Galactic Patrol by Edward E. Smith

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Like crude cave art that gives an impression of reality, some books are written with a crude hand but still shine light on their topic, the society in which they were written or the author’s mental process.  Galactic Patrol by American author Edward E. Smith is one of these.  Originally serialised in Astounding in 1937 the story was drawn together to for a novel for the first time in 1950. 

Struggling against poor editing, scantily sketched characters, dated social customs and language, I feel I also want to add cliched though that label would be unfair.  Like many early scifi the plots have been reinvented by later writers, in this case most notably George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry.  It is one of the points that makes the Galactic Patrol an important story.

Characters were shallow with no development, they were only vehicles to propel the story.  Shocklingly sexist at times, out of a whole planet of people the only ones who are good enough to be Lensmen have Y chromosomes.  The only female character is a sexual medical treatment for the main character and a honey trap for space pirates.  Smith invented an elite galactic police force that use the latest technology and the jerry-rigs invented in their own minds to deal with a formidable enemy.  Notably this force called Lensmen, use their lenses, devices created for and tuned to each lensman by a mysterious race of superbeings.  Through the lens they control the galaxy, but always to promote freedom and the pursuit of personal excellence

Edward E. Smith had an engineer’s heart and what he lacks in character development he makes up with interesting scientific extrapolation, from the known science of the day to the unknown, making things such as force fields and laser weapons seem very real even now.  Worlds are complete and well realised even to how the weather would affect the plants and animals that evolved. 

Unfortunately Edward E. Smith has a habit of ‘telling instead of showing’ in his writing.  That is, characters have a chat and talk through all the plot instead of just doing something and moving the story that way.  An example of this is when the hero is given captaincy of a new experimental spaceship designed specifically to combat a new pirate fleet.  The Admiral drones on about the ship instead of just saying, “Let’s have a demonstration,.” which would have lead the writer to harness all their energies describing the power of the new weapons array in action.

The ending is abrupt with no desire to tie up the story give a conclusive comment.  My friend and I actually thought that part of the story must have been missing when we first viewed the text, but it seems having reached the target of his obsession, the destruction of the pirate leadership, the author didn’t see any point in writing anymore.

Galactic Patrol does have echoes in many stories that came after especially Star Trek and later Star Wars and must be an inspiration source for much of our modern Scifi.  You can see a teenage Gene Roddenberry or young George Lucas picking up this book in their local library or in a book sale.  I wonder if the blind engineer Geordi LaForge wasn’t a nod to a lensman mentioned early in Galactic Patrol.

This book’s major contribution is what it says about the times it was written in.  There is a strong theme of brinkmanship that the author and audience would have been very aware of at the time.  Stuck between two world wars, the horrors WW1 fresh, the threat of another war only a few short month away.  In that sense the story is important as it tries to explain to a world on the brink. 

“A stalemate is inevitable, an absolute deadlock, a sheerly destructive war of attrition which will go on for centuries and which must end in the annihilation of both Boskonia and civilization.”  Kinnison, Galactic Patrol by Edward

For all its faults, Galactic Patrol grew on me.  I found myself sharing moments with family and friends, laughing out loud at the audacity of the character and admiring the well drawn universe they lived in.  Not hitting any of my usual appeal characteristics, ;location and plot were strong and when it comes to Scifi maybe that’s all we ever need.

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