Alongside Asimov’s Foundation, Burrough’s Barsoom, Herbert’s Dune, and Heinlein’s Future History, E.E. Smith’s Lensman series is a seminal universe in science fiction. The first book in the series is called Triplanetary and establishes a united “federation” of planets allying Earth, Venus, and Mars. The beginning of the novel starts with an attack on Triplanetary by a “death star,” an artificial moon that is all but unstoppable. It uses “tractor beams” and “shields” to disable the Triplanetary ships and withstand their attacks. If it came out now it would seem to borrow heavily from the worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars, but it was in fact the other way around. This was the first novel to coin the term “tractor beam” and first to invent invisible shields around space ships (called “screens”). It was also the first to use phaser beams (called “projectors” by Smith).
No one loves Doc Smith’s work for it’s incredibly insightful three-dimensional characters or for it’s witty dialogue. No, this is a war story pure and simple and is about shit gettin’ blow’d up. It’s great pulp action and was way ahead of it’s time. Smith had a keen understanding of science and technology and he packed this adventure yarn to the gills with it. It also features enough twists and turns to keep it interesting.
As the “death star” is about to completely obliterate the entire Triplanetary fleet… swooping in out of light speed comes an alien race to attack Earth. So a human civil war immediately turns, mid battle, into a fight for species survival. The aliens are interesting and original and their method of killing is… unusual. They suck all of the iron from the body, leaving behind a bloodless white shell.
Many critics lament that Smith was merely a pulp writer who never elevated his work to that artistic level of his most famous pupil, Robert Heinlein, but he did actually have a flair for description:
“Above her, ruddy Mars and silvery Jupiter blazed in splendor ineffable against a background of utterly indescribable blackness–a background thickly besprinkled with dimensionless points of dazzling brilliance which were the stars.”
Heinlein named many of his characters “Smith” in honor of his biggest influence, including Valentine Michael Smith of Stranger in a Strange Land. In addition to it’s influence on all of the epic science fiction that followed, including Star Trek and Star Wars, the novel also directly inspired Steve Russell to create the original video game Spacewar! in 1962. Even though sf has grown up out of space opera and pulpy adventure, this novel is still a fun read and would definitely make good young adult reading.
I read and reviewed the original version of the story as it appeared in Amazing Stories in 1934. Smith did go back and add a few chapters to better tie it in to his later novels in 1948. I heard that the original edit was better. This book is in the public domain and can be found online.
3 projector beams outta 5