A review for SciFiQuest 2107
Triplanetary is the first book in the classic Lensman series of Space Opera by early to mid 20th century author E.E. "Doc" Smith, the entire series has been honored as a finalist for the Hugo: All-time best Sci-Fi series. It is best described as a scientist/engineer writing a book about subjects which interested them but without a real knack for writing. It manages to be at once terribly exciting and horribly written; it epitomizes the term 'pulp.' The book contains all the moral trappings of the era it was written in, where trading atrocities could be considered an 'evening of the score' and at the same time contains the sort of post-Victorian innocence that seems almost naïve. The story builds in the manner of a crescendo, one layer of conflict and drama is overlaid at the end of one chapter by another layer that is made more dramatic by the intervention of new levels of technology, mainly in the form of weapons or space-propulsion. It has a scope that is wide and a setting that is as huge as space itself, which is its intent.
Triplanetary acts as a prequel to the Lensman series by providing the history of the Galaxy before humanity, where a battle between light and dark is forebode by the collision of two galaxies and two universes. The Eddorians, a race of vicious, totalitarian, betentacled, telepathic piles of black goop, slightly similar to the Daleks, are searching universe by universe for something to conquer, to keep themselves from doing it to each other and being counter-productive. They find the galaxy of the Arisians, similarly powerful telepaths and shapers of destiny, except by far are they more amiable to each other and are somewhat reminiscent of the Greeks, or at least the rosy colored versions of them that people had before they realized they were all a bunch of crazy homicidal nut-cases or pederasts. The collision of the two galaxies causes all the stars in both to suddenly develop planets, just like a "cat will have kittens".(Old conceptions of physics, aren't they grand?) One of those planets is Earth/Tellus and this is where the story begins.
The first half of the book deals with the influences fighting back and forth on Earth between Eddore and Arisia. Arisia pushes Earth toward civilization and Eddore into sin, chaos, war and anarchy. The book depicts Atlantis as a space age civilization destroyed in a Nuclear Apocalypse, Roman gladiators seeking the destruction of Nero and failing and the rise and near fall of Western Civilization in another Nuclear Holocaust around the 1950s or 1960s. The last section deals mainly with the Kinnison family, which plays a significant role in later books. The second half of the book deals with the history of the Triplanetary Patrol.
Spoiler Warning: From here on out I can't guarantee that I won't let major cats out of bags.
The Triplanetary chapters are all about Conway Costigan, agent of the Triplanetary service, the military alliance forged between the three terrestrial inner planets of the solar system to police space and keep the law on all three planets, to the chagrin of many of its politicians. Costigan is a smart, strong, man who is the epitome of any woman of the 30's wet dreams. He is a capable engineer able to describe the full detail of the electronic workings of an enemy's ships or other widgets and have the boys back on Earth produce an exact replica. And quite frankly he may as well have been named Mary Sue. Nonetheless he is a modern version of hero of the classics, modern because he can read and he's shy around women. Enter Clio Marsden a smart and stable but very 30s girl; capable of holding her own against a pirate assault, but still likes having a burly piece of stuttering meat around to protect her. It's so clichéd I'm inclined to believe that it invented the clichés themselves. The pair, along with Captain Bradley of the Hyperion are on an adventure that will take them to the farthest reaches of space, fight the cruelest of pirate scientist/lords, meet the scariest and most disgusting of creatures and perpetrate horrific atrocities against them.
The Hyperion, on which Bradley and Costigan are stationed and Marsden is a passenger, is set upon by pirates, who release V2 gas into the air ducts. After the Hyperion is destroyed and the three of them captured and brought to the Pirate hideout. Costigan reveals a secret new technology which he uses to scan and describe all of the pirates' technology over an ultrawave to Earth so that scientists there can create similar tech. They manage an escape as the Triplanetary service fleet work to defeat the pirate fleet. But just as all seems in their favor an alien ship appears out of nowhere and sends out a red field of force that makes all the iron in both fleets disintegrate.
Captured once again the traveling three are brought to Nevia, watery home of the the perpetrating aliens, who immediately send their sister ship to Earth. On Earth the same field is used once again on Pittsburgh of all places to get at its sweet sweet iron. This field has the effect of absorbing all iron particles, including those in hemoglobin, leaving the humans in the path of this field to choke on their own bloodstream.
Once again, however, Costigans efforts have revealed the secrets of Nevian technology and science and Earth is rushing to produce a super-battleship to end all war. Costigan breaks away from the aliens and manages to unleash V2 gas bombs inside two Nevian cities, killing all residents in one and seriously damaging the other, before he is able to secure a space ship out of the system for his compatriots. When all seems lost, as the alien ship creeps up behind them they are saved by BOISE! The Boise is the newest ship of the fleet, a sphere filled to the brim with the most powerful weapons in human technology. Powered by the iron-based reactors of the aliens and a 100% inertial reducer the ship is capable of interstellar travel in the blink of an eye. The gigantic battleship soars to the rescue, fighting it out with the aliens and appearing above their planet dropping city killing bomb after city killing bomb. The aliens surrender and peace is established. No mutual hatred is formed because the loss of life and material on both sides is balanced. And a lasting peace is formed.
Triplanetary is filled with an earnest bravado, derring-do, the trappings of a story that was meant to be as epic as possible. The characters are intense; they argue at the top of their lungs, they hunch themselves over in their work and complete feats of engineering or military skill faster than humanly reasonable. And their actions are justifiable to themselves even at what can be called their worst. There is an interesting moral quandary at work here as it is jarring to see it in print and yet almost completely ignored. The humans and Nevians, had this really occurred would have not called for peace after a fleet and a city had been destroyed or three cities destroyed or depopulated. They would have, even if they'd made peace, called for the extradition of the perpetrators on war crimes and Costigan at the very least would have been jailed for life for the chemical warfare attacks on two cities, hell possibly even genocide. But this is just a legal confusion; what's more strange is Smith's ignorance of how people would react, the vitriol and hatred that such attacks would create and how they would demand 'justice' in the form of further killing. Whether this is evidence of Smith's lack of political savvy or lack of human intuition is up to the reader.
The other major problem I had with the book was the character development. Costigan can look at the innards of super-weapons and gain an insight into their total workings and then explain these major advances in physics, chemistry, engineering over an ultrawave signal but he's sheepish around women. It's not surprising that someone who'd given their life over to science and being burly all their lives would be inexperienced but his inability to communicate is frankly unbelievable. It may simply be an artifact of the age in which this book was written or just Smith's inability to write romantic dialogue without getting red in the face.
I cannot rate this book. It defies any sort of rating I might give it. It is the genesis of the Space Opera, the mold by which many greater and better written stories have been told. The character of Costigan is visible in nearly every Science Fiction story told afterwards, especially in general entertainment. You see his face in John Crichton, Jean-Luc Picard and ESPECIALLY James T. Kirk, J. T. Marsh, Han Solo, and the list goes on and on. It is classic story; an epic and beautiful adventure. It is a glorification of violence, war and genocide. It is the basis for many stories written and many yet to come; you see it reflected in space operas written now and tomorrow. It had pretty horrific, B-Movie dialogue. Triplanetary is both a 2 and a 9 at the same time. To be appropriately scientific, this book exists in a superposition of ratings delocalizing it and due to the number of split infinitives within it its inertia tensor contains dimensions approaching INFINITY!!!
First published in serial by Amazing Stories magazine in 1934. This edition published 1948. Most recently published 1997 by Old Earth Books.