ROCKETEER FEATURE: It’s A Zwilnik World: How E. E. Doc Smith’s Lensmen Series Imagined a Neotopian Universe

By Sara Light-Waller

Fans of classic science fiction are undoubtedly familiar with E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series (published from approximately 1937-1954). The books are ultimate space operas where massive fleets harness the power of suns as directed energy weapons and full-size planets as projectiles. The heroes are hard-hitting space warriors, spies, and telepaths in the service of Civilization. That’s some heady stuff right there!

But reviewing the Lensmen as works of literature or even as an adventure series is not my purpose today. Instead, I’m going to talk about the stories as Neotopian vision, a remarkably timely exploration at this point in history.

Zwilniks Everywhere

What happens to a society when dog-eat-dog becomes the law of the land? Morals are bent and twisted and degrade into lower forms. No one trusts anyone else and the strong arm rules. Thus we see the ethos of the Zwilniks, not a race, species, or culture, but a way of life spawned by the rulership of the immensely powerful and amoral (or perhaps anti-moral) Eddorians. The nickname, Zwilnik, is given to thugs and miscreants by the Galactic Patrol, the universe’s shining moral force representing “Civilization.” The creation and advancement of Civilization is a long and winding road, where the conflict between Eddore and Arisia is played out through proxy life forms, including humans.

Where the criminal element is under the rulership of horrible Eddore, the Patrol is directed by moral Arisia, which encourages the development of a just and transparent galactic-wide police force. Patrolmen are sure of their moral stance because the best of them wear Arisian “lenses” which make the bearer telepathic and able to sense the truth, amongst other good things. Humanity of that era is not generally xenophobic and the ranks of Lensmen include humans, near-humans, and absolutely non-human characters.

The series takes the good versus evil theme and plays with it. How far can a good man go in service to Civilization and remain a good man? Certainly hero, Kimball Kinnison, is no angel. He’s a brilliant telepathic spy working under cover as a drug addict and gambler. He kills with a thought and packs the highest tech in personal armament. He has a high body count but for all that he’s a moral man and selfless.


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Kim Kinnison's space ship, The Dauntless

Kim Kinnison dives deep into Zwilnik culture and through him we learn a great deal about how those cultures work. Military advancement is through targeted assassination. Crime bosses are under constant threat from underlings and the rank and file is generally afraid of everyone else. In some ways, it’s similar to Star Trek’s Mirror Universe. For all this constraint, it’s not a dystopia because Zwilnik societies function adequately just at a low moral level.

Our current world has much in common with Zwilnik society. People live in fear of the future, of crime, and of the government. War seems never-ending. The movies tell us that the obvious conclusion is a doomed world over-populated with starving people. It’s all very ugly. Perhaps Smith saw this coming and suggested a solution. It’s s science fiction solution, certainly, but I see it as a neotopian one also.

If the Galactic Patrol is so all-fired good…

Why call a universe policed by highly-moral telepaths neotopian and not utopian? Simple… there’s too much bloodshed. Utopian civilizations have left all that nasty violence behind. (You could argue that Arisa is a utopian civilization and, true to utopian form, they eventually leave this plane of existence and pass the torch of guardianship on to the Third Stage Lensmen.)

Christopher Kinnison, Kim’s son, states in the final book’s epilog that Civilization is once more under threat. The violent age has not yet passed away and so the universe of the Lensmen cannot be utopian…not yet, anyway. By my definition, neotopian societies are messy. Individuals use personal skills and talents to help build a better world/universe for all. This is what the Lensmen do. Certainly, they’re a military organization, albeit a highly moral one. Their goal is to create a just and fair galaxy not segregated by species, shape, or color (meaning green, jet black, or bright pink.) It takes work to get that job done. I expect no less from our own world, where I believe we’ll see a neotopian revolution in my lifetime. It’s inevitable unless we allow ourselves to be bulldozed into nightmarish dystopia.

Our current world is a Zwilnik one. The systems are thoroughly corrupt and the biggest stick makes the rules. How do we clean this mess up without the help of a Galactic Patrol? The answer is to make responsible and moral choices at all times. Not to lay down to thugs, corrupt officials, or anyone else. To disallow the possibility of a dystopian future while embracing expansiveness and dynamism within our own lives.

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