Lensman: A Good Cause?

Triplanetary 5 – Chapter 2: The Fall of Atlantis

Welcome to the read!

Very often in fiction it is the supposed ‘good guys’ that best reveal problematic elements, because the text has a tendency to clearly support them even when they engage in behavior that is morally grey or worse. Sometimes you do get a villain who is condemned for actions which aren’t particularly bad, but that’s less common; much more often the villains are simply painted completely black in order to justify any action against them. The Eddorians are so bad that when the Arisians are artificially selecting other intelligent species without consent to create a super-species for the purpose of genocide, we’re supposed to support them. Blech.

One thing I haven’t really touched on is how much relative information we don’t get about the Arisians (mostly because an absence of text is difficult to quote). With the Eddorians we got a long list of their negative traits and also a history that demonstrated their practical badness, but we’ve had no such material for the Arisians. Mostly we’re told that they are nothing like the Eddorians, even as we keep seeing that they do in fact have commonalities. What’s missing is a positive depiction of the Arisians, some demonstration that they actually are less bad than the Eddorians. ‘Looking like humans’ and ‘not being immigrants’ isn’t enough.

(Yeah, I just got that the Eddorians coming from another dimension – instead of simply being native to the Second Galaxy – plays into nativist tropes. That actually connects to the thing where they supposedly have no offspring species; unlike contemporary American white nativism which fearmongers about immigrant fecundity, early American white nativism had a narrative about how foreign seed tended to fail in America, so presumably if you cut off the influx of immigrants then the ones already here would conveniently fade away.)

Anyway, this is the Arisian perspective of the fall of Atlantis, the first we’ll see of their operations involving a younger species. That’s a good opportunity to demonstrate some benevolence. Let’s see if they pull it off.

2. ARISIA

“We, the Elder Thinkers in fusion, are spreading in public view, for study and full discussion, a visualization of the relationships existing and to exist between Civilization and its irreconcilable and implacable foe.

Oo, government transparency! It’s not exactly benevolence, but it’s a small step in the right direction.

Several of our younger members, particularly Eukonidor, who has just attained Watchmanship, have requested instruction in this matter. 

This is the second time that Watchmen have been mentioned, but still no specifics of what the title entails. The implication, of course, is that they keep watch on Eddorian activity, but the need for that isn’t obvious, given the apparent accuracy of the Elders’ visualizations.

Being as yet immature, their visualizations do not show clearly why Nedanillor, Kriedigan, Drounli, and Brolenteen, either singly or in fusion, have in the past performed certain acts and have not performed certain others; or that the future actions of those Moulders of Civilization will be similarly constrained.

This torrent of proper names introduces us to the four ‘Moulders of Civilization’ who seem to have the responsibility of actually carrying out the practical aspect of the Arisian project. Four seems like a very small number of operatives to cover two galaxies, even if they’re trying to stay as unobtrusive as possible. I forget whether it’s a coincidence that there are four Moulders and also four troublesome planets.

“This visualization, while more complex, more complete, and more detailed than the one set up by our forefathers at the time of the Coalescence, agrees with it in every essential. The five basics remain unchanged.

First: the Eddorians can be overcome only by mental force.

It’s a little bit weird that the Arisians would feel the need to say this, because mental force seems to be their only option in general, given that they don’t have other technologies.

Second: the magnitude of the required force is such that its only possible generator is such an organization as the Galactic Patrol toward which we have been and are working.

This is an interesting conceit of the series, and a glimpse of how the Arisian mental technology-analogue works. The foreshadowed Galactic Patrol is, to the humans and other species who comprise it, an organization which serves as a military/police force, but to the Arisians it is a colossal generator for mental energy.

Third: since no Arisian or any fusion of Arisians will ever be able to spear-head that force, it was and is necessary to develop a race of mentality sufficient to perform that task.

On some level, the new race is also a piece of Arisian technology: having invented an energy source so extraordinary that there’s no means of harnessing it, they need another extraordinary invention to harness it.

Fourth: this new race, having been instrumental in removing the menace of Eddore, will as a matter of course displace the Arisians as Guardians of Civilization.

This is reading as really ominous to me. The Arisians have not been properly established as particularly moral beings, and there’s no reason to believe that their creation will be any better, even if it is more capable. Also, the word ‘displace’ implies the use of force; in a way that ‘replace’ or ‘succeed’ does not. It really sounds like this super-species, having been used as a tool of genocide, is going to use its superior abilities to forcibly take over the Arisian side of things; a situation which does not promise good government. It would be really bleak if the only solution to the Eddorian conquest is to replace them with a different, more powerful set of conquerors who are only probably less bad.

Fifth: the Eddorians must not become informed of us until such a time as it will be physically, mathematically impossible for them to construct any effective counter-devices.”

This sentence does a good job of conveying both the threat that the Eddorians pose and also how careful the Arisians are being. I think it’s undermined in later material when the Arisians start acting more openly, but it works for the moment.

“A cheerless outlook, truly,” came a somber thought.

“Not so, daughter. A little reflection will show you that your present thinking is loose and turbid.

We haven’t really got into the sexual politics of the series, but it’s an unfortunate foreshadowing that this Arisian who is introduced as being in need of correction is identified only as being female. For extra credit, keep an eye out and see how many other Arisians are ever identified as female.

When that time comes, every Arisian will be ready for the change. We know the way. We do not know to what that way leads; but the Arisian purpose in this phase of existence—this space-time continuum—will have been fulfilled and we will go eagerly and joyfully on to the next.

This makes what the Arisians will experience after the Eddorians are exterminated sound a lot like death, even if their perspective on it isn’t fearful; something like the ‘going west’ that was the pseudo-death of myth-mystics and Tolkien elves. It’s a little weird, since the Arisian concern in the first chapter was that the Eddorians would drive them from their ‘native space and time,’ but apparently they’re happy to leave as long as it occurs on their own terms.

Are there any more questions?”

There were none.

“Study this material, then, each of you, with exceeding care. It may be that some one of you, even a child, will perceive some facet of the truth which we have missed or have not examined fully; some fact or implication which may be made to operate to shorten the time of conflict or to lessen the number of budding Civilizations whose destruction seems to us at present to be sheerly unavoidable.”

Hours passed. Days. No criticisms or suggestions were offered.

This is the best we’ve seen of the Arisians so far. Taking pains to shorten the war and reduce destruction is exactly what you’d expect from benevolent elder aliens; both goals seem like they’re about trying to minimalize the suffering of the younger species. The problem is the context that’s been established.

First, the plan to wipe out the Eddorians has been given so much more precedence and text that the well-being of the younger species seems like an incidental concern at best. Second, because the younger species actually are the materiel the Arisians are using to win the war, almost anything that might express concern for them could be read as expressing concern for the war effort with equal validity. Third, to this point no Arisian has been depicted as expressing the slightest empathy or sympathy for the suffering of the younger species, which makes it hard to read that into anything they do or say.

I recall that in the non-prequel material the Arisians actually do lay out their moral case and it working pretty well in context, but this is supposed to be the first book and they needed to make their case here as well. Ideally before the genocide plan was introduced.

“We take it, then, that this visualization is the fullest and most accurate one possible for the massed intellect of Arisia to construct from the information available at the moment.

From my 2016 perspective, familiar as I am with the awesome power of crowdsourcing, it seems kind of laughably elitist that the Elders’ visualization could not be improved upon by the amount of brain power that ‘the massed intellect of Arisia’ must represent. I can’t really fault the author for subscribing to the think-tank model, though.

The Moulders therefore, after describing briefly what they have already done, will inform us as to what they deem it necessary to do in the near future.”

Expositing about upcoming exposition is a clumsy thing.

“We have observed, and at times have guided, the evolution of intelligent life upon many planets,” the fusion began.

What suggests to me that the author is on some level aware of how troubling this activity is, is how he uses (and has the Arisians use) language which downplays the Arisians’ agency. ‘Guided’ sounds like they merely showed the intelligent life a way, which that life then chose to take. The truth is that since they are acting covertly, without consent or explanation, upon beings completely unable to resist them, all such actions are use of force.

“We have, to the best of our ability, directed the energies of these entities into the channels of Civilization; we have adhered consistently to the policy of steering as many different races as possible toward the intellectual level necessary for the effective use of the Lens, without which the proposed Galactic Patrol cannot come into being.

‘Directed,’ with its overtones of authority, is a slightly more honest term than ‘guided.’ ‘Steering’ is about right, though.

“For many cycles of time we have been working as individuals with the four strongest races, from one of which will be developed the people who will one day replace us as Guardians of Civilization. Blood lines have been established.

So the 4:4 correspondence isn’t just a coincidence, nice to know.

We have encouraged matings which concentrate traits of strength and dissipate those of weakness.

So here’s the open practice of eugenics, even if what’s admitted to is among the least noisome applications of that philosophy – there’s no forcible culling of undesirables, for instance. The term ‘encourage’ is another bit of agency-obscuring language, though. Given the urgency of their mission and the relatively slow turnover of human generations, I can’t imagine that the Arisians would spare any degree of mental compulsion to get their preferred pairings.

While no very great departure from the norm, either physically or mentally, will take place until after the penultimates have been allowed to meet and to mate, a definite general improvement of each race has been unavoidable.

I think it’s worth considering: what counts as improvement? Above, they talk about strength and weakness, similarly undefined. Do these terms apply to what the species’ members would consider better, or just to what is most useful to the Arisian plan?

Also, note the phrase ‘a definite general improvement of each race has been unavoidable.’ This seems a little weird, because isn’t the general improvement of each (and indeed every possible) species part of the plan? All I can make of that is that ‘definite’ is supposed to be subbing in for ‘noticeable,’ because…

“Thus the Eddorians have already interested themselves in our budding Civilization upon the planet Tellus, and it is inevitable that they will very shortly interfere with our work upon the other three.

So even though the Arisians have disguised their action on these worlds as mere statistical inevitability, the Eddorians are coming to ‘interfere.’ What will the Arisians do?

These four young Civilizations must be allowed to fall. It is to warn every Arisian against well-meant but inconsidered action that this conference was called.

Apparently they’ll do nothing. This is a prime opportunity for the author to establish the Arisians as benevolent, and it’s all but being thrown away. Note that warning against ‘well-meant but inconsidered action’ could mean Arisians trying to save the poor Earth-people for their own sake, but could just as easily mean Arisians trying to preserve promising pieces of their war effort.

We ourselves will operate through forms of flesh of no higher intelligence than, and indistinguishable from, the natives of the planets affected.

Ah, so the Arisians will be active at the fall of Atlantis and its alien equivalents, just not to save the societies. What their goals are remains a mystery.

No traceable connection will exist between those forms and us. No other Arisians will operate within extreme range of any one of those four planets; they will from now on be given the same status as has been so long accorded Eddore itself.

I think the fall of Atlantis is being sold as a sort of Churchill/Coventry moment, where the costs of preserving secrecy will hopefully be paid off in the long term. Once again, the problem is that without any mention of concern for life or suffering, we have no reason to assume it is for anything other than practical purposes.

The Eddorians must not learn of us until after it is too late for them to act effectively upon that knowledge. Any chance bit of information obtained by any Eddorian must be obliterated at once. It is to guard against and to negate such accidental disclosures that our Watchmen have been trained.”

The actual function of the Watchmen is revealed – not to monitor Eddorian activities (at least not primarily) but to keep the secret of Arisia’s existence. ‘Obliterating’ information and ‘negating’ disclosures presumably means limited memory erasure, since I don’t know how else they would remove information that had already leaked.

“But if all of our Civilizations go down….” Eukonidor began to protest.

As above, we don’t actually know what Eukonidor’s concern is. It could be for the suffering of the younger species, it could be for the potential failure of the genocide plan. That was kind of an unfortunate sentence to leave unfinished.

“Study will show you, youth, that the general level of mind, and hence of strength, is rising,” the fused Elders interrupted.

So here we get the previously mentioned ‘strength’ being equated with ‘level of mind.’ That does fall into the Venn overlap of ‘things a generic species would probably appreciate’ and ‘useful to the Arisian plan.’

Also note that Eukonidor’s correction doesn’t come with a critique of his thinking as did that of the unnamed ‘daughter.’

“The trend is ever upward; each peak and valley being higher than its predecessor.

From an in-fiction perspective, watching the Eddorians do whatever they do to cause civilizations to fall, across two galaxies for billions of years, could totally explain the kind of detachment that the Arisian elders are demonstrating. That scale of tragedy for that long, and no one could be blamed for suppressing their empathy. It could even explain why the Arisian elders back at the beginning of the conflict were so cold – if their ‘visualization’ is vivid enough, they could have been living with the weight of these decisions for a very long time. But I have to infer all of that, because it’s simply not present in the text. All we see depicted are the Arisians being cavalier with other people’s lives.

When the indicated level has been reached—the level at which the efficient use of the Lens will become possible—we will not only allow ourselves to become known to them; we will engage them at every point.”

More foreshadowing of the Lens, and also of the Arisians eventually revealing themselves.

“One factor remains obscure.” A Thinker broke the ensuing silence. “In this visualization I do not perceive anything to preclude the possibility that the Eddorians may at any time visualize us.

Now this seems like it could be a real threat. The Arisians are extremely paranoid about keeping themselves secret from the Eddorians, but apparently the enemy could just deduce their existence at any time. That’s the sort of thing that’ll keep an Elder up at night.

Granted that the Elders of long ago did not merely visualize the Eddorians, but perceived them in time-space surveys; that they and subsequent Elders were able to maintain the status quo; and that the Eddorian way of thought is essentially mechanistic, rather than philosophic, in nature. There is still a possibility that the enemy may be able to deduce us by processes of logic alone. 

First, this bit about ‘time-space’ surveys conflicts with an earlier statement about how the two parties were ‘completely in ignorance’ of each other until Enphilistor stumbled over the Eddorians; which statement was already part-contradicted by the visualization of the Eddorians in the first place – it seems like the author was continually revising his view on how much the Arisians knew and just didn’t go back to make sure all the references matched.

Second, the mechanistic/philosophic divide goes back to the Eddorian physical technology contrasting with the Arisian mental technology, and implies that the mechanists are either less able or less willing to engage in speculative deduction.

This thought is particularly disturbing to me at the present time because a rigid statistical analysis of the occurrences upon those four planets shows that they cannot possibly have been due to chance. With such an analysis as a starting point, a mind of even moderate ability could visualize us practically in toto.

What an Arisian means by ‘moderate ability’ is of course not to scale with any human use of the term, and given how the All-Highest was handled by a ‘young student’ back at the dawn of the war, one wonders if any of the Eddorians qualify as moderate. But even if a moderate mind is required to visualize the Arisians in toto, the Arisians would consider it a disaster to be vizualized at all.

I assume, however, that this possibility has been taken into consideration, and suggest that the membership be informed.”

“The point is well taken. The possibility exists. While the probability is very great that such an analysis will not be made until after we have declared ourselves, it is not a certainty.

So for all the talk of how the Eddorians must not become aware of them (until it is too late), the Arisians actually have been taking a calculated risk with their operations. My impression is that this was unavoidable, that operating more cautiously would have been counter-productive.

Immediately upon deducing our existence, however, the Eddorians would begin to build against us, upon the four planets and elsewhere. Since there is only one effective counter-structure possible, and since we Elders have long been alert to detect the first indications of that particular activity, we know that the situation remains unchanged.

If it changes, we will call at once another full meeting of minds.

Spoiler warning: this set-up never actually pays off. I mention it here because I don’t believe there’s a better opportunity to do so. I think it’s a real shame that the Arisian plan goes as smoothly as it does, it’s a waste of dramatic potential and further undercuts the Eddorians as a threat.

It does, however, make total sense in context with the established Eddorian megalomania. Deducing the Arisians would mean recognizing that another species was capable enough to oppose the Eddorians while remaining hidden from them, and I think that falls squarely in the category of things that no Eddorian could ever admit to.

Are there any other matters of moment…? If not, this conference will dissolve.”

That’s it for this section. All the groundwork has been laid, all that’s left is the action. See you on Earth!