The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Skylark of Space by EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1946)

Amazbuck
By Frank R. Paul – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3704097

Originally written as a serial – which is more than obvious from the narrative structure – from 1915 to 1921, and published in 1928 in the Amazing Stories magazine, The Skylark of Space was first published in book form in 1946. Which is interesting.

With a name like EE ‘Doc’ Smith, pulp science fiction author was perhaps the only career that would make sense for Edward Elmer. And with writing this from the period that saw the publication of many of HG Wells’ novels, the Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and other similar scientific romances, and the boom of pulp crime fiction, it is no surprise that this episodic story feels like it comes from lots of different influences.

I listened to a 2008 audiobook edition, unabridged, and narrated by Reed McColm. I often wonder if there is a difference of emotional reaction when listening to a novel instead of reading it, for the first time. Listening to audiobooks of a novel I’ve already read is one thing, but without a control – which of course is impossible in this situation – there is no-way of knowing. Reading Smith’s novel might not have been as entertaining as listening to it. I enjoyed McColm’s OTT performance, especially the dialogue from Dick Seaton. Would I have enjoyed the book with the voices from my own head?

Smith’s story begins with scientist Richard Seaton accidentally discovering a new type of energy in combining pure copper with a newly discovered element “X” (which is suggested to be a stable element in the platinum group). I love that during the first half of the 20th century, the letter ‘x’ was routinely given to new and exciting fictional discoveries. With his millionaire friend, Martin Crane, Seaton builds the titular space craft. Antagonist DuQuesne realises what Seaton has discovered and wishes to be the first to build a space ship. At any cost. And thus a bitter and deadly rivalry begins. DuQuesne tries to sabotage Seaton’s plans, and kidnaps the scientist’s fiancé – Dotty. Seaton and Crane have a secret and are soon pursuing DuQuesne’s ship. Any more narrative description would spoil the fun for those new to Smith’s universe, but suffice to say that a series of space adventures ensue, with much daring-do and plenty of saving-the-day and getting-the-girl.

Smith’s use of language is priceless – an early example is when Seaton first approaches Crane with his idea of building a space ship: “I’ve got a thing on the fire that will break him right off at the ankles”. I defy anyone not to smile at such use of language. We are in pure pulp science fiction here. The novel’s plot is faintly ridiculous, populated by ludicrous characters. However, science – albeit not altogether plausible science – is front and centre in most of the book. The main characters are scientists and run around with automatic guns and play tennis with incredibly rich brainiac playboys. Seaton, a materials scientist lest we forget, has an impossibly perfect fiancé who just loves everything he does and is. The first third or so is pure pulp – conspiracy, crime and lots of successful leaps in the dark. The rest of the novel is pure science fiction – space ships, mysterious objects in space, aliens and war.

I wonder, and I can’t find any earlier examples (considering the writing period), if Smith is the first person to use the phrase science fiction in a piece of science fiction? Smith also mentions computers in the story, and proving that this is proper science fiction, talks about Einstein, chemistry and gravity in proper context. However, it is the moment when the characters are in space when Smith uses the term Roche limit (a term I’d heard of but didn’t know, and subsequently researched as being to do with celestial mechanics) without explaining what it is, that the ‘properness’ is underlined. It felt like I was reading something that was written by someone who understood science, it’s place in society and how to incorporate it with an adventure story.

The first landing on an alien world is exciting and is perhaps a misleading note of things to come. The visit by Seaton and crew is brief, but they encounter giant monsters, over-sized bugs and dinosaur-like predators in a battle-royal. The next encounter is with a hyper-intelligence that has no material existence. The episodic nature – which felt like a precursor to Star Trek – quickly culminates in an extended stay on the planet of Osnome where the search for copper ends in war and weddings, before they return to Earth heroes, with even more wealth than they started with (which was substantial).

To be sure, this is a proper writer’s fantasy. The nerds are heroes who have anything and everything their heart’s desire, both professionally and romantically, and get even more of the good stuff as the novel progresses. The bad guys all get their comeuppance or turn out to be heroes too. You can’t take anything seriously, or the whole universe falls apart. Just one, ‘yeah but hang on’ thought and your enjoyment of the story would end.

Which brings us to Smith’s depiction of women. As with most of the male authors of the time, and despite the fiction of Virginia Woolf in particular, the depiction of the female characters is deplorable. Dotty, and the other female character of significance, Peggy, are little more than eye-candy and fluff. They have no agency. They are victims. They are captured so Seaton and Crane can go after them. They have no intelligence. Dotty doesn’t like scientific jargon and is only interested in the kitchen and bedrooms within the space ship. Her only moment of significance is in actually naming the Skylark. Meanwhile, Peggy is ‘only’ a secretary and only ‘good for making notes’. Of course they are both perfectly beautiful, and can’t resist their men (Seaton and Crane respectively). It is such a shame that the enjoyment of the pulp adventure is spoiled by the depiction of women.

Listened to not read

There is a lot of joy and significance in Smith’s The Skylark of Space. It is unsurprisingly episodic and doesn’t flow too well. The creation of the space ships comes too easily. There is little time spent in space and on the first discovered planet, and too much on the war on Osnome. The wedding section at the end was way, way too long and pointless.

You see. Once you pick at a hole, the entire fabric unravels. My enjoyment becomes tainted. The fun becomes blackened, as if burnt. On the surface, The Skylark of Space is an enjoyable romp and decent science fiction (in the sense that scientific principle drives much of the narrative, and Smith doesn’t shy away from proper science), but scratch that surface and there’s nothing but misogyny floating in a hollow shell.

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