Series: Lensman 1
Reviewed date: 2006 Mar 31
E. E. "Doc" Smith singlehandedly invented most of the science fiction cliches we know and love today. His greatest work is the six-volume Lensman series, which pits the forces of Civilization against the forces of an unknown malignant enemy. This is a grand, sweeping space opera in which the good guys are incorruptible and the bad guys are utterly dedicated to the cause of evil.
Triplanetary is not a great book in itself, but it sets the stage for the rest of the series. It introduces the guardians of Civilization, the Arisians, as well as the overlords of evil, the dreaded Eddorians. The Arisians are unable to defeat the Eddorians in open combat, so they resort to plan B: manipulate humanity and form mankind into a race capable of destroying the Eddorians. To this end, Arisia discreetly influences the history of mankind, keeping the meddling secret both from humanity and from the Eddorians.
Human civilizations (Atlantis, Rome, and America in particular) are permitted to rise and fall in order to forge mankind into a better race. These events are chronicled in the first few chapters of Triplanetary. The bulk of the novel takes place just as humanity is entering the age of interstellar space travel. No novices to interplanetary travel, mankind has already united the solar system under a single triplanetary government encompassing Earth, Mars, and Venus. War appears to be a thing of the past.
But the disappearance of several spaceships prompts an investigation into the outer edges of the solar system--which leads to a fight against space pirates armed with superweapons unknown to humanity--and then to violent encounter with the Nevians, an amphibious race from a faraway star, who want nothing more than to steal all the iron in the solar system.
Conway Constigan is kidnapped by Gray Roger, the chief pirate; he escapes but is promptly picked up the a passing Nevian ship and taken back to Nevia as a scientific specimen. On Nevia he manages to escape and be recaptured a couple of times, while back on Earth the scientists Rodebush and Cleveland are perfecting a new spaceship packed to the gills with new technology. Rodebush and Cleveland manage to finish the new ship just in time to 1) save Earth from a Nevian attack, 2) wipe out Gray Roger's space pirates forever, and 3) rescue Conway Constigan from Nevia. Then Earth and Nevia negotiate a treaty and live happily ever after.
Quality-wise, Triplanetary is a fair bit below the rest of the Lensman series. The writing is fractured and not cohesive, which is to be expected--this is a fix-up novel that wasn't originally part of the Lensman series. The characters are flat, but that's par for the course in a space opera: you don't read it for characterization anyway. The dialog is atrocious in the love interest segments (Conway Constigan falls in love with Clio Marsden) but the rest of the dialog is merely wooden, not cringe-worthy. Overall a decent introduction to the series, but much of the action in the Triplanetary section of the book is superfluous to the series. The real purpose for the book's existence is to introduce the Eddorians and the Arisians.