The Skylark of Space, by E.E. (“Doc”) Smith

It’s Vintage Science Fiction Month [well it was, back when I started this review…] And what could be more vintage than The Skylark of Space?

This is it. This is novel Asimov called the first classic of science fiction; that Pohl ranked as the single most influential SF novel not by Wells or Verne. First written – or at least begun – almost exactly a century ago, how does The First Space Opera hold up today?

…well, I’m honestly not entirely sure how to answer that question.

I could probably just leave the review at that picture…

But first things first. What is it?

In essence, what E.E. (“Doc”) Smith has done in this, his first novel, is combine two genres of SF current in his day: the novel where a daring genius invents a spaceship and has to fend off the malign interests of jealous rivals; and the novel where a civilised man finds himself upon an alien world. The former brings with it the spice of the Espionage genre; the latter, the echoes of the Lost World and Western genres. In The Skylark of Space, Our Hero, Dick Seaton, a transparent authorial insert*, stumbles upon a new technology that would allow space travel (among other things), but he’s only one step ahead of a villainous rival and his allies in Big Business; the resulting hijinks take him to the stars themselves.

*he feels like ridiculous wish fullfillment. Apparently, however, Doc Smith actually was a superb athlete over six foot tall with a beautiful wife, as well as being an accomplished scientist. One small difference, though: Seaton is a chemist specialising in radioactive elements, whereas Smith was one of the world’s leading doughnut scientists (he also did pastries).

Now, when Asimov said it was a classic, he was talking historically – he also said that, as literature, the novel was “a flop”. And there’s certainly plenty to criticise here. Actually, almost everything is to be criticised here. The jamming together of two different genres may have been visionary, but the actual implementation of the idea is ungainly, with much of the second half feeling parenthetical to the plot itself. That plot is, charitably, rather simplistic and predictable, and loses its urgency halfway through. The characterisation is at best simplistic, and at worst inconsistent**. The writing does get a few good lines here and there, but it also has some rough moments, and there’s a curious feel of un-editedness to it all***, with several scenes producing minor confusions or ambiguities that could easily have been avoided.

**the peculiar behaviour of the women is particularly noticeable, although perhaps not entirely Smith’s fault. The novel, as originally conceived, included substantial romantic subplots, written by a collaborator, Lee Hawkins Garby (the wife of Smith’s best friend), and while most of that content was eventually edited out of the edition I read, the echoes of it remain, perhaps shorn of some of their context. But the romance doesn’t necessarily fit well with the adventure. Thus, when a woman is abducted, the adventure novel requires her to be intelligent, plucky, resourceful, and well aware of how and when to use a gun; but the romance novel, in keeping with the ‘romance’ of the era, requires her to swoon over how sexy and abductory her abductor is. [Abduction was apparently considered very sexy in those days.] And when a woman otherwise seems to be dealing with the situation in the adventure novel quite admirably, the romance demands that she be reduced to terror, in order to give a man a reason to propose to her… how much of this is due to conflict between Smith’s vision and Garby’s, how much to confusion from editing out most of Garby’s work, and how much is squarely the fault of Smith I do not know…

***curious, because un-edited is exactly what this novel is not. Written in two distinct pulses in the 1910s, during and after the War, it was only published in 1928, in serialised form, edited by Gernsback†. In 1946 it was finally published in paperback, presumably with at least an opportunity for editing. The edition I have, however, reflects the substantial re-writing by Smith for the 1958 edition, which until recently has been the only version easily available ever since.

†By an astonishing coincidence, the very same issue of Amazing, the very same month, also carried a novella with the catchy title “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” This has become better known to posterity through the title of the comic strip adaptation that followed a year later: The Adventures of Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century. Between Buck Rodgers and Skylark, that month’s issue may be responsible for a large percentage of 20th century genre fiction…

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Oh, and people might well find it quite… objectionable. The treatment of women has already been mentioned – Smith is, I think, actually quite forward-thinking in that regard for his time, and has his heart in the right place, but cannot help but be writing in his era, an era when both the ‘approved’ behaviour of women and male theories about them were not entirely as they are now. There are also echoes of the racial issues of the time. There is a mention of a person living alone (apart from their black servants, obviously), and the Hero’s billionaire playboy best friend has, in keeping with the times, a Japanese manservant/sidekick who, inevitably, speaks mangled but ostentatious English and is expert at martial arts. And that’s before we get to the inevitable problems that arise from a story of intercultural first contact, particularly when initiated by white human explorers. Again, Smith’s sentiments seem, for his era, liberal and progressive, but he certainly is not attuned to the sensitivities in language that we expect from authors today – there’s nothing here that would require censorship, no horribly unpleasant words or even any explicitly racist theorising… but if insensitivity aggravates you, you might find yourself irritated in places.

More seriously there is then the question of what exactly liberalism and progressivism were in the 1910s and 1920s, and modern liberals and progressives may not be too comfortable with some of the answers. In particular, we encounter an alien culture that at the time probably appeared an exaggeration of contemporary progressivism, but that today reads more like a disturbingly genial Nazism – progressives today being rather less keen on the genocide and eugenics and so on than their earlier counterparts. Smith does not endorse these extremist views, but nor does he repudiate them with anything like the decisiveness that we would expect from any author writing after 1945.

Oh, and devotees of good old-fashioned “hard SF” may well have a heart attack. The basic premise of the novel, and many other features of it, are all completely ludicrous.

So… there are issues.

And yet…

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…I may just have had more pure fun reading this than anything I’ve read in a long, long time.

Why? Well, a part of that is that the novel is witty. Not Oscar Wilde witty, to be sure – but mildly amusing friend witty. Doc Smith may not have been (at least at the time of this, his debut novel) a top-shelf prose stylist, but he was, like many of those pioneers of science fiction, and unlike so many modern genre authors, a genuine man of science (even if that science was primarily doughnut related), and he is perfectly well aware of how fundamentally preposterous his story is. It would be misleading to describe the novel as tongue-in-cheek, and it never veers into pastiche or parody – but it is self-aware, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s hard to understate how important that is in shaping the reading experience. Not only does it add a welcome humour now and then, but it also reassures us as readers that this isn’t a con: Smith knows his science is balderdash, that his characterisation is shallow and idealised, and that the whole thing is held together narratively and thematically by gaffer tape, and he never tries to pretend otherwise. And that also means that we can feel free to laugh at it – Smith doesn’t mind, and he’s probably laughing along with us.

Just take, for example, the “brilliant” dissertation written (at an unspecified “great university”) by Our Genius Hero: it has, Smith wryly tells us, “the lively title of ‘Some Observations upon Certain Properties of Certain Metals, Including Certain Trans-Uranic Elements.’” It’s a pleasant nod both to the laughably vague hand-waving of what exactly Seaton is an expert in, and to the grey dullness of academic writing (Smith’s own dissertation, on which he was working alongside or between drafts of Skylark, was the more specific but even less exciting “The effect of bleaching with oxides of nitrogen upon the baking quality and commercial value of wheat flour”). It may not be hilarious, but that flicker of levity enables us to read sentences (a paragraph later) like:

During the District Tournament he met M. Reynolds Crane – known to only a very few intimates as ‘Martin’ – the multi-millionaire explorer-archaeologist-sportsman who was then District singles champion… Crance succeeded in retaining his title, but only after five of the most grueling, most bitterly contested sets ever seen in Washington.

                Impressed by Seaton’s powerful, slashing game, Crane suggested that they train together as a doubles team.

                                                …and find them enjoyable rather than painful. It helps immensely in this regard that Smith’s style of humour, and the general behaviour of men of his era, tends toward brazen-faced flippancy in the face of fear and absurdity. Since everything that anyone does or says is founded upon a well of absurdity that they take pains not to overtly acknowledge (think of other writers of the era, like Wodehouse or Saki), and since Smith is aware of this and is not beyond emphasising absurdity for comic effect, it becomes at times genuinely difficult to distinguish authorial incompetence from authorial wit, or to tell either apart from truthfulness to the mode of life of the era. There are moments in the book when I laughed out loud at something colossally and amusingly stupid Smith had said or done because, I think, he wasn’t very good technically. There are other moments when I laughed out loud because of something colossally and amusingly stupid Smith had said or done in order, I’m almost certain, to play the (deadpan, poker-faced) clown. And there are other moments too when I laughed out loud because of something colossally stupid that Smith had said or done because that was genuinely how those characters would have behaved, because they lived in a colossally and amusingly stupid society. But most common of all were the moments when I laughed out loud when I honestly didn’t know if something was a joke, or a bungling error, or just plain social realism. And all of this of course is helped by the fact that much of the dialogue is written in contemporary American vernacular, which is, let’s be clear, the most hilariously idiotic argot ever known to man.

[Long-time readers may remember my similar glee at the studious, uproarious, depiction of the same vernacular in Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, a novel that Skylark reminded me of greatly while being unlike in every way.] This is occasionally poetic, frequently risible, and occasionally just plain incomprehensible. [And as with Babbitt, I’m wishing I made a note of more of the expressions for future use. I’d love to start shouting “you’re talking like a man with a paper nose!” at people, for one. Interestingly, Smith has his Hero actually point out at one point that the English they speak is very different from the one they write – which sort of makes you look again, more skeptically at Serious Fiction from this sort of an era, most of which I think (outside of overtly satirical pieces like Babbitt) is written in an English much closer to that of their writing than to that of how everybody actually spoke.]

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Of course, there’s a downside here. The upside is that since you can’t always tell errors from wit from realism (the continual and enjoyable failure to in any way reflect the appropriate tone and mood of events, for instance, could perfectly well be ascribed to the era’s stiff upper lip, to a gently self-mocking author, or to a debut author who simply lacks the skill to depict emotions appropriately or maintain a coherent tone), you’re free to give Smith the benefit of the doubt and laugh at it all without pitying the fool. The downside is that if it rubs you the wrong way, it wouldn’t be too hard to ascribe even the bits that I think demonstrate Smith’s sense of humour to incompetence, and see the entire novel as a load of baloney. I think this is the core of why, as I said at the beginning, I find it hard to really put a finger on how good it is. It’s fun, but how much of that is an accident? All of it? None of it? The truth I’m sure is in the middle, but your own mileage might vary.

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Then again, you don’t have to wait long to see where you are. This is the opening sentence:

Petrified with astonishment, Richard Seaton stared after the copper steam-bath upon which, a moment before, he had been electrolyzing his solution of ‘X’, the unknown metal.

…well OK. We know what type of SF this is going to be… but do we know how good it is? I mean, just look at that sentence! It’s so ridiculous in both structure and meaning – is it utter rubbish? Schoolboy stuff? Or is it great? Is it a deliciously blasé wit, an audacious, ironic challenge to the reader to follow if they dare? [As I’m almost sure is true of similarly ridiculous sentences in such contemporary novels as Babbitt and Jurgen.] The moments of clear, outright humour in the book make it impossible to assume flat-out that it’s all ‘a mistake’ – but the moments of clear, outright bad writing make it impossible to accept flat-out that it’s all, as it were, an ironic act.  I think maybe the key to enjoying the book is being willing not to worry too much about why it’s funny (leave that for reviews!), and just find a way to enjoy it.

Or to put it another way: this is a book where a character can say, apparently seriously, “That’s where my lumberjack training comes in handy!” – is that the sort of SF novel you want in your life? If it is, come aboard! “Ammoniacal copper sulphate! Hot dog! Let’s go!”, as one character opines. But if, as a character comments, you “just bodaciously do not want” a novel where people use phrases like “I just bodaciously do not want…”, then steer very, very clear…

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It’s not just the ambiguous humour or the zany period slang that made this fun to read, though. That’s really just the bizarely-flavoured-just-try-to-enjoy-it-and-don’t-think-too-hard-what-it’s-made-of icing on the top.

No, the real core of the enjoyment here is just… it’s fun!

Skylark doesn’t set out to be a scientific or sociological treatise, or an ethical discussion. It’s not greatly interested in anybody’s souls, and gives only passing attention to their angst and doubt. What it is interested in is adventure, and it has a powerful feeling of freedom, of boundlessness and of possibility. This is a world in which, it seems, anything is possible, and a narrative in which anything might be entertained (within the boundaries of decorum, of course!). Problems can always be overcome, and plans can always be devised for any eventuality – which is good, because any terrible thing might just happen. The two main themes of the novel, if it can be said to have themes, appear to be: the universe is immense and astonishing; and mankind is astonishing enough to be able to at least set about dealing with the astonishing world.

This is the core of the fun, and it’s also the core of why this is science fiction. Because it very much is. The science may be baloney, but this isn’t just any old fantasy, it’s genuine, geeky even, scifi.

How can that be? Because while the superficial trappings – the facts and theories – may not match real science, the mentality does. Smith has that old scifi yearning to tell his audience about cool stuff he’s read about – and he wants his audience to think about it rationally and inquisitively. So we get sections on the nature of frames of reference on a spaceship (how can they keep the bridge of the ship oriented the same way as the ship moves around, and what does “the same way” even mean outside of a gravity well?), and we get sections reminding us how acceleration works without gravity or friction (you have to fly ‘backwards’ half of every journey, because your rockets have to gradually decelerate you). We get discussions of how alien worlds might have different light conditions – how maybe the little green men just look green because their sunlight is a different colour, but also how living in a world with a different colour of sunlight might actually lead to a different evolution of colour perception (maybe they don’t think they look green?). We get discussions of what a hyper-evolved alien might look like, and how alien societies might evolve parallel to but distinct from the course of history of our own. We get to use SF as a cloak to excuse a little mind-expanding on social questions – why should aliens wear clothes when we do? Why shouldn’t they be polyamorous? What would we look like to such aliens? Skylark may, on the surface, be brainless fun, but a lot of the fun comes from the way that it is constantly pushing us to think about what’s happening. Not about how realistic it is, to be sure, but about what might happen and what would ensue if it did.

That’s the spirit that launched a thousand SF novelists. [A lot of great SF writers thought that Smith wasn’t much cop as a novelist. But a lot of the same SF writers became SF writers in part because they read Smith. Inspiration is a fine line: to inspire imitators, an author must do enough right to show what is possible, but must do enough wrong to push other people to think they can do better…] It’s also the spirit that for several decades made SF relevent, not to literary fiction, but to actual science and technology. Smith’s own most concrete legacy is neither his pastries nor his space pirates, but the modern naval CIC. Smith looked (primarily in his Lensman books) at the traditional naval bridge, and asked whether it was really the best way to control a super-complex vessel reliant on complex, indirect data acquisition methods… and, if not, what was. And, sure enough, when modern navies started building those vessels (albeit aircraft carriers rather than spaceships), some young geeky engineer with a stack of old Doc Smith novels in his locker realised that actually the Doc was thinking along the right lines…

Of course, the constant curiosity of the novel isn’t entirely a positive – we can never quite engage with the plot because at any moment someone will make a chance remark and we’ll get a page of “as you know, Bob” discussion of any old subject. But the enthusiasm is infectious!

The commitment to rationalism (despite the absurd handwaving where the plot demands it) also gives rise to genuinely one of my favourite ever villains, Marc DuQuesne, the casually murderous scientific genius (the Moriarty to Seaton’s Holmes). You see, a lot of storytellers say that they are giving us coldly rational villains, men who think like robots, without emotions or attachment. But Smith actually does. DuQuesne is a paragon of rationality, and is presented as every bit the equal of the hero – or even his superior in some respects. What this means, of course, is that he can’t be a pure villain, plotwise – because unlike most attempts at this archetype, DuQuesne really isn’t motivated by any malice or mischief-making. He’s reasonable, pleasant (at least to his peers), competent, and perfectly able to see when co-operation is in his best interests. His only character flaw, in fact, is that he’s a fucking psychopath. We want to hate him for it – but because he’s also perhaps the smartest and certainly the most sensible person in the novel, he’s also at several points effectively the voice of the reader’s own suspension of disbelief…

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How to describe the feel of the book? Well, how about this: this is what Superman was based on. This sort of thing, at least. And reading this… somehow makes those Golden Era comics make sense. Superman’s just Dick Seaton, but stronger. His powers on earth mirror Seaton’s on an alien, lower-gravity world (the same trick was of course done even earlier by Burroughs). The emphasis on the colour of the sun even seems to mirror the discussions in Skylark. And Lex Luthor? Why, he’s just a renamed, and more errative, Marc DuQuesne! [even more obviously inspired: Flash Gordon. Change the names and it could easily be a sequel to Skylark]

It’s easy to scoff now at these products of a bolder, less self-doubting era. But, with a few coats of paint, we tell the same stories now. Just look at Guardians of the Galaxy – the urbane deadpan may have been swapped for irony as the humourous mode of the day, and the special effects budget is a little higher (and it’s a tad more sensitive about intercultural relations) but fundamentally Guardians has the same devilmaycare spirit (at least, in terms of boldness and fun, if not in terms of geekiness). And the clichés are only slightly more disguised now. Or watch The Flash – not in space, perhaps, and stupider, but again the same sort of thing. The Skylark of Space, let’s say, is what people in the 1920s had instead of the new version of The Flash.

[actually, what I was constantly thinking of when reading it was Agent Carter. Of course, Skylark has none of the knowing engagement with feminism. But to a large extent the plots and the mad science and the characters of the TV show feel like only slightly more detailed versions of people who might appear in Skylark (Howard Stark is so much an amalgam of the playboy millionaire Crane and the genius scientist Seaton, with a temperament almost exactly to match (give or take a sex drive), that I couldn’t help but read some of the lines in Stark’s voice). Of course, the show’s time period helps. It’s a show that looks back to the 1950s, and the 1950s was an era that seems to have been obsessed with rebuilding the lost world of the 1910s, the world in which Skylark was born…]

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So to return, finally, to the question of how good a book this is… well, Asimov was right. As literature, it’s a flop, even by the lax standards of SF&F. And if you come to it looking to criticise it, you’ll be at it all day, quite fairly.

But you don’t have to come to it in that way. You can instead choose to look for something ridiculous and silly to read – and not worry too much about how much of the silliness is intentional (it’s more than none, but less than all). And if you’re willing to sit through some cliché plotting and some thin characterisation, in exchange for some funny slang, some deadpan absurdity, the fun of comparing our eras, a youthful exuberance, a fantastic (if under-used) villain and some geeky rationalisations, then The Skylark of Space can be a joy to read.

Certainly, I intend to read more of Smith.

Though… maybe not for a while. I suspect it would become wearing.

Or just exhausting.

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Adrenaline: 2/5. There are a few moments in the middle that are actually genuinely tense! However, the brilliance of the protagonists, the impregnable plot armour, and the wandering storyline do serve to sap much of the drama out of the novel.

Emotion: 1/5. The characterisation is too thin to inspire emotional engagement… even if Smith wanted it. Given the trend in his day for everyone (well, men at least) to be marble fac̨ades that emote by subtly lifting an eyebrow and nothing more, I’m not sure Smith would even have wanted his readers to get emotional…

Thought: 3/5. There’s nothing here that’s all that remarkable to a modern reader, and of course any serious reasoning is undermined by the ridiculousness of several of the gimmicks. Nonetheless, it’s a book with a genuinely active intellectual current of curiosity and analysis.

Beauty: 2/5. There are a few bits of description that are really quite nice, and there’s a certain baroque beauty to the era’s forms of speech.

Craft: 2/5. Smith is rescued from bottom marks by the fact he does get off a few good lines along the way, and does craft one or two effective scenes. And he largely avoids any massive howlers in terms of inept prose or gaping plot holes. For the most part, however, his craftsmanship veers from mediocre to amateur.

Endearingness: 4/5. Like I said, I found it really fun. Light, but fun.

Originality: 2/5. In its day, it was pretty groundbreaking. But since then we’ve had a century of imitators, so nothing here is going to shock you. It does take a few twists, though, so it’s not quite as predictable as you might think. And there are a couple of moments that are truly unexpected.

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OVERALL: 3/7. BAD, BUT WITH REDEEMING FEATURES. No more glossing over it: this is a bad book. If you read this and think “this is a good book!”, you haven’t read enough books. “Not bad”, that’s about the maximum you could claim for it. And “outright bad” is what some would say (they probably don’t like fluffy bunny rabbits either). Really, I think it’s “bad but with redeeming features” – it’s light and fun and amusing. And short. Very short. That does help. The same book at modern lengths would be a chore, I’ll admit. But at this length? Oh go on, it’s one of the seminal works of the genre. Just turn off your critical side for a few hours and have a laugh.

If nothing else, just sit back and enjoy those covers…

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