“In our hands, vice will become a potent weapon indeed. Vice … drugs … greed … gambling … extortion … blackmail … lust … abduction … assassination … ah-h-h!”
—Gharlene of Eddore
Time for the final post in my off-and-on series about the space opera genre as it existed before the 1950s. In previous posts, I’ve covered Edmond Hamilton, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Philip Francis Nowlan, Ray Cummings, various short stories, John W. Campbell, Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton again. Now I’ll take another look at E. E. “Doc” Smith by revisiting Triplanetary,
The first book in the Lensman saga — which, to many, is the quintessential vintage space opera — Triplanetary was originally serialised in Amazing Stories in 1934. Smith later revised and expanded it in 1948 after he had written much of the series’ remainder; this post is based on the expanded version.
For untold eons, a humanoid race called the Arisians have been at war with the amoeba-like Eddorians (whose homeworld “did not originate in normal space-time at all, but came to our universe from some alien and horribly different other”). This conflict has affected Earth since the early days of humanity, with the Arisians building up terrestrial civilisations that Eddorian moles would seek to bring down. Triplanetary‘s first chapter is a potted history of this interplanetary war; the second moves the action to a technologically-advanced Atlantis as it is wiped out in a nuclear exchange; the third is set in ancient Rome, where the Arisians mount an ill-fated assassination attempt on the Eddorian puppet Nero.
The next three chapters take place across World Wars One, Two and Three. The focus shifts away from the interplanetary conflict for a while, the novel instead following the Kinnison family through three generations of conflict (a Kinnison later appears in the space opera portion of the novel; the theme of a heroic dynasty also turned up in Jack Williamson’s Legion of Space). The third war ends in a nuclear strike and twenty-first century civilisation falls just as Atlantis and Rome did, with the cycle poised to begin once more.
The main part of the novel is set in the far-flung future, when humanity is governed by a federation of three planets, and the story kicks off with a pirate attack on a spaceship. Protagonists Conway Costigan, Clio Marsden and Captain Bardley end up as captives of an Eddorian-controlled villain known only as Roger. They escape, only to later fall into the clutches of amphibious aliens from the planet Nevia (Smith dwells on the humorous potential of the humans and Nevians finding each other equally repulsive). These aliens turn out to be themselves at war against a fish-like race, and the band of humans get caught up in this conflict.
Our heroes manage to break away from Nevia and blast back into space, where they find the wreckage of a ship. Curiously, all of the iron has been removed – even from the blood of the deceased crew members. It turns out that a Nevian raider was responsible, and this craft is presently continuing to Earth, leaving a trail of iron-sucking destruction along the way. I should mention that I’m skimming over a lot of details in this synopsis – in particular I’ve omitted a whole subplot involving a group of other heroes, led by a chap named Cleveland, who are taking part in battles of their own and eventually turn up to rescue Costigan and company near the end of the book.
Compared to the other early space opera I’ve read for this series, Triplanetary stands out as a clear case of the genre coming together. Smith’s own The Skylark of Space makes for a particularly striking contrast: Skylark begins with the small-scale story of a man inventing a home-made spacecraft before heading off for adventures, but Triplanetary opens by establishing an epic scope for its narrative, introducing a conflict between alien races that encompasses all of human history.
In some ways Smith misses the mark. The Atlantis chapter is a forgettable spy story of guns, car chases and geopolitical skulduggery which falls into the same trap as (say) Edmond Hamilton’s “The Sargasso of Space” by merely applying SF trappings to a familiar adventure narrative. The portrayal of the demonic Eddorians is uneven: on the one hand, Smith makes a definite effort to create a convincingly non-human intelligence (“The term ‘Krongenes’ was not, in the accepted sense, a name… It was a key-thought, a mental shorthand; a condensation or abbreviation of the life-pattern or ego of that particular Eddorian”). But this is undercut by the fact that, when they appear onstage as characters, the Eddorians default to stereotyped moustache-twirling (compare this to Jack Williamson, who did a better job with creating eldritch alien enemies). It’s also hard to miss the fact that the battle between the Arisians and Eddorians fades from view towards the end of the book, and the plot gets caught up in the smaller-stakes battle between humans and Nevians (this is, I believe, a result of the Arisian/Eddorian conflict being added for the revised version to tie in with later Lensman books). Nonetheless, Smith shows quite a bit of ambition in building a whole Olaf Stapledon-esque cosmic backdrop for his pulp yarn.
One of the things I’ve often talked about in this blog series is the portrayal of genocide in early space opera. A number of the stories I’ve written about previously conclude with the heroes completely wiping out a hostile alien race. Triplanetary shows a more nuanced take on this convention.
As the climax progresses, Costigan wipes out a Nevian city using a lethal gas; the narrative stresses that the attack killed not only alien warriors but also the “busy executives” who happened to be in the city at the time. Later on the humans use another, still more devastating weapon against a different city, albeit one that has been mostly evacuated by this point. After this, the Nevian leader Narado approaches the humans with an offer of peace:
You are, I now perceive, a much higher form of life than any of us had thought possible; a form perhaps as high in evolution as out own. It is a pity that we did not take the time for a full meeting of minds when we first neared your planet, so that much life, both Tellurian and Nevian, might have been spared. But what is passed cannot be recalled. As reasoning beings, however, you will see the futility of continuing a combat in which neither is capable of winning victory over the other. You may, of course, destroy more of our Nevian cities, in which case I should be compelled to go and destroy similarly upon your Earth; but, to reasoning minds, such a course would be sheerest stupidity.
Some of the humans react to this offer with suspicion, but Costigan – whose small band has the most experience with Narado – takes the alien at his word. He steps forward as Triplanetary representative and addresses Narado:
Our two races have much to gain from each other by friendly exchanges of materials and of ideas, while we can expect nothing except mutual extermination if we elect to continue this warfare. I offer you the friendship of Triplanetary.
Hamilton’s Interstellar Patrol stories had humans working alongside decidedly inhuman aliens, but went into very little detail about these relationships. With the final reconciliation between the humans and the amphibian-like Nevians, Triplanetary takes a great step away from the justified genocides of its genre precursors and shows a more open-minded attitude towards human-alien relations.