Deconstructing Doc Smith, Part 2

Posted on Fri Apr 15 2016 -- scifi

This is a continuation of part 1, Deconstructing Doc Smith.

In this part, I'll be talking about the underlying model of a typical Doc Smith universe, the unfortunate implications or outright problem areas, and how to grapple with them.

We'll consider the following sources:

  • The Lensman series in its entirety, including Children of the Lens (LENS)
  • The Skylark series, through Skylark DuQuesne (SKY)
  • The Galaxy Primes (GP)
  • Masters of Space (MOS)

Civilization

Smith's works generally assume a galactic or inter-galactic society, dubbed "Civilization" (LENS), the "League of Civilization" (SKY), will eventually come into being. This society will emanate from Earth, by virtue of humanity's superior morality and technological sophistication.

Civilization could be considered a despotic rationalist meritocracy. The best people are expected to lead, using science, reason, and clear thinking to make decisions. Everyone else is expected to follow their orders. It is assumed that clear and rational behaviors, tempered with an Earth-centric moral code, will yield objectively better decisions.

Both excessively logical races (LENS, SKY) and excessively emotional races are depicted. Neither are seen as more fit to lead than the relatively balanced human race.

Non-violent expressions of dissent are accepted but typically dismissed. The criminal — thieves and murderers, but also grifters and opportunists - often face the death penalty, especially in wartime situations or harsh conditions (SKY). For example, Virgil Samms, the protagonist of "First Lensman", orders extra-judicial murder and (in "Triplanetary") approves of the death of innocent people if it furthers the stability of civilization.

Operators

"Operators" as a class — people morally, mentally, and physically fit to lead - are polymaths, able to work comfortably in a variety of scientific disciplines. Their ability to think clearly and reason is treated as a skill broadly applicable to new fields. They are, especially in later books, physically in top shape, sexually attractive, and uninhibited to some greater or lesser degree.

The hero-leaders of Civilization, whether they are called "prime operators" (SKY, GP), "gray lensmen" (LENS), or "Ardans" (MOS), have both authority and responsibility for an entire galactic society. They typically are not responsible to the electorate of a democracy in the conventional sense. Their right to govern is self-evident through their virtuous actions and scientific mastery. The notion of being responsible solely to your own conscience is described as a burden, the "Lensman's Load". Their reward for carrying this load is enhanced psionic power (LENS, GP), physical immortality or superhuman capabilities (GP, MOS), or some other advantage.

Inherited authority is not necessarily a right in and of itself. However, Smith's universes assume that superior genes yield superior people, and breeding programs often appear in his works (LENS, SKY, GP). Because operators will tend to breed with each other, their children thus inherit their superior qualities and hence are qualified to lead for the reasons given earlier.

Racism

It might be said that Smith's work expresses some forms of racism. It is certainly true that species chauvinism is present in some books (SKY). Many non-human races are depicted as "monstrous", and it is implied that a monstrous appearance and a monstrous mentality are connected.

Characters like Shiro and his wife (SKY) are described as capable, intelligent people and fully contributing members of the group, ignoring their Japanese nationality. At the same time, they are given nowhere near as much page time as the Caucasian male protagonists.

Races, sometimes whole ecologies, are sometimes grouped together and judged as a whole. For example, the protagonists willingly and deliberately commit genocide against an entire genus — the Chlorans - throughout a whole galaxy, for the sake of preserving human life (SKY). Elsewhere, characters with a similar biology, such as the Palainians and their Boskonian counterparts (LENS), are seen independent of their race.

Conclusions

The successful Smith pastiche will include a Civilization built on order, reason, and self-determination. The most socially progressive examples will be a harmonious fusion of races (LENS), or exist in a universe where humans are the only intelligent species (GP).

The sorts of threats you want to introduce will largely dictate how early Civilization appears. You can pick a scale: interplanetary, interstellar, galactic, or inter-galactic. Civilization will be expected to have taken hold at the scale just below it, and the finale of your story should be marked by Civilization's expansion into the scale you chose.