Galactic Patrol

Monday, December 9th, 2013

E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Galactic Patrol comes as close to an immortal classic as a bit of juvenile pulp space opera can ever come, John C. Wright says:

I rate Smith in SF on the same level as Jack Kirby in comics: he is the king of a humble country, but still it is a thing passing brave to be a king.


Nowadays, it is more likely that an SF fan cannot read this work without being reminded of the later works copying it (STAR WARS is the most obvious example) and the fan will most likely be more familiar with the copies than the original, and regard the original, ironically, as derivative.

When I was a kid, desperate for a rumor about Revenge of the Jedi — it was still Revenge then, not Return — I remember hearing that it would feature an even bigger Death Star.

This is the kind of thing E.E. “Doc” Smith did all the time. Each book in the Lensman series introduces an enemy ten times as powerful as the last:

Each book is so cleverly constructed that it can be read independently, coming to what seems a perfectly satisfying conclusion with no loose ends, but in the first chapter of the next book the reader discovers that things are not what they seemed, and that the big evil black hat of the last book was himself but an agent of a higher, deeper, darker power from a race even farther away with even more psionic powers. This Russian Doll approach to writing sequels has been rarely tried, and this is the sole successful example of how to do it known to this writer.

It is a hard trick to pull off, and, as far as I know, Smith is the first author ever to attempt it. Each volume has to be completely satisfying in and of itself, with no dangling ends or odd mysteries left over (something Smith complained Edgar Rice Burroughs was guilty of–see GODS OF MARS for an obvious example), but also has to be open ended enough to smoothly mesh with the bigger picture once the curtains are drawn back even farther so that what you thought was the head of the dragon our hero just slew turns out to be one head of the Hydra, who turns out to have brothers bent on revenge, who turns out to have been sent out by some immortal from the underworld.

I am hard pressed to think of an example of such a thing being done once, much less four times in a row.

When “Doc” was writing, cars had just made fast getaways a powerful criminal tool:

[T]the very first scene of the first chapter establishes the science fictional speculation which is the core of the series, namely, what would be the effect of fast and cheap interstellar travel on society, specifically, on crime rates?

Organized crime, particularly acts of piracy, would be unstoppable: any wrongdoer on any world in the galaxy could flit to any other, commit robberies and slave-taking and mayhem, and be outside the range of local, continental, worldwide and system wide authorities faster than a radio wave (which moseys along at lightspeed) could spread the alarm. The impossibility of tracking a fleeing criminal in a space vessel is literally astronomical. If the fugitive goes to ground on a foreign world, inhabited by aliens whose language the pursuing police officer does not speak, whose customs he does not understand, and whose atmosphere he cannot breathe, the problem is even worse. If in addition, previous contact has been rare or none, the police officer also has the problem of identifying which shiny bent thing with leaves is the leader of the political organization, if any, the aliens possess, as opposed to which is the houseplant. More to the point for this story, the alien has the problem of discovering which of the two Earthmen just landed on his world is the police officer and which is the crook.

Obviously the scope of this problem depends on myriad factors, such as the frequency of alien contacts or the number of alien races, the speed of the ships, the ease of communication, the ease with which new territory can be discovered, and so on. But the international policing mechanisms and treaties used just here on Earth, if Earth were a ringworld or Dyson’s sphere and therefore had within sailing range a hundred continents instead of seven, or thousands, and a sailing ship could quickly reach destinations millions of miles away, all such treaties would be woefully inadequate. The solutions to organized crime on an interstellar scale do not ‘scale up’.

The answer in the Lensman universe is that a coldly superior race, called the Arisians, for reasons not revealed in the first volume, has granted to civilization a lens-shaped semi-living gem (or organism or device or thought-construct) which cannot be counterfeited, which cannot be used by anyone save the one soul to whom it has been attuned, and further kills anyone attempting to don it except the true owner. It is a badge that cannot be counterfeited. The Lens also acts as a telepathic sender and receiver and universal translator.

And, just to make things easy, the superior beings can identify beforehand who has the moral stature needed never to abuse the immense power of the lens, so no one but the Worthiest of the Worthy ever is given this badge of office. So the lens allows the police officer instantly to identify himself to any living intelligence on any world, telepathically display his good intentions and the honesty of his purpose, and understand any form of communication.

Unrealistic? Sure, but not any more so than the idea of Faster Than Light drive itself, or intelligent life on other planets.

The Lensman stories are the source of a ridiculous number of scif-fi tropes — including the Big Board, which became a real thing.


  1. Dirk says:

    Fortunately, this series (and the Skylark series) were among the first SF I ever read as a kid.

    Thus, I instantly recognize the actual origin of many of the ideas and concepts in later, and current fiction. I recently re-read the whole series — and tried to wade through some of the less-than-stellar spin-offs. It still holds up fairly well, if you can slog through the very earliest few chapters of the first book.

  2. I found Skylark to have aged much less gracefully than Galactic Patrol or Lensman; not sure why.

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