Third Time’s No Charm : E. E. Smith – “Triplanetary” (Lensman #1)


At some point Edward Elmer “Doc” Smith’s novels under the “Lensman” umbrella were serious contenders for best SF series of all time. That point was 1966, at the Hugo Awards, and if “Triplanetary” is any indication, Smith’s books belong back there in that Golden-Agey, “scientifiction” past, being whopped by Isaac Asimov’s similar- but far superior- “Foundation” series.

“Triplanetary” was originally published as a serial in Hugo Gernsback’s seminal “Amazing Stories,” and spruced up to be issued as a  novel in the late ’40s. And yet the language sounds far more archaic and portentous than that would suggest: I don’t think I’ve heard a brunette described as a “brownette” in… ever? The book tracks millennia in the lives of Eddore (bad guys who are also… amoebas) and Arisia (good guys who are also… giant brains?): two galaxies and two ways of living colliding, penetrating each other- and influencing life on Earth, from the Fall of Atlantis and the Roman Empire, to the World Wars.


So much subsequent space opera owes a debt to E. E. Smith that I may return to the “Lensman” series at some point. Truthfully what brought me here was misguided nostalgia for the loosely related “Lensman” anime from the ’80s, which may borrow more from “Star Wars” than from Smith. The tortured writing keeps me at bay: at least in this book, “Doc” wrote like he was eager to remind you about his Ph.D. in Engineering… even if it was FOOD Engineering.




May the Fourth and All That : John Jackson Miller – “Lost Tribe of the Sith”

Taking place after “Dawn of the Jedi”, but feeling even more genuinely mythological, John Jackson Miller’s “Lost Tribe of the Sith” is further evidence that almost everyone in the Galaxy has given more though to Star Wars mythology than George Lucas. Now no longer “canon” and relegated to the “legends” designation, this is a nice collection of 9 novellas: “Precipice,” “Skyborn,” “Paragon,” “Savior,” “Purgatory,” “Sentinel,” “Pantheon,” “Secrets,” “Pandemonium.” (Notice a certain pattern?) After the Sith Starship “Omen” crashlands on Kersh, 5000 years or so before the Battle of Yavin, the Dark-Forced castaways made themselves a new home by conquering the Keshiri with incisive, genocidal glee over millennia. Their biggest challenge, though? Their inability to co-operate:  a civilization of sheer evil doesn’t last long because its leaders turn to political cannibalism. How the Sith of Kesh manage to make it all work is an interesting tale, although necessarily fragmented and rushed (you try covering two millennia of Lost Tribe history: even Gabriel Garcia Marquez stuck to 100 years of solitude.)

Jackson Miller, (who also wrote the “Knights of the Old Republic” series) would return to the Lost Tribe with “Spiral,” a 5-issue graphic novel for Dark Horse Comics. This follows the collected stories, and is set two thousand years or so before “A New Hope,” or, as normal people call it, “the first Star Wars movie, the one that didn’t have that Jar Jar Binks fella.” Continuing with the idea of strangers in strange lands, “Spiral” is about two discontent Sith who wind up in Kesh’s supposedly uninhabited version of the South Pole, only to find “The Doomed”: descendants of Fallen Jedi.


There is a particularly dumb moment in “Episode III : Revenge of the Sith” when Annakin says something to Obi-Wan Kenobi like (and I paraphrase because dialogue this bad shouldn’t be committed to memory): “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” to which Obi Boy replies all like: “Only a Sith would think like that. THEREFORE YOU’RE NOT WITH ME AND YOU ARE MY ENEMY AND I MUST KILL YOU AND I DON’T SEE THE IRONY IN ANY OF THIS!”

The much smarter (and better-written) Doomed, instead, have  realized that there IS a possible middle ground between the Dark Force and the Light Force. This is a concept so apparently beyond the subtleties of Hollywood cinema that so far it hasn’t even been considered in 7 “Star Wars” movies- and a spinoff. To find out how they make it work, of course, look up the comics.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH, clearly best for SW fans.

Still in the Nile : Emilio Salgari – “The Daughters of the Pharaohs”

Still in the Nile, but this time with a two volume cycle from Emilio Salgari, comprising “”The Daughters of the Pharaohs” and “The Priest of Ptah” (1906). “The Daughters of the Pharaohs” follows the very familiar Salgarian outline of a wronged prince recapturing his rightful throne, and one imagines Verdi’s “Aida” played on the gramophone throughout the novel’s composition, but it is distinguished by a remarkable amount of research (for its author.) Basic knowledge of Egyptology proves most of that “research” wrong, a mad anachronistic jumble of dynasties, but the man must have at least cracked open a book or two on the subject of Ancient Egypt.

ABOVE: “By Osiris, somehow I’ve wound up at the New York Public Library!”

EXOTIC SETTING: Ancient Egypt, Memphis, “3000 years ago.”

HEROES: Mirinri, an aspiring young Pharaoh; TWO sexy princesses fighting over him, (which is why some editions give the title of the book as “The Daughters of the Pharaohs.”)

VILLAINS: Pepi I, the evil Emperor whom you can never take seriously because he’s called Pepi. GIGGLEZ! PEPI!

TOPICS OF INTEREST: Frequent factoids about the cultural and religious life of Ancient Egypt. Many of those factoids are not even made up.

MEAN ANIMALS: We are told that out hero rescues the princess from the jaws of an alligator; it happens “off-screen,” before the novel starts, because even Salgari couldn’t think of a way for a princess to actually be caught in the jaws of an alligator and somehow survive with her prettiness un-mangled. A lion is stabbed to death in the sands. Entire flocks of birds have their tail feathers set on fire as a form of aerial warfare.

BIZARRE MOMENT: Our hero, in a fit of fury, drags a mummy out of a sarcophagus and kicks it into dust. The mummy did nothing to provoke him!

DIALOGUE GEM: “Mirinri, I am your father… your father’s good friend, I mean. I am NOT your father, is what I am trying to say. I love you, my son. I mean, my SUN that rises over Egypt. You know, not like SON son, but SUN, the God in the sky. Ra!”

ACTION SCENE: An epic attack on Memphis is worth wandering through the literary desert that is Salgari’s “style.”

“TWIST”: The dude who kept on saying he wasn’t Mirinri’s father totally turned out to be Mirinri’s father. Very “Star Wars.” A second “twist” was actually surprising to me as a young reader – too young to notice it was spoiled in the TITLE. That  second twist is also very “Star Wars.”

CULTURAL/RACIAL INSENSITIVITY: “The manly, intelligent, advanced Egyptian specimen of the time can hardly be compared to today’s degraded, superstitious cabal of dusky war-seekers.”

RATING: COOL! Above average Salgari

Below, enjoy an evocative gallery of classic covers:











The Gentleman of the Mountain : Alexandre Dumas – “El Salteador”


Can a son ever slap his father? No! That would be a slap on the face of nature, a sign of imminent Armageddons! Or such is the outraged conviction at the heart of Alexandre Dumas’ “El Salteador, or The Gentleman of the Mountain.”

This is a minor Spanish tale from 1853, short by Dumas’ standards, and would seem to take its subject from a play by either Tirso de Molina or Lope de Vega or Calderon de la Barca or one of them Dons. Dumas, who appears to have written without (living) collaborators, freely admits in a disarming preface he’s more or less stolen the concept from a theatrical Spanish source – but won’t say which one. As in those plays, the exaggerated Spanish sense of honor from the Siglo de Oro forces characters into nearly tragic situations that could be easily solved if everyone worried less about inflexible moral codes and more about common sense.

It’s 1519. The Germanic King Charles V of Spain, soon to be Holy Roman Emperor, is visiting Spain, specifically the Granada that was once Muslim territory and still retains its Arabesque nature. Preceding the king is Grand Justicier Don Inigo, (a former sailing-mate of Columbus), who’s traveling the mountains with his beautiful daughter Dona Flor. They’re assaulted by a band of thieves, but rescued from death (and, in Flor’s case, ignominy) by  the dashing prince of thieves, Don Fernando, who feels a mysterious sympathy for the travelers.

Fernando is El Salteador (a brigand), and of course one who takes pride in his chivalry. He releases Flor and Don Inigo, but soon the King’s tough-on-crime forces are setting fire to the mountain range in an attempt to smoke the criminal out. Fernando’s unpleasant band mates disappear ( a weakness of the novel: a Robin Hood without Merry Men.) He’s accompanied only by the loyal gypsy princess Ginesta (so Esmeralda-ish she’s even got a pet goat).

ABOVE: Gypsy Girl. Goat sold separately.

Ginesta turns out to be the “natural” daughter of the Bohemian Queen Topaze and Philip the Handsome, 1st Hapsburg king of Castile, and therefore related to Charles V. Hoping to pull some family favors, she goes to the Court of Lions in Alhambra (beautifully described: Dumas had visited Spain in 1845, and was a fan of Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra.”) Ginesta begs Charles, and secures a pardon for her beloved thief – a pardon that Fernando promptly squanders by getting caught in a nonsensical duel with his best friend over Dona Flor’s affections. In a subsequent climactic hissy fit, Fernando slaps his own long-suffering father in front of the whole shocked town.

Dumas, as the ever-intrusive narrator we’ve grown to love, reacts to the slap with apoplectic, exaggerated outrage: HOW CAN SUCH A THING HAPPEN ARGGHH IS THERE NOTHING SACRED ANYMORE? As a matter of fact, it feels like an inside joke. One pictures Alexandre Dumas Pere reacting to a similar slap by a rebellious Alexandre Dumas Fils: “HOW DARE YOU? I GAVE YOU MY NAME, YOU BASTARD! I’M GONNA WRITE A NOVEL ABOUT THIS!”

“El Salteador” is a pleasant read full of Iberian color, but fails to join the middle tier of Dumas’ work by the unlikability of a mercurial main figure. Dumas begins writing Fernando as another of his adventurous braves, a Spanish D’Artagnan – but halfway through the author adopts a weird contempt for his rebellious lead. Fernando’s unpredictable moods do add a perverse twist: The tall-dark-and-handome macho bad boy turns out to be just plain bad, an incorrigible murderer who also


has been trying to screw his own sister throughout. (Holy Star Wars, Hombre Murcielago!)

Just when Fernando is at his  most despicable, having slapped down the man who raised him and killed a lot of innocent people during his escape… the novel doles out unearned happy-endings to everyone.