Lensman: Writ Small

Triplanetary 12 – Chapter 5: 1941

Welcome to the read!

I think the reason I’ve struggled to find much value in doing the full extended close-reading of the last few segments is because they haven’t been particularly science-fictional. Teasing out nuances of the setting and story is much less engaging when it’s a fairly simple version of our own history. Well, this chapter’s not only not particularly science-fictional, it’s also less fictional than the other historical chapters. This chapter is famously (somewhat) autobiographical.

I usually just refer to him as ‘the author’ to keep things abstract, but the man who wrote the Lensmen stories was named Dr. Edward Elmer Smith, and he was a chemist by education, working mostly in food engineering and specializing in donuts. Between 1941 and 1945, Smith worked for the U.S. Army, and it seems plausible that this chapter’s story is at least based on his own experiences.

It’s a good story, too, about grappling with corruption in the wartime explosives industry, the kind of WW2 story I’ve seen very little of, and one in which Hitler is in fact never mentioned; the villain is an American manufacturer cutting corners on shell production. The Smith analogue (Ralph Kinnison from last chapter) is cast as a heroic figure, but it’s clear that he can only accomplish what he does because of the efforts and support of his team. He deals square with them, so they stand by him, and that solidarity gives them the limited victory they win. If it was only a good story, I might leave it there, because it would be as or more disconnected from the primary narrative as the WW1 story, but there is a connection, even if it’s only thematic.

I am certain that the conflict in this story is intended to illustrate the Arisian-Eddorian values conflict. It’s hard to substantiate without jumping ahead, because one of the baffling problems in the story so far is enunciating what those conflicting values are. So I’ll just have to ask you to stipulate my premise.

Although he does a great job of showing us his ethos in action, Smith/Kinnison makes his own position pithily explicit near the very end of the chapter when he says: “I don’t want to seem trite, but you are just beginning to find out that honesty and loyalty are a hell of a hard team to beat.” As we’ll see later (I hope, it’s been a while since I actually read the later relevant text), the Arisians encourage cooperation, while the Eddorians foster competition. As a result, people on the Arisian side are e.g. honest with each other, because the success of one is the success of all, while people on the Eddorian side are secretive, because they’re always looking for an edge to either get one up on their boss or keep their underlings from getting one up on them.

Another element of the value conflict is the differing opinion on the roles of leadership. When Kinnison is brought in to fill a job, he finds that his predecessor had built a layer of hierarchy to insulate himself from the actual factory workers: ‘Stillman had not made a habit of visiting the lines; nor did the Chief Line Inspectors, the boys who really knew what was going on, ever visit him. They reported to the Assistants, who reported to Stillman, who handed down his Jovian pronouncements.’ We haven’t seen it as much yet, because Gharlane has been pretty active, but the Eddorian modus operandi we’ll see later on is for the leaders to work through layers and layers of subordinates. Kinnison’s viewpoint is different; speaking of his team he says “I give them a job to do and let them do it. I back them up. That’s all.” While the Arisians themselves remain (mostly) aloof, the leaders of their sponsored team are either this kind of supportive or else hands-on active field sorts, plainly seeing those they lead as teammates instead of tools.

So the previous chapter was an actual non-sequitor, but this one is more a kind of thematic foreshadowing. I do recommend the story, you can find the text (along with the rest of Triplanetary) here at Project Gutenberg, but I’m not going to do a proper close read of it because I’m too eager to move on to the next chapter and the actual sci-fi content, including the actual death of the 20th century.

Next up: Actual close-reading again, I promise.