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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Power porn: Some thoughts on the space opera of E.E. "Doc" Smith

I've been reading some of the work of E.E. "Doc" Smith, which has exerted a great influence on more modern science fiction series, not least the Star Wars movies.

Though the writing is often clumsy, or indeed - for readers used to more restrained and literary fare - melodramatic to the point of hysteria, there's also much of interest. Smith creates an extraordinary range of monsters, alien environments and civilizations, and generally a lived-in universe.

Some of his villains are remarkable, far more interesting, for my money, than his near-flawless heroes. Notably, Marc DuQuesne, the calm, cultured, supremely competent, and strangely honourable villain of the Skylark books, provides a template for many of the great supervillains that followed in comics and movies. Like some of those later villains, DuQuesne is both a worthy - and often successful - antagonist and an invaluable ally, when the occasion arises, against worse evildoers.

In Galactic Patrol, from Smith's Lensmen series, there is a passage (1977 Jove edition p. 121) in which one of the mysterious and powerful Arisians sets out the moral stakes explicitly. He is speaking to Helmuth, the book's calculating and resourceful villain:
"Evil and good are of course purely relative, so it cannot be said in absolute terms that your culture is evil. It is, however, based upon greed, hatred, corruption, violence, and fear. Justice it does not recognize, nor mercy, nor truth except as a scientific utility. It is basically opposed to liberty. Now liberty - of person, of thought, of action - is the basic [sic] and the goal of the civilization to which you are opposed, and with which any really philosophical mind must find itself in accord."
This contains Smith's denial of moral absolutes (we are often shown alien civilizations with their own local mores and folkways that are presented without any denigration), his preference for thick moral description over terms such as "good" and "evil", and a concise account of his ostensible values.

During this dialogue, Helmuth is rebuffed in his quest to discover the workings of the Lens, a powerful device that the Arisians have given to the good guys to advantage them in their civilizational struggle against Helmuth and the piratical Boskonians. As we also see in the Skylark series, the overt theme is scientific responsibility, and particularly the responsible uses of powerful technology that can be employed for advanced weaponry. The role of a Gray Lensman - an especially powerful agent who is given a great range of personal freedom and discretion - involves both responsibility and pride. Thus, Kinnison, the main protagonist of the Lensman books is told (p. 141 of the same edition of Galactic Patrol):
"You are to be as nearly absolutely free an agent as it is possible for a living, flesh-and-blood creature to be. To the man on the street that would seem to spell a condition of perfect bliss. Only a Gray Lensman knows what a frightful load it really is; but it is a load that such a Lensman is glad and proud to carry."
However, these books are also a kind of power porn, inviting their readers' excitement over the constant depictions of awe-inspiring, "incredible" (a favourite word in these books) - and very often destructive - feats of power. This, surely, is what made Smith's books so popular: we are led to identify with the heroes as they perform their - well, yes - incredible actions. Even the bad guys gain our sneaking admiration with their own remarkable feats, as well as the cunning that they bring in their wars against the wonderful and righteous heroes.

I'm surely not the first critic to have noticed how this plays out, as the books question and examine the responsible uses of power, while also amounting to pornography-like fantasies of power in which the (supposedly) morally upright heroes wreak endless death and destruction. It's fascinating, at any rate, to read E.E. Smith with this tension in mind.

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