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Smith, E E

Entry updated 20 May 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1890-1965) US food chemist specializing in doughnut mixes, and author, often called the "Father of Space Opera"; because Hugo Gernsback appended "PhD" to Smith's name for his contributions to Amazing from 1928, he also became known as "Doc" Smith. Greatly influential in US Pulp-magazine sf between 1928 and about 1945, he found his reputation fading somewhat after the end of World War Two, when it seemed the dream-like simplicities of his world-view could no longer attract the modern reader of Genre SF; but he was probably at the time the best known author to contribute to the well-known Round-Robin sf story solicited by Fantasy Magazine for its September 1935 issue, "The Challenge from Beyond" with Murray Leinster, Harl Vincent, Donald Wandrei and Stanley Weinbaum. A few years later, more than one of the speciality houses that became active after 1945 (see Small Presses and Limited Editions) were founded in the awareness that his vast space-opera sagas had never achieved book publications; and his central corpus was soon made available to new readers. Towards the end of his life, after he retired around 1960, he began producing space operas again, and the 1940s/1950s book publications began to reappear in paperback, which became extremely popular. His posthumous reputation – partly because of the intense advocacy of his work by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach and David A Kyle, both of whom wrote new continuations of his series (see Sequels by Other Hands), and by other fans – remained high for some time. But the continuations (see below) had little of the original scale and fervour, which weakened the impact of his name as a brand, and Smith himself is not now widely read.

Smith's work is strongly identified with the beginnings of US pulp sf as a separate marketing genre, and did much to define its essential territory: galactic space dominated by Galactic Empires, these usually being run by humans, though Aliens appear frequently, not only as Villains; Space Opera plots, featuring Heroes and their Inventions, are the norm; Wars rage across the parsecs. But although Smith's his protagonists fit comfortably into this universe, it is the case that his greatest protagonists, the Lensmen, are also soldiers: willing employees in a higher cause. His earlier heroes may be freelance, and seem in retrospect singularly detached from the universes they dazzle, but his later heroes – like Kim Kinnison himself – advance through promotion, and rule their universes as dictators in all but name, for the cause of Good.

When in 1915 Smith began to write the first novel of his Skylark series with Mrs Lee Hawkins Garby, a neighbour seconded to help with feminine matters such as dialogue, no prior models existed in popular fiction to source the combined exuberance and scale that The Skylark of Space (written 1915-1920; August-October 1928 Amazing; 1946; rev with cuts 1958) demonstrated when it finally began to appear in Amazing Stories, two years after the start of that magazine, in the same issue as Philip Nowlan's "Armageddon – 2419 A.D." (August 1928 Amazing), the story which introduced Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Elements of Smith's prelapsarian exuberance may have been discernible in some of the Edisonades which proliferated in the USA from about 1890; and a certain cosmogonic high-handedness is traceable to the works of H G Wells and his UK contemporaries. But it was Smith who combined the two. Along with its sequels – Skylark Three (August-October 1930 Amazing; 1948), Skylark of Valeron (August 1934-February 1935 Astounding; 1949) and Skylark DuQuesne (June-October 1965 If; 1966) – The Skylark of Space brought the edisonade to its first full maturity, creating a proper galactic forum for the exploits of the inventor/Scientist/action-hero who keeps the world (or the Universe) safe for US values despite the efforts of a foreign-hued villain (Marc "Blackie" DuQuesne) to pollute those values. But the highly personalized conflict between Hero-inventor Richard Seaton and Villain-inventor DuQuesne – who develops from the stage histrionics of the first novel to the dominating antiheroics (see Antiheroes) of the last, and who is perhaps Smith's most vivid creation – did not very satisfactorily motivate the vast intergalactic conflicts of the later volumes of the series, as the scale of everything – the potency of the Weapons, the power, size and speed of the Spaceships, the number of planets overawed or annihilated – escalated by leaps and bounds. Nor was Smith much concerned to sophisticate the chummy, clammy idiocy of his women (see Sex; Women in SF) – Mrs Garby retained co-author credit in the first book edition only, the 1958 revision excising her contributions and her name; she was not involved in any further attempts to import human interest into the series – or the hokum of the slang in which all emotions were conveyed.

It was not until he began to unveil the architectural structure of his second and definitive Series that Smith was able to demonstrate the thoroughness of his thinking about Space Opera. And it is with the Lensman series – or The History of Civilization, the over-title for the 1953-1955 limited-edition boxed reprint of the original books – that his name is most strongly and justly associated. In order of internal chronology, the sequence is Triplanetary (January-April 1934 Amazing; rev to fit the series 1948), First Lensman (1950), Galactic Patrol (September 1937-February 1938 Astounding; 1950), Gray Lensman (October 1939-January 1940 Astounding; 1951), Second-Stage Lensmen (November 1941-February 1942 Astounding; 1953) and Children of the Lens (November 1947-February 1948 Astounding; 1954). The Vortex Blaster (stories July 1941-October 1942 var mags; fixup 1960; vt Masters of the Vortex 1968) is also set in the Lensman Universe, probably some time before Children of the Lens, but does not deal with the central progress of the main series, the working out of which was Smith's most brilliant auctorial coup. As published in book form, the first two novels likewise stand outside the main action; it is the final four that constitute the heart of Smith's accomplishment. Conceived as one 400,000-word novel, and divided into separate titles for publication 1937-1948 in Astounding – their release beginning before John W Campbell Jr began editing the journal, extending through the high pitch of the Golden Age of SF (1939-1942) Campbell supervised, and into the post-World War Two period – this central Lensman tale is constructed around the gradual revelation, paced by moments that for many readers caught the essence of the Sense of Wonder, of the hierarchical nature of the Universe: a sense that the universe was both infinitely surprising but, in the end, controlled by Arisians ...

That gradual revelation is eschewed in the full series as published in book form. Here, we learn immediately that two vastly advanced and radically opposed Forerunner races, the good Arisians and the evil Eddorians, each dominating a separate galaxy, have been in essential opposition for billions of years (see Time Abyss). The Arisians understand that the only hope of defeating the absolute Evil represented by the Eddorians is to nurture the growth over aeons of a countervailing Civilization developed from their own "spores" (see Panspermia) via special breeding lines on selected planets, of which Earth (here also called Tellus) is one. Guided by their Arisian Secret Masters, these long experiments in applied Eugenics develop Heroes capable of enduring the enormous stress of inevitable conflict with the escalating galactic conspiracy of evil known collectively as Boskone, a force inimical to Civilization and secretly commanded through a nest of hierarchies by the invisible Eddorians. The racism involved, more visible in Smith's schema than in most tales describing Uplift, may have contributed to a lessening of his attractiveness to readers in recent decades (see Race in SF), along with a sense that to create a race of heroes while leaving it in ignorance of either its origins or its mission seem an implausible strategy for the realizing of anything that might be called civilization.

As the conflict deepens, the Arisians (in disguise) make available to their unknowing scions a Psionic pseudo-gem known as the Lens which – when attached physically to advanced specimens of the breeding programme, who have formed the Galactic Patrol responsible for defending Civilization – awards them certain telepathic (see Telepathy) and other Psi Powers, operating primarily as a Communication device and also to some extent as a Weapon. The central figure of the series is the human Kim Kinnison, who with his wife represents the penultimate stage in the Arisian breeding programme; their children, who are a final confirmation of the supremacy of the Aryan breeding line, will ultimately defeat the Eddorians. As the central sequence progresses, we climb with Kinnison, link by link, a vast chain of command, until he defeats Boskone and becomes, in essence, the ruler of the civilized universe. But Kinnison is destined only slowly to understand that the final empire of Boskone he has destroyed, through the use of weapons of unparalleled immensity, is not the final enemy, whose name he never learns, no more than he ever discovers the full truth about his own Arisian mentors, whose civilized precepts he enacts and whose apparent true form (see Brain in a Box) is a further layer of disguise. His powers are vast, though he remains ignorant of the true scale of the Universe, which is greater, and requires greater powers to confront, than even a Hero with Superpowers is capable of grasping. Perhaps the deepest attraction of the Lensman series lies not in its claims to trump Evolution but in the fact that Kinnison, as a commanding member of the organization of Lensmen (itself hierarchical), is licensed to kill; and that his readers, knowing who issued the licence, can relish that long-extended dramatic irony.

The Lensman series inspired one of the earliest of sf WarGames, Lensman (1969). Two Japanese Anime adaptations, the film Lensman (1984; vt Lensman: Secret of the Lens) and the Television series Galactic Patrol Lensman (1984-1985), unfortunately poisoned Hollywood interest in Western versions of the saga.

After completing his central series, Smith wrote some rather less popular out-of-series books, none having anything like the force of his major effort. A decade after his death, books he had begun or completed in manuscript, or had merely inspired or authorized, began to appear in response to his great posthumous popularity. Lensman Ties included New Lensman (1976) by William B Ellern and The Dragon Lensman (1980), Lensman from Rigel (1982) and Z-Lensman (1983), a trilogy by David A Kyle which provided further adventures for each of the three Alien comrades who had, along with Kinnison himself, been granted by Arisia the status and powers of a Second Stage Lensman. The Family d'Alembert series, published as by Smith "with Stephen Goldin", derived some material from posthumous manuscripts; the first volume, The Imperial Stars (May 1964 If; exp 1976), was based on published material, but subsequent volumes were essentially the work of Goldin [see Checklist below, also see his entry]. Lloyd Arthur Eshbach constructed in Subspace Encounter (1983) a sequel to the inferior Subspace Explorers (July 1960 Astounding as "Subspace Survivors"; exp 1965). A late Japanese contribution is Samurai Lensman (2001) by Hideyuki Furuhashi. None of these adjuncts did anything to help Smith's reputation. Today, while he must be read by anyone interested in understanding the deep appeal of American Genre SF in the days before World War two, any revisit to his work should be made in the loving awareness that he is a creature of the dawn. He was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2004. [JC]

see also: Advertising; Chess; Children's SF; Cosmology; Crime and Punishment; Definitions of SF; Dimensions; Energy Beings; Fabulation; Fantastic Voyages; Future Histories; GURPS; History of SF; Jupiter; Longevity in Writers; Macrostructures; Memory Edit; Power Sources; Pyramid Books; Rays; Scientific Errors; Space Flight; Stars; Spy-Rays; Swearing; Time Viewer; Ultrawave; Widescreen Baroque; World Ships.

Edward Elmer Smith

born Sheboygan, Wisconsin: 2 May 1890

died Seaside, Oregon: 31 August 1965





For internal chronology see text above. The first six volumes were re-released in 1955 by Fantasy Press in a boxed set with the overtitle, The History of Civilization; as the individual volumes were textually unchanged, the boxed set is not listed below. Similarly, the boxed set issued by Old Earth Books in 1997-1998 replicates these original settings with the same overtitle, and is otherwise unchanged except for introductions by John Clute. This edition was reprinted in 1998 by the Science Fiction Book Club with a new overtitle, Chronicles of the Lensmen.

Lensman: Vortex Blaster

  • The Vortex Blaster (Hicksville, New York: Gnome Press, 1960) [coll of linked stories/fixup: first version appeared July 1941 Comet: plus other stories: Lensman: Vortex Blaster: hb/W I Van der Poel]
    • Masters of the Vortex (New York: Pyramid Books, 1968) [vt of the above: Lensman: Vortex Blaster: pb/Jack Gaughan]
    • The Vortex Blaster (no place given: Project Gutenberg, 2007) [story: ebook: cut version of the above, containing title story only: first appeared July 1941 Comet: Lensman: Vortex Blaster: na/]

Lensman Universe

Sequels by Other Hands are listed here for convenience.


Family D'Alembert

Lord Tedric

This series is based on Smith's story "Tedric" (March 1953 Other Worlds). Although Smith's involvement is confined to the first volume – expanded from this story – the whole series with its tangle of variant author credits is listed below for convenience.

individual titles

collections and stories


about the author


previous versions of this entry

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