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.

Lensman: Tangential Connections

Triplanetary 11 – Chapter 4: 1918

Welcome to the read! This is another post where I’m not going to engage in the usual long-form close read, because this chapter isn’t particularly interesting from that perspective. In fact, most of the interest comes from material that isn’t included. This is the first chapter in what’s called Book 2 – The World War, and in many respects it is not at all like the preceding chapters. It is another flavor of ordinary pulp story in the middle of the larger narrative, but that seems to be the only connection.

First, there’s no awareness at all of the larger sci-fi conflict. We don’t get any Arisian or Eddorian discussion to lead in, it’s just straight to the human perspective. Second, the main character isn’t a member of the bloodline we followed in the two previous stories, lacking the signature coloration. Third, it doesn’t end with anything even as dramatic as the failure to remove Nero, let alone the end of the Atlantean era. It’s literally just a WW1 action yarn, with no particular connection to the larger story.

In short, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for this chapter. As far as the Lensman narrative is concerned, you might as well read any random WW1 story as this one.

The only actual connection is that the main character’s last name is Kinnison. If you came to this book as a prequel, having already read the original series, you would know that Kinnison is the last name of that series’ main character, and so we were getting his ancestors’ perspective. At the end of Book 2, we also get a note that strongly hints that the Kinnison bloodline is another one that the Arisians have been cultivating. So it’s not completely random, just mostly.

What’s puzzling to me is how the narratives of these bloodlines are presented. Book 1 has two human-focused chapters, each starring a member of the Phrygean line, but two isn’t quite enough to form a pattern, and also the logistics of how the descendants made it from North America to Thrace are unclear. The three chapters of Book 2 each star a Kinnison (the same one for two of them), and in a much more satisfying and coherent way, but that also means that the last we see of the Phrygeans before we go into the science-fiction future is the 1st Century. It kind of feels like these sequences were written with the constraints of the magazine format in mind, even though as far as I know they were only ever published in book form.

I think it would have made better sense to alternate between the bloodlines. Have the Phryges character be of the Kinnison line, so his family escaping to North America could show up again much later as a family now from North America. The peculiarly specific redheads could show up in the gladiator revolt, and then again in one of the World War era stories to stay present. Maybe have one more story set somewhere between 9500 BCE and ~65 CE to keep the number of appearances even.

Anyway, there are two pieces of positive content I want to mention from this chapter. The first is that it opens with a barrage of derogatory slang words for Germans. We get ‘Boche,’ ‘hun,’ and ‘kraut.’ Perfectly accurate to the soldiers of the period and to the style of WWI stories that the author was paying homage to, but I thought it was worth mentioning because they’re still ethnic slurs in the text, and because of the germanophobic stereotyping I thought I detected in the description of the Eddorians.

The second thing is that we have a male character come very close to fainting! I mentioned back when Kinnexa didn’t quite lose consciousness that I didn’t think we ever saw a man do the same thing even if they had more cause to, but Captain Ralph Kinnison does it.

“Better tell us what it is, hadn’t you?” The ambulance was now jolting along what had been the road. “They’ve got phones at the hospital where we’re going, but you might faint or something before we get there.”

Kinnison told, but fought to retain what consciousness he had. Throughout that long, rough ride he fought. He won.

Now, he’s coming from a position other than emotional distress, having been previously KO’d by a blast and badly wounded by shrapnel, but low blood pressure is low blood pressure. It’s not equality, but it’s a lot closer than I expected.

Anyway, join me next time for the WW2 portion of the World War.

Lensman: Antisemitic Canards

Triplanetary 10 – Chapter 3: The Fall of Rome

Welcome to the read! In this post I’m going to deviate from my standard format where I reproduce all the text and occasionally interject my commentary, because I tried that and it’s not working for me for some reason. Instead, it’s going to be more selective excerpts for illustrative purposes.

First, the chapter title is the Fall of Rome, which is a dramatic and recognizable tagline that usually refers to events in the 5th century CE, and is not really justified by the activities of the chapter, which takes place during the reign of Nero, about 400 years earlier. The established conceit is that Nero is an Eddorian puppet and his actions put an end to any hopes of a return to a less tyrannical form of government, but calling that ‘the fall of Rome’ requires hopelessly conflating Rome and republicanism. It’s a big stretch just to not have to come up with a more original chapter title.

Second, it’s a gladiator story.

“But what have you, Livius, or any of us, for that matter, got to live for?” demanded Patroclus the gladiator of his cell-mate. “We are well fed, well kept, well exercised; like horses. But, like horses, we are lower than slaves. Slaves have some freedom of action; most of us have none. We fight—fight whoever or whatever our cursed owners send us against. Those of us who live fight again; but the end is certain and comes soon. I had a wife and children once. So did you. Is there any chance, however slight, that either of us will ever know them again; or learn even whether they live or die? None. At this price, is your life worth living? Mine is not.”

The theme of slave gladiators seeking their liberty is by now very familiar, indelibly pressed into popular culture by Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus. The Spartacus narrative seems to have been fairy popular even before 1948, though, with novels based on those events published in 1933 and 1939. It seems that just as the author could count on an audience’s interest carrying through a short spy thriller for the Atlantis segment, he could count on it carrying through a short gladiator story for this segment.

Patroclus has Captain Phryges’ protagonist coloring: red-bronze-auburn hair and gold-flecked tawny eyes. Patroclus is a Thracian, and Livius comments: ‘from your build and hair and eyes you descend from Spartacus himself,’ and this combination raises a question. That very specific coloration is supposed to be the mark of a particular Arisian-cultivated bloodline, last seen heading to North America. How did it cross the Atlantic to show up in Greece? It seems like the author was cheating so he could ‘follow’ this bloodline down through history, while at the same time having it show up wherever he wanted.

Also, note that Patroclus is established as having fathered children already, so he can die without compromising the Arisian plans.

Anyway, Patroclus recruits Livius into a gladiatorial conspiracy to assassinate Nero, and the motive isn’t well-established. It’s part of a broader revolt that includes slaughtering the gladiators’ owners at a party, and Patroclus has a personal reason for going after the commander of the Praetorian Guard, but the reasons for including Nero among the targets are just kind of left out. I guess it’s vaguely implied that the noble members who are providing the weapons and armor are using the gladiators for a political assassination, but it’s pretty vague. It bugs me because a line or two of dialogue could clear that right up, and when the story’s about a conspiracy to assassinate Nero, the motive for the crime is kind of an important detail.

***

Something I want to delve into a bit is that Patroclus seems to be deliberately written as less than usually relatable for a pulp protagonist. Here he is talking about getting rid of the Emperor’s secret agents, and sounding much more like a pulp villain than a hero.

Many of his spies among us have died; most, if not all, of the rest are known. They, too, shall die. Glatius, for instance. Once in a while, by the luck of the gods, a man kills a better man than he is; but Glatius has done it six times in a row, without getting a scratch. But the next time he fights, in spite of Nero’s protection, Glatius dies.’

An actual surprise for me was to see that the author was willing to have both Patroclus and Livius be completely and matter-of-factly unsympathetic towards Christians. A lot of this kind of fiction, pulp and otherwise, was justified by making them at least tangentially Christian stories, and Christian sympathies were shorthand for ‘good guy.’ But check out this exchange.

“The prisons and the pits are so crowded with Christians that they die and stink, and a pestilence threatens. To mend matters, some scores of hundreds of them are to be crucified here tomorrow.”

“Why not? Everyone knows that they are poisoners of wells and murderers of children, and practitioners of magic. Wizards and witches.”

“True enough.”

That’s cold.

Nero did persecute Christians, whom he blamed for causing the Great Fire of Rome, so it’s not ahistorical to see them here, although ‘some scores of hundreds’ seems like an inflated number for dramatic purposes. What is ahistorical are the specific things Livius is accusing them of, which are not, AFAICT, actual Roman-era anti-Christian prejudice. They are what are charmingly referred to as antisemitic canards. Wikipedia tells me that Roman folk scares about Christians cast them as specifically cannibalistic (because of their Communion ritual) and incestuous (because of their referring to each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’). Well-poisoning and child-murder, on the other hand, are particularly signature accusations against Jews, with origins in the medieval period. The only place I recall seeing Jews accused of sorcery is in the film Borat, but I can easily believe it’s another canard, it’s a very convenient way to blame someone for something they had no visible method of accomplishing.

Now, I believe that the author is making a risky ironic statement about bullshit religious persecution, by subjecting the historical antecedents of his audience’s majority religion to the exact same false accusations that had been leveled at Jews by Christians for hundreds of years (keeping in mind he was writing in 1948). The problem is that in the period in question, most Christians were Jewish, and it could also be read as the author thoughtlessly or maliciously backdating these antisemitic canards by over a thousand years and also validating them as the beliefs of his heroic duo. I don’t believe that’s the case, and here’s why:

Skipping ahead a little (past a fight scene I will get to), Patroclus and Livius have both won their bouts, and eaten, and come back to watch the crucifixions. And instead of them losing their lunch at the horror, or anything similar, we get this paragraph:

And, if the truth must be told, those two men enjoyed thoroughly every moment of that long and sickeningly horrible afternoon. They were the hardest products of the hardest school the world has ever known: trained rigorously to deal out death mercilessly at command; to accept death unflinchingly at need. They should not and can not be judged by the higher, finer standards of a softer, gentler day.

I don’t see paragraphs like this nearly often enough. A lot of entertainment either set in or inspired by the bad old days seems written specifically to wallow in the bad behaviors allowed or encouraged by less-enlightened societies without even implicit condemnation, so it’s really refreshing to see explicit condemnation. Even though it’s the narrator commenting in a distracting way, I think that a lot of readers might have been somewhat distracted at that point anyway, because the preceding paragraph is a description of a mass crucifixion, albeit not a graphic one.

So I think it’s obvious that Patroclus and Livius are not intended to be sympathetic, especially in their views on Christians, despite being the main characters of this fragment of the story, and in that light their demonstrated anti-Christian prejudice is intended to be the bullshit that it in fact is. It’s just a shame there’s any room for interpretation at all, and the author would have been on much firmer ground if he’d stuck to historical anti-Christian tropes. I should mention that there’s a lot of attention to other historical details in this part of the story, so there clearly was at least some research involved.

The question that’s raised in light of the rest of the series is: how sympathetic are the future-folk, like Kimball Kinnison, supposed to be? That’s something I’ll bring up again when their various monstrosities are performed.

***

Patroclus’ fight scene is really quite good, including pre-fight strategizing, and generally showing that he has cunning and forethought as well as strength and skill. My criticism is that it’s completely disconnected from the plot and could have been skipped entirely at very little loss, except that gladiator stories must have a gladiator match in them, apparently. The stakes we’re given are that is he loses, Patroclus is certain to get the death-signal and not be able to participate in the uprising; but he’s still just one of many and it seems like the uprising could plausibly continue without him. If it were crucial to the assassination plot that Patroclus be the overall champion of the games because only the champion would get special access to the Emperor or something, those would be some relevant stakes, but we’ve been specifically told that all surviving gladiators get the relevant invitation. Or he could have been matched against Glatius, the spy mentioned above, and the fight gotten more emphasis as a battle of wits, with Glatius’ various treacheries matched against Patroclus trying to make an execution look like an accident of battle, and the stakes would still have been plot-relevant because the plan couldn’t proceed with the spy in their midst. It’s still good, it just sort of obviously could have been better.

 

Something that gets established before and after the fight, is that Patroclus believes he’s invincible due to protection from the god Jupiter, and this is almost-mirrored in Livius, who appeals to many different gods for aid until he feels that he’s found a willing patron. This comes up again in a moment.

***

 

The plan goes off more or less as planned – or so it seems. Most of the gladiator’s owners die, but Patroclus was delayed by ‘misfortune,’ and meets a high-ranking member of the conspiracy, who was in position to stab Nero, but was inexplicably paralyzed and sent running, presumably by Gharlane’s mental powers. Patroclus is daunted, but depends on his divine protection and goes to try the murder himself, cutting a path through the emperor’s protectors. And then this happens:

And Nero, sitting at ease with a beautiful boy at his right and a beautiful harlot at his left, gazed appreciatively through his emerald lens at the flaming torches; the while, with a very small fraction of his Eddorian mind, he mused upon the matter of Patroclus and Tigellinus.

Should he let the Thracian kill the Commander of his Guard? Or not? It didn’t really matter, one way or the other. In fact, nothing about this whole foul planet—this ultra-microscopic, if offensive, speck of cosmic dust in the Eddorian Scheme of Things—really mattered at all. It would be mildly amusing to watch the gladiator consummate his vengeance by carving the Roman to bits. But, on the other hand, there was such a thing as pride of workmanship. Viewed in that light, the Thracian could not kill Tigellinus, because that bit of corruption had a few more jobs to do. He must descend lower and lower into unspeakable depravity, finally to cut his own throat with a razor. Although Patroclus would not know it—it was better technique not to let him know it—the Thracian’s proposed vengeance would have been futility itself compared with that which the luckless Roman was to wreak on himself.

Wherefore a shrewdly-placed blow knocked the helmet from Patroclus’ head and a mace crashed down, spattering his brains abroad.

* * * * *

Thus ended the last significant attempt to save the civilization of Rome; in a fiasco so complete that even such meticulous historians as Tacitus and Suetonius mention it merely as a minor disturbance of Nero’s garden party.

It’s not nearly as elegant as his work with Atlantis, where no hero even got close to Gharlane’s meat-puppet, and no one person was ever in a position to thwart the vast processes he put into motion. Nevertheless, this is another example of heroic individuals putting forth their finest effort, only to fail miserably in the face of Eddorian ability.

It is good to see something of Gharlane’s plan for Tigellinus and a glimpse of just how terrible Eddorian domination is, where they craft nightmare lives and deaths for people out of ‘pride of workmanship.’

Alas, we don’t get a denouement about how the noble patrons of the conspiracy were closet republicans whose failure and executions damaged and discredited their movement beyond recovery. That would have gotten as close as anything could to validating this chapter’s title. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this event being just a run-of-the-mill assassination attempt, but it would have been stronger story if it was also tied into the larger narrative.

The denouement we get is this:

The planet Tellus circled its sun some twenty hundred times. Sixty-odd generations of men were born and died, but that was not enough. The Arisian program of genetics required more. Therefore the Elders, after due deliberation, agreed that that Civilization, too, must be allowed to fall. And Gharlane of Eddore, recalled to duty from the middle of a much-too-short vacation, found things in very bad shape indeed and went busily to work setting them to rights. He had slain one fellow-member of the Innermost Circle, but there might very well have been more than one Master involved.

There’s a fair amount to unpack here. So, we’re skipping ahead to more-or-less the modern day, which is not long enough for the Arisian plan to bear fruit… so the Arisians agree that modern civilization must be allowed to fall? That doesn’t follow, until we also get the information that Gharlane is back. That’s just sloppy, it should very clearly be 1) Gharlane’s coming back to kick over our anthill, 2) We still aren’t in a position to stop him, 3) Welp, I guess the latest round of not-sucky human society is over, then.

Also, Gharlane has killed one of his peers, presumably for the crime of messing with him discussed in the first part of the chapter, and… huh? On the surface, it definitely gives him more stature, he has now killed more of the bad guys than anyone else we know of. Look a little deeper, and that’s badly undermined because of how wrong he got it. He killed the wrong thing, and not only does Gharlane he not know he made a mistake, he’s hot on the trail of further mistakes to make. I can buy his making such an error once and retaining credibility, because maybe he killed the guy just to make sure everyone else knew he wasn’t fucking around. Persisting in his paranoid delusion just makes him seem a bit pathetic.

Anyway, that’s the third and final chapter of Book One: Dawn. Next up is Book Two: The World War, where we’ll presumably find out how Gharlane murders the twentieth century, and whether Hitler is involved.

Lensman: A Glimmer of Empathy

Triplanetary 9 – Chapter 3: The Fall of Rome

Welcome to the read! This particular section is very short and I only have a couple of things to say about it, so this is even more of a mini-entry than last time. It might be worth refreshing your memory with the last time we visited Arisia, because this revisits the problems with that section of the last chapter, specifically the apparent Arisian lack of empathy for the people they’re using to win the war.

2. — Arisia

In the brief interval between the fall of Atlantis and the rise of Rome to the summit of her power, Eukonidor of Arisia had aged scarcely at all. He was still a youth. He was, and would be for many centuries to come, a Watchman. Although his mind was powerful enough to understand the Elders’ visualization of the course of Civilization—in fact, he had already made significant progress in his own visualization of the Cosmic All—he was not sufficiently mature to contemplate unmoved the events which, according to all Arisian visualizations, were bound to occur.

Remember the phrase ‘not sufficiently mature’ for just a minute.

“Your feeling is but natural, Eukonidor.” Drounli, the Moulder principally concerned with the planet Tellus, meshed his mind smoothly with that of the young Watchman. “We do not enjoy it ourselves, as you know. It is, however, necessary. In no other way can the ultimate triumph of Civilization be assured.”

“But can nothing be done to alleviate…?” Eukonidor paused.

The word ‘alleviate’ here is important, because it is powerfully associated with relieving suffering. There are other ways to use it, but it’s rare because other words usually fit better. Although the sentence is left maddeningly unfinished (like a previous possible expression of Eukonidor’s empathy), it strongly suggests that Eukonidor actually is expressing a concern for the humans as people who will endure hardship and death, and not as raw material for weapons.

But then we return to ‘not sufficiently mature.’

Let’s consider the two possible cases. If Eukonidor’s concern is for human suffering, then the narrator considers it ‘immature’ to be moved by the suffering of many people over many centuries. If Eukonidor’s concern is for the war effort, then the narrator considers it ‘immature’ to be moved by a setback in the war effort. So either Eukonidor is not showing empathy, or he’s being judged as childish for showing empathy. Neither speaks well to the Arisian context.

Also, even if Eukonidor is showing empathy here (and was before), because it’s the same character both times, it’s easy to associate it with the character and not a broader segment of the society. Like Artomenes’ paranoia, handing all responsibility for expressing a sentiment to one person only develops that character, not the setting.

Drounli waited. “Have you any suggestions to offer?”

“None,” the younger Arisian confessed. “But I thought… you, or the Elders, so much older and stronger… could….”

“We can not. Rome will fall. It must be allowed to fall.”

“It will be Nero, then? And we can do nothing?”

“Nero. We can do little enough. Our forms of flesh—Petronius, Acte, and the others—will do whatever they can; but their powers will be exactly the same as those of other human beings of their time.

Gaius Petronius Arbiter was a famously hedonistic Roman who was a close friend, and also critic, of Nero’s. Claudia Acte was Nero’s mistress for three years, and a source of strife between Nero and his family. It seems strange that the Arisians would operate so physically close to the Eddorian, but given Nero’s despotism, influencing the Emperor would be the most efficient way to accomplish anything.

They must be and will be constrained, since any show of unusual powers, either mental or physical, would be detected instantly and would be far too revealing. On the other hand, Nero—that is, Gharlane of Eddore—will be operating much more freely.”

“Very much so. Practically unhampered, except in purely physical matters. But, if nothing can be done to stop it…. If Nero must be allowed to sow his seeds of ruin….”

And upon that cheerless note the conference ended.

Next up: Earth, and gladiators!

Lensman: Who’s Bad (at Being Bad)?

Triplanetary 8 – Chapter 3: The Fall of Rome

Welcome to the read! Like the previous chapter, this one is divided into three parts, starting with the Eddorian perspective on this aspect of the conflict.

1. Eddore

Like two high executives of a Tellurian corporation discussing business affairs during a chance meeting at one of their clubs, Eddore’s All Highest and Gharlane, his second in command, were having the Eddorian equivalent of an after-business-hours chat.

I mentioned before that I don’t like this very cozy humanization of the incomprehensible alien beings, and that’s still true.

“You did a nice job on Tellus,” the All-Highest commended. “On the other three, too, of course, but Tellus was so far and away the worst of the lot that the excellence of the work stands out. When the Atlantean nations destroyed each other so thoroughly I thought that this thing called ‘democracy’ was done away with forever, but it seems to be mighty hard to kill. 

I do like that the Eddorians are apparently so unfamiliar with the concept of democracy that they don’t seem to have a word for it and have to refer to it indirectly. Their political history has been so heavily weighted towards dictatorship that they never developed the term, even for theory.

However, I take it that you have this Rome situation entirely under control?”

The Roman Republic was designed to be a compromise between the various recognized political powers (the commoners, the aristocracy, the military, etc.) and was only kind of democratic even after correcting for ancient patriarchy. I’m guessing the author chose it over a purer ancient democracy (e.g. Athens) simply because Rome was better known, although I can see an argument that the Republic’s greater success and scope than its more democratic competitors could have done a better job of spreading democratic principles, had it not become an Empire.

“Definitely. Mithradates of Pontus was mine. So were both Sulla and Marius. Through them and others I killed practically all of the brains and ability of Rome, and reduced that so-called ‘democracy’ to a howling, aimless mob.

Earlier references to the use of mental force suggest that Gharlane used some degree of mind-control to work through these people, although the extent is left unclear. Sulla and Marius are good fits for his stated goals, as they led the Republic into two civil wars that killed a great many Romans and paved the way for Julius Caesar’s dictatorship. Mithradates of Pontus was one of the greatest of Rome’s enemies, fighting three wars with them, and in particular killing tens of thousands of Roman settlers. Gharlane seems to have arranged for these acts to disproportionately eliminate future Roman talent.

My Nero will end it. Rome will go on by momentum—outwardly, will even appear to grow—for a few generations, but what Nero will do can never be undone.”

Nero is famous for being an insane and incompetent ruler, although the historicity of that is controversial. However, since this is (obviously) an alternate timeline, we can accept a dreadful Nero as accurate. Now, a case could be made that a dreadful Nero was a key figure in the fall of the Western Empire, but it would seem that he would do so in such a way as to undermine the system of Imperial rule, first by being an incompetent tyrant, and second by ending the Caesarian line of succession and reducing the perceived legitimacy of later emperors. On the other hand, the historian Tacitus reported that Nero’s misrule inspired a conspiracy to restore the Republic, which was discovered and wiped out; in this case that could have been an intentional strategy of Gharlane’s to reduce the reservoir of Republican sentiment below some critical threshold.

On a side note, Nero reigns from 54-68 CE, so the time-skip between this chapter and the last is somewhere between 9500 and 9600 years. It’s not ~(2X10^9) like it was between chapters one and two, but it’s still significantly longer than most chapter breaks.

“Good. A difficult task, truly.”

“Not difficult, exactly… but it’s so damned steady.” Gharlane’s thought was bitter. “But that’s the hell of working with such short-lived races. Since each creature lives only a minute or so, they change so fast that a man can’t take his mind off of them for a second.

On some level it makes sense for the Arisians to have tweaked humanity for a faster generational turnover, partly so they get more generations for their breeding program, and also so that when they get a chance to promote their politics, the generations who were raised solely in the Eddorian context fall away more quickly.

I’ve been wanting to take a little vacation trip back to our old time-space, but it doesn’t look as though I’ll be able to do it until after they get some age and settle down.”

“That won’t be too long. Life-spans lengthen, you know, as races approach their norms.”

I don’t think there’s any actual biology behind this statement (what would a ‘norm’ even be in that context?), it’s probably just a setting conceit to explain why the elder aliens live more or less forever.

“Yes. But none of the others is having half the trouble that I am. Most of them, in fact, have things coming along just about the way they want them. My four planets are raising more hell than all the rest of both galaxies put together, and I know that it isn’t me—next to you, I’m the most efficient operator we’ve got.

From this perspective, the limited scope of Arisian operations seems like an error because it makes the very few areas they’ve spent the most energy on stand out all the more. If they’d given more help to more planets, that would have been better camouflage (and better altruism), but I guess they don’t have enough people with the skills to be covert Moulders.

What I’m wondering about is why I happen to be the goat.”

“Precisely because you are our most efficient operator.”

This does make sense. Gharlane took on the most troublesome planets because he was the best for the job. That the planets remain troublesome despite his efforts suggests an underlying cause not being addressed. We know that cause is the Arisians, but how do the Eddorians account for it, if they do?

If an Eddorian can be said to smile, the All-Highest smiled. “You know, as well as I do, the findings of the Integrator.”

“Yes, but I am wondering more and more as to whether to believe them unreservedly or not. Spores from an extinct life-form—suitable environments—operation of the laws of chance—Tommyrot!

I assume the Integrator is a hyper-advanced form of the mechanical calculators used in Atlantis, where they can feed in data and get answers that match the criteria. But unless it’s something like true AI, it can only respond with answers in its database, and while that’s apparently pretty extensive, it presumably can’t give them an answer they’re incapable of admitting and therefore can’t program into it. So the Integrator can’t help them, and to a certain extent works against them by providing plausible cover for the Arisians.

What’s interesting is that Gharlane seems to have intuited that the Integrator has failed, but the supposedly superior All-Highest has not. This could be a simple matter of ego: Gharlane can’t accept that his failure is caused by the proposed factors, probably especially once he was made aware of those possibilities and could compensate for them. On the other hand, he is right and the All-Highest is wrong, and this is the continuation of a pattern where Gharlane is portrayed much more competently than his boss.

We’ve seen the All-Highest fail to even harm Enphilistor, and get thoroughly owned by the Arisian Elders, and we’ve seen Gharlane defeat an entire planet by himself. Obviously, those were against very different classes of opposition, but total failure compared to total (if temporary) success is still a track record. Now we see that Gharlane is apparently out-thinking his boss as well. It paints a picture.

I am beginning to suspect that chance is being strained beyond its elastic limit, for my particular benefit, and as soon as I can find out who is doing that straining there will be one empty place in the Innermost Circle.”

This is pretty good. Even if the Eddorians could admit the existence of the Arisians to themselves, when faced with mysterious opposition it’s far more plausible for that opposition to come from the ancient super-species they know exists. Gharlane thinks one of the other Circle members is messing with him, presumably to take his place as Master Number Two.

“Have a care, Gharlane!” All levity, all casualness disappeared. “Whom do you suspect? Whom do you accuse?”

“Nobody, as yet. The true angle never occurred to me until just now, while I have been discussing the thing with you. Nor shall I either suspect or accuse, ever. I shall determine, then I shall act.”

“In defiance of me? Of my orders?” the All-Highest demanded, his short temper flaring.

“Say, rather, in support,” the lieutenant shot back, unabashed. “If some one is working on me through my job, what position are you probably already in, without knowing it?

Again, the All-Highest comes off second-best. He’s short-tempered, and his attempts to establish authority come off as desperate because Gharlane shows no deference, no sense that the All-Highest holds the power in this exchange. Gharlane is decisive, direct, committed, and already working to recruit the All-Highest. He’s showing power.

Remember that the difference between the capabilities of the All-Highest and his Inner Circle is supposed to be ‘infinitesimal.’ He should not be getting steamrolled like this.

Assume that I am right, that these four planets of mine got the way they are because of monkey business inside the Circle. Who would be next? And how sure are you that there isn’t something similar, but not so far advanced, already aimed at you? It seems to me that serious thought is in order.”

“Perhaps so…. You may be right…. There have been a few nonconformable items. Taken separately, they did not seem to be of any importance; but together, and considered in this new light….”

Thus was borne out the conclusion of the Arisian Elders that the Eddorians would not at that time deduce Arisia; and thus Eddore lost its chance to begin in time the forging of a weapon with which to oppose effectively Arisia’s—Civilization’s—Galactic Patrol, so soon to come into being.

This conclusion doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me on a couple of levels.

First: I will buy that these two are diverted by paranoia for a while, but the idea that they’d be diverted for thousands of years is ridiculous. If there were actually a secret plot against them that was at an unknown stage of progression, they should move pretty fast to make sure it doesn’t come to fruition – and one of them is the actual dictator of their society, he can just have his suspects imprisoned and interrogated at will, the very efficiency their system exists to promote. This secret plot delusion should be debunked in a very short time, and then the Eddorians would be looking for new explanations again. Intra-Eddorian suspicion would be a great cover for more obvious Arisian activity in one of these prequel chapters. More than that, and the Eddorians look badly incompetent.

Second: I’m really not clear what kind of weapon is being discussed or why it would take so long to make. The Arisians have to work slowly because they’re being covert and also breeding creatures with human lifespans (among others). The Eddorians, on the other hand, have already built an enormous intergalactic empire, and have hyper-advanced technology. It’s really unclear what keeps them from using their massive advantages in resources, manpower, and technology to just annihilate the Galactic Patrol whenever it shows up. I’ll raise this again when it becomes relevant.

If either of the two had been less suspicious, less jealous, less arrogant and domineering—in other words, had not been Eddorians—this History of Civilization might never have been written; or written very differently and by another hand.

Both were, however, Eddorians.

My concerns for this section have been mostly narrative, but here’s a nice little opportunity to talk about social matters that goes right back to the problems of genetically inherent morality I brought up in an earlier post. Protip: if you have written a passage about a people, and if you were to replace that people’s name with ‘Jews’ the resulting passage would look like something written by Nazis, rewrite.

Lensman: Kinnexa is (mostly) Awesome

Triplanetary 7 – Chapter 2: The Fall of Atlantis

Welcome to the read! This chapter has a deal less questionable material in it than previous ones, so you’ll see some longer intervals between my comments.

Four of the conferees filed out and a brisk young man strode in. Although he did not look at the Faros his eyes asked questions.

“Reporting for orders, sir.” He saluted the Officer punctiliously.

“At ease, sir.” Artomenes returned the salute. “You were called here for a word from the Faros. Sir, I present Captain Phryges.”

“Not orders, son… no.” Ariponides’ right hand rested in greeting upon the captain’s left shoulder, wise old eyes probed deeply into gold-flecked, tawny eyes of youth; the Faros saw, without really noticing, a flaming thatch of red-bronze-auburn hair.

In 1948 as today, very distinctive hair and eye colors are a good indicator that someone is a protagonist.

“I asked you here to wish you well; not only for myself, but for all our nation and perhaps for our entire race. While everything in my being rebels against an unprovoked and unannounced assault, we may be compelled to choose between our Officer’s plan of campaign and the destruction of Civilization.

Wait. In the previous half of this section, the Officer’s first-strike plan was described as ‘entirely futile.’ A large chunk of the text was spent establishing that it was both unacceptable morally and unworkable practically. Why is it still being talked about like it’s even remotely a thing? Sure, proceed with the recon mission, it’s always good to have better intel, but – huh? I feel like I’m looking at a transitional draft because this makes no sense to me at all.

Since you already know the vital importance of your mission, I need not enlarge upon it. But I want you to know fully, Captain Phryges, that all Atlantis flies with you this night.”

Yeah, this ‘weight of the world’ talk really makes it sound as though the first-strike mission had not just been rejected. In context, Phryges’ mission should still be an important fact-finding mission, but nothing to justify ‘all Atlantis flies with you.’ This reads like the author really liked the dramatic tension of the super-high-stakes mission, but didn’t bother to reconcile it with the actual ethics and politics of nuclear weapons that he wound up outlining beforehand.

I’m going to try reading it like this: for some reason (morale, focus, continuity, information sequestration) the Faros has decided not to tell Phryges that his mission isn’t the tip of a nuclear spear. Let’s see if that’s consistent with the rest of the text.

“Th… thank you, sir.” Phryges gulped twice to steady his voice. “I’ll do my best, sir.”

That’s a nice touch of emotional vulnerability to humanize our hero.

And later, in a wingless craft flying toward the airfield, young Phryges broke a long silence.

‘Wingless craft’ could mean a lot of things: helicopter, hovercraft, some sort of jump-rocket, a lifting-body aircraft; all modern or futuristic ideas in 1948.

“So that is the Faros… I like him, Officer … I have never seen him close up before… there’s something about him…. He isn’t like my father, much, but it seems as though I have known him for a thousand years!”

That’s a lot of ellipses, indicating a very unusual pattern of speech. I don’t know what to make of it. Is he meant to be deep in thought? Star-struck and rambling?

“Hm-m-m. Peculiar. You two are a lot alike, at that, even though you don’t look anything like each other…. Can’t put a finger on exactly what it is, but it’s there.” Although Artomenes nor any other of his time could place it, the resemblance was indeed there. It was in and back of the eyes; it was the “look of eagles” which was long later to become associated with the wearers of Arisia’s Lens.

More Lens foreshadowing. ‘Look of eagles’ is an interesting term; it sounds good without being at all clear what it means. As far as I can tell, it goes back to Roman times, applied to a particularly martial attitude, referencing the golden eagles on the standards of the legions.

“But here we are, and your ship’s ready. Luck, son.”

“Thanks, sir. But one more thing. If it should—if I don’t get back—will you see that my wife and the baby are…?”

It’s not common for pulp action heroes to be married, but in this case it’s essential. I can’t really talk about this without spoilers: Phryges’ eye and hair color are the signature of a very important Arisian-cultivated bloodline, and so it’s important to establish how that bloodline outlived Atlantis.

“I will, son. They will leave for North Maya tomorrow morning. They will live, whether you and I do or not. Anything else?”

I don’t know what the extent of the fictional Maya nation is supposed to be, but I guess that North Maya probably refers to North America, a bit of USA-centric conceit. It does seem to mean that Phryges’ precious awesome genetic material spent thousands of years being passed down through the Native American population, which is a welcome nod of racial inclusion, not that I think it’s ever mentioned again.

“No, sir. Thanks. Goodbye.”

The ship was a tremendous flying wing. A standard commercial job.

Flying wing aircraft got a lot of development during WW2, and seem to have been particularly popular models for futuristic fiction, possibly because they just look so distinct from ordinary aircraft.

Empty—passengers, even crewmen, were never subjected to the brutal accelerations regularly used by unmanned carriers.

I was surprised to see that this vehicle is essentially a drone, but apparently remote-controlled aircraft were used in a number of roles in WW2.

Phryges scanned the panel. Tiny motors were pulling tapes through the controllers. Every light showed green. Everything was set. Donning a water-proof coverall, he slid through a flexible valve into his acceleration-tank and waited.

Use of liquid suspension to help people withstand acceleration is something that’s had a lot of math done on it but has always wound up being impractical. However, as a minor element in a soft sci-fi story, it adds a nice gloss of realism.

A siren yelled briefly. Black night turned blinding white as the harnessed energies of the atom were released.

Whoa, okay. So this standard commercial aircraft uses some sort of nuclear-powered propulsion. That’s terrifying, because it means that there are fleets of these things flying around, and they’re basically low-grade nuclear missiles in cargo plane drag. It’s also kind of nuts that the technology has developed fast enough that a nuclear drive fits on an airplane, but that the world is still dealing with what seems to be the first round of fallout from nuclear energy.

For five and six-tenths seconds the sharp, hard, beryllium-bronze leading edge of the back-sweeping V sliced its way through ever-thinning air.

The vessel seemed to pause momentarily; paused and bucked viciously. She shuddered and shivered, tried to tear herself into shreds and chunks; but Phryges in his tank was unconcerned. Earlier, weaker ships went to pieces against the solid-seeming wall of atmospheric incompressibility at the velocity of sound; but this one was built solidly enough, and powered to hit that wall hard enough, to go through unharmed.

Historically, flying wing aircraft actually fell out of favor because they weren’t compatible with supersonic flight. Flying that fast requires a thin wing, and if that wing has to contain the crew and machinery it simply can’t be thin enough. I don’t know if the power of a nuclear rocket could overcome that, but I don’t care, this is exciting stuff.

The hellish vibration ceased; the fantastic violence of the drive subsided to a mere shove; Phryges knew that the vessel had leveled off at its cruising speed of two thousand miles per hour.

Holy crap. Two thousand miles/hour is Mach 2.6. My back-of-napkin calculation estimates that the average acceleration during those 5.6 seconds of acceleration was ~16 gravities. That’s… remarkably reasonable; apparently untrained humans have remained functional at up to 20 gravities for less than 10 seconds exposure (which makes Phryges’ tank seems like over-caution) but those tests weren’t done until 1960, so you can’t blame the author for not knowing.

What’s remarkably unreasonable is that the fleets of nuclear drone missiles are also super-sonic. That seems like a truly absurd security risk, if someone could manage to override their controls to use them as weapons the devastation would be ghastly.

He emerged, spilling the least possible amount of water upon the polished steel floor. He took off his coverall and stuffed it back through the valve into the tank. He mopped and polished the floor with towels, which likewise went into the tank.

He drew on a pair of soft gloves and, by manual control, jettisoned the acceleration tank and all the apparatus which had made that unloading possible. This junk would fall into the ocean; would sink; would never be found.

Covering his tracks, espionage-style. This is the signal to the reader that despite the ancient time period and sci-fi setting, Phryges’ part of this narrative is a spy story. Spy thrillers had experienced a significant resurgence before and during WW2, so pulp readers could be expected to be familiar with and enjoy such, even as an interlude in a larger sci-fi narrative.

He examined the compartment and the hatch minutely. No scratches, no scars, no mars; no tell-tale marks or prints of any kind. Let the Norskies search. So far, so good.

‘Norskies’ sounds very similar to ‘Ruskies,’ a slang term for Russians.

Back toward the trailing edge then, to a small escape-hatch beside which was fastened a dull black ball. The anchoring devices went out first. He gasped as the air rushed out into near-vacuum, but he had been trained to take sudden and violent fluctuations in pressure. He rolled the ball out upon the hatch, where he opened it; two hinged hemispheres, each heavily padded with molded composition resembling sponge rubber. It seemed incredible that a man as big as Phryges, especially when wearing a parachute, could be crammed into a space so small; but that lining had been molded to fit.

This ball seems like it could be a high-tech spy gadget, but given the setting it could just be an ordinary (for the setting) device that we’re unfamiliar with. I’m a little shaky on the physics of operating in an unsealed craft at supersonic speeds, but I’ll buy it for the purposes of pulp action.

This ball had to be small. The ship, even though it was on a regularly-scheduled commercial flight, would be scanned intensively and continuously from the moment of entering Norheiman radar range.

Much less plausible is the conceit that one nation would let another nation routinely send these horrifying death machines into their airspace, even with very close monitoring. The economic incentive must be enormous.

Since the ball would be invisible on any radar screen, no suspicion would be aroused; particularly since—as far as Atlantean Intelligence had been able to discover—the Norheimans had not yet succeeded in perfecting any device by the use of which a living man could bail out of a super-sonic plane.

Okay, so this ball is a spy gadget, high-tech even for the high-tech setting. Limited forms of radar stealth technology had been developed in WW2, and sonar stealth before that, so that’s simple extrapolation.

Phryges waited—and waited—until the second hand of his watch marked the arrival of zero time. He curled up into one half of the ball; the other half closed over him and locked. The hatch opened. Ball and closely-prisoned man plummeted downward; slowing abruptly, with a horrible deceleration, to terminal velocity. Had the air been any trifle thicker the Atlantean captain would have died then and there; but that, too, had been computed accurately and Phryges lived.

And as the ball bulleted downward on a screaming slant, it shrank!

This, too, the Atlanteans hoped, was new—a synthetic which air-friction would erode away, molecule by molecule, so rapidly that no perceptible fragment of it would reach ground.

That is a very neat little piece of speculative technology, much more plausible and interesting than I was expecting.

The casing disappeared, and the yielding porous lining. And Phryges, still at an altitude of over thirty thousand feet, kicked away the remaining fragments of his cocoon and, by judicious planning, turned himself so that he could see the ground, now dimly visible in the first dull gray of dawn. There was the highway, paralleling his line of flight; he wouldn’t miss it more than a hundred yards.

He fought down an almost overwhelming urge to pull his rip-cord too soon. He had to wait—wait until the last possible second—because parachutes were big and Norheiman radar practically swept the ground.

This is recognizably a High Altitude Low Opening (or HALO) parachute jump, and it’s very much ahead of its time. John Stapp had experimented with high-altitude flight in 1946, but as far as I can tell, practical HALO techniques didn’t start development until 1960. If this is a genuine prediction-come-true on the author’s part, it wasn’t the first; there’s a much more famous one I’ll get to when it comes up.

Low enough at last, he pulled the ring. Z-r-r-e-e-k—WHAP! The chute banged open; his harness tightened with a savage jerk, mere seconds before his hard-sprung knees took the shock of landing.

It’s not a completely accurate depiction. The opening is far too low even by HALO standards, and there’s no depiction of Phryges using an oxygen tank to stave off hypoxia from the altitude and pressure sickness from the rapid descent. This is amply excused by the at-the-time lack of data and general action hero fudge factor.

That was close—too close! He was white and shaking, but unhurt, as he gathered in the billowing, fighting sheet and rolled it, together with his harness, into a wad. He broke open a tiny ampoule, and as the drops of liquid touched it the stout fabric began to disappear. It did not burn; it simply disintegrated and vanished. In less than a minute there remained only a few steel snaps and rings, which the Atlantean buried under a meticulously-replaced circle of sod.

More super-spy gadgetry. This focus on leaving as little evidence as possible really sells the sense of threat without ever seeing any opposition.

He was still on schedule. In less than three minutes the signals would be on the air and he would know where he was—unless the Norskies had succeeded in finding and eliminating the whole Atlantean under-cover group. He pressed a stud on a small instrument; held it down. A line burned green across the dial—flared red—vanished.

“Damn!” he breathed, explosively. The strength of the signal told him that he was within a mile or so of the hide-out—first-class computation—but the red flash warned him to keep away. Kinnexa—it had better be Kinnexa!—would come to him.

How? By air? Along the road? Through the woods on foot? He had no way of knowing—talking, even on a tight beam, was out of the question. He made his way to the highway and crouched behind a tree. Here she could come at him by any route of the three. Again he waited, pressing infrequently a stud of his sender.

A long, low-slung ground-car swung around the curve and Phryges’ binoculars were at his eyes.

The term ground-car implies that there are non-ground cars, presumably the flying cars that sci-fi kept promising us.

It was Kinnexa—or a duplicate. At the thought he dropped his glasses and pulled his guns—blaster in right hand, air-pistol in left.

As far as I know, the term ‘blaster’ originates in Asimov’s Foundation series, in 1942, where it referred to a specifically nuclear-powered energy weapon. Actually deadly air guns date back to at least the 18th century, and since they don’t rely on a detonation to propel their projectiles, are considerably stealthier than ordinary guns, which seems like a decent choice for covert action.

But no, that wouldn’t do. She’d be suspicious, too—she’d have to be—and that car probably mounted heavy stuff. If he stepped out ready for business she’d fry him, and quick. Maybe not—she might have protection—but he couldn’t take the chance.

The car slowed; stopped. The girl got out, examined a front tire, straightened up, and looked down the road, straight at Phryges’ hiding place.

It’s not clear exactly how old Kinnexa is supposed to be, but I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt she’s an adult engaged in serious business, and calling her a girl isn’t really appropriate. On the other hand, I’m not sure where the standard for that was in 1948.

This time the binoculars brought her up to little more than arm’s length. Tall, blonde, beautifully built; the slightly crooked left eyebrow. The thread-line of gold betraying a one-tooth bridge and the tiny scar on her upper lip, for both of which he had been responsible—she always did insist on playing cops-and-robbers with boys older and bigger than herself—it was Kinnexa! Not even Norheim’s science could imitate so perfectly every personalizing characteristic of a girl he had known ever since she was knee-high to a duck!

There are a number of notable women in this series, but I think Kinnexa is the only one who’s allowed to have her looks marred in even this small way, to illustrate her history as a rough-houser, no less. She’s also one of the few who doesn’t have her beauty expounded on at length, and one of the few who gets to go into serious physical danger.

The girl slid back into her seat and the heavy car began to move. Open-handed, Phryges stepped out into its way. The car stopped.

“Turn around. Back up to me, hands behind you,” she directed, crisply.

Also, she’s not messing around.

The man, although surprised, obeyed. Not until he felt a finger exploring the short hair at the back of his neck did he realize what she was seeking—the almost imperceptible scar marking the place where she bit him when she was seven years old!

“Oh, Fry! It is you! Really you! Thank the gods! I’ve been ashamed of that all my life, but now….”

Kinnexa is not a Strong Female Character in the wonderfully mockable mold. She gets to have regrets and sentimentality and so on.

He whirled and caught her as she slumped, but she did not quite faint.

She also gets to barely remain conscious. Wow, I did not see that coming. The fainting woman trope is usually a signifier of a damsel in distress figure, and Kinnexa’s shown none of the signs of that so far. It kind of feels like the author thought he’d written her too bad-ass and needed to establish some frailty so she didn’t look better than the male hero.

“Quick! Get in… drive on… not too fast!” she cautioned, sharply, as the tires began to scream. “The speed limit along here is seventy, and we can’t be picked up.”

“Easy it is, Kinny. But give! What’s the score? Where’s Kolanides? Or rather, what happened to him?”

“Dead. So are the others, I think. They put him on a psycho-bench and turned him inside out.”

Hm, maybe that fainting was justified after all; emotional fainting requires truly extraordinary intensity, but having your entire spy ring captured, tortured, and executed certainly qualifies. Still, I don’t think we ever see a man faint, no matter the circumstances, although I’ll remember to keep an eye out for such a thing.

“But the blocks?”

“Didn’t hold—over here they add such trimmings as skinning and salt to the regular psycho routine. But none of them knew anything about me, nor about how their reports were picked up, or I’d have been dead, too. But it doesn’t make any difference, Fry—we’re just one week too late.”

“What do you mean, too late? Speed it up!” His tone was rough, but the hand he placed on her arm was gentleness itself.

“I’m telling you as fast as I can. I picked up his last report day before yesterday. They have missiles just as big and just as fast as ours—maybe more so—and they are going to fire one at Atlantis tonight at exactly seven o’clock.”

“Tonight! Holy gods!” The man’s mind raced.

“Yes.” Kinnexa’s voice was low, uninflected. “And there was nothing in the world that I could do about it. If I approached any one of our places, or tried to use a beam strong enough to reach anywhere, I would simply have got picked up, too. I’ve thought and thought, but could figure out only one thing that might possibly be of any use, and I couldn’t do that alone. But two of us, perhaps….”

“Go on. Brief me. Nobody ever accused you of not having a brain, and you know this whole country like the palm of your hand.”

“Steal a ship. Be over the ramp at exactly Seven Pay Emma. When the lid opens, go into a full-power dive, beam Artomenes—if I had a second before they blanketed my wave—and meet their rocket head-on in their own launching-tube.”

This was stark stuff, but so tense was the moment and so highly keyed up were the two that neither of them saw anything out of the ordinary in it.

So, the intel-gathering mission has become something much more serious. I think it works better as an escalation from a fraught but relatively ordinary mission rather than from a preliminary to nuclear first strike.

“Not bad, if we can’t figure out anything better. The joker being, of course, that you didn’t see how you could steal a ship?”

“Exactly. I can’t carry blasters. No woman in Norheim is wearing a coat or a cloak now, so I can’t either. And just look at this dress! Do you see any place where I could hide even one?”

He looked, appreciatively, and she had the grace to blush.

The implication that a female agent would be impeded by revealing fashion is a good bit more realistic than the actual arguments made against female agents in, for example, both World Wars, which were a greatest hits medley of sexist fables. Those same sexist attitudes frequently gave (and indeed, give) women agents a significant edge in avoiding suspicion.

“Can’t say that I do,” he admitted. “But I’d rather have one of our own ships, if we could make the approach. Could both of us make it, do you suppose?”

“Not a chance. They’d keep at least one man inside all the time. Even if we killed everybody outside, the ship would take off before we could get close enough to open the port with the outside controls.”

“Probably. Go on. But first, are you sure that you’re in the clear?”

“Positive.” She grinned mirthlessly. “The fact that I am still alive is conclusive evidence that they didn’t find out anything about me. But I don’t want you to work on that idea if you can think of a better one. I’ve got passports and so on for you to be anything you want to be, from a tube-man up to an Ekoptian banker. Ditto for me, and for us both, as Mr. and Mrs.”

“Smart girl.” He thought for minutes, then shook his head. “No possible way out that I can see. The sneak-boat isn’t due for a week, and from what you’ve said it probably won’t get here. But you might make it, at that. I’ll drop you somewhere….”

“You will not,” she interrupted, quietly but definitely. “Which would you rather—go out in a blast like that one will be, beside a good Atlantean, or, after deserting him, be psychoed, skinned, salted, and—still alive—drawn and quartered?”

Casually talking about mass shooting, calmly choosing her death, Kinnexa gets all the good spy dialogue. ‘Fry’ seems pretty vanilla by comparison. Maybe that’s to make him easier for the reader to project upon? I don’t know, in the earlier books (that are later in the narrative), the author seems to make a real effort to make his characters distinct.

“Together, then, all the way,” he assented. “Man and wife. Tourists—newlyweds—from some town not too far away. Pretty well fixed, to match what we’re riding in. Can do?”

“Very simple.” She opened a compartment and selected one of a stack of documents. “I can fix this one up in ten minutes. We’ll have to dispose of the rest of these, and a lot of other stuff, too. And you had better get out of that leather and into a suit that matches this passport photo.”

“Right. Straight road for miles, and nothing in sight either way. Give me the suit and I’ll change now. Keep on going or stop?”

“Better stop, I think,” the girl decided. “Quicker, and we’ll have to find a place to hide or bury this evidence.”

While the man changed clothes, Kinnexa collected the contraband, wrapping it up in the discarded jacket. She looked up just as Phryges was adjusting his coat. She glanced at his armpits, then stared.

“Where are your blasters?” she demanded. “They ought to show, at least a little, and even I can’t see a sign of them.”

He showed her.

“But they’re so tiny! I never saw blasters like that!”

Kinnexa talks about guns like most girls talk about kittens.

“I’ve got a blaster, but it’s in the tail pocket. These aren’t. They’re air-guns. Poisoned needles. Not worth a damn beyond a hundred feet, but deadly close up. One touch anywhere and the guy dies right then. Two seconds max.”

“Nice!” She was no shrinking violet this young Atlantean spy. “You have spares, of course, and I can hide two of them easily enough in leg-holsters. Gimme, and show me how they work.”

“Standard controls, pretty much like blasters. Like so.” He demonstrated, and as he drove sedately down the highway the girl sewed industriously.

Almost fainting aside, I kind of love the juxtaposition of traditional femininity and hard-boiled spy activity that is Kinnexa. It’s not a lot of depth, but it’s enough that she feels authentic to me.

The day wore on, nor was it uneventful. One incident, in fact—the detailing of which would serve no useful purpose here—was of such a nature that at its end:

“Better pin-point me, don’t you think, on that ramp?” Phryges asked, quietly. “Just in case you get scragged in one of these brawls and I don’t?”

I think it’s a mistake to gloss over the action that hard. Action’s what we’re here for at this point, deliberately withholding all description is just stingy.

“Oh! Of course! Forgive me, Fry—it slipped my mind completely that you didn’t know where it was. Area six; pin-point four seven three dash six oh five.

“Got it.” He repeated the figures.

But neither of the Atlanteans was “scragged”, and at six P.M. an allegedly honeymooning couple parked their big roadster in the garage at Norgrad Field and went through the gates. Their papers, tickets included, were in perfect order; they were as inconspicuous and as undemonstrative as newlyweds are wont to be. No more so, and no less.

Strolling idly, gazing eagerly at each new thing, they made their circuitous way toward a certain small hangar. As the girl had said, this field boasted hundreds of super-sonic fighters, so many that servicing was a round-the-clock routine. In that hangar was a sharp-nosed, stubby-V’d flyer, one of Norheim’s fastest. It was serviced and ready.

It was too much to hope, of course, that the visitors could actually get into the building unchallenged. Nor did they.

“Back, you!” A guard waved them away. “Get back to the Concourse, where you belong—no visitors allowed out here!”

F-f-t! F-f-t! Phryges’ air-gun broke into soft but deadly coughing. Kinnexa whirled—hands flashing down, skirt flying up-and ran. Guards tried to head her off; tried to bring their own weapons to bear. Tried—failed—died.

It’s not explicit that Kinnexa is responsible for those kills, as opposed to Phryges picking them off to cover her, but given the range limitations of the air-guns and the implication that she drew her own weapons, I don’t think there’s any reasonable doubt that she’s fighting for herself.

Phryges, too, ran; ran backward. His blaster was out now and flaming, for no living enemy remained within needle range. A rifle bullet w-h-i-n-g-e-d past his head, making him duck involuntarily and uselessly. Rifles were bad; but their hazard, too, had been considered and had been accepted.

Huh. Ordinary bullet-firing rifles. They feel slightly out-of-place; blasters seemed to be set-up as the standard firearm. It seems like Norheim is still transitioning to personal energy weapons, or (since we don’t see them use any) haven’t gotten the power sources for them small enough yet. Transitional states can be a really good world-building tool, but this is a too nebulous to be effective.

Kinnexa reached the fighter’s port, opened it, sprang in. He jumped. She fell against him. He tossed her clear, slammed and dogged the door. He looked at her then, and swore bitterly. A small, round hole marred the bridge of her nose: the back of her head was gone.

Kinnexa gets a warrior’s death. It’s not particularly heroic, but she got the job done and was a fully-contributing member of the mission.

He leaped to the controls and the fleet little ship screamed skyward. He cut in transmitter and receiver, keyed and twiddled briefly. No soap. He had been afraid of that. They were already blanketing every frequency he could employ; using power through which he could not drive even a tight beam a hundred miles.

But he could still crash that missile in its tube. Or—could he? He was not afraid of other Norheiman fighters; he had a long lead and he rode one of their very fastest. But since they were already so suspicious, wouldn’t they launch the bomb before seven o’clock? He tried vainly to coax another knot out of his wide-open engines.

With all his speed, he neared the pin-point just in time to see a trail of super-heated vapor extending up into and disappearing beyond the stratosphere. He nosed his flyer upward, locked the missile into his sights, and leveled off. Although his ship did not have the giant rocket’s acceleration, he could catch it before it got to Atlantis, since he did not need its altitude and since most of its journey would be made without power. What he could do about it after he caught it he did not know, but he’d do something.

He caught it; and, by a feat of piloting to be appreciated only by those who have handled planes at super-sonic speeds, he matched its course and velocity. Then, from a distance of barely a hundred feet, he poured his heaviest shells into the missile’s war-head. He couldn’t be missing! It was worse than shooting sitting ducks—it was like dynamiting fish in a bucket! Nevertheless, nothing happened. The thing wasn’t fuzed for impact, then, but for time; and the activating mechanism would be shell-and shock-proof.

But there was still a way. He didn’t need to call Artomenes now, even if he could get through the interference which the fast-approaching pursuers were still sending out. Atlantean observers would have lined this stuff up long since; the Officer would know exactly what was going on.

Driving ahead and downward, at maximum power, Phryges swung his ship slowly into a right-angle collision course. The fighter’s needle nose struck the war-head within a foot of the Atlantean’s point of aim, and as he died Phryges knew that he had accomplished his mission. Norheim’s missile would not strike Atlantis, but would fall at least ten miles short, and the water there was very deep. Very, very deep. Atlantis would not be harmed.

There’s the real hero’s death. Kinnexa and Phryges gave their all in true action hero style, and stopped the missile. But we know it’s futile in the end, so…

It might have been better, however, if Phryges had died with Kinnexa on Norgrad Field; in which case the continent would probably have endured. As it was, while that one missile did not reach the city, its frightful atomic charge exploded under six hundred fathoms of water, ten scant miles from Atlantis’ harbor, and very close to an ancient geological fault.

There it is.

Artomenes, as Phryges had surmised, had had time in which to act, and he knew much more than Phryges did about what was coming toward Atlantis. Too late, he knew that not one missile, but seven, had been launched from Norheim, and at least five from Uighar. The retaliatory rockets which were to wipe out Norgrad, Uigharstoy, and thousands of square miles of environs were on their way long before either bomb or earthquake destroyed all of the Atlantean launching ramps.

And there’s the other shoe. The Norgrad-Uighar alliance’s first-strike only led to their own destruction from the Atlantean response, and presumably either the fallout or further infighting will doom the other nations as well.

But when equilibrium was at last restored, the ocean rolled serenely where a minor continent had been.

I like this. It builds up the opposition as genuinely threatening. This series has a fair number of defeats for the good guys, but most of them occur on the personal scale. Opening the story with a larger-scope loss (or two, or three) helps create a sense of risk that could carry through the rest of the story.

Join me next post for Chapter Three, and the next round of humanity being caught between other species’ differences.

Lensman: Mayanism and Modernization

Triplanetary 6 – Chapter 2: The Fall of Atlantis

Welcome to the read! I mentioned in an earlier installment that I think this might be the very first example of a sci-fi take on Atlantis, so let’s see what that turns out to be.

3. — ATLANTIS

Ariponides, recently elected Faros of Atlantis for his third five-year term, stood at a window of his office atop the towering Farostery.

Faros is a Greek word (or close approximation thereof) meaning lighthouse or beacon, which I think is a cool title for an elected official; it is not linguistically related to the Egyptian title of Pharoah. Farostery seems to be an entirely original word, but I assume it’s a poetically lighthouse-like structure that serves as the Faros’ administrative headquarters. I also assume that the Faros is the head-of-state, as lesser civil servants don’t usually have towering buildings named for their title.

Plato’s Atlantis was ruled by a confederation of ten kings, so this is greatly deviant from the source material, and as far as I can tell is breaking new ground – that is, no previous interpretations of Atlantis put aside the rule of kings. I suspect this is representative of the ‘cultural pattern’ they have developed that is at odds with the Eddorian principles.

His hands were clasped loosely behind his back. He did not really see the tremendous expanse of quiet ocean, nor the bustling harbor, nor the metropolis spread out so magnificently and so busily beneath him.

Ariponides is getting his brood on, I see. Plato’s city of Atlantis did not have a harbor, instead being connected to the sea by a canal. This seems like a much more conventional arrangement.

(Experiment time! We haven’t had a description, but notice what sort of clothing you picture this guy wearing.)

He stood there, motionless, until a subtle vibration warned him that visitors were approaching his door.

I’ve always read this ‘subtle vibration’ as a technological alert system, but on closer inspection it could just be Ariponides feeling his visitors’ footsteps through the floor.

“Come in, gentlemen…. Please be seated.” He sat down at one end of a table molded of transparent plastic.

The aim here is obviously to modernize the Atlantean setting. We already know that this Atlantis is a nuclear power, but now we get to see that they have other modern technologies as well. Plastic (including transparent varieties) was around before the American Civil War, but it was really taking off in the 1940s.

“Psychologist Talmonides, Statesman Cleto, Minister Philamon, Minister Marxes and Officer Artomenes, I have asked you to come here personally because I have every reason to believe that the shielding of this room is proof against eavesdroppers; a thing which can no longer be said of our supposedly private television channels. We must discuss, and if possible come to some decision concerning, the state in which our nation now finds itself.

(Experiment follow-up: What sort of clothing do you picture the various Atlanteans wearing at this point, and how does it compare to your original vision?)

I think almost all councils in this series, official or impromptu, include a psychologist; it just seems to be a quirk of the setting. The shielded room and private television channels are more modern context. Broadcast television in the U.S. was properly established in 1941, and so was still only a handful of years old when this was being written.

“Each of us knows within himself exactly what he is. Of our own powers, we cannot surely know each others’ inward selves. 

This is some oddly philosophical talk for a state-of-the-nation meeting.

The tools and techniques of psychology, however, are potent and exact; and Talmonides, after exhaustive and rigorous examination of each one of us, has certified that no taint of disloyalty exists among us.”

In this respect, at least, the Atlanteans seem to be more advanced than the author’s day (and indeed our own). I don’t know what ‘tools and techniques’ Talmonides is supposedly using, but I suspect they’re related to the polygraph, whose prototype was bought by the FBI in 1939.

“Which certification is not worth a damn,” the burly Officer declared. “What assurance do we have that Talmonides himself is not one of the ringleaders?

Ah, so we have some sort of conspiracy that’s infiltrated the government. That contextualizes all the ‘inward selves’ and ‘loyalty’ talk.

Mind you, I have no reason to believe that he is not completely loyal. In fact, since he has been one of my best friends for over twenty years, I believe implicitly that he is.

Well, then we have the assurance of you as a character witness, don’t we?

Nevertheless the plain fact is, Ariponides, that all the precautions you have taken, and any you can take, are and will be useless insofar as definite knowledge is concerned. The real truth is and will remain unknown.”

This is an unusually florid way to say ‘we can be certain of nothing.’ I’m surprised that it is the military officer who is so concerned about philosophical absolute certainty, the job seems to call for a more pragmatic approach.

“You are right,” the Psychologist conceded. “And, such being the case, perhaps I should withdraw from the meeting.”

I don’t get the motivation for this gesture. If Talmonides is under sufficient suspicion to recuse himself, then (as Artomenes just pointed out) his certifications are worthless and everyone else is just as suspect.

“That wouldn’t help, either.” Artomenes shook his head. “Any competent plotter would be prepared for this, as for any other contingency. One of us others would be the real operator.”

Artomenes seems to attribute extraordinary abilities of foresight to ‘any competent plotter.’

“And the fact that our Officer is the one who is splitting hairs so finely could be taken to indicate which one of us the real operator could be,” Marxes pointed out, cuttingly.

From an in-fiction perspective, I agree with Marxes; Artomenes’ comments generate an air of paranoia and otherwise accomplish nothing. As a reader, I suspect that the air of paranoia is intended by the author, but handing all responsibility for it to a single character just colors that character.

“Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” Ariponides protested. “While absolute certainty is of course impossible to any finite mind, you all know how Talmonides was tested; you know that in his case there is no reasonable doubt.

The Faros cuts through the crap. Apparently there was the assurance of testing that leaves no reasonable doubt, which Artomenes knew of; I guess he dismissed it because his paranoiac tendencies demand philosophical certainty.

Such chance as exists, however, must be taken, for if we do not trust each other fully in this undertaking, failure is inevitable. With this word of warning I will get on with my report.

That’s some decent leadership-type talk.

“This worldwide frenzy of unrest followed closely upon the controlled liberation of atomic energy and may be—probably is—traceable to it.

Nuclear weapons are dramatic things, and despite strong anti-Japanese sentiment, the use of them against the Empire of Nippon created widespread unrest in our own history, so this is a reasonable assumption. We aren’t given any context for how nuclear weapons were introduced to these peoples’ geopolitics, so it’s not clear how justified a ‘frenzy’ might be.

It is in no part due to imperialistic aims or acts on the part of Atlantis. This fact cannot be stressed too strongly. We never have been and are not now interested in Empire.

These, and the four following sentences, appeal to me as a writer. At first glance they seem like clumsy exposition, as the Faros makes the Atlantean case to Atlantean officials who must know the facts already and need no persuasion. On the other hand, the Faros’ position probably requires him to give frequent speeches, so maybe he just unconsciously slides into oratory mode every so often, at which point it’s characterization that also justifies exposition, which is a neat little technique.

It is true that the other nations began as Atlantean colonies, but no attempt was ever made to hold any one of them in colonial status against the wish of its electorate.

This sentence is such an appeal to American identity that at this point I’m convinced that we’re supposed to read Atlantis as a close analogue for the contemporary-at-the-time late-1940s USA. I will also say that even if the sentiment isn’t actually sincere, simply expressing it as an ideal makes the Atlanteans the best people we’ve seen in the story so far.

All nations were and are sister states. We gain or lose together. Atlantis, the parent, was and is a clearing-house, a co-ordinator of effort, but has never claimed or sought authority to rule; all decisions being based upon free debate and free and secret ballot.

This is the sort of thing that sounds good, especially to Americans in 1948, but is also romantic and naive. I think it’s meant to be taken by the reader at simple face value, which is fine, but I think it gets more interesting if it’s read with a skeptical and cynical eye.

If Atlantis is meant to be a close analogue for the late-1940s USA, then it’s an analogue for a country that had a history of talking a good deal about freedom while also continually engaging in empire-building, both explicit and implicit. Debates and ballots both are vulnerable to corruption, intimidation, and propaganda, and Atlantis could be using non-military force to push its foreign policy upon other nations while using the non-military nature of that force as deniability. That wouldn’t necessarily make them bad, or even not good (international politics being what they are, some moral compromise is only realistic), but it would mean that Atlantis is not a cartoon of virtue, nor its colonies cartoons of suspicion.

“But now! Parties and factions everywhere, even in old Atlantis. Every nation is torn by internal dissensions and strife.

It sounds a little like this is implying that parties and factions are not the usual condition, which is weird because one-party states don’t have a great rep, but whether it’s notable that they exist or just that there’s more than usual, it seems they’ve gotten out of hand.

Nor is this all. Uighar as a nation is insensately jealous of the Islands of the South, who in turn are jealous of Maya. Maya of Bantu, Bantu of Ekopt, Ekopt of Norheim, and Norheim of Uighar.

Uighar seems to be a reference to the Uyghurs, a group with ancient roots in northern China and Mongolia. Maya is a reference to the Mayans of South America. Bantu is a reference to the African language group and associated peoples. Ekopt seems to be a portmanteau of Egypt and also the Copts. Norheim is the name of a few places (in Norway and Germany) and generally implies a north Germanic situation. The Islands of the South is a less obvious reference, but at a guess it refers to Australasia. So the Atlantean diaspora is a global-scope international community.

The idea that Atlantis is the original source of the human species, with all ancient civilizations being Atlantean colonies, is part of the Atlantean myth popularized by Ignatius Donnelly, but he didn’t originate the idea. It’s drawn from a centuries-old racist pseudohistorical movement called Mayanism, which attributes the achievements of the Mayans (and other ancient civilizations) to an advanced Atlantean precursor nation, or extraterrestrials, either being apparently more plausible than dark-skinned people having architectural skills.

I don’t know if this perpetuation of a racist trope is deliberate or thoughtless on the part of the author, but I do know that it’s unnecessary. This Atlantis already deviates from the popular Donnelly version of Atlantis in technological advancement, democratic principles, and apparently geography, so it’s not like the author was shackled to an established version for authenticity. It’s also never plot-relevant that the other nations be Atlantean colonies and not just other nations lost to time.

A vicious circle, worsened by other jealousies and hatreds intercrossing everywhere. Each fears that some other is about to try to seize control of the entire world; and there seems to be spreading rapidly the utterly baseless belief that Atlantis itself is about to reduce all other nations of Earth to vassalage.

It’s never explicitly stated that this is what Gharlane is up to, but I don’t think there’s any doubt. It’s pretty clever as dastardly plans go. The development of atomic power was mentioned as a turning point in Arisian history, but the first step to atomic power is nuclear weapons, which creates both a means to collapse a planet’s development and also a political instability. Gharlane seems to have simply bolstered the natural nuclear paranoia and let human nature take its course.

“This is a bald statement of the present condition of the world as I see it. Since I can see no other course possible within the constituted framework of our democratic government, I recommend that we continue our present activities, such as the international treaties and agreements upon which we are now at work, intensifying our effort wherever possible.

There’s a nice example of real principle: Ariponides isn’t willing to pursue courses outside the framework of his democratic government, even if he might see them. It’s not clear what it is that he’s not proposing, but his commitment is clear enough.

We will now hear from Statesman Cleto.”

“You have outlined the situation clearly enough, Faros. My thought, however, is that the principal cause of the trouble is the coming into being of this multiplicity of political parties, particularly those composed principally of crackpots and extremists.

‘This multiplicity of’ is importantly distinct from ‘multiple,’ so I think my earlier concern about the text condemning the mere existence of multiple parties was unfounded.

The connection with atomic energy is clear: since the atomic bomb gives a small group of people the power to destroy the world, they reason that it thereby confers upon them the authority to dictate to the world.

This seems a bit tenuous. I don’t really buy that there are that many people who would be willing to hold the world hostage, especially when following through on that threat destroys themselves as well. That would require a degree of cultural nihilism that just isn’t established. I think a far more plausible connection would be that since whoever controls the government now has the power to destroy the world, there are a lot more people interested in being the government, if only to keep that power out of other peoples’ hands.

My recommendation is merely a special case of yours; that every effort be made to influence the electorates of Norheim and of Uighar into supporting an effective international control of atomic energy.”

Note that the nations of concern correspond to Germany and (probably) China. At a guess, Russia didn’t get an analogue because it didn’t have a famous ancient culture. It’s a little weird that China gets villainized here, because the most recent relation they’d had with the USA in 1948 was ally against the Japanese, and because the country didn’t properly go communist until late 1949. Maybe as the pan-Asian representatives, they’re standing in for Japan, and this reflects lingering postwar anti-Japanese sentiment?

“You have your data tabulated in symbolics?” asked Talmonides, from his seat at the keyboard of a calculating machine.

“Yes. Here they are.”

“Thanks.”

A calculating machine is a mechanical (as opposed to electronic) calculator, and were apparently what passed for a desktop computer from the 1900s to the 1960s.

“Minister Philamon,” the Faros announced.

“As I see it—as any intelligent man should be able to see it—the principal contribution of atomic energy to this worldwide chaos was the complete demoralization of labor,” the gray-haired Minister of Trade stated, flatly.

Huh, this makes it sound like the Atlanteans have made it to nuclear power plants, not just weapons, since I don’t know how nuclear weapons would especially demoralize labor. That would put the Atlanteans as not 1940s America, but 1940s America twenty minutes into the future, seeing that nuclear power plants didn’t become practical until the early 50s.

“Output per man-hour should have gone up at least twenty percent, in which case prices would automatically have come down. Instead, short-sighted guilds imposed drastic curbs on production, and now seem to be surprised that as production falls and hourly wages rise, prices also rise and real income drops.

Yes, that’s definitely nuclear power that Philamon is talking about; nuclear weapons don’t improve ‘output per man-hour,’ but more abundant electricity… might? So I guess it’s a double-threat: nuclear weapons causing political strife, and nuclear power causing economic turbulence.

I don’t know enough to really comment on the econo-speak and whether it’s at all plausible.

Only one course is possible, gentlemen; labor must be made to listen to reason. This feather-bedding, this protected loafing, this….”

“I protest!” Marxes, Minister of Work, leaped to his feet. “The blame lies squarely with the capitalists. Their greed, their rapacity, their exploitation of….”

Marxes is revealed as a Karl Marx reference.

“One moment, please!” Ariponides rapped the table sharply. “It is highly significant of the deplorable condition of the times that two Ministers of State should speak as you two have just spoken.

Given their titles, it seemed very likely to me that this bickering was simply an older argument intruding into the affair of the moment, but it’s supposed to be a reflection of the general turbulence of the time.

I take it that neither of you has anything new to contribute to this symposium?”

Both claimed the floor, but both were refused it by vote.

It seems harsh that after being asked a question the two Ministers are then denied the opportunity to answer it, but at least it’s democratically harsh.

“Hand your tabulated data to Talmonides,” the Faros directed. “Officer Artomenes?”

“You, our Faros, have more than intimated that our defense program, for which I am primarily responsible, has been largely to blame for what has happened,” the grizzled warrior began.

The only defense program that’s been mentioned here is the simple existence of nuclear weapons (of which nuclear power is a natural development), so is Artomenes supposed to be a stand in for General Groves, the military administrator of the Manhattan Project? I guess there’s a read where this more-than-intimation happened off-screen in a previous conversation, but that would be extremely awkward writing.

“In part, perhaps it was—one must be blind indeed not to see the connection, and biased indeed not to admit it. But what should I have done, knowing that there is no practical defense against the atomic bomb?

Okay, for Artomenes and his defense program to be ‘to blame’ for the situation triggered by nuclear technology, they have to have been the ones to develop the first nuclear technology. To have developed the first nuclear technology out of concern for defense from nuclear technology implies a nuclear race – the principles were out there, other people were also seeking to develop them, and in lieu of a ‘practical’ defense, they needed first-strike advantage (in the short run) and a deterrent (in the long run). So far, so like our own history.

Every nation has them, and is manufacturing more and more.

Here’s a deviation. At the time this work was published, the USA was still the only nuclear power in the world, the USSR not detonating their first bomb until 1949. Apparently part of their twenty-minutes-into-the-future includes the fulfillment of nuclear proliferation anxieties.

Every nation is infested with the agents of every other. Should I have tried to keep Atlantis toothless in a world bristling with fangs? And could I—or anyone else—have succeeded in doing so?”

This reads to me like Artomenes has a guilt complex about his part in creating the nuclear state of affairs. I’m sure there’s a psych term for his desperate casting about for alternatives he didn’t take. In fact, Artomenes comes off as pretty unstable throughout this scene. First he’s paranoid, then he’s guilty, and later on…

“Probably not. No criticism was intended; we must deal with the situation as it actually exists. Your recommendations, please?”

The Faros practices some more good leadership. He briefly addresses Artomenes’ point to let him know he’s been heard, but redirects the conversation back to immediate practical matters.

“I have thought this thing over day and night, and can see no solution which can be made acceptable to our—or to any real—democracy. Nevertheless, I have one recommendation to make. 

Unlike the Faros, Artomenes is willing to propose a course which is against the principles of their society.

We all know that Norheim and Uighar are the sore spots—particularly Norheim. We have more bombs as of now than both of them together.

This doesn’t sound like it’s going anywhere good.

We know that Uighar’s super-sonic jobs are ready.

The first manned supersonic flight took place in 1947, so this is another reference to a recent-to-1948 tech development. It’s not clear if Uighar’s ‘jobs’ are bombers or missiles, though.

We don’t know exactly what Norheim has, since they cut my Intelligence line a while back, but I’m sending over another operative—my best man, too—tonight. If he finds out that we have enough advantage in speed, and I’m pretty sure that we have, I say hit both Norheim and Uighar right then, while we can, before they hit us. And hit them hard—pulverize them.

There it is: Artomenes is proposing a nuclear first-strike strategy.

Then set up a world government strong enough to knock out any nation—including Atlantis—that will not cooperate with it.

As a follow-up, he proposes a mind-boggling feat of politics: just the unification of the world, after making a pariah nation out of Atlantis.

This course of action is flagrantly against all international law and all the principles of democracy, I know; and even it might not work. It is, however, as far as I can see, the only course which can work.”

It is a particularly military perspective, especially in states of total war, that sometimes there are no acceptable courses of action, so you must choose from the monstrous courses of action available. In some respects, this is the same position that the Eddorians put the Arisians in; except of course that the Arisians never acknowledge the unacceptability of their actions.

“You—we all—perceive its weaknesses.” The Faros thought for minutes. “You cannot be sure that your Intelligence has located all of the danger points, and many of them must be so far underground as to be safe from even our heaviest missiles.

Hidden and/or protected launch sites are second-strike nuclear strategy, allowing a nation that does not get first strike to retaliate. I was surprised to see such a well-developed sense of nuclear strategy in a book published before the Soviets had the bomb, but apparently gaming out nuclear conflict scenarios began well before even the Manhattan project produced results, and that made its way into fiction.

We all, including you, believe that the Psychologist is right in holding that the reaction of the other nations to such action would be both unfavorable and violent.

Well, obviously! As far as I can see, the closest Artomenes’ plan could come to working is that after Atlantis pulverizes Uighar and Norheim, and is pulverized itself either by its targets’ second-strike or by the other nations, the remaining nations might be so aghast at what’s happened that they’d be driven to a diplomatic solution. Even that’s an optimistic scenario.

Your report, please, Talmonides.”

“I have already put my data into the integrator.” The Psychologist punched a button and the mechanism began to whir and to click.

This is interesting, because it supposes an extraordinary advance in computing powers in the ‘twenty minutes’ Atlantis is ahead of the 1948 USA. I don’t think any mechanical calculator could perform a function more advanced than calculating a square root, so dealing with the kind of sophisticated data described here would be far beyond them. Pre-transistor predictions about the future of computing are infamous for underestimating how far and fast the field would advance, and this series will provide us with at least one spectacular example of that; but this is closer than a lot of people got: it’s much more powerful than machines of the time when it was written, and it doesn’t seem to be particularly enormous.

“I have only one new fact of any importance; the name of one of the higher-ups and its corollary implication that there may be some degree of cooperation between Norheim and Uighar….”

This is actually strange, because in the circle of international hate set up above, Norheim was listed as being ‘insensately jealous’ of Uighar, which makes their cooperation seem unlikely.

He broke off as the machine stopped clicking and ejected its report.

“Look at that graph—up ten points in seven days!” Talmonides pointed a finger. “The situation is deteriorating faster and faster. The conclusion is unavoidable—you can see yourselves that this summation line is fast approaching unity—that the outbreaks will become uncontrollable in approximately eight days.

There was a mechanical calculator called the Ordonnateur Statistique, created in the mid-1800s, that was somehow supposed to summarize social statistical correlations, but I know nothing else about it. At a guess, that machine is intended as the ancestor of this fictional one.

With one slight exception—here—you will notice that the lines of organization and purpose are as random as ever. In spite of this conclusive integration I would be tempted to believe that this seeming lack of coherence was due to insufficient data—that back of this whole movement there is a carefully-set-up and completely-integrated plan—except for the fact that the factions and the nations are so evenly matched.

Talmonides has intuited Gharlane’s influence, but cannot seem to conceive of a nihilist and non-national actor, the now-stereotypical Nolan-Joker sort. That’s not really believable, given how one of their problems is a multitude of fringe political movements, but perhaps Talmonides has thought of the possibility and rejected it without mention; maybe the resources to covertly carry out such a plan simply aren’t available to any of the local crackpots.

But the data are sufficient. It is shown conclusively that no one of the other nations can possibly win, even by totally destroying Atlantis. They would merely destroy each other and our entire Civilization. According to this forecast, in arriving at which the data furnished by our Officer were prime determinants, that will surely be the outcome unless remedial measures be taken at once.

This raises the question of why the other nations don’t seem to know this. Why would they aggress if it could be ‘shown conclusively’ that they could not possibly win? Are their calculators not as good as Atlantis’, or are they being written as unreasoningly aggressive?

You are of course sure of your facts, Artomenes?”

“I am sure. But you said you had a name, and that it indicated a Norheim-Uighar hookup. What is that name?”

“An old friend of yours….”

“Lo Sung!” The words as spoken were a curse of fury.

Lo Sung is a reasonable approximation of a Chinese name (and not of a Japanese name), which suggests that Uighar is meant to be more of an analogue for China than Japan.

“None other. And, unfortunately, there is as yet no course of action indicated which is at all promising of success.”

“Use mine, then!” Artomenes jumped up and banged the table with his fist. “Let me send two flights of rockets over right now that will blow Uigharstoy and Norgrad into radioactive dust and make a thousand square miles around each of them uninhabitable for ten thousand years! If that’s the only way they can learn anything, let them learn!”

Man, that ‘curse of fury’ description was not underselling it. I don’t know the background, but Lo Sung’s name makes Artomenes so angry that he becomes even more irrational than he was.

Also, ‘Norgrad’ is obviously intended to sound like a Russian city name, like Kaliningrad or Volgograd. I’m not aware of any cities that end in -stoy, but I guess that suffix is meant to recall Tolstoy, a famous Russian name. I think this is meant to hammer home that the two nations are also standing in for a nuclear USSR, but it’s a pretty confused analogous space at this point.

“Sit down, Officer,” Ariponides directed, quietly. “That course, as you have already pointed out, is indefensible. It violates every Prime Basic of our Civilization. Moreover, it would be entirely futile, since this resultant makes it clear that every nation on Earth would be destroyed within the day.”

When speaking for himself Ariponides stopped with the moral argument, but he includes a practical element when speaking to someone who is willing to go beyond the moral arguments.

“What, then?” Artomenes demanded, bitterly. “Sit still here and let them annihilate us?”

Artomenes has been all over the place in this scene, and now he’s moved on to childish. It’s kind of bizarre, because it seems like he’s behaving in a way that displays a manifest unfitness for his responsibilities, but neither the text nor the other characters ever comment on it.

“Not necessarily. It is to formulate plans that we are here. Talmonides will by now have decided, upon the basis of our pooled knowledge, what must be done.”

“The outlook is not good: not good at all,” the Psychologist announced, gloomily. “The only course of action which carries any promise whatever of success—and its probability is only point one eight—is the one recommended by the Faros, modified slightly to include Artomenes’ suggestion of sending his best operative on the indicated mission.

What mission is this? The only recommendation Ariponides has made is  the continuation of ‘our present activities, such as the international treaties and agreements upon which we are now at work.’ The only mission that’s been mentioned was part of Artomenes’ rejected first-strike plan.

For highest morale, by the way, the Faros should also interview this agent before he sets out. Ordinarily I would not advocate a course of action having so little likelihood of success; but since it is simply a continuation and intensification of what we are already doing, I do not see how we can adopt any other.”

This foreshadows the grimness to come. The high officials are out of options and are simply doing their utmost with the course that is left to them, and although that sort of situation is usually the set-up for a heroic success, we know that Atlantis is doomed, that even their best efforts are simply not enough. That’s decent pathos, and also the demonstration of the effectiveness of one Eddorian against a whole world of a younger species.

“Are we agreed?” Ariponides asked, after a short silence.

They were agreed.

Join me next post for the last of this chapter, where after three sessions of set-up, we get some genuine action as pay-off.

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!

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.