This was a really really fun series of pulp space-adventure novels. I started with Galactic Patrol, per the recommendation of some very opinionated people in MITSFS. (According to wikipedia Smith wrote Galactic Patrol, Gray Lensman, Second Stage Lensman and Children of the Lens as one story, and then carefully separated them so that they could be published in Astounding magazine in 1937-1948.) Triplanetary, which he published in 1934 in Astounding, was not originally in the same universe, and First Lensman was written after the rest.
I have not actually gone back and read Triplanetary and First Lensman yet, but they were spoiled in the introduction to Gray Lensman and again in the intro to Second Stage Lensman.
Galactic Patrol is a bright, flashy space opera. If I didn’t realize that it was the original space opera, I’d say it was cliche. Kim Kinnison is better, faster, stronger, smarter, and more handsome that anyone in the whole universe. The Galactic Patrol is a universe-spanning police force with almost no corruption in the higher ranks—an entirely benevolent police state. And all the varied and diverse worlds of Civilization are willing to band together to fight Boskone, the (other-galaxy) spanning entity. And it all makes sense! There is a reason, explained in-universe, Kinnison is the epitome of human evolution, and a reason that the Lensmen are benevolent dictators. By Children of the Lens, which is about Kinnison’s kids, you’d think that the premise would have gotten old, but Smith ties the series together with an agreeable conclusion and confrontation with the Big Evil Guys.
Even so, I think the idealism required to create such a world, and to believe that it could thrive, is something that has died in our culture. Apparently, Smith was a superman himself—“a large, blond, athletic, very intelligent, very gallant man, married to a remarkably beautiful, intelligent red-haired woman named MacDougal (thus perhaps the prototypes of ‘Kimball Kinnison’ and ‘Clarissa MacDougal’).” (says wikipedia) so perhaps Smith himself never saw a reason to doubt that the world could really work as it did in his Lensman stories. I find myself less optimistic—wishing such a place could exist, and knowing that it probably can not.
*Books in 2006: 29