The Skylark of Space, by E.E. "Doc" Smith
Many consider E.E. “Doc” Smith to be the father of space opera. Although the seeds for space opera date back to the late 19th century, Smith's first novel, “The Skylark of Space”, took the traditional “scientist invents fantastic invention X” story, married it bigamously to the planetary romances of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the spy thriller, and the Western, and set the whole thing off to honeymoon amid interstellar spaces and civilizations, with revolutionary results. Smith's works, both the Skylark and Lensman series, had an impact upon science fiction rivaling that of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, influencing entire generations of authors and filmmakers alike. For example, a good bit of “Star Wars” derived directly from the Lensman series, something Lucas himself admitted early on but never mentioned again after the success of the third film. Space opera still exerts an influence on science fiction. With the new wave of authors who co-opted the genre starting in the 1970s, the “new space opera” has a firm existence as a respected and valued niche, thanks to authors such as Iain M. Banks, Stephen Baxter, Alaistar Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, Peter F. Hamilton, Justina Robson, and many others. It all started with Smith's novel. He began work on it in 1915 while pursuing his doctorate in chemical engineering, but found the necessities of a credible romance enough of a problem that he brought in Lee Hawkins Garby, to help co-write it. Though finished in 1921, the book did not see publication until Amazing Stories picked it up in 1928. This review is based on the 1958 revision of the book.
The story opens with Dr. Richard Seaton watching in astonishment as the steam bath he was using to electrolyze an unknown chemical element found in some platinum waste suddenly flies through the open window and vanishes out of sight. That night he realizes the mystery element he dubs “X” caused the copper in the bath to release chemically its atomic energy. He tells his friend, the millionaire M. Reynolds Crane, about the discovery. Crane sees the potential at once, urges Seaton gain legal title to the remainder of the wastes, and forms a corporation to commercialize the discovery. Seaton wins the entire lot of wastes at an auction for ten cents. Crane, an aviation mechanical engineer, suggests using “X” as the power source for a space ship. At the same time, Marc DuQuesne, another member of the rare metals bureau where Seaton worked, realizes Seaton had stumbled onto something and decides to gain it for himself. Working with World Steel, he steals part of “X”, arranges for sabotage to Seaton's new spaceship, and kidnaps Seaton's fiancee, Dorothy Vaneman, in his own space ship to use her as a hostage to force Seaton to turn over the rest of the “X” and all his notes. During the kidnapping, Dorothy knocks DuQuesne's henchman into the control panel and ship takes off at full power, knocking everyone unconscious. When the power runs out and everyone awakes, they find themselves lost in deep space.
Seaton finishes work on his space ship, one built in secret so World Steel couldn't cripple it, and pursues the lost ship, following the “object compass” pointer he had placed on DuQuesne earlier in the book. They manage to rescue Dorothy, DuQuesne, and another woman Duquesne's corporate sponsor had asked him to take along in order to make her crack about some hidden evidence. Before they can retrace their way back to earth, the ship gets caught in the tidal well of a massive dead star and they use most of their remaining power to escape. Needing DuQuesne's help, Seaton makes him promise to act as one of the party until they return home. Needing more copper to return home, they visit a nearby star system, a packed globular cluster of green stars. They find the planet inhabited and befriend the rulers of Mardonal, who repay Seaton with a plot to kill Seaton and his friends, steal his ship, and take his salt, highly prized as a rare and extremely valuable catalytic agent. The slaves sent to tend Seaton prove to be captives from Kondal. Their leader, Dunark, constructs an electric “educator” to teach Seaton their language and warns them of the danger. They escape. Seaton helps Kondal win their war against Mardonal and in appreciation, the Kondal emperor has a new Skylark constructed for Seaton and names him the Overlord of Osnome. The Skylark returns to Earth, minus DuQuesne, who parachutes out of the ship over Panama. The last scene has the Skylark landing on Crane Field.
One of the most interesting villains in space opera is Marc DuQuesne, a brilliant scientist in his own right, who is cold, methodical, ruthless, pragmatic, and yet touched by a faint streak of chivalry that doesn't blossom until the fourth Skylark book. For example, his promise to behave is believed by Seaton because he knows DuQuesne doesn't lie and wouldn't go back on his word, which is mostly true for the rest of the series (with notable exceptions in the second and third books). During the section of the story set on Osnome, DuQuesne saves Seaton and Crane several times and proves an invaluable aide. The Osnomians are understandably perplexed that a captor would arm a captive and that the captive would fight to save the lives of the people who caught him. DuQuesne makes a refreshing contrast to the Boy Scout perfectly perfect in every way Richard Seaton and it's a pity Smith never used him as fully as he could have.
One thing that struck me upon re-reading the book was Seaton's attitude toward the Osnomians when they first encounter them. Clearly they were technologically more advanced than Earth, yet Seaton insisted on a sleight of hand magic show with matches to impress the natives. Why he thought it would work at all is a mystery. I think Smith portrayed Osnome as a warrior-style Indian nation with ray guns and rocket ships, thus he patronizes them in a condescending manner, though it is toned down somewhat after Seaton and company are befriended by Dunark and his kin. It also might explain why Smith portrays Dunark's people as having a regimented, blood-thirsty, and brutal Darwinian society.
The plot is lean and moves fast with the kinetic energy of a bullet once it gets in motion. Imaginative, grandly conceived, and larger than life, the book swaggers as the heroes plunge from one predicament to the next. “The Skylark of Space” is mainly an adventure story and it never forgets that. While the structure on the whole can be dismissed as a typical adolescent wish-fulfillment scenario where the heroes attain escalating powers and capabilities, it at least attempts to keep the appearance of scientific realism even when flirting with the impossible. In fairness, for the time, Smith's works tended to be above average in terms of making the science plausible, though he tended to throw around a ton of jargon, the more wordy forerunner of the technobabble you hear on “Star Trek”. The characterizations are a key weakness. The characters in the book aren't people, they are archetypes. Smith rarely managed to create three dimensional characters and had problems depicting women as anything but stereotypes. All of that is fully on display in his first novel. Only “The Skylark of Space”, “Skylark DuQuesne”, and “Spacehounds of IPC” has halfway believable female characters. The men are all square-jawed and heroic, cut of near superhuman cloth, and the women are gorgeous, sometimes capable, but mostly decorative. "Skylark" inhabits a male-dominated universe and the reader is often reminded of it in small, telling ways. The prose can be stilted and the dialogue now and then makes one cringe. When Smith launches into one of his fantastic set pieces, all of that gets forgotten in the excitement and sheer outrageousness of the scene. What is far harder to swallow for a post World War II audience is the acceptance of eugenics and genocide running through both book and series and the veiled contempt for democracy Smith sometimes displays, portraying it unflatteringly as an insane political system. All this leads to several lines in the book that makes the reader stop and question what they just read.
Does the book hold up today? That's tough to answer, highly dependent on the reader. Much of the book is unintentionally funny because it comes off as corny and over-the-top. The plot is fueled by so many coincidences the mind glazes. Yet when the story works, which is surprisingly often, the book is enjoyable, given a large enough suspension of disbelief. For all of its many flaws, the book remains the quintessential space opera, the forerunner that made “Star Wars”, “Star Trek”, and “Battlestar Galactica” possible, with a child-like sense of wonder rare in the literature of any age, and still can entertain despite its overt sexism, racism, and amateurish writing. There's a good reason why Ron Howard optioned both “The Skylark of Space” and “Galactic Patrol” for possible movies back in 2007. Keep the story in context and the book can be fun, the sort of thing to put your brain on hold as you blast off to fantastic vistas and dramatic danger every other chapter.
For those interested in reading “The Skylark of Space”, it often drops in and out of print. Project Gutenberg currently hosts a copy of the original 1928 publication, which differs substantially from the later published editions. Smith took the opportunity in 1951 and 1958 to revise the book greatly. He tightened, recast, and cut scenes, re-ordered them, expanded character development, adding a surprising amount of background and explanatory material, and made the final version much more rounded, though at a cost to the pacing, the development of some minor characters, and the loss of Garby's credit as co-author. One nice addition is the rare moment of genuine humor. Smith was never in his element writing comedy and his attempts at humor come across as extremely groan-worthy, often a reaching a point I wondered if he had a sense of humor at all. The revised version compares well enough with the rest of Smith's work that I place it among the top three, just behind “Galactic Patrol” and “The Spacehounds of IPC”. Some modern reprints use the public domain 1928 version without telling the reader so be aware of that possibility.
Recommended with reservations noted above.