Lensman: For the Most Troublesome

Triplanetary 4 – Chapter 2: The Fall of Atlantis

Welcome to the read! In the Critias of Plato, the story of Atlantis is said to take place around 9500 BCE, so while we are still deep in the past, we are picking up the story approximately two billion years after the last chapter ended. It’s an interesting technique to set up the Eddorians and their super-science shenanigans, then skip an unimaginable distance forward in time, and come to a period associated with prehistoric fantasy stories. For instance, the supposedly unrecorded Hyborian Age that Robert Howard’s Conan stories take place in is supposed to begin after Atlantis sinks.

1. Eddore

“Members of the innermost circle, wherever you are and whatever you may be doing, tune in!” the All-Highest broadcast.

Using what are essentially radio terms for telepathic activity is something of a signature for this series, but while it works to increase relatability when the humans and other younger races do it, having the ancient cosmic big bad yell ‘tune in!’ damages its already tenuous mystique.

“Analysis of the data furnished by the survey just completed shows that in general the Great Plan is progressing satisfactorily.

This banal line also damages that mystique. Here’s a truly fantastical being, and he’s going on about survey data. It’s possible that juxtaposition could have been made interesting, but it isn’t.

There seem to be only four planets which our delegates have not been or may not be able to control properly: Sol III, Rigel IV, Velantia III, and Palain VII.

So it seems the Eddorians have by this point turned most of the actual work over to underlings. The four planets named eventually produce some very special individuals, and it seems like an open question as to whether the life on these planets has developed in a way that is particularly incompatible with Eddorian control, or whether organic lapses in that control allowed the planets to better develop the conditions for such individuals to arise.

Also, consider the term ‘only four planets,’ as opposed to ‘only four known planets’ or ‘only four influenced planets.’ The implication is that Eddorian control, however indirect or limited, touches every planet in both galaxies.

All four, you will observe, are in the other galaxy. No trouble whatever has developed in our own.

Location does make some difference, apparently. I’m not sure what the capabilities of the Eddorian operation are supposed to be at this point, so it could be a purely technical matter. I like to think that the Eddorians have retained some subconscious aversion to the Arisian’s home territory, so it gets less attention.

“Of these four, the first requires drastic and immediate personal attention.

First, go Earth! I think this is a deliberate ego-stroke for the human reader; our species is the most troublesome. Second, this is a strange statement in context. When you see what the solution is, and then later what some of the Eddorian minions are capable of, it doesn’t seem like this mission actually requires an Eddorian. Maybe it needed Eddorian judgement to decide on the most appropriate course of action, or maybe they have no minions nearby and haven’t shared their most advanced transport tech yet, so that only an Eddorian can get there in a timely fashion?

Its people, in the brief interval since our previous general survey, have developed nuclear energy and have fallen into a cultural pattern which does not conform in any respect to the basic principles laid down by us long since.

As far as I can tell, this may be the first published depiction of Atlantis as a nuclear power. Ignatius Donnelly, father of the modern Atlantean mythology, writing in 1882, portrayed Atlantis as being about as advanced as 1700s Europe; but my Google-fu doesn’t turn up any other published atomic Atlantean scenarios until the late 60’s, which this predates by ~20 years. So not only do we get to see a sci-fi Atlantis, we get to see what might be the first sci-fi Atlantis. I actually remember nothing about that part, so I’m now curious.

Our deputies there, thinking erroneously that they could handle matters without reporting fully to or calling for help upon the next higher operating echelon, must be disciplined sharply. Failure, from whatever cause, can not be tolerated.

I’m not planning to delve into the Eddorian operating principles until the text describes them better much later on, but I will say that they demand a really unreasonable level of judgement. You get punished for not passing matters that are beyond your abilities up the chain of command, but – spoiler warning – you also get punished for bothering the chain of command with something you could have handled yourself, and if you couldn’t have known which was which until after the fact, that’s unfortunate. That said, ‘disciplined sharply’ probably doesn’t mean killed; the Eddorians are evil overlord stereotypes, but they don’t usually speak in euphemisms. It could mean almost any other unpleasant thing, though.

“Gharlane, as Master Number Two, you will assume control of Sol III immediately.

So here’s Gharlane, who I think is one of only two named Eddorians (along with Krongenes from the last chapter), and who is the active Eddorian agent in the story, when he shows up at all. I’m pretty sure that his rank of ‘Master Number Two’ makes him the All-Highest’s second-in-command.

This Circle now authorizes and instructs you to take whatever steps may prove necessary to restore order upon that planet.

It’s a little strange that Eddore is explicitly a dictatorship, but orders are issued by ‘this Circle,’ even when the All-Highest is directly participating.

Examine carefully this data concerning the other three worlds which may very shortly become troublesome.

It’s a shame that we don’t get to hear what kinds of trouble the other planets are up to, because it would be a good opportunity to explore how different their inhabitants are from humans.

Is it your thought that one or more others of this Circle should be assigned to work with you, to be sure that these untoward developments are suppressed?”

This seems to be a genuine question and not just a dominance ritual; the Eddorians are capable of treating each other with some actual regard, if no one else.

“It is not, Your Supremacy,” that worthy decided, after a time of study. “Since the peoples in question are as yet of low intelligence; since one form of flesh at a time is all that will have to be energized; and since the techniques will be essentially similar; I can handle all four more efficiently alone than with the help or cooperation of others.

For an evil overlord stereotype, Gharlane sounds shockingly reasonable here; he prefers to work alone not out of raw ego but because he judges that the combination of factors involved make it a broth for which one cook is the optimal number. The process of ‘energizing’ a ‘form of flesh’ sounds interesting, but what it means is left obscure for the moment.

If I read this data correctly, there will be need of only the most elementary precaution in the employment of mental force, since of the four races, only the Velantians have even a rudimentary knowledge of its uses. Right?”

‘Mental force’ as used here is more specific than just telepathy – for instance, the Rigellians, as we will later learn, are deaf and mute, using telepathy for communication instead of sound. I suspect it refers to compulsion – mind control – which the Velantians, again as we will later learn, have had some exposure to.

“We so read the data.” Surprisingly enough, the Innermost Circle agreed unanimously.

It’s not at all clear why it should be surprising that the Circle is unanimous, I don’t think we’ve ever seen any arguments among them. They’re all extremely close in both ability and temperament, so agreement would seem more natural than disagreement, even if they didn’t exist in a dissent-punishing environment. In fact, I don’t think we’ve ever seen them disagree about anything.

“Go, then. When finished, report in full.”

“I go, All-Highest. I shall render a complete and conclusive report.”

So this is going to be our first demonstration of an Eddorian in action against ordinary people; one alien super-being against a human nuclear power; even if you have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen and how from the setup, it should be good stature-building for our ultimate villains.

This was a short segment. Next time, we check in on the opposition and their take on things.

Lensman: Inappropriate Measures

Triplanetary 3 – Chapter 1: Arisia and Eddore

Welcome to the read! In this installment we’re going to finish off the chapter, which is mostly the Arisian response to encountering the Eddorians and all their awfulness.

“We, the Elders of Arisia in fusion, are here.” A grave, deeply resonant pseudo-voice filled the Eddorians’ minds; each perceived in three-dimensional fidelity an aged, white-bearded human face.

Later on, we learn that the term ‘in fusion’ refers to a specific telepathic state of cooperation, but at this point it still works because it could just as easily be a fancy way of saying ‘together,’ like the slightly archaic term ‘in concert.’ There’s a lot of invented slang in this series, it would fit right in.

Also, notice how the Elders manifest as an explicitly ‘human’ face, even though this is ~2 billion years before humans have evolved. Arisians are sufficiently human-like (at least in appearance) that the adjective can be applied to them without the -like. That’s how much we’re supposed to identify with them.

“You of Eddore have been expected. The course of action which we must take has been determined long since.

This is a hard to reconcile with previous statements that the two races were ‘completely in ignorance of each other’ before this meeting. You could possibly take it to mean that the Arisians have had a Batman-style contingency plan for making contact with powerful and hostile aliens, although referring to them by name makes that interpretation a bit awkward.

You will forget this incident completely. For cycles upon cycles of time to come no Eddorian shall know that we Arisians exist.”

Even before the thought was issued the fused Elders had gone quietly and smoothly to work. The Eddorians forgot utterly the incident which had just happened. Not one of them retained in his conscious mind any inkling that Eddore did not possess the only intelligent life in space.

This seems like it depicts an overwhelming advantage for the Arisians, being able to remove memories from even the strongest of the opposition with little effort or apparent resistance. If they can do that, how can the Eddorians contest them at all? Well, that gets answered a little later on, but I’d just like to add here that the only memories the Arisians are removing are those which the Eddorians would probably want to be rid of: memories of an alien species which approaches (and in some cases surpasses) their own abilities, something they’re inherently incapable of accepting.

* * * * *

And upon distant Arisia a full meeting of minds was held.

“But why didn’t you simply kill them?” Enphilistor asked. “Such action would be distasteful in the extreme, of course—almost impossible—but even I can perceive….” He paused, overcome by his thought.

Here it is: one of the Arisians, probably the most sympathetic character introduced so far, and he’s proposing xenocide. The worst part is that he’s more-or-less right to do so. The Eddorians have been set up very specifically to be a problem that can really only be solved by total extermination. They can’t be reformed, because they’re inherently evil; they can’t be bargained with, because their need to dominate is too extreme; they can’t be imprisoned, because they’re too powerful and ingenious – even interdimensional banishment wouldn’t do; they can’t even be left alone, because they are actively seeking to subject as many other beings as possible to slavery or death, and standing by while they did that would be more wicked. Unfortunately, most of those are justifications for genocide that have been applied in the real world to real groups of people.

Sure, this is fiction, but so is the Nazi antisemitic narrative, and so is the white supremacist anti-black narrative, and so on. They’re all stories where, inside the fiction, the most extreme racist arguments and goals are correct. It’s not great, and its important to be aware of as a reader.

“That which you perceive, youth, is but a very small fraction of the whole. We did not attempt to slay them because we could not have done so. Not because of squeamishness, as you intimate, but from sheer inability.

This is the start of the deconstruction of the apparent Arisian overwhelming advantage: they cannot kill the Eddorians. Note that killing them is not the wrong thing to do, it’s just impractical.

The Eddorian tenacity of life is a thing far beyond your present understanding; to have attempted to kill them would have rendered it impossible to make them forget us.

Here’s an explicit limit of the Arisian ability to affect the Eddorians.

We must have time… cycles and cycles of time.” The fusion broke off, pondered for minutes, then addressed the group as a whole:

“We, the Elder Thinkers, have not shared fully with you our visualization of the Cosmic All, because until the Eddorians actually appeared there was always the possibility that our findings might have been in error. Now, however, there is no doubt.

This ‘visualization of the Cosmic All’ is a concept better developed much later on, but I think that it’s the most narratively problematic of all the concepts in the story (as opposed to socially problematic). The short version is that the elders of Arisia can deduce the future in great detail, and it has a tendency to badly undermine the dramatic tension. I’m given to understand that in the story as it was published in Astounding Stories this ability existed in a substantially less irritating form.

The Civilization which has been pictured as developing peacefully upon all the teeming planets of two galaxies will not now of itself come into being. We of Arisia should be able to bring it eventually to full fruition, but the task will be long and difficult.

This seems to be a remnant of that less irritating form – they are not fully certain of their ability to overcome the Eddorian influence.

“The Eddorians’ minds are of tremendous latent power. Were they to know of us now, it is practically certain that they would be able to develop powers and mechanisms by the use of which they would negate our every effort—they would hurl us out of this, our native space and time.

There it is, in no uncertain terms. In open conflict with the Eddorians, the Arisians would straight-up lose. This deviates from the usual racist narratives where a ‘superior’ ethnic majority is somehow threatened by an ‘inferior’ scapegoat race, usually by casting them as cunning monsters who are subverting society, and are best defeated by casting that society aside and confronting them with naked force. It’s almost a straight reversal, because the Eddorians (who are racially evil and must be exterminated) have the superior force, and the Arisians must rely on covert action.

That dynamic does kind of reverse itself once we leave the ancient prehistory era of the story. The Eddorians voluntarily withdraw, using layers of underlings to do the actual work, becoming secret masters by virtue of distance if nothing else. The Arisians, on the other hand, become much more public. I’ll get into that in more detail when it comes up.

I do think it’s a difficult sell, to go from showing the Arisians as apparently completely dominant in their first encounter with the Eddorians, to asking the audience to accept them as the underdogs.

We must have time… given time, we shall succeed. There shall be Lenses… and entities of Civilization worthy in every respect to wear them. But we of Arisia alone will never be able to conquer the Eddorians.

This is the first reference to the Lenses that will eventually make the titular Lensmen, but it’s purely foreshadowing, they aren’t explained at all. More significant is the admission that the Arisians will never be able to defeat the Eddorians alone. They need outside help, and given that they and the Eddorians are the only intelligent life in the galaxy, that help doesn’t yet exist.

Indeed, while this is not yet certain, the probability is exceedingly great that despite our utmost efforts at self-development our descendants will have to breed, for some people to evolve upon a planet not yet in existence, an entirely new race—a race tremendously more capable than ours—to succeed us as Guardians of Civilization.”

So the Arisians’ plan is to replace themselves with a better model. Unfortunately, their chosen method is breeding, which brings up a few issues. First, the Arisians are basically using the same method to create their successors as the Eddorians are using to create their slaves, with all the associated issues. Second, this is more or less eugenics, which was discredited due to its association with Nazi philosophy – it’s something that was very questionable to portray positively even in 1948 when this chunk of text was first published. So both in and out of the fiction, the Arisians’ plan seems kind of sketchy.

It’s actually very strange because the Arisians are totally sold on the concept of teamwork. The eventual defeat of the Eddorians is a profound expression of the power of cooperation. In the framework where one person’s strengths can cover for another’s weaknesses, there shouldn’t be any need for a single super-race to watch over the others, you could just have a group of diversely-competent people from many backgrounds sharing responsibility; and, until Book 6, that appears to be exactly what the Arisians are setting up.

I’ve mentioned before how this series juxtaposes certain old-fashioned prejudicial thoughts with what is almost a festival of diversity and tolerance. (Again, we haven’t seen much of the latter yet, but I promise it is coming.) I’m just now starting to see how extensive that strange duality is, and how much incoherence that conflict introduces into the story.

* * * * *

Centuries passed. Millenia. Cosmic and geologic ages. Planets cooled to solidity and stability. Life formed and grew and developed. And as life evolved it was subjected to, and strongly if subtly affected by, the diametrically opposed forces of Arisia and Eddore.

I haven’t yet spent a lot of words on the influence that Lensmen has had on other later properties, but this is so obvious I can’t really avoid it. Swap out the names of the elder races involved, and this passage could come right out of Babylon 5. In fact, I think there’s a good argument to be made that Babylon 5 is simply an adaptation of the Lensmen story into another product of the same era: the hardboiled/noir story. In that vein, all the things that are benevolent if paternalistic authorities in Lensmen (the human government, the telepathic police, the enigmatic elder race) are, in Babylon 5, at best much more morally complicated and at worst actively villainous.

Anyway, that’s the chapter. Next up we’ll have our first look at the manipulations of these two peoples on another species – our own.