Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Greatly Belated Book Review: Children of the Lens

I've been meaning to re-read and then review this book for a while, but for some reason I couldn't find it. Then, the other day my sister was looking for something on her bookshelves, and randomly hands it to me. I told her several times I thought she had it, but she didn't believe me... (She had it because, as I've mentioned in the past, she's a huge, huge fan of the Lensman anime movie. Unfortunately, this is the only Lensman book I've actually got easy access to [I don't think the public domain version of Triplanetary counts], and it's the last book in the series, a bombardment of series terminology and obtuse narration that also didn't much suit her tastes generally. Ah, well, you can't be a fan of everything.)

Children of the Lens represents the culmination of years of work by Smith, and the culmination of the original long-running Lensman Arms Race. It is also the culmination of a rather creepy breeding project. And when I say "rather," I mean "extremely." But more on that in a moment.

The ultimate weapons of the original Lensman Arms Race are pretty well ultimate. Number One is a weapon that makes the Death Star look like a pea shooter-a hyperspatial tube opening into enemy territory, out of which a planet from another universe is fired at multiples of c like a huge bullet at the target.

This weapon was fired twice; once at a planet, and then, just for good measure, at the same planet's sun. There wasn't much left.

Number Two was arguably not the same kind of weapon at all. It was not a device, or an implement. It was the massed total mental powers of every Lensman then alive, plus that of the Arisian race, guided and managed by a superhuman telepathic fusion. Keep in mind, the Civilization which the Lensmen were a part of had literally millions of member planets, as it spanned multiple galaxies; a typical good-sized member planet produced a hundred Lensmen a year. Assuming that the majority of Lensmen who graduated in the past twenty years were still active (not a dubious assumption, as the major protagonist of most of the Lensman books, Kimball Kinnison, was at least in his forties in this one), a low estimate puts that at something like 20 billion Lensmen. A fairly typical Lensman can telepathically communicate over interstellar distances and even kill someone by frying their minds at that distance; the Eddorian civilization, despite its age and power, didn't really stand a chance.

This isn't even going into the "loose planets" and "negaspheres" (antimatter planets) that were chucked around rather casually by the good guys, or the supposedly terrifying sunbeam that never gets used in the story. These were all old hat.

You might be wondering about my "rather creepy breeding program" crack earlier. Well, as it happens, the Arisians, using their sufficiently advanced alien license, decided to guide several genetic lineages, not just among humans but among four different potentially useful races in Civilization (humans being one of the four). They decided that humans showed the most promise, so they canceled the breeding programs for the Velantians, the Rigellians, and the Palainians (sorry, no super awesome children for you!), and only humanity gets to advance to the next level. And so, Kimball Kinnison's five children are the first members of a new race of superhumans. ... Think about that.

Yes, it means exactly what it sounds like. Chris "Kit" Kinnison is going to get really close with his sisters.

The first time I read this, I was younger and more naive, and I didn't pick up on the subtexts. Now that I'm better at ferreting these out... Well, let's just say that Wikipedia's remark that there were only a few ambiguous passages referring to this idea was just bull. It was about as ambiguous as a kicked puppy and about as subtle as a bomb blast. Kit and "the kids," as he called his sisters, hit on each other continuously.

For that matter, they also hit on their mother, usually while she was naked.

No, I'm completely serious. That actually happened multiple times.

What really gets me is this idea that, once the breeding program was showing fruit (ARGH), they canceled three of them. The three other races were shown to be immensely complementary to humans. Velantians were relentless, implacable, and tough as heck giant flying snake monsters, and Rigellians and Palainians both displayed analytical capabilities far beyond humans at the same "level." They all got along extremely well. I say, if you're going to have a creepy breeding program where you uplift several lesser species through eugenics, if they all get along then you should finish them all. That's an awful lot of wasted work, guys. (Also, what about the Nevians? They were pretty awesome, too-why didn't they get awesome super-Nevian breeding programs?)

All in all, a bizarre conclusion to one of the first great space operas. (Wikipedia's article was glowing praise obviously written by a huge fan.) Oh, yes, and technically, it was a frame story that was sent by a future Chris Kinnison to some unknown party time capsule style to warn them of the Lensman Arms Race methodologies or something, as it was suspected that there would be new counterparts to the Eddorians in the future.

-Signing off.


Dr. Charles Forbin said...

Is it obvious to everyone else that this was the basis for Vorlons vs Shadows in Babylon 5? Not obvious to me until I read this article...think the Vorlons' genetic breeding of telepaths among humans, very similar to the Lensmen.....

Invid said...

Well, I didn't really draw the connection (not really a Babylon 5 fan, to be honest), but yeah, it seems likely in hindsight.