Friday February 3, 2006

The Lensmen Series

[In previous posts in this series I've focused on stories that have linguists as characters or language as important element of the plot.  This post will be a little different—there's not much linguistics in the Lensmen books.  Instead, I'm going to focus on the writing style and language quirks of the author.  Fair warning, though: spoilers throughout.]

Over the last month, I've been re-reading Edward E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen series (consisting of Galactic Patrol (1937), Gray Lensman (1939), Second Stage Lensmen (1941), Children of the Lens (1947), and two lesser prequels), a milestone in science fiction.  Its popularity, huge at the time the stories were being published, has waned over the years, but the influence it had on a wide variety of other SF, including the Green Lantern comic book series, Star Trek, and Star Wars, still remains.  You simply can't engage in space opera without standing on Doc Smith's shoulders.  The stories are full of space pirates, determined heroes, and a series of space battles of exponentially increasing scale.  Just as memorable, though, was Doc Smith's distinctive, enthusiastic lexical, idiomatic, and grammatical inventiveness.

First up, though, there is a little bit about language in the series, and that has to do with the Lens itself.  Among other useful tricks, the Lens acted as a universal translator:

"The Lens receives as pure thought any pattern of force which represents, or is in any way connected with, thought.  My brain receives this thought in English, since that is my native language.  At the same time my ears are practically out of circuit, so that I actually hear the English language instead of whatever noise is being made.  I do not hear the foreign sounds at all.  Therefore I haven't the slightest idea what the pirates' language sounds like, since I have never heard any of it."

"Conversely, when I want to talk to someone who doesn't know any language I do, I simply think into the Lens and direct its force at him, and he thinks I am talking to him in his own mother tongue."  (GP p. 40) [all page numbers refer to the Old Earth Books facsimile editions published in the late '90's]

As is pretty common in adventure science fiction, Smith used the Lens as a plot device to avoid having to deal with the fact that many of his characters spoke different languages throughout the books.  (As with the lingual-translator in Ron Goulart's Flash Gordon novels, it sounds like it ought to also be the ultimate code-breaker, too.)  Smith didn't write much about language, but he used language in a bunch of interesting ways, and his style is unique.

I don't use the word "unique" lightly.  Some of his prose, I think you'll agree, was downright odd, as in this exchange between Our Hero Kimball Kinnison and his buddy, the mighty, deadly Dutchman (you read that right) vanBuskirk:

"Better go free, hadn't we?" whispered vanBuskirk.

"Daren't!" Kinnison grunted. "At this range they'd spot us in a split second..."  (GP p. 37)

Daren't?  Who talks that way, especially in the heat of battle?  Smith had a strange way of mixing registers like that, but that's just the tip of the iceberg; check out this corker of a paragraph, noting the bolded phrases in particular:

"Better we insulate those leads a little heavier and put the cans back in our armor," he suggested finally.  "They'll charge just as well in place, and it doesn't stand to reason that this drain of power can go on for the rest of the night without somebody noticing it.  And when that happens those overlords are bound to take plenty of steps—none of which we have any idea what are going to be."  (GP p. 71)

That's three distinct oddities all in one paragraph: a rather archaic inversion, an oddly placed negation that produces a sentence that may not mean what Smith thinks it means, and an honest-to-God subjacency violation in the wild—go back and read it again slowly in case you unconsciously supplied a resumptive they like I did.  It's a hell of a prose style.

Smith, it has to be admitted, was far from immune to pulpish hack writing.  His handling of accents could be pretty silly, for example.  At one point in the stories, a bunch of pirates were identified by Kinnison as "'Terrestrials—North Americans!'", but at least one of them, the pilot, must have been from across the pond, because he speaks in pure Hollywood Limey, as in the following excerpts:

"The blighter's got his spy-ray screens up."
"We'll bally soon know."
"Righto—we've been jolly well had."
"They wouldn't have sent those jaspers out without cover, old bean...better get ready to run, what?"
"Tally ho, old fruit! ... It's a mauler and we've been bloody well jobbed."  (GP pp. 172-4)

Still, Smith's prose could really sing when he worked up a head of steam.  His space battle scenes had a kind of terrible beauty to them, sometimes simultaneously evoking fantastic imagery and describing savage violence.  Here's a passage describing an assault on a Boskonian pirate base located on "Neptune's moon" (which must mean Triton; Nereid wasn't discovered until 1949) by the Patrol's newly-constructed super-ships called "maulers":

Boskonian outer screens scarcely even flickered as they went down before the immeasurable, the incredible violence of that thrust.  The second course offered a briefly brilliant burst of violet radiance as it gave way.  The inner screen resisted stubbornly as it ran the spectrum in a wildly coruscant display of pyrotechnic splendor; but it, too, went through the ultra-violet and into the black.  Now the wall-shield itself—that inconceivably rigid fabrication of pure force which only the detonation of twenty metric tons of duodec had ever been known to rupture—was all that barred from the base metal of Boskonian walls the utterly indescribably [sic] fury of the maulers' beams.  Now force was streaming from that shield in veritable torrents.  So terrible were the conflicting energies there at grips that their neutralization was actually visible and tangible.  In sheets and masses, in terrific, ether-wracking vortices, and in miles-long, pillaring streamers and flashes, those energies were being hurled away.  Hurled to all the points of the sphere's full compass, filling and suffusing all nearby space.  (GP pp. 149-50)

That'd make a hell of a movie scene with today's special effects, I think.  Note the use of the word coruscant.  It was one of Smith's favorites, and just as an author using the word eldritch is almost always making an H. P. Lovecraft reference, I think the naming of the capital of the Star Wars galaxy Coruscant must have been a nod to Smith, even if the design of the planet was a nod to Asimov's Trantor (we'd have to ask Timothy Zahn to know for sure, I guess).  Smith was also inordinately fond of bus-bars, the solid bars of metal used for conducting very large electric currents.  Smith mentioned them regularly when he was trying to convey just exactly how much power each new generation of super-uber-mega-dreadnoughts were capable of putting out:

Her bus-bars, instead of being the conventional rectangular coppers, of a few square inches cross-sectional area, were laminated members built up of coaxial tubing of pure silver to a diameter of over a yard—multiple and parallel conductors, each of whose current-carrying capacity was to be measured only in millions of amperes.  (GL p. 55)

Those sound like some pretty nice conductors—I'll bet there'd be an audiophile market for speaker cables manufactured to those specifications.  Another favorite word of Smith's was refractory (in the sense of 'resistant to heat'), as in this continuation of the space battle, above:

For, that last defense gone, nothing save unresisting metal was left to withstand the ardor of those ultra-powerful, ravening beams.  As has already been said, no substance, no matter how refractory or resistant or inert, can endure even momentarily in such a field of force.  Therefore every atom, alike of vessel and of contents, went to make up the searing, seething burst of brilliant, incandescently luminous vapor which suffused all circumambient space.  (GP p. 150)

Let me make sure I've got this straight: the thrust of the impossibly rigid beams ruptured the last stubborn defenses, which could not possibly resist their violent ardor?  Enough, already, I get it—message received, loud and clear.  Paging Dr. Freud!  This imagery must have been intentional, right?  Smith was certainly capable of unintentional double-entendre (e.g. Kinnison, summoning two other Lensmen for a mental conference call: "Gerrond!  Winstead!  Three-way!" (GL p. 88)) but it seems impossible that he could have written the above paragraph without realizing what he was getting at.

Smith, a working chemist, often displayed in his descriptions an engineer's affinity for machines and technology.  For a different sort of effect, though, try this bit of visceral prose, which describes vanBuskirk in battle:

"...the gigantic Dutchman waded in happily, swinging his frightfully massive weapon with devastating effect.  Crunch!  Splash!  THWUCK!  When that bar struck it did not stop.  It went through; blood, brains, smashed heads and dismembered limbs flying in all directions."  (GL p. 192)

THWUCK!  That's just plain good writing...although it sounds like someone will be needing a moist towelette later.

As you've already seen, Smith's prose was often pretty purple, in that way that pre-Hemingway prose often was.  In contrast, much of his dialog is in a very informal and irreverent register I think of as Mid-Century American Wiseass:

"Seal that, Cliff, or I'll climb up you like a squirrel, first chance I get!" Kinnison retorted.

"So they've got you skippering an El Ponderoso, huh?  Think of a mere infant like you being let play with so much high-power!  What'll we do about this heap here?"  (GP p. 156)

A little later, Cliff signs off with a classic bit of Smith's future-that-never-was lingo: "Clear ether, spacehound!"  Smith was very fond of coining such space-related idioms:

Why, she was a real beauty—a knockout—a seven-sector callout.....  (GP p. 192)

I'm not sure what a "seven-sector callout" is, exactly, but it sounds pretty good.  Is there an analogous Earth-based idiom that Smith was imitating?  Did people used to call a beautiful woman a "seven-county callout" or something?  Here's some more snappy dialog featuring Kinnison and the aforementioned "callout", Nurse Clarissa MacDougall:

"Beautiful, but dumb!" the Lensman growled.  "Can't you and those cockeyed croakers realize that I'll never get any strength back if you keep me in bed all the rest of my life?  And don't talk baby-talk at me, either.  I'm well enough at least so you can wipe that professional smile off your pan and cut that soothing bedside manner of yours."

"Very well—I think so too!" she snapped, patience at long last gone.  "Somebody should tell you the truth.  I always supposed that Lensmen had to have brains, but you've been a perfect brat ever since you've been here.  First you wanted to eat yourself sick, and now you want to get up, with bones half-knit and burns half-healed, and undo everything that has been done for you.  Why don't you snap out of it and act your age for a change?"  (GP pp. 201-2)

I should mention, in case you missed it, that at this point in the story they're falling in love with each other.  And why not?  Their skeletons are perfect:

"...I believe it's going to turn out to be the first absolutely perfect male skeleton I have ever seen.  That young man will go far, Haynes."  (GP p. 194)

"Man, look at that skeleton!  Beautiful!  The only really perfect skeleton I ever saw in a woman....."  (GP p. 195)

Don't ask me to explain the skeleton thing—it's just weird.

Smith's characters also refer to a strange variety of futuristic space deities.  Apparently, vanBuskirk worships somebody named "Noshabkeming the Radiant" (GP p. 78), while Kinnison is constantly swearing by "Klono", who apparently has a great variety of metallic body parts:

"Holy Klono"  (GP p. 60)
"Holy Klono's claws!"  (GP p. 98) Klono's golden gills... (GP p. 267)
"Klono's brazen whiskers..."  (GL p. 37)
"...Klono's own gadolinium guts..."  (GL p. 46)
"...Klono's carballoy claws..."  (GL p. 293)
"Klono's brazen hoofs and diamond-tipped horns!"  (GL p. 148)
"Holy—Klono's—Iridium—Intestines!"  (GL pp. 280-1)

In Gray Lensman, Smith gives a little bit of explanation about who exactly these gods are.  It's light on the theology:

"By the way, Kim," she asked idly as they strolled back toward the ball-room, "who is this Klono by whom you were swearing a while ago?  Another spaceman's god like Noshabkeming, of the Valerians?"

"Something like him, only more so," he laughed.  "A combination of Noshabkeming, some of the gods of the ancient Greeks and Romans, all three of the Fates, and quite a few other things as well.  I think, originally, from Corvina, but fairly wide-spread through certain sections of the galaxy now.  He's got so much stuff—teeth and horns, claws and whiskers, tail and everything—that he's much more satisfactory to swear by than any other space-god I know of."  (GL p. 40)

Another stylistic quirk of Smith's was using wh-words as intensifiers.  This construction isn't very common in American English any more, I don't think (except maybe in a few fossilized idioms like and how!), and when using it Smith often put focus stress in places that sounds odd to my ear:

"Eleven light-years—what a range!"  (GP p. 80)
"Some of those lads coming in have got plenty of just what it takes, and how we can use them!"  (GP p. 87)
[Describing the Boskonian base]  And what a personnel!  (GP p. 120)

What's more, he repeatedly used such phrases in a very characteristic repetitive pattern I don't believe I've seen elsewhere:

A space-ship it was—but what a ship!  (GP p. 13)
...always and everywhere upon Trenco there is a wind—and what a wind!  (GP p. 108)
"What a world—what a world!"  (GP p. 118)
"In our eyes it is fundamentally wrong, but it works—how it works!"  (GP p. 145)
"What an outfit—what an outfit," he breathed.  (GP p. 162)
"Thank God I'm not young any more.  They suffer so." "Check.  How they suffer!"  (GL p. 43)
"It checks—how it checks!"  "To nineteen decimals."  (GL p. 67)

Smith's characters were always checking each other to nineteen decimals.  That may seem like a lot of significant digits, but when all the good guys are so superlatively good in exactly the same way, it's only natural they'd think so much alike.

Most memorably, though, Smith's fiction is dense with invented vocabulary that continuously reminds the reader that his stories take place in the future.  (And how they take place!)  The most common example (and probably the silliest) is that his characters continuously say QX where we would say OK.  It's futuristic!  I've seen it suggested that QX was actually one of the old ham radio Q signals, but as best I can tell, those were all three letters long, and none of them included the string "QX".  On top of that, QX seems to be used syntactically in exactly the way you'd use OK but not a radio call.  For example, I don't think you'd hear anyone use ten-four in the following construction (which Kinnison says to a girl at a dance who's trying to figure out how to address him), but OK sounds fine:

"It'll be QX if you just call me 'say'."  (GL p. 31)

Smith's fondness, nay, irrational exuberance for futurespeak wasn't limited to QX, though.  Every page of the series is dense with invented words and novel uses of existing ones: DeLameter pistols, Bergenholm inertialess drives, tractor beams, pressor beams, shear-planes, duodec bombs, spy-rays, visiplates, sunbeams, wide-open N-ways, wall-shields, negaspheres, Q-type helices, speedsters, zwilniks, primary beams, free and inert for 'inertialess' and its opposite, lights for 'multiples of the speed of light', and dozens more.

Smith's style is full of the enthusiasm and inventiveness of Golden Age SF.  It will either strike you as hopelessly old-fashioned and silly or as gloriously, entertainingly old-fashioned and silly.  As you've probably guessed, I'm in the latter camp, so I'm off to continue re-reading Second Stage Lensmen where I left off.  Clear ether, spacehounds!

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
12:59 AM in Linguistics in SF | Submit: | Links:


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Lensmen Series:


Terrific post! I've never read these, but have a friend who is a long time fan, so I've been hearing about them for years.

Posted by: Pious Agnostic at Feb 3, 2006 10:15:08 AM

As a former user of the (ever so futuristic) Epson QX-10, I'm intrigued. But it sounds as if QX in this context is perhaps simply an abbreviation for "qll xorrect."

Posted by: Q. Pheevr at Feb 3, 2006 1:07:07 PM

I find your report neither complete nor conclusive.


Ahhhhh...It's been awhile for me, but I have been through the Lensman series at least twice, and they are fun.

The novels rapidly become formulaic: a new, improved weapon is needed to overcome a new, improved shield technology on a new, improved ships with a new, improved drives to overcome the next layer of fascist baddies in each succesive book. Furthermore, I'm never quite sure that the side the Lensmen are on can be said to be the good guys (which is, perhaps, more relevant today than ever). War on drugs, anybody?

Nevertheless, you gotta love a setting where the men are real men, the women are real women, and the Velantians and are real Velantians.

Posted by: Scott at Feb 3, 2006 1:11:26 PM

I only ever actually read Triplanetary. Don't remember much about it, but I quite liked the description of alien cutlery.

Posted by: Tim May at Feb 5, 2006 9:13:13 AM

It is a sad comment on the degree to which the zwilniks have won in our modern society, that the unfortunate wight who penned the above comment cannot even tell whether the Lensmen are good guys or bad. The Lensmen are physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight, — and how! But the modern world has no use for strength, intelligence, or decency any longer.

We could use a few Lensmen these days, spacehound.

Posted by: John C. Wright at Feb 14, 2006 7:46:34 AM

E.E. "Doc" Smith's books were the first SF my dad gave me (started off with Triplanetary, then did the Skylark books, then on to the lensman stuff). Had a huge influence on me -- I've got aliens at war over earthlings too. They're still good reads even today.

BTW my brother is a linguistics prof, Dr. Stefan Frisch at USF Tampa.

Posted by: E.E. Knight at Feb 14, 2006 1:40:41 PM

Wonderful analysis -- more, more, keep it up.

Here's hoping that you might also turn your gaze to Doc's Skylark series!

Posted by: Stephen Luchetti at Feb 15, 2006 4:10:15 AM

The usage of "seven-sector callout" makes me think of "seven-alarm fire."

Posted by: Bob Fleck at Feb 16, 2006 2:55:29 PM

"Ain't we got fun, you little Tullurian wart?" sang Van Buskirk as he swung his space axe. Space axe? Ah, the days when jut-jawed anglo saxons battled rubber-suited aliens in deep space, for the puerile love of seven-sector callouts with perfect skeletons...

I read the Lensman series at age 12 (the Golden Age of science fiction). I enjoyed them tremendously. I tried to re-read them at 15, but found the prose embarassingly awful and juvenile. I'm less easily embarassed at 50, so maybe I'll have another look, this time for laughs more than thrills.

I enjoyed your "analysis" of Smith's use of language. How about reviewing the prose of my favorite sci-fi "smith", Cordwainer Smith? I recall his books as pure poetry (mind you, I was 14). I wonder how they would hold up today?

Posted by: Steven Gulie at Apr 17, 2006 10:07:59 AM

Cordwainer Smith, yes! I absolutely loved him when I was in high school, and I'd still be inclined to call him my favorite SF author if not for the fact that I haven't revisited his work since and there's plenty of other things I thought were wonderful back then that just seem silly now.

"Think Blue, Count Two" inspired a friend and me to write some silly verses in a similar style which soon ballooned into an epic that was several thousand stanzas before we moved on to other things.

Posted by: includedmiddle at Apr 17, 2006 11:18:02 AM

"Seven-sector callout" - ref. TRIPLANETARY, Ch. 8 'In Roger's Planetoid' (yah I know it was written later):

"You've turned in a general call-out," Bradley stated, rather than asked.

"Long ago - I've been in touch right along," Costigan answered. "Now that they know what to look for and know that ether-wave detectors are useless, they can find it. Every vessel in seven sectors, clear down to the scout patrols, is concentrating on this point, and the call is out for all battleships and cruisers afloat. There are enough operatives out there with ultra-waves to locate that globe, and once they spot it they'll point it out to all the other vessels."


So it just backs up the inference that SSC would be something that everyone in sight would be checking out.

Posted by: Bob Halloran at May 1, 2006 8:52:50 AM

Paul M. A. Linebarger (a.k.a. Cordwainer Smith) still holds up at any age, I think. Robert Silverberg has a nice introduction to Linebarger in _Science Fiction 101_, and there's a lovely pair of hardcovers published by NESFA.

Linebarger was actually a fascinating character: Ployglot, psychological warfare expect, and life-long professor of Asiatic studies.

His prose style really is remarkable: It's full of those eerie sing-song verses, but it's also rich in poetic imagery ("Drunkboat") and strangely alien style (which Silverberg identified in "Scanners Live in Vain"). He hits a few off-notes, too, but that's the price for such a deliciously odd style.

If you've been avoid Cordwainer Smith for fear his prose won't hold up, do go back and read him: There's more to his style than I could have appreciated at 14.

Posted by: Eric at Jun 26, 2006 8:01:18 PM

I guess I am one of the oldest EESMith fans still
alive. I actually met him in person at the Newyorcon in 1956, bought a copy of Skylark Three
from him, and even corresponded with him for a while after that. I have the original cover art
for Children of the Lens hanging on the wall next
to my bed, plus several interior illos from the
hardcover Lens books. In short, I am a lifelong EES fan and proud of it. I sometimes sign myself as Star A Star, especially to the beautiful Annie
Mac of Australia who calls herself the Red Lensman. I'd be interested in hearing from others
who like to discuss the great man. -- Joe Schaumburger,

Posted by: Joe Schaumburger at Jun 30, 2006 7:59:07 AM
QX is the apostrophe in Morse code. :)

Btw, spacehound, the Lensmen audiobooks are _really_ a trip. The actor took the unusual step of simply reading all the highly wrought description. Just reading it. That's all.

Said actor is apparently from Utah and can put on a rather old-fashioned-sounding Western/Midwestern accent. This helps a lot. His Dutch accent for Van Buskirk, however, I darkly suspect to have come from watching the 3rd Austin Powers movie.

Posted by: Maureen at Sep 25, 2006 9:36:16 PM

I read on of the Lensman book when I was just a small child. I cannot remember which one it was, but even then I felt that the prose was somewhat odd and convoluted. The part about Klono reminds me of Zaphod Beeblebrox in 'Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', because he often says things like 'Holy Zarquon's singing fish'. I wonder if Douglas Adams had ever read any of E.E.Smith's work?

Posted by: Christopher (from London,UK). at Feb 28, 2007 11:19:24 AM

I read one of the Lensman book when I was just a small child. I cannot remember which one it was, but even then I felt that the prose was somewhat odd and convoluted. The part about Klono reminds me of Zaphod Beeblebrox in 'Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', because he often says things like 'Holy Zarquon's singing fish'. I wonder if Douglas Adams had ever read any of E.E.Smith's work?

Posted by: Christopher (from London,UK). at Feb 28, 2007 11:20:17 AM

My favorite bit from the Lensman books was how the energy beam weapons were described as "projectors", and often illustrated in the magazine covers as looking like searchlights, with the beam spreading outward from the source. I'm guessing that Smith imagined that anti-aircraft searchlights could be made brighter and hotter until the light they projected was a weapon itself.

Posted by: JayeRandom at Apr 2, 2007 2:43:57 PM

I'm glad to have found this essay as it brings me back. Galactic Patrol was the first science fiction novel I ever read. I was about 12 at the time. I've since built up a complete collection of his books, though just inexpensive paperbacks.

I was hunting around for a Kimball Kinnison quote about an iceberg when he played a gem dealer in Second Stage Lensman. It went along the lines of consider an iceberg, the point being that Kinnison had much more under the surface than he was revealing.

Cheers and thanks for the memories.


Posted by: Fairlington Blade at May 19, 2010 5:02:24 PM

Having recently re-read the series I'm glad I stumbled upon this site. Great article Tensor!

You question what's the import of placing everything to 19 decimals. Remember that when the stories were written computers took up entire rooms to do less than the chip in your car does today. Calculations were made with slide rules which resulted in accurate calculation to only 3 decimals at best. Nineteen decimals is just another of the good Doc's exaggerations. What an exaggeration and HOW!

Posted by: Arisian Youth at May 26, 2010 10:05:24 AM

you missed my favorite Lensman expression: as dumb as(or "has the brain of" or whatever)a Zabriskan Fontema. The ZFs were animals on a sand planet that simply rolled forward forever. On occasion they encountered one another and immediately reproduced, with the offspring setting off in four different directions.

Posted by: jgoodes at Aug 14, 2012 3:57:31 PM