So I read Chronicles of the Lensmen, Volume 1.
I know what some of you are thinking. "Ragnell, why did you go and do that? You know the reputation. You know its going to piss you off."
And for a long time, I put off reading these books. I knew they would be sexist. I knew the reputation. But seriously, its the fucking template for fucking space opera. Its arguably the mother of the Jedi Knights and the Green Lantern Corps. There was no fucking way I couldn't read this stuff, and the truth of the matter is there was guaranteed to be stuff I would love.
Fortunately, a big plus to having a blog and being in the feminist fan community is that I can read this stuff, enjoy what I enjoy, get pissed off at the sexism that keeps it from being as awesome as it could be (this writer had the ability to craft a kickass character, he just chose not to use that ability when it came to women and instead gendered strength and heroism) and complain about it to people who understand why I'm pissed off. Even with that in mind, this series is bad enough that I feel an intense need to justify that I kept reading the damned thing even though aside from the constant shitting on my gender the damned series feels like it was custom-written with me in mind.
In all honesty, I thought it wouldn't be so bad. I've read extremely sexist and misogynistic stuff from the King Arthur stuff written centuries ago and haven't gotten pissed off. I read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Victorian attitude about women never pissed me off. It was part of the atmosphere, an anachronism. I figured I could just rationalize it away as "the attitude from the times" but I neglected two facts about this series: 1) A medieval setting where women are only princesses and barmaids is vastly less annoying than a future setting where women are only nurses and secretaries, and 2) It is a work that overtly worships masculinity and in the narrative (not the dialogue, or a first-person narrator, but the omniscient third-person narrator) goes out of its way to drop generalizations about women and uses the word "man" as a synonym for "hero".
In the first book, Triplanetary, I wanted to smack Clio. I swear, what a stupid worthless character and every stupid worthless part of her stupid worthless personality was attributed to her being a stupid worthless woman while everything that made her boyfriend a really awesome hero was attributed to his really awesome manliness.
I would've stopped there, it was pissing me off, but it was full of energy and adventure and detailed alien fish-people so I couldn't put it down. I consoled myself with the idea that I could find the author's grave and energetically voice my objections towards his rotting corpse when it was all over, and kept reading.
In the second book, First Lensmen, I was happy early on. Action-adventure set in outerspace, a couple of fun heroes and Clio was nowhere to be found. The only girl was mildly likable. I managed to forget for a moment that I was reading the Chronicles of the Lensmen, until Jill came back from Arisia with the explanation why women couldn't have a lens. The whole explanation just sounded mean-spirited and unnecessary. A "sex-based incompatibility." (I'm sorry, the color yellow has nothing on that one for idiocy.) It doesn't fit, and she goes on to say that the men she's with all have forceful, driven minds with tremendous scope ("pure killers") and a woman could not have that sort of mind. (This rules out any chance of a nice mean female villain. Which is a shame, because usually we can at least look forward an evil witch with a heart of iron that'll be turned into the misunderstood protagonist of an homage book.) She says there'll be one female lensman (I haven't gotten to that book, but I'm certain I'll be pissed off by it) in the future, and one of the guys suggests the female lensman will be some sort of freak thank you very much you bastard writer.
I'd have stopped reading in disgust, but I had nothing else to read so I went on. I was pleased by zero-gravity fight scenes later, but I got annoyed whenever Jill was mentioned. What made this worse was that the author very much wanted me to like her, and built her up in the dialogue and narration without coming through in the action.
They made a point of saying repeatedly that she didn't need a lens, her skills were fine without them. But oh wait, there's a scene where she figures out something fucking important with her skills but can't contact any of the others to help her (and can't do anything about it herself) because she doesn't have a fucking lens. She has to wait for someone to contact her mind before she can let them know (to the writer's credit, chivalry is put forth as a bad thing here, because no one wants to go near her mind without her express immediate consent but that doesn't change the fact that this all could have been averted if she had a fucking lens.)
Of course, after this scene (and after a later one where she gets captured and roughed up because she doesn't have a fucking lens) they all say that it was true she didn't need one, and that's she awesome, and that annoys me more than her being in a shitty position to begin with. It's the "strong woman" thing. The writers seem to figure if they say a character is cool and a "strong woman" enough, she is, despite the fact that she's purposefully written as less powerful than any of the male characters. And of course, the writer sits and congratulates himself on what an awesome "strong woman" character he's created, and how progressive he is and what a good person he is for throwing the poor woman readers who have so little an awesome chick they can look up to and emulate.
Anyway, this wouldn't piss me off half as much were it not still in practice today (See Winick, the Writings of Judd), and the plot still had me hooked and I liked the male characters when the writer was not going out of his was to point out how manly they were (please take note if you somehow stumble across this searching on your name, Geoff Johns, and consider your Hal Jordan characterization) so I continued reading, reminding myself this author was dead and probably reincarnated (for his writing sins) as a feminist comics blogger. (This has the upside of Stephanie getting her memorial case once the karmic debt from Lensmen runs out. It unfortunately has the downside of having launched a genre with this sexist shit that still needs to be cleared out so that's a pretty big debt.)
He wrapped the book up with some good old-fashioned (and I mean old-fashioned, this was from the days leading up to the Red Scare) dated political allegory.
I actually found Galactic Patrol to be the most enjoyable of the series, and the reason why will only really apply to me. The main character was named Kim Kinnison. My sister's nickname (for "Kimberly") is "Kim", so already I'm inclined to think "girl" when I see the name. The inclination was compounded because I knew a "Kinnison" in basic training.
Kinnison was about half my size, with shoulder-length blonde hair (always tucked behind her ears), very round dark eyes, and mildly chubby cheeks. She always seemed to have a bewildered expression on her face, because it was basic training and you had to stand there with a completely slack expression (or else you'd get yelled at and made to do laps or pushups or something exhausting) whenever anyone with stripes was around, and she had one of those jobs that had a lot of visibility with the military training instructors (we called them TIs in the Air Force, not Drill Sergeants). She was our "chowrunner" which is a job that involved entering the dining hall before the rest of the flight, standing in front of the TI table during the whole meal and directing her flight to where they needed to sit and eat. I'm not sure if Kinnison ate before or after us, or if she got to eat at all. I just remember her telling everyone how she'd stand there and one of the TIs would make funny faces at her, trying to get her to laugh so he could yell at her.
I tell you this much detail because this is the person I pictured whenever I pictured "Kim Kinnison." Smith didn't have much in the way of physical description for the characters, so even though I knew Kim was short of "Kimball" and I knew it was a male character, and even though Smith went out of his way to praise the character's masculinity, I still could not help but picture a short 18-year-old girl with shoulder-length blonde hair and a bewildered expression on her face throughout the entire book. It made the whole thing really interesting, I just wish I could draw you her face. Her eyes had the perfect roundness for an "Oh shit" reaction to anything!
Inadvertently, Kim Kinnison has become one of my favorite female characters.
That doesn't change the misogyny in the surrounding narrative (though it does makes it amusing to me).
Now, you'll notice this review is about gender-related issues. There's also race, sexuality, nationality, and religion to consider. Surprise surprise, everyone with a romantic subplot is straight. True, he doesn't really bother to mention race, but all of the names are European and some of the main characters are redheads and blondes. He has a Norwegian and a couple of Germans and everyone else is American. I didn't notice anything about religion, and I'm quite glad he didn't think to address the subject.
Overall, there is stuff I like better than the Green Lantern Corps and stuff I like less. I prefer the green energy to mind-control powers (though in the third book Kinnison gets really kickass really fast and my opinion on who has the better power set may change as I make my way through the last 3 books). I prefer the wristband to rings. The Galactic Patrol was set up much more intelligently than the GLC, with the lens falling apart once the owner was killed and killing anyone who tried it on but wasn't worthy. A smart idea, but offers less narrative flexibility. The Arisians being infallible (as of the third book) isn't as interesting as the Guardians being borderline psychotic at times, but that just demonstrates two different attitudes to government. The GLC and the Jedi both kick collective Lensmen ass by allowing women in the order (the next person who tells me the Silver Age Green Lantern is inherently anti-woman because it was based on the Lensmen novels gets a lecture about how E.E. Smith makes John Broome look like William Moulton Marston.)
It had some really kickass action in it and I did like the male characters despite the author's desperate, pathetic need to point out how manly they were. I also thought Clarrissa wasn't vomit-inducing, and Jill might not have been if not for the author's insistence that he wasn't being sexist with her plotline (I wanted Clio dead, though). I couldn't put the damned thing down once I started it, because while I'd not get pissed off by sexism I'd also not get to read zero-gravity fights and fishpeople and that bit with the cat in the barber's shop.
Ultimately, reading this series was like getting a lovely green leather briefcase as a gift and finding "To my favorite nephew" inscribed on the side. Its beautiful leather, holds everything I need, and green is my favorite color, but someone had to go and mark the damned thing for a boy. Every time I look at it I'm reminded that even though it suits me perfectly it wasn't really meant for me.
That sours any enjoyment I can get out of it.