And so, the most epic of space operas--and really, the first such epic space opera--comes to its close. Wow.
All things considered, Children of the Lens is not QUITE as good as the penultimate book in the series. E.E. Smith's characters do not have the most depth in the world, and so as the series went on, the books generally got better as more characters were introduced: ensemble casts allow us to enjoy each character's quirks without going deep enough to see the scaffolding, so to speak. Unfortunately, this last one, at times, spreads things too thin, with so many characters that one can lose track. I never did get the names straight on all four of Kimball Kinnison's daughters.
Also, parts of the book seem to have a slight incest-y vibe, although Smith very deliberately tries to derail this, so he clearly saw the problem. Fact is, he's a little stuck because the very idea of this book is that the children of Kim and Clarissa, the heroes of earlier books, are essentially the next step in evolution, and so far ahead of humanity as is nearly impossible to imagine. Because of this, they simply can't relate much to anyone who isn't at least close to their level, and in making this clear, Smith at times ends up being a little inadvertently creepy.
That aside, however, the story of these children, and the way it weaves into the larger tapestry, is immense fun. All the moreso when (like the earlier books) one realizes that this really was the FIRST TIME almost all of these things were happening in a story. Much of it has become cliche since.
What's interesting is that those children surpass even the god-like aliens who have controlled everything from the start, and realize that they have to hide the true workings of things from everyone else--including their parents. This is a fun role reversal instead of the usual "mentors speak in annoying vague terms" thing that we see in so very much fiction. Their characters are, as a whole at least, drawn well as bickering young adults who have the potential to someday be, essentially, gods themselves.
This book also fixes a lot of the gender inequalities in previous books, which is nice. There's still some weirdness, but it's from the 30's after all. However, much of the scenes dealing with Clarissa, now moved from romantic lead to mother, directly address and challenge gender roles in a way that's pretty damn original for an old pulp story.
Children of the Lens also has a good sense of humor, as Smith takes more than a few shots at science fiction writers themselves.
I really could go on and on, but I'll try not to. While the book is, at times, convoluted, the ending is pitch perfect, and one really does feel as though one has been put through the most epic story of all time. (Of course, you have to read all the books.) There's still lots of silly dialogue and bizarre craziness, but the imagination of it, and the inspiration this had on everything to come later, is staggering. Not to mention the levels of power that the final battles reach, and the ending that toys with the idea of an even greater future. There is no better word than epic. Silly, dated, and predictable at times--but sublimely epic. The book itself may get four stars, technically, but the entire series as a whole (even the second book, its weakest) get a resounding five.