Sunday, August 28, 2016

"Triplanetary" by E.E. "Doc" Smith [Review]

Triplanetary (Lensman, #1)Triplanetary by E.E. "Doc" Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This review is for any modern reader who didn't grow up reading pulp fiction from the 1930s: this probably isn't the story for you. "Triplanetary" is a classic science fiction story, but it doesn't hold up well compared to modern fiction.

I was born in the seventies, so this story is about forty years ahead of my time to begin with, but I'm a big fan of pulp sci-fi. While a lot of it is cheesy and thin compared to works of today, I enjoy the over-the-top action, and lack of concern for scientific accuracy. If they wanted to have green bug-eyed Martians flying around space in hot air balloons, they did it, and didn't think twice about whether they'd be proven wrong. That's kind of refreshing with the hard sci-fi of today. But even compared to pulp fiction of the time, this story is pretty weak.


The novel starts with a cruise ship attacked by space pirates led by a mysterious man known only as Roger. Roger has advanced technology, including a moon-sized starship base (inspiration for the Death Star), and an army of human-like robots. Using deadly "Vee-Two" gas, he seizes secret agent Costigan and Costigan's love interest Clio, along with the ship's captain. But before they can escape, an amphibian alien warship arrives, determined to drain every last molecule of iron from the solar system. They even drain the iron from buildings, spaceships, and human blood. Costigan has to lead his team to escape the alien menace and save the Triplanetary systems from iron-stealing aliens and Roger.

Some of the scifi concepts are still in use today, like laser beams (called "rays") and video screens (called "plates"). But other technical inaccuracies are unintentionally hilarious. Like space is filled with "aether." At one point, someone actually says, "It's a good thing that space isn't an absolutely perfect vacuum..." To which I said to myself, "Yes, it is." Also, iron is the most powerful atomic energy source in the universe. As opposed to, you know, uranium. And at one point, a spaceship has its "inertia" removed (which even the characters admit is impossible), which somehow allows it to shoot across the galaxy beyond light speed.

The dialogue is full of terms that probably sounded very hip and contemporary when it was written, but now sound almost incomprehensibly dated. This is an actual line from the book: "I'll pick those jaspers off with a pencil ray and then stand off the bunch that's coming while you rub out the rest of that crew there and drag Bradley back here." If that doesn't make immediate sense to you, then you'll have a hard time reading the story.

The characters are little more than vague stereotypes. The hero Costigan is a swashbuckling, two-fisted tough guy. No details of who he is or how he became a secret agent or even what motivates him. His girlfriend Clio is even worse. I don't even know what her job is. She's just a swooning pretty girl who is constantly in need of rescue. Roger is a ruthless sociopath with no redeeming qualities. He barely has emotions, save for lecherous appetites towards Clio.

Their relationship amounts to Costigan saying things like, "Well, twenty-three skiddoo, you're the bees knees! I love ya, but I'm too much of a tough guy to marry you, beat me daddy, eight to the bar!" And she responding with, "Oh my darling, you're simply wonderful! You're so handsome and strong, and oh I'm so frail and delicate! I so love you, too, oh! I'll follow you to the end of time, oh!" Repeat that a few hundred times, and you've got the romantic subplot. No real sense of why they love each other or even how they related to each other before the novel began. They're dropped into the story in love, and it runs in circles from there.

Another big problem is the magical technology. All the problems are resolved through the use of some obscure gadget instead of actual logic or effort. I can describe it this way: A character is locked in a room. They don't have a key. They use the objects in the room to build a machine that unlocks the door. They're now outside. The bad guys attack. The bad guys are wearing armor. The heroes build weapons that are strong enough to melt through their armor and kill them. They need to get to the shuttle craft to escape. They use a machine that lets them escape unnoticed to the craft to escape. They're being chased by the enemy. The hero uses a machine that makes the shuttle go faster so they escape. It's just a series of deus ex machina where the heroes carry an assortment of devices that let them overcome any problems. If they don't have it, the heroes are virtual McGyvers who can actually build whatever they need from whatever they have. At one point, the hero manages to create a toxic gas (the aforementioned fictional "Vee-Two") capable of wiping out entire cities from the random stuff in his prison cell. Literally.

Roger is a danger because he has technology that borders on magic, like robots that look and act exactly like humans, invisible spaceships, and beams that can move objects from entire spaceships to human beings. The solution is for the heroes to have even more magical technology, like guns that can burn through anything, and "spy rays" that let them see through any object and can't be detected.

The space battles are actually numerous and exciting. Lots of spaceships blasting each other and grappling each other with rays. Although they also have magical technology so battles tend to revolve around, "Hey, their weapons are really powerful. Fortunately, my weapons are even more powerful!" But it can be good.

Honestly, I can see why this book would have been great in the thirties and even fifties, but right now it's borderline unreadable. If it were released today, even with adjustments to keep up with modern science and dialogue, it would be on the level of bad fan fiction or "Fifty Shades of Grey."

But for those who love bad pulp fiction, it's great.

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