To celebrate the tenth anniversary of their SF Masterworks series, in early 2019 Gollancz launched a counterpart dedicated to older classics of science fiction: the Golden Age Masterworks. Of the initial tranche of books, Galactic Patrol by E.E. "Doc" Smith is one of the earliest. A very early example of space opera, the novel was originally serialised in six parts in the pages of Astounding magazine in 1937 and 1938.
A food engineer by trade - with a specialism in doughnut mixes, of all things - E.E. Smith was a fairly prolific author of science fiction. Galactic Patrol forms a part of his Lensman series, which had quite a complicated publishing history, not least because he later retrofitted an existing novel to serve as a prequel to this one.
Galactic Patrol is classic 1930s pulp sci-fi, played out on an immense scale. The plot focuses primarily on a war between "Civilization", a confederation of allied worlds in many systems, and Boskone. While Civilization is presented as unambiguously virtuous and centred on Earth (known in the far future as "Tellus"), Boskone is a comprehensively malevolent entity, initially believed to be a ragtag army of pirates but later established to be a formidable interstellar power in its own right.
All of the idiosyncrasies of '30s space opera are present and correct in Galactic Patrol. The protagonist, Kimball Kinnison, is a prototypical square-jawed American hero with all of the self-righteousness and quaint retro dialogue you would expect. E.E. Smith's spacecraft travel at many times the speed of light but rely on transistors; vital information is recorded on tape; and the only woman in the entire novel is a fussy nurse named after Smith's sister-in-law, The pace is completely breathless, as Kinnison bounces from one bizarre planet to another (he visits a dozen or so in just 269 pages) in his quest to defeat Boskone.
There's no doubt that this profoundly old-fashioned style won't appeal to everyone. but it has two probably universal kinds of appeal: first, it's often unintentionally funny; and second, it's very significant to the history of science fiction. Very few examples of space opera predate Galactic Patrol, and the novel makes the first mention of the now ubiquitous concept of powered armour. Moreover, many works have the Lensman series as an acknowledged influence - not least Green Lantern from DC Comics and George Lucas' Star Wars. Also, the lensmen seem like a strong precedent for the taciturn and all-powerful law enforcers of Judge Dredd.
Archaeologists of early space opera and of pulp fiction seem the most natural audience for Galactic Patrol today. For them, it will be a badge of honour to have read a novel by an author who set the stage for so much of modern sci-fi. For everyone else, its dated tone runs the risk of wearing thin before the final battle, however amusing its '30s idiosyncrasies can be. While short fiction might be a better introduction to this era, its inclusion in the Golden Age Masterworks series is a very welcome one.
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