Lensman: Inherent Morality

Welcome to the reading! If you’ve previously read this series, I hope you find something of value in my comments. If this is your first encounter with this property, then buckle up; this story does not mess around.

Triplanetary 1 – Chapter 1: Arisia and Eddore

Triplanetary was published in serial form in 1934, and originally had nothing to do with the Lensman series. It was rewritten in 1948 from its original form to be incorporated as a prequel, and a deal of material was added, both to bulk it up to book size and also to connect it to the rest of the series. In particular, the first six chapters are entirely new additions and include the very memorable grand opening.

Two thousand million or so years ago two galaxies were colliding; or, rather, were passing through each other.

In general, I prefer the story without the prequel material, but I will admit that Triplanetary has a much better opening sentence than Galactic Patrol. I think it perfectly demonstrates that typical miracle of science, that a simple and dry description of an event can awaken a sense of profound wonder, in this case due to the literally astronomical scale in both space and time. Today we have computer simulations of what galactic interactions look like, and they are awe-inspiring to watch. In the 1940s, a young science-fiction reader couldn’t hope to have an accurate vision of such an event, but the text engages the imagination with a challenge to try, to think about hundreds of billions of stars hurtling past each other in vast formations. As an invitation to enter imaginative space, it’s remarkably efficient and powerful.

Now, our understanding of the universe being the ever-changing beast that it is, even a work that valued scientific accuracy over entertainment was going to wind up having some funny bits in it when it was grounded in a 1930s understanding. That concept is especially important for this reading because a fair amount of what makes this whole series problematic is theories that were, shall we say, more popular in the 1930s than they are today. On the other hand, sometimes I’m just going to introduce a little historical context, which in this case is a mention that Edwin Hubble’s discovery of galaxies beyond our own was published in 1924, so it was a relatively recent but not brand-new concept.

A couple of hundreds of millions of years either way do not matter, since at least that much time was required for the inter-passage.

There’s a reiteration the time-scale in question. A two hundred million year margin of error is acceptable in terms of the events in question.

At about that same time—within the same plus-or-minus ten percent margin of error, it is believed—practically all of the suns of both those galaxies became possessed of planets.

And here’s a reiteration of the spatial scale. On a story level, this is setting the stage, and that stage is two galaxies worth of stars worth of planets. At the same time, the narration is slowly introducing unreliability: first admitting to a margin of error, now we have the term ‘it is believed,’ which is much less certain than ‘it is known,’ or just ‘it is.’ Unreliable narration was a device much in fashion in American literature during this period, so it’s not terribly surprising to see it here.

There is much evidence to support the belief that it was not merely a coincidence that so many planets came into being at about the same time as the galactic inter-passage. Another school of thought holds that it was pure coincidence; that all suns have planets as naturally and as inevitably as cats have kittens.

And now the unreliability is openly admitted, but the gloss on it is scholastic. The narrator is not portrayed as deceiving or dissembling, but simply as in possession of incomplete information. This creates the expectation in the reader that although some things may be left mysterious, the narrator will not actually lie. It is a very safe form of unreliability.

Be that as it may, Arisian records are clear upon the point that before the two galaxies began to coalesce, there were never more than three solar systems present in either; and usually only one.

In our current day, when exoplanets are being discovered at a fantastic rate, it can be easy to forget that ‘how common are planets’ was a real mystery for a very long time. The text has it both ways: planets seem normally to be very rare, but the interactions during the passage of the two galaxies has made them very common. Here we also get our first fantastic term: Arisian. The natural question of what it means for records to be ‘Arisian’ is raised, and (in the next sentence) immediately addressed.

Thus, when the sun of the planet upon which their race originated grew old and cool, the Arisians were hard put to it to preserve their culture, since they had to work against time in solving the engineering problems associated with moving a planet from an older to a younger sun.

There’s a lot of information in that statement and I’m not going to unpack it all, but the key data are that the Arisians are a people, and they were capable of remarkable feats.

Since nothing material was destroyed when the Eddorians were forced into the next plane of existence, their historical records also have become available.

Here’s the first mention of the Eddorians, and by the previous introduction of the Arisians we are primed to understand them as being another people. Also, ‘forced into the next plane of existence’ really sounds like a euphemism for being killed, and although we won’t get there for quite a while, it is.

Those records—folios and tapes and playable discs of platinum alloy, resistant indefinitely even to Eddore’s noxious atmosphere—agree with those of the Arisians upon this point. Immediately before the Coalescence began there was one, and only one, planetary solar system in the Second Galaxy; and, until the advent of Eddore, the Second Galaxy was entirely devoid of intelligent life.

I want to focus on the term ‘noxious’ here, because it’s an attempt to manipulate the reader into disliking the Eddorians immediately. At this point, when we know almost nothing about them, we get a very negative descriptor applied to their world’s atmosphere. Noxious: unpleasant, harmful, or poisonous; but noxious to who? To the native life, the atmosphere is presumably as wholesome as our own air, unless it’s been fouled by industrial pollution or similar.

This becomes a question of perspective. If the term noxious is used from the Eddorian perspective, then their world is poisonous to them, and it’s possible they could rightly be judged for messing it up. If the term noxious is used from the reader’s (i.e. a human) perspective, then the Eddorians are being judged simply for being different. Keep this in mind because it’s going to come up again shortly.

Thus for millions upon untold millions of years the two races, each the sole intelligent life of a galaxy, perhaps of an entire space-time continuum, remained completely in ignorance of each other. Both were already ancient at the time of the Coalescence. The only other respect in which the two were similar, however, was in the possession of minds of power.

I want to bring up the use of the word ‘race’ here. In our time, after such things as the human genome project and the discovery that races don’t have a biological existence, we have a very different relationship to the word ‘race’ than people in 1948. ‘Race’ used to have a much broader set of uses, e.g. in this case it’s being used to mean ‘species,’ since the text makes it clear that the Arisians and Eddorians are not even slightly related. That’s a use that you don’t really see any more outside of role-playing games (computer and tabletop) where it’s been inherited through D&D from Tolkien, who distinguished his fantastic peoples as ‘races.’

This would only be a passing curiosity of archaic language use if it weren’t for another use of the term later on in this chapter. But I’ll cover that when we come to it.

Since Arisia was Earth-like in composition, atmosphere, and climate, the Arisians were at that time distinctly humanoid.

The idea that an Earth-like environment will necessarily produce a human-resembling form is obviously bad biology, but I don’t know if it does or does not have any grounding in theories of the period. On the other hand, the naked statements that their planet was like ours and that they were like us are clearly meant to set us up to identify with the Arisians. The use of past tense, suggesting that neither is still true, is a distancing factor but a relatively minor one.

The Eddorians were not. Eddore was and is large and dense; its liquid a poisonous, sludgy syrup; its atmosphere a foul and corrosive fog. Eddore was and is unique; so different from any other world of either galaxy that its very existence was inexplicable until its own records revealed the fact that it did not originate in normal space-time at all, but came to our universe from some alien and horribly different other.

I regard this as being the answer to the question of perspective raised above, even if it isn’t completely explicit. Eddore and its inhabitants are being portrayed as both Other and associated with unpleasant things, with great energy, well before we get any actual words or deeds to judge them by.

As differed the planets, so differed the peoples. The Arisians went through the usual stages of savagery and barbarism on the way to Civilization. The Age of Stone. The Ages of Bronze, of Iron, of Steel, and of Electricity.

This is interesting. Usually the terms ‘savagery’ and ‘barbarism’ call up comparisons to Howard’s Conan, and all the associated racial baggage. Here, however, we see that even the age of electricity is lumped in with the previous ‘stages,’ suggesting that even modern technology is just one more step on ‘the way to Civilization.’ This is a bit of real science-fiction thought, of the kind that was best popularized in Star Trek: from the perspective of the future, our modern situation is only slightly less undeveloped than e.g. medieval times.

Indeed, it is probable that it is because the Arisians went through these various stages that all subsequent Civilizations have done so, since the spores which burgeoned into life upon the cooling surfaces of all the planets of the commingling galaxies were Arisian, not Eddorian, in origin.

This is a very weird statement. Sure, it’s a setting conceit that Arisian ‘spores’ seeded the galaxies, making the Arisian biosphere the ancestor of all other biospheres that we’ll see. The thing that bothers me is the idea that simple descent ties a species’ technological development to that of its ancestors, rather than available resources or a natural progression of ideas. If nothing else, we will later meet aliens whose native environment is only a few degrees above absolute zero, and when your relationship to oxygen is as an ore, having a Bronze Age is a pretty weird idea.

What’s being presented is a view in which even distant heredity is an overwhelmingly powerful influence on very specific behavior, and that’s an idea that has a rather infamous history in American bigotry, not just in openly racial terms, but in things like Lombrosian Criminal Anthropology, which held (among other laughable things) that being a criminal was an inheritable trait.

Eddorian spores, while undoubtedly present, must have been so alien that they could not develop in any one of the environments, widely variant although they are, existing naturally or coming naturally into being in normal space and time.

I’m going to put a pin in this statement for later review, because the No Eddorian Offspring Postulate (NEOP) is going to be sorely tested in later books.

The Arisians—especially after atomic energy freed them from physical labor—devoted themselves more and ever more intensively to the exploration of the limitless possibilities of the mind.

Remember how atomic energy freed us from physical labor? Ha ha, optimism.

Even before the Coalescence, then, the Arisians had need neither of space-ships nor of telescopes. By power of mind alone they watched the lenticular aggregation of stars which was much later to be known to Tellurian astronomers as Lundmark’s Nebula approach their own galaxy.

So the Arisians use mental powers instead of technology. Neat. The term ‘Tellurian’ is this series’ word for ‘from Earth.’ It’s based on the Latin word ‘tellus,’ which means ‘earth,’ but gets less use than it’s better-known synonym ‘terra,’ so when you read Tellurian, think Terran. This term was apparently used more often in old-timey sci-fi, so the target audience could be assumed to be familiar with it.

They observed attentively and minutely and with high elation the occurrence of mathematical impossibility; for the chance of two galaxies ever meeting in direct, central, equatorial-plane impact and of passing completely through each other is an infinitesimal of such a high order as to be, even mathematically, practically indistinguishable from zero.

I think there’s two ways to read this. The first is that this is simply an edge-on galactic collision, and this is another artifact of old science; modern astronomy tells us that such collisions are relatively common. The second is found in the phrase ‘passing completely through each other.’ Galactic collisions involve a lot of disruption of the galactic structures, and individual stars can be traded off, or even flung out into intergalactic space; a collision which by some quirk of gravitic interactions left both galaxies ‘completely’ intact would indeed be an extremely low-probability event.

They observed the birth of numberless planets, recording minutely in their perfect memories every detail of everything that happened; in the hope that, as ages passed, either they or their descendants would be able to develop a symbology and a methodology capable of explaining the then inexplicable phenomenon. Carefree, busy, absorbedly intent, the Arisian mentalities roamed throughout space—until one of them struck an Eddorian mind.

The Arisians get a lot of play in this series as nigh-omniscient and infallible, so it’s always nice to see them portrayed as still striving for a more complete understanding.

* * * * *

While any Eddorian could, if it chose, assume the form of a man, they were in no sense man-like. Nor, since the term implies a softness and a lack of organization, can they be described as being amoeboid. They were both versatile and variant. Each Eddorian changed, not only its shape, but also its texture, in accordance with the requirements of the moment. Each produced—extruded—members whenever and wherever it needed them; members uniquely appropriate to the task then in work. If hardness was indicated, the members were hard; if softness, they were soft. Small or large, rigid or flexible; joined or tentacular—all one. Filaments or cables; fingers or feet; needles or mauls—equally simple. One thought and the body fitted the job.

So here’s our first physical description of an Eddorian, and they actually sound pretty awesome.

They were asexual: sexless to a degree unapproached by any form of Tellurian life higher than the yeasts. They were not merely hermaphroditic, nor androgynous, nor parthenogenetic. They were completely without sex.

This feels like a call-back to War of the Worlds, where the Martians were also sexless. Wells used it to make his invaders seem more other and monstrous, and that seems to be the goal here. Being a superhero-level shapeshifter is a pretty good power fantasy, but it’s much less appealing if it comes packaged with no nookie.

They were also, to all intents and purposes and except for death by violence, immortal. For each Eddorian, as its mind approached the stagnation of saturation after a lifetime of millions of years, simply divided into two new-old beings. New in capacity and in zest; old in ability and in power, since each of the two “children” possessed in toto the knowledges and the memories of their one “parent.”

This seems like a mix of playing up how good the Eddorians have it and how weird they are. Immortality is a classic fantasy, but this is immortality in the style of the symmetrically-dividing bacteria, where every time you rejuvenate you also get an identical duplicate.

And if it is difficult to describe in words the physical aspects of the Eddorians, it is virtually impossible to write or to draw, in any symbology of Civilization, a true picture of an Eddorian’s—any Eddorian’s—mind. They were intolerant, domineering, rapacious, insatiable, cold, callous, and brutal.

So, here we go, into the very questionable territory. All the physical differences are just that – differences. We might think sexless poisonous immortal shapeshifters are weird or even disgusting, but there’s no moral judgement on any of that. A long list of antisocial behaviors is a different story.

They were keen, capable, persevering, analytical, and efficient.

We also get a list of positive traits, but almost none of these serve to mitigate the antisocial traits. Instead, the positive traits serve to magnify the negative ones, providing greater ability to act upon the antisocial motivations. The specific combination of traits actually strikes me as very similar to Germanophobic stereotypes of the period.

They had no trace of any of the softer emotions or sensibilities possessed by races adherent to Civilization. No Eddorian ever had anything even remotely resembling a sense of humor.

Back to the negative traits, and I want to focus on the phrase ‘No Eddorian ever…’. It has already been established that, in this fictional reality, even distant descent can dictate specific behaviors. Close descent is presumably even more influential, especially in a species that reproduces through asexual cloning. The implication is that the characterization of this species that we’re being presented with is not the result of a toxic culture or similar, but biological and, as such, universal throughout the population.

We are meant to take this as meaning that they are not only anti-social, but also irredeemable, as individuals and as a species. That an Eddorian can’t be taught to be e.g. tolerant any more than a human can be taught to digest grass. There’s no getting around that this is a profoundly racist mode of thought, the same that white supremacists use to cast e.g. black people as irredeemably lazy or Jewish people as irredeemably greedy. Even though the Eddorians are a bizarre alien species, it’s not a great approach to use. I don’t think this (or any) story is served by having an evil species in any way that it wouldn’t be equally served by having a species with an evil society.

Also, note how many potential avenues of rehabilitation are cut off by the established Eddorian biology. You can’t try to raise them from infancy in a nurturing environment because they’re born with all the memories of their ‘parent.’ Addressing the problem on even the genetic level is extremely problematic, ethics aside, partly because of the clonal reproduction and partly because even countless generations have been shown to be insufficient to shed ancestral behaviors.

While not essentially bloodthirsty—that is, not loving bloodshed for its own sweet sake—they were no more averse to blood-letting than they were in favor of it. Any amount of killing which would or which might advance an Eddorian toward his goal was commendable; useless slaughter was frowned upon, not because it was slaughter, but because it was useless—and hence inefficient.

There’s the only example of one of their positive traits mitigating their negative ones.

And, instead of the multiplicity of goals sought by the various entities of any race of Civilization, each and every Eddorian had only one. The same one: power. Power! P-O-W-E-R!!

In that ‘each and every Eddorian’ we have a repetition of the species-wide applicability of this description.

So, we’ve been presented with an inherently and incorrigibly evil species, and that’s a very unfortunate thing to include in any fiction because it leads to discussions about how genocide may be an appropriate response. To this day, fiction fans have discussions about orcs and Daleks that are horrifyingly similar to discussions that white supremacists have about their non-fictional hated peoples. Daleks and Eddorians are at least alien enough to not have children or civilians, so they escape some of the more distasteful angles of debate.

Since Eddore was peopled originally by various races, perhaps as similar to each other as are the various human races of Earth, it is understandable that the early history of the planet—while it was still in its own space, that is—was one of continuous and ages-long war.

Emphases mine. So in about 1200 words of the story, we have the word ‘race’ being used to distinguish both the explicitly extremely different alien species of Arisia and Eddore, and also being used to distinguish the ‘human races’ of Earth. This isn’t a case of more sensitive language not existing at the time, terms like ‘peoples’ had been in use since the 1500s. It’s also not a case of less prejudiced viewpoints not existing at the time, there were many who held that racial differences were cosmetic and/or social long before that was scientifically confirmed.

Now, I don’t know how racist the author was or wasn’t, but it’s clear that his context for thinking (and writing) about race was pretty toxic. Which isn’t at all surprising because, y’know, 1930’s-40’s America. The past approximately eighty years had involved a lot of bogus science desperately trying to justify American and European imperialism (and American slavery) by dehumanizing non-whites, and that was only the scholastic arm of the enormous swell of grassroots prejudice. It is that context which is one of the great problematic elements of the Lensman story.

One thought on “Lensman: Inherent Morality

  1. Pingback: Lensman: Tangential Connections | Use The Right Word

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