Menu Close

An experiment in reading

In 1966, I attended a school called “New Experimental College” in Denmark, just north of the Limfjord.

One evening, bored, empty, with nothing better to do, I looked over the school library. Did I mention the school was a remodeled farmhouse surrounded by like working structures that dotted the bucolic northern landscape? Neighboring barns, unlike the renovated one where I was standing, housed animals more likely to regurgitate meals to multiple stomachs, while in our’s we retched and digested ideas. Nightlife and escape were not a temptation, because they were not a possibility. The library consisted of some very nice wooden shelves along a portion of a whitewashed wall. In the lower left corner, I noticed two or three books of SF.
There was a Frank Herbert – I believe it was “The Dragon in the Sea.” Ubiquitous and lovely Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” and several other minor titles. It is probable the books were left on the shelves by other students or visitors who frequently found themselves at the school for several days of the experiment. Despite the fact I had been reading science fiction for most of my life, I had forsaken SF for a time for the literature of Modern Europe. Joyce, Mann and Proust won out over Verne and Wells. The last book on the sparse shelf caught my eye. E.E. “Doc” Smith’s “The Gray Lensman”

a_04_graylensman_pyramid_x1245_1965_gaughan_cvI started reading. The Gray Lensman is either the third or the fourth novel of the series. (Depends your acceptance of the prequel Triplanetary as the first.) I was dropped dead middle in the strife between Arisians and Eddorians, familiar enough territory. Acknowledge it or not “Doc” Smith influenced many SF writers who followed. Part of his literary imagination remains today in a renewed longing for “space opera.” I was both charmed and disturbed by the paper thin characterizations of the Samms and the Kinnisons. But, oh my, the scope of the imagined cosmos. My feelings about the clumsy application of the words on the page were insignificant compared to the vast vision laid before me.

When I returned home to America, I read, in order, the whole of the Lensman Series. Continued on to the Skylark Series. Some would label the two sequences “primitive” SF and ask me to call my enjoyment of them a guilty pleasure. I try not to feel “guilty” about my pleasures, however they become manifest. I am aware of every fault you can point out in the work of “Doc” Smith. Throw every epithet about “purile entertainment” or “low-brow even for pop culture” or “non-existent literary quality.” I’ve heard and thought them all myself. In the end, I think the criticisms are wrong-headed. Show a lack of empathy and a lack of historical context. The truth is the novels of “Doc” Smith are reborn and reimagined every time they are read.