Iron Lensman

Every now and then I have the impulse to do a little literary criticism, although I can usually control it with prescription medication. But the other day I was watching Iron Man II (I really watched the MCU out of order) and a parallel struck me that I haven’t heard anyone else talk about before, so you lucky readers get to hear me ramble on about it.

The Lensman series, by E. E. “Doc” Smith was one of the seminal works of Golden Age SF, appearing in Astounding magazine from 1937-1948, and later reworked in the 1950s as a series of seven novels. Roughly, the titular heroes, the Lensmen, were an organization that fought crime on a galactic scale. Their lenses amplified their psionic powers, and no person who could be corrupted by wealth and power could wield a lens.

The length of the series, the poverty of the plot (which generally just featured the Lensmen going up against more and more powerful foes, armed with ever-more esoteric and larger superbattlefleets) and Smith’s excruciatingly awful prose meant that the Lensman series never saw release as anything approaching a major motion picture, which is on some level a relief and on another a profound disappointment. I always thought the series might have some hope in the hands of a really awesome screenwriter. But the themes he launched were a major influence on Star Wars (incorruptible psionic supersoldiers, anyone?) Other than that, it’s hard to find a direct heir to Smith’s style of storytelling.

And then it hit me that Tony Stark is pretty much a lensman par excellance, updated for the modern world. There are several parallels: like many other writers of that generation, such as Asimov, to whose Foundation series Smith lost the 1966 Hugo for Best Series, Smith’s lensmen are trained and expected to function as scientists, and frequently make discoveries and invent new weapons and vehicles. This whole thing struck me as i watched Tony Stark invent a new element under the guidance of his father’s notes to replace the palladium in his arc reactor heart. Like the lensmen, Tony Stark relies on a scientistic talisman that grants him his power, but it is always clear that his real power is in his willingness to do the right thing. Also like the first family of lensmen, the Kinnisons, Tony Stark gets a big helping hand from his father’s legacy of great genes and connections. Finally, by Civil War we see that Tony Stark is also concerned, as was Smith, with the idea of oversight. There is a major difference here, since the lensman’s source of power was also his shield against corruption. Tony Stark loses faith in himself and his fellow Avengers, but it’s interesting to me that this lack of faith is ultimately shown to be misplaced when he goes up against Captain America. Who also has his own “lens” made for him by Howard Stark, in a sense. The shape is even similar.

Although I really liked the conclusion of the major arc of the MCU, I’m going to miss Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. I hope that another generation of lensmen — whatever they are called — comes quickly.

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4 thoughts on “Iron Lensman

  1. I tried reading The First Lensman and couldn’t really get into it. Maybe it was the tropes that have since been overdone, but I don’t think Doc Smith’s prose helped his case any.

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