Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Thursday, February 9, 2023


 Triplanetary by E. E. "Doc" Smith (first published in part in Amazing Stories as a four-part serial, January-April 1934; extensively re-written and expanded in book form, 1948; reprinted many tmes)

Edward Elmer Smith (1890-1965), a food chemist specializing in donuts and pastries, is considered by many to be the father of space opera -- the slam-bang super-science offshoot of the science fiction genre that was popular in the 20s and 30s, and fading somewhat in the 40s and later.  In space opera, imaginative concepts and pseudo-science took the main stage, with the entire universe as backdrop.  Smith burst onto the science fiction scene with The Skylark of Space, written with Lee Hawkins Garby, the wife of a former classmate (Garby wrote the romantic dialogue and love interest part of the novel -- something Smith felt incapable of doing).  The Skylark of Space appeared as a three-part serial in Amazing Stories in August 1928 -- the same issue that contained the first Buck Rogers story by Philip Francis Nowlan.

Smith went on to write two more more "Skylark" novels (in 1930 and 1934), with a fourth appearing in 1965.  His main opus, though, was his "Lensmen" series, which included four novels, starting with Galactic Patrol (1937), and continuing through 1947 with Grey Lensman, Second Stage Lensman, and Children of the Lens.  Smith then added two "prequel" novels, the first being Triplanetary, followed by First Lensman.  For Triplanetary, he took a 1934 serial and revised it to make it fit into the Lensmen universe, and added several sections that covered various times of human "history," from the fall of Atlantis to the Roman times of Nero to World Wars I and II and a later atomic war that nearly destroyed the human race.  To add additional scope, the revised noved began with the collision of two galaxies millions of years ago and the establishment of a "war" between the two immortal races of aliens that are at the center of the Lensmen series. 

Before we start at the beginning, it's best to realize that the Lensmen series features as its hero Kimball Kinnison, who, with his eventual love Clarissa MacDougall, are the penultimate results of a human beeding progran set in motion eons ago by the Arisians.

The who?   The Arisians are the human-like race from the first galaxy -- the one that has collided with the secxond galaxy at the beginning of Triplanetary.  They are, in fact, the only intellilgent beings in the galaxy and are virually immortal.  The Arisians are the good guys.  The bad guys are the Eddorians, who are the race from the second galaxy -- and perhaps not even there.  (The Eddorians may have appeared from another dimension.)  They are the nasty ones -- evil, selfish, lusting only power, willing to kill each other (or anyone or anything else) to gain their personal ends.  The Eddorians are also immortal.  They are shapeless (think amoeba-like, but not really); they can form their bodies into anything they want -- they can have arms, legs, tentacles, floppy ears, or anything else merely by using their considerable mind powers. -- a talent that comes in handy when they pose as humans.

The Arisians become aware of the existence of the Eddorians early on, and recognize them as a threat to their own existence.  The Arisians also realize that they are not powerful enough to defeat the Eddorians, so they put into effect an eons-long plan to 1) establish a Galctic Patrol, and 2) to create a powerful weapon called a "Lens."  To do this, they establish life on four planets in the galaxy, including Earth -- all of which are in the Arisian galaxy.  The Eddorians have no idea the Arisians exist, but they become aware of the four planets outside their galaxy -- planets they may have trouble controlling.   Fearful that these planets may one day reach a stage in which they are a threat to Eddore, they send their second-most powerful Eddorian, Gharlane, in human form to mess up the works.  (Given the powerful nature of the Eddorians, I know this makes no logical sense whatever; but I'm neither an Eddorian nor an Arisian, so perhaps they know something I don't.  In any event, Smith needs this to keep the plot wheels spinning.)

Smith takes us to five different stages of human history.  In an atomic-powered Atlantis, a devasting war breaks out and destroys that civilization.  In Nero's Rome, a gladiator-led revolt fails in part because Nero is actually Gharlane in human form.  In World War I and World War II, the civilization comes close to ending.  Finally, in World War III (actually, World War ?), atomic bombs destroy civilization.  In each of these five scenarios, we meet an ancestor of Kimball Kinnison, whose genetic line is slowly being shaped by the Arisians.

Fast forward a few thousand years.  With the covert help of the Arisians, civilization has been rebuilt and now has reached space.  Earth, Mars, and Venus has formed the Triplanentary alliance,  Space pirates have mysteriously been plaguing interplanetary shipping, using means that are considered scientifically impossible.  The pirates are survivors of a race of Adepts who had been defeated in the interplanetary war with North Polar Jupiter.  They are led by Grey Roger (actually Gharlane in human form), who controls powers beyond the earthmen's imagining.  Enter the Nevians, an amphibious race from a planet many light-years away.  The Nevians decide that the Triplanetary forces and Grey Roger's people are inferior beings and strike against both.  Massive super-science happens.

The Triplanetary Intelligence Division comes up with an inertialess space drive that helps turn the trick.  Grey Roger is defeated. Humans and Nevians fight to a stalemate and a truce is declared and the Nevians recognize humans as their equals.  And everything is hunky-dory until next time.

Confused much?  That's probably because you are not a thirteen-year-old kid devouring these books as they came out.

In turning the original magazine serial into part of the Lensmen saga, and in heavily prefacing the story with the various dooms humanity faced before reaching the stars, Smith formed a workable but awkward novel.  (He did much better with the four original books in the Lensmen series.)   Smith did  create what he called The History of Civilization, a foundation of the nascant space opera field, as well as the title given to an omnibus of the six original novels.  For its scope, imagination, and galaxy-spanning action, Smith's gosh-wow! Lensmen series helped pave the way for more thoughtful and mature works in later decades.

(A "seventh" book in the series, The Vortex Blaster (also published as Masters of the Vortex) is a fi-up of three stories published in minor science fiction magazine in 1940 and 1941, and are not considered part of the main Lensman sequence.

The series should probably read in the order that Smith intended, but for those who want to get into the full flavor of the series, start with Galactic Patrol.

The entire Lensmen seriss, including Triplantetary, is availble online, as are many of Smith's other pioneering science fictional works.


  1. Todd Mason at Alice's laptop again.

    Appealing to 13yos at the time of publication, for the most part, when his works were helping to set the standards (along with John W. Campbell as a writer, who was already moving toward somewhat more sophisticated writing as well, as "Don A. Stuart")...I found Smith's works unengaging when I tried them in the '70s, after basically starting with his heirs (ranging from Jack Vance to Roger Zelazny and back to Leigh Brackett, who was basically a contemporary but still better at the craft)...but he did help set the tone...and nowadays, there's (as several anthologies have announced) yet more New Space Opera building on the heirs to the heirs to Vance and Brackett.

    1. Todd, Smith can be painful for today's reader, but the Sense of Wonder remains for the uncritical reader. When I pick up any of his books, the 13-year-old who has been lurking inside of me comes bouncing back, ever eager. I am, I'm sure, schitzophrenic because another -- different -- 13-year-old emerges gleefully whenever I encounter the New Space Opera. Like many other fans, I contain multitudes.

    2. TM incognito: If the Sevagram can contain multitudes, so can we all! (A. E. van Vogt sense, rather than Mohandas Gandhi sense, in this case).

  2. At thirteen I was more interested in movie magazines and true romance than fantasy stories. I don't think true movie magazines exist any more but stories like this still do.

  3. I was about 13 when I started reading Doc Smith's TRIPLANETARY. I have a copy around here somewhere if I get motivated to reread Smith's work.