and others have always had limitations on their abilities, limitations that are put there for no apparent reason that I can see. Stile The Blue Adept was the most powerful magician in Piers Anthony's The Apprentice Adept series -- but his powers were limited because he invoked his magic by rhyming, and each rhyme could only be used once.

Gandalf wasn't that much of a wizard, either -- as far as I could tell, he used fireworks and could make his staff light up. I've read The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit a couple of times, and I saw the movies, and I cannot recall a single piece of magic Gandalf ever did beyond the ventriloquism thing with the trolls, and it's not magic if it can be done by that guy who used to talk to his hand and say " 'sawright."

Then there's Superman. At one point, before I stopped reading comic books/started dating, Superman's powers had grown to the point where he could move planets, freeze water, melt stuff with his eyes, and, for all I know, implement universal health care/defeat Skynet using just card tricks.

Super Card Tricks.

So why was it, then, that Superman never used those powers? In comic after comic, there'd be some reason he couldn't just pull your card out from behind your ear or fly the bomb up to the sun or someone. There was always a sequence of panels that went like this:

1. Giant Sea Urchins Wash Up In Metropolis and Begin Urchining* the population.
(*I do not know what it is that sea urchins actually do.)

2. Superman flies onto the scene and thinks "Well, I'll just melt these guys and/or show them some Super Sleight of Hand. Heat Vision on!**"
(**Don't you think that Superman must have thought to himself something like heat vision on when he wanted to turn it on? It only makes sense.)

3. Superman, about to melt the Giant Sea Urchins, sees that each of them is, for some reason, carrying an infant human child, and then notices that the infant human children being carried by the Sea Urchins are themselves each carrying Infant Giant Sea Urchins.***

4. Superman thinks "I can't use my superpowers against them! I'll have to find another way" and then he flies off to the ocean, dives down into the Marianas trench, finds the Giant Sea Urchins home city of Urchinopolis, where he searches frantically for the mothers/grandmothers of the Giant Sea Urchins...****
(****I realize I should have another footnote here but I've got nothing, really, to add.)

5. ... realizing along the way that while we see the Giant Sea Urchins as monsters, they see US as monsters, too...

6. Then finding the moms, etc., who call the Giant Sea Urchins and say "Dinner's ready!" and the Giant Sea Urchins return home, leaving Metropolis unscathed*****
(*****Did they at least put the babies down gently?*******)

7. Which you think sounds ridiculous but it was the exact plot of Action Comics 117.*
(*No, it wasn't.)

Things get so bad in superpowerworld that when Superman died fighting "Doomsday," he did so fighting a creature so powerful that Superman's own powers were like nothing against it... which is just a more complicated way of saying Superman's powers don't work.

Why create something that's superpowerful if you're not going to use it?

That bugged me more and more over the weekend, and so I finally added it to my List of Awesome Stories I'm Going To Write Someday. That list is:

1. A detective story in which the detective investigates a murder -- not knowing that he (or she) is the one who actually committed the murder! AND, as a bonus, it does not involve amnesia, multiple personalities, or time travel or any other gimmick. None of that. The detective murdered the person, and doesn't know it, and is investigating the murder. 2. A story in which a wizard or superhero or something like that is superpowerful and just goes ahead and uses those powers without limitations of any sort.

Because I'm sick of it. I'm tired of characters that have these superpowerful devices and they're not powerful at all or they don't use them or something, and it's all because of the Lens.

Here's another episode from the portion I've just read: Virgil Samms is, at one point, the target of an assassination attempt at a major social function. The function is attended by Virgil, and by his daughter Jill, and also tons of other Lensmen.

The plot is discovered, but not by the Lens. Instead, it's discovered by Jill, who doesn't have a Lens. She discovers it through "muscle reading" while dancing with one of the conspirators. Then, the plot is foiled... but not by the Lens. It's foiled by guys who shoot the assassin before he can shoot Virgil.

So why do they have Lenses? What good is the Lens?

I understand that communications are important. If they weren't important, then God would never have decided, after people began building the Tower to Heaven, to break the world up into people of different languages so that we couldn't try that again.

(Of course, that parable, which I'm sure literally happened, breaks down, too, because God would have likely foreseen that we would eventually learn to speak each others' languages, and could then simply try to build the Tower to Heaven again, couldn't we?)

( I don't often get the whole point of Biblical stories.)

(Like the Prodigal Son. I've never understood that one, either.)

But communications aren't that important, and in the Lensmen books, they're not even that helpful. With the Lens, the Lensmen have the ability to read minds and communicate instantly across vast distances... and they're still helpless, or almost helpless, to foil a piracy/drug smuggling ring, and they can't even figure out, with any certainty, who the ringleader of that gang might be without infiltrating it the old-fashioned way -- Virgil Samms goes undercover (without his Lens!) and gets promoted into the gang (and then drops back out again, I believe, although that wasn't clear.)

So I'm still enjoying the Lensmen Chronicles; it's still a great science-fiction pulp story that inspires me to continue my own science-fiction pulp stories. But it's got some holes in the plot here and there.

Just Exactly What Life Looks Like...
next book I'm writing. A collection of short stories about cowboys and scientists and safaris and more cowboys and probably an art teacher and there's also one about a bunch of people sitting on a hill...

Look for it online in Summer/Fall 2009. And, for a limited time only, I'm offering a chance to be part of the bold new future of publishing: Sponsor my book! Click here to find out more about this.

Interested in other books I've written? Click here to see them all.

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