Skip to content

Lensmen: Space!

Among the many books my parents have been keeping for me (lo these ten years past) I rediscovered a Panther Science Fiction box set of E.E. “Doc” Smith’s 1930s/40s/50s space opera, the Lensman series.

Box set of E.E. "Doc" Smith's "Lensman" series, plus bonus two from his "Skylark" series.

“Lensman” and part of “Skylark”.

These are very firmly in the “so bad it’s good” corner:1 the men carry ray guns, the women are seven-sector callouts with pure hearts and flaming red hair, the baddies are pure evil from another universe, and lots and lots of events are “indescribable” or even “inconceivable”. They also feature alien races with silly names, oodles of space battles, telepathy, and huge and hilarious amounts of technobabble.

And, getting to the topic of this post, they feature space-axes.

The space-axe—a combination and sublimation of battle-axe, mace, bludgeon, and lumberman’s picaroon, a massively needle-pointed implement of potentialities limited only by the physical strength and bodily agility of its wielder. (Galactic Patrol)

This tickled me so much, I wondered what else Doc had “spaced up”. So I found plaintext copies of the books (one on Project Gutenberg and the rest in Roy Glashan’s Library) and went looking. (I’ll say a bit about the process of looking below, and the scripts I used are online.)

There are 72 more-or-less distinct “space-” compounds in those texts.2 Here they are, with a count of how often they appear across the whole series (scroll to see the whole list):

space-alloy 1
space-approach 1
space-armor 7
space-armored 1
space-axe 19
space-bag 1
space-battle 3
space-black 7
space-boat 2
space-bucket 1
space-chart 2
space-combat 1
space-cradle 1
space-cruiser 1
space-dive 1
space-dock 3
space-drift 1
space-drive 6
space-field 10
space-fighter 1
space-fighting 1
space-flea 4
space-fleet 1
space-flight 1
space-flyer 2
space-god 1
space-hardened 7
space-hellion 3
space-hound 3
space-insanity 1
space-laboratory 1
space-leg 1
space-line 6
space-liner 2
space-louse 7
space-man 1
space-men 2
space-model 1
space-nurse 1
space-opera 4
space-pervading 1
space-pilotry 1
space-plane 2
space-port 26
space-rat 2
space-rover 2
space-scout 1
space-ship 104
space-sickness 5
space-speed 3
space-speedster 2
space-suit 25
space-suited 1
space-tan 1
space-tanned 2
space-tempered 4
space-time 12
space-torturing 1
space-toughened 1
space-trained 1
space-tramp 1
space-travel 2
space-traversing 1
space-tube 2
space-tug 2
space-war 2
space-warp 1
space-way 1
space-weary 1
space-worthy 1
space-wracking 2
space-wreck 1

From this list, and checking references as we go, I can confirm that the space-axes are space-toughened. They are wielded by space-men in space-suits of space-armor made of space-tempered space-alloy. (When out of the space-armor, their uniforms are space-black.) Such a space-man keeps his belongings in his space-bag, and travels (of course) in a space-ship —or if he is lucky, in a space-speedster—, navigating by space-chart. He may become space-weary, but he will not suffer from space-sickness because he is thoroughly space-trained; if he is struck down by space-insanity, a space-nurse will cure him. He has a space-tan.

He is space-tanned.

Sadly, a space-bucket is not as hilarious as it sounds: it’s an affectionate term for the space-man’s space-ship, rather than an actual bucket. Likewise, space-flea, space-louse, space-rat, and space-hound refer to people not animals. A space-god, on the other hand, is exactly what it sounds like: he’s what the space-hounds swear by, and his name is Klono. “By Klono’s tungsten teeth”, his brazen hoofs and golden gills, his carballoy claws, his gadolinium guts and his prehensile tail… with a space-war bringing all that space-combat, space-fighting, and space-pilotry, a space-hellion has plenty to swear about. And that’s to say nothing of the space-torturing space-drive that powers his space-boat through a space-traversing space-warp from one space-port to another; or of the possibility of a space-wreck. It’s no wonder whenever he makes space-dock he heads straight for the nearest space-dive.

By my count I’ve used 40 from the list: more than half, but there are plenty more I didn’t manage to work in. Can you space-fleas do better? Clear ether!

Technical appendix

Even an analysis as simple as this one involves quite a bit of fiddling about with the data. You can find the tool I wrote, and the processed data, in a mercurial repository on bitbucket. I haven’t included the original textfiles in the repo, because I’m not sure of the copyright status of most of them; you can find them all at Roy Glashan’s Library.3

I first used grep -n space-[^-] to find all instances of “space” followed by a hyphen (but not a double hyphen, as in “He was no longer in space--at least,”) in the texts. Since grep only outputs a single line, I had to do something about the 24 lines that ended with “space-”: I added the second word of each compound by hand, using the file and line references that grep gave me. (This was annoying enough that I might try to automate the process if I do any more similar analyses.) Then I wrote a wee python script to extract the words themselves and organise them into a convenient json structure; this program removes internal spaces (coping with dirty input like “space- man”) and drops everything to lowercase. It’s nice to count “space-axes” together with “space-axe”, so I removed trailing “s”.4

I’ve committed both the grep output (with end-of-line compounds added) and the json structure to the repo. If you can think of something else fun to do with it, feel free!


  1. Despite which it nearly won a Hugo in 1966. []
  2. I’ve folded together the easy plurals (“axe” and “axes”) but done no other stemming, so “space-man” and “space-men” show up separately, as do “space-armor” and “space-armored”. []
  3. I used the edition of Triplanetary from Project Gutenberg, because I happened to find that first. []
  4. Always check the data when you do something overly simplistic like this: I had to add an exception for “space-sickness”! Doing this properly is known as “stemming”, and you really don’t need to roll your own: the Natural Language Toolkit for Python includes several stemmers. []


  1. S. glaber wrote:

    I used to have a couple of his other works, many years ago — Subspace Explorers and Skylark[1] DuQuesne. I found them interesting, though probably not in the way Smith intended. The first was a kind of Atlas Shrugged in space, where the baddies were not aliens but unions, who of course got a thorough final drubbing from the hero’s superior space-technology. In the second, this passage particularly stuck in my memory:

    A strident roar of klaxons filled the room. It was the loudest sound any human had ever heard — without permanent damage; it was calculated to come right up to the threshold of destruction.

    Absolutely everything has to be the biggest and most extreme possible, right down to the volume setting of the hero’s space-alarm space-sirens! The book ends with the good guys blowing up an entire galaxy inhabited by evil aliens. That’s the danger with space-opera gigantism: each set-piece has to outdo the previous one in a spiral of spectacle hyperinflation, and Smith’s meagre prose can’t do the least justice to the scale of his conceptions. Smith’s account of the explosion of a hundred billion suns is significantly less dramatic and exciting than, say, Samuel Beckett’s description of a student making his lunch. (I greatly recommend that piece, by the way.)

    [1] I initially mistyped that as ‘Skylard’, which is presumably what you use when roasting space-potatoes.

    Sunday, March 9, 2014 at 8:11 pm | Permalink
  2. tikitu wrote:

    That’s a marvellous passage, well done!

    I have a few plans for other stuff to dig out of this series. One is to collect all the things that he says are “inconceivable” or “indescribable”, plus his descriptions of them.

    Another one is to chart that hyperinflation, in weapons tech: Q-type helices can cut through anything but Boskone’s new red shields are proof against even Q-type helices but the experimental tube-gun breaks the red shields unless the ship is inertialess so maulers carry tractor beams which can be cut by sheer planes… it goes on and on. And most of the inventions come from Kinnison, sitting down and thinking hard.

    I also suspect that it might be possible to auto-generate reasonable facsimiles of his descriptions of space-battles. In case that should ever be needed.

    Friday, March 14, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink
  3. S. glaber wrote:

    I like the weapons one-upmanship — it’s very reminiscent of a primary school playground: ‘I shot you! You’re dead!’ ‘No, I’ve got a bulletproof shield!’ ‘OK, I shot you with special bullets that go through shields!’ ‘Yeah but my forcefield stopped them!’ and so forth.

    Auto-generated space battles should be a piece of cake — just train a Markov chain from the originals (though it might take some time to pick out the battles by hand). For fun, I just tried running the whole of Skylark DuQuesne through Emacs’ Markovifier. With a six-character chain I get:

    He walked toward her. He wanted. The very teeth. It is amazing how much institutions against the Chlorans, your race is, do we wipe ’em completely out now the work done by countless grand master of concentration of living fleet. Even than originally pleasurable, experiences with the courtesy reservation. We’ve got a brain-brothers, Dick, I’d know exact number of the huge, black, flame-shot wells of hypnotic force that was being used for bear-but this! This thing was now zero minus thirty feet long until Tammon stood back and examined her hand a red-ink ballpoint at which a working projections appeared, standing at my ears down about this intolerable idea the Llurdi is-where the Llurdi were our unquestionably-wrong.
    Friday, March 14, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  4. tikitu wrote:

    Even the numbers involved pretty closely follow playground logic: a million! A billion! A trillion! So many you can’t even think of the number! Literally infinite! (I haven’t seen “infinity plus one” yet though.)

    Leonard Richardson has put me off Markov chains a bit. I’m wondering about doing something different; not Queneau either, but I’m not sure what yet. (A space battle definitely has a temporal structure, so I might use that somehow. Going through boxes in New Zealand I found all my printouts on story generation, which should help.)

    I must say, though, “The very teeth.” is a magnificent sentence.

    Friday, March 14, 2014 at 7:51 pm | Permalink