Wednesday, October 03, 2007

I can't believe I read the whole thing.

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.


  1. You have piqued my curiosity. I have heard of the Lensmen series, but never read it.

  2. If you want to read scifi that does clearly come from a given time period (it was written in the 80s outlines the future i.e., starting from the 21st century), but carries its age well, try Julian May's Pliocene Exile series! Great stuff. :)

  3. I'd have stopped reading in disgust, but I had nothing else to read so I went on.

    I think that's your problem right there. :-)

    I honestly can't remember the last time I had "nothing else to read". I'm just happy I've managed to whittle my "really want to read these soon" stack from 25 books down to about 15.

  4. FYI, the first two books of the Lensmen series were bolted onto the series after-the-fact, and IMO are not as good. If you enjoyed Galactic Patrol most of the first three, then the good news is that the last three books are more in line with it than with Triplanetary or First Lensman.

    As to the sexism, E.E. Smith is something like Heinlein, only more so (Smith was born in 1890, almost a generation before Heinlein, so his ideas about gender and romance were formed even further back in the dark ages of the late Victorian period). Like Heinlein, his female characters are only allowed to be strong in a very limited and "girly" way.

    There are some other E.E. Smith books that you may enjoy more than the Lensmen books. The Subspace Explorers/Subspace Encounter duet has somewhat stronger female characters, especially the parts of the second book that are based in the parallel universe.

  5. Michael -- You are always at home next to your bookshelf? You've never been on a plane or a bus or in an alert crew? I can only carry so many books in a backpack.

    Glaurung -- Generational attitudes don't explain the incessant referencing of gender differences in the text, like he felt a need to pound it into the reader's head. Its one thing to be characterized in the limited and girly way, or to have a moment referencing women and men in a stereotypical manner, but its another thing entirely to go out of your way and say it in the narration every other page or so. Like he was trying to repeat it enough so it would become true in real life too.

    Actual Victorian writers weren't that bad.

    Still, glad to hear the other three books are more like GP. I'll probably have to vent again on the blog.

  6. Its one thing to be characterized in the limited and girly way, or to have a moment referencing women and men in a stereotypical manner, but its another thing entirely to go out of your way and say it in the narration every other page or so.

    You aren't going to enjoy the bits about the Amazon culture of the Lyranians (sp? it's been a long time and the book is in another room) in the later books, then.

    I think Smith was one of those Victorian/Edwardian men who felt very, very threatened by Rosie the Riveter and women's suffrage and aviatrixes and all the pioneering women of the 30's who were breaking into male professions for the first time ever. His later works tend to be even more heavy handed with the "women are like X and men are like Y and that's genetically predestined by the fundamental nature of manliness and femininity, blah blah blah bullshit bullshit bullshit."

    The Subspace Explorers/Encounter duet has that ideological ranting built into it, but it also has some women in it who manage to do stuff other than fawn on their men.

    OTOH, you may enjoy Smith's Skylark series more. It was written earlier (the first book was started in 1915, Wikipedia says), and while the women in it have nothing to do except fawn on the men and be objects to be rescued, I seem to remember that there isn't as much biological determinism crap going on in it.

    And I think that your response to the books is a sign of how much things have changed: my partner is 50 and first read the Lensmen books in the 60's. I'm 40 and first read them in the early 80's. Both of us are lifelong feminists, and neither of us was as deeply offended by the books when we first read them as you are being offended by them now.

    When I run into this kind of generational difference, where younger feminists are appalled by things that older feminists just sort of pass on over, I take it as a good sign of how much invisible progress has been made in combatting sexism (nb: Rebecca Solnit's slim little book "Hope In the Dark" has a lot more on the idea of invisible progress vis-a-vis sexism, racism, and inequality in general).

    Anyway, I hope you manage to enjoy the space opera despite the crappy treatment of women and the sexist ideology. And there's several more Smith books out there (some are out of print, though), all of which are great fun as space opera, but not so fun as depictions of gender relations.

    OTOH, you may want to just skip the stress and find other sources of space opera written by people who didn't form their ideas about gender 100 years ago: you know about Tanya Huff's Valor series and Elizabeth Moon's various milSF books, right?

  7. The really embarassing stuff is in book five, where Smith points out how the enlightened galactic civilisation is based on the equality of the genders, by showing the contrast to a culture that isn't. Surprise, surpirse: That deplorable culture has women oppressing men. (Otherwise, how would the reader notice the difference to the enlightened galactic civilisation?)

    But even those "amazons" are not allowed to kick ass, or show any strength or determination, villains or not - they are just victims to the real villains and need to be saved by our chivalrous male heroes.

    Ironically they provide the reason for the one female "lensmen", because an undercover agent for there is needed...

    To be fair, in the sixth book Kinnison's daughters are actually capable and kick ass, often actually unsupervised.
    Too little, too late nevertheless.

  8. You're going to hate the Planet of Amazons. A lot.

    But what the hell. You might as well keep reading, because there'll be more of the stuff you like.

    BTW, the writing history of those books is really weird.

    _Triplanetary_ was written in two or three pieces many years apart. The middle trilogy, _Galactic Patrol_ and its two successors, are all of a piece -- almost a single book; he outlined and plotted them at the same time -- but then he didn't write _Children of the Lens_ until many years later, and it shows. (In a mostly good way. _Children_ is a much smoother and more accomplished work, and even shows occasional flashes of irony.)

    Anyway. There's a lot in there besides the sexism, yeah. Did you spot all the 1930s Triumph Of The Will stuff? I mean, the damn book starts with a display of synchronized marching.

    Doug M.

  9. Oh, yeah -- add my voice to whoever recommended the Pliocene Exile books. There are four, starting with _The Many-Colored Land_, and it's one of the rare series that gets better as it goes on. Pure fun.

    Doug M.

  10. "Every time I look at it I'm reminded that even though it suits me perfectly it wasn't really meant for me."

    Hi Ragnell, you don't know me, and I just surfed into your blog randomly. I just wanted to comment on your green leather briefcase metaphor. It exactly captures the experience of reading something that is great...except for the occasional slap in the face.

    I was thinking of reading the Lensmen books, but after seeing your experience, maybe I just won't bother, regardless of historical value/origin of a beloved genre.