Book Review: Skylark of Space; Observations on Early Sci Fi

Cover PageSkylark of Space, by E. E. “Doc” Smith and Lee Hawkins Garby, was originally published in 1928 in Astounding Stories as a three-part serial. I mention this because, evidently, the story was fairly extensively revised for future editions – I’m reviewing the original 3-part serial.

Skylark is said to be the first Space Opera, and also involves a Space Princess, as the main heroine becomes, effectively, a princess by the end of the story (but not the first space princess – that would be A Princess of Mars in 1912, as far as I can tell). By all accounts (such as Wikipedia’s) this story was hugely influential.

Genius chemist and humble yet lovable manly-man Dick Seaton accidentally discovers a way to release “intra-atomic energy” and luckily fails to blow up the earth or even his lab and himself doing so. He enlists the aid of his millionaire (back when that meant something) buddy Martin Crane to use his discovery to build a spaceship.They do so, along with a bucket of other cool gadgets, including compasses that always point to whatever it is you told them to point to, and intra-atomic energy bullets for their guns, which, basically, fire little atomic bombs. These prove handy, as one can well imagine.

The evil yet equally brilliant and manly chemist Dr. Marc DuQuesne figures out what our heroes are up to, and enlists the aide of the even more evil World Steel to bump off Dick and Martin and steel their supply of X, the mysterious element that catalyzes the release of intra-atomic energy from copper. World Steel’s not quite evil enough manager refuses DuQuesne’s murderous proposal, and instead send a thug to steal the X. When this attempt largely fails, DuQuesne attempts to kidnap Dick’s betrothed, the lovely and brave Dorothy Vaneman, in his own X-powered spaceship, but Dorthy, fighter that she is, manages to kick her captors and inadvertently launch the ship straight up under constant acceleration – all, including Dot, are glued to the bottom of the ship and pass out, only to come to billions of miles from earth once the copper power source is consumed.

Also on board is the beauty Margaret “Peg” Spencer, also kidnapped by World Steel in a separate crime spree – she’s there because Martin will need a girl to fall for, otherwise that trip home from the stars with the rather cringingly in love Dick and Dot could be awkward for him.

Dick and Martin jump into their spaceship, named by Dot the Skylark, and head to the rescue. Adventures ensue. I spotted at least 3 Star Trek episodes go by – super-advanced disembodied alien considers earthlings to be insects, planet of the dinosaurs with valuable resources (or is that Avatar? Rocky and Bullwinkle?) and, finally, the planet of the two warring factions bent on exterminating each other (that’s several episodes over several series, really).

It was good. Regular interludes wherein Dick and Dot, and then Martin and Peg, make goo-goo eyes and profess their undying love with florid language and sexual tension you cut with a chain saw got more than a little old (wonder if they were inspired by Nightland?) but otherwise, rarely do more than a couple pages go by without a dramatic rescue, encounter with bizarre alien life or some battle to death or other.

Strangely, even with all the oddball science and alien planets and FTL travel (and failure to realize that enough Gs of acceleration will kill you), what really rang false in the story was the human motivations and behaviors. This contrasts mightily with the equally fantastic Princess of Mars I’m almost through (re)reading. John Carter is equally if not more heroic than Dick, but his actions and reactions make a lot more sense given the premises of the stories. Dick is remarkably casual about near-death experiences for both himself and his team, about landing on any old planet with whatever horrors may there reside, with blowing up and killing untold numbers of alien people and in handing over his knowledge and a critical supply of X to people who seemed a lot nicer than the people they will now use Dick’s gifts to exterminate. None of that seemed even a little disconcerting, or called for even a token moment of introspection? I’m not asking for an Alan Alda moment, here, just maybe some little recognition that there might be a slight shade of gray to some of these issues.

The capper: Dick and Martin casually let DuQuesne, who has murdered and kidnapped people, escape and don’t seem particularly worried about it. In modern terms,.Marc is a psycho-killer – you don’t turn him loose!

The story is delightfully politically incorrect. Men are manly, women are girls, blacks are servants, the Japanese body guard/chef dude is a ‘Jap’, and so on and so forth. Yet the heroes never fail to treat the help graciously and respectfully, and they are the epitome of enlightenment as well as upright manhood and womanhood in full vigor. Recall that in 1915, when this story was begun, Woodrow Wilson was President, he who re-segregated the federal government and despised all inferior races. Heck, this story almost could be a protest.

Now that I’ve I’ve got a fair sample of early Sci Fi classics in RAM, here’s a short preliminary list of a number of recurring themes that jump out like Cthulhu from a big dark hole in the ground:

The Goofy:

  • Heroes treat space travel like a camping trip – throw a few things in the ship, and head on out. (First Men in the Moon, Skylark)
  • Let’s just say that Picard’s sense of careful 1st contact was not inspired by these stories (First Men in the Moon, Skylark, A Martian Odyssey). More a shoot first, ask questions later approach.

The Worrisome:

  • Smart people can fix the world if we just put them in charge of everything (Ubiquitous, with the exception of Lovecraft, Burroughs and Shelly)
  • Eugenics and infanticide for the less fit will fix everything once the smart people are in charge (ditto. Slan and Flatland remarkably so)
  • There are way too many poor people around harshing my mellow! (Wells particularly, Flatland, Slan)
  • Can’t make an omelet without killing 10,000,000 or so Kulaks.(Slan most explicitly; Wells, implicitly elsewhere)

Preliminary conclusion, subject to revision: In general, with the exceptions of Shelly, Lovecraft, E.M. Forster and Edgar Rice Burroughs, everyone writing in the early days of Sci Fi was a freakin’ socialist eugenicist, at least based on the attitudes espoused in their stories. And I’m betting Shelly would have got that way, too, had the option been available. She was home wrecking Romantic nitwit.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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