[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)
...by 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!