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A while ago, I posted about finding the original version of E.E. "Doc" Smith's "The Skylark of Space," a famous and precedent-setting pulp science fiction tale of interestellar travel, on Project Gutenberg. That wasn't the only story of his to have wound up with a revision and copyright history uncertain enough for the Gutenberg people to go ahead and add it to their catalogue, though, and I've now got around to reading the original version of "Triplanetary." It wound up becoming the first book chronologically in the "Lensman" series... and "wound up" is the significant phrase there.

Starting out as a self-contained "space opera" written in the early 1930s, "Triplanetary" had a whole series of prologues attached to it close to two decades later to tie it into the struggle between the noble Arisians and vile Eddorians revealed by the end of the Lensman stories, which had been written by that point. When I found and read that revised version, I gathered that some small scenes had been dropped into the meat of the book to remind people of the Lensman backstory, and in some ways I did wonder what the original would have been like... and then, one day, I had the chance to see that version.

The impression I got is in fact what I had first wondered that "The Skylark of Space" itself might feel like, of self-contained scenes dropped into a story otherwise almost unaltered. Without the full scale of the Lensman stories behind it, though, I suppose it's easy enough to see "Triplanetary" as just one more "space opera," if one with Cones of Battle forming to blast the hidden space fortress of Gray Rodger, who intends a carefully unspecified "fate worse than death" for the young Clio Marsden. She can handle herself well enough in most crises but seems essentially a young woman caught up in the struggles of hard-as-nails men. One of them, the Triplanetary secret agent Conway Costigan, shows his one trace of awkwardness in trying to rebuff her calm and unalterable romantic attachment, at one point telling her that "somebody is going to collect fifty grams of radium for my head." (Cracks about "money burning a hole in your pocket" came to mind...) Perhaps fortunately, Clio and Costigan have a chaperone in the form of a mature space captain captured along with them while the rest of his ship gets wiped out. Then, the alien Nevians come tearing in, able to use iron itself as atomic fuel and so overjoyed that Earth's solar system has more than a few pounds of it that they don't bother to look at what they're liquefying, be it space fleet, the city of Pittsburgh, or the iron in human blood... Triplanetary throws a "super-ship" together, at times literally on the fly, and various rays sizzle through the void (as Costigan cooks up nerve gas in an improvised chemistry lab to escape yet again at the cost of most of a Nevian city) until both sides, having demonstrated the possibility of "mutual assured destruction," bring the war to a screeching halt and sign a "Treaty of Eternal Peace." A part of me is convinced that those who look at modern stories with an eye towards providing calm condemnation would really freak out at "Triplanetary." (And there's a different, more ungrateful yet part of me that, while aware that some do at times criticise the "new introduction" to the Lensman series on the grounds that it gives away the ultimate secret behind the steady revelation of larger threats yet, does suspect that Smith can get away with revising his work...) Still, it does have its own strange historical appeal even now.

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