I recently finished reading First Lensman by E. E. “Doc” Smith and I found that, as a sci-fi space opera, I really enjoyed it. I read Triplanetary last year, but wasn’t able to continue reading the series because, even after doing a used bookstore circuit, I couldn’t find a copy of First Lensman anywhere. When I was looking for stuff to read earlier this year, I decided I would check online, and I found a nice anthology containing all the Lensman novels I picked it up and added the rest of the series to my queue.
One of the things I really liked about First Lensman is that within the larger narrative there was nested a number of smaller self-contained narratives that really developed the heroics of the main characters and illustrated just how despicable the villains were. This structure really allowed Smith to explore an ensemble of Lensman and give each unique abilities, which was really fun to read about. Some, such as Virgil Samms and Rodrick Kinnison were, of course, the focus of more of these narratives than the others, but this allowed Smith to make them the focus of the larger meta-narrative, which was extremely rewarding.
I found that, of all the characters, I really enjoyed reading about Virgil Samms the most. This is almost assuredly intentional as he is the titular character of the First Lensman. But, more than that, I really liked reading about a visionary and a thinker. To me, Samms came across as the idea guy, but also as someone who thinks ahead. He had both the analytical mind to measure ideas and plans of action and the foresight to measure things against the future instead of just the past or present. This made him a very dynamic character that was extremely fun to read about.
I also really enjoyed reading about Jill Samms (Virgil’s daughter). She did not have a Lens (so she did not have access to its powers or its icon of incorruptibility), but she was a very competent investigator anyway, and often found herself able to work certain angles because of her lack of Lens. This made her sections a bit more human than the others, which was really interesting as a contrast.
Overall, First Lensman gets a recommendation from me with a couple of caveats. First, it is classic science fiction, and its age shows. The things that they were worried about, and were worth writing about, are different than they are now, and the difference in our science and technology levels is apparent. Second, is a need to understand its social context – First Lensman was published in 1950, if you are culturally aware enough to separate the social context of 1950 and today, I think you’ll find the book enjoyable. This is not to say that its social faults should be overlooked, only understood. For me, I really enjoyed it, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.