Wednesday, 29 October 2008

The Skylark of Space

"With the exception of the works of H. G. Wells, possibly those of Jules Verne – and almost no other writer – it has inspired more imitators and done more to change the nature of all the science fiction written after it than almost any other single work." – Frederik Pohl

Do not expect the technological accuracy of hard science fiction or the social commentary of soft SF; this is Space Opera, adventure on a grand scale. In Skylark, the men are real men, the women are real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri just do not stand a chance. The hero, Dr Richard Seaton, is a 6’5” son of a lumberjack, champion marksman, unbeatable tennis player, conjurer supreme, government chemist, and certified genius. His sidekick, Martin Crane, is a handsome millionaire technical wizard. Dick’s fiancée is the beautiful Dorothy Vaneman, a virtuoso on the violin and frankly an airhead. The villain of the piece is Dr Marc DuQuesne; you can tell that he is evil because not only does he have black hair but he also has a foreign name!

The prose is regularly purple and over blown, but it has a childlike enthusiasm and sense of wonder. Doc Smith’s heroes are heroes and thus behave heroically: ‘Their hands met in a fierce clasp, broken by Seaton, as he leapt to the levers with an intense: “Well, let’s get busy!” ’ Doc Smith can also write, seemingly without irony ‘[Seaton] lifted his powerful, but musical, bass voice… He sang lustily, out of his sheer joy in being alive, and was surprised to hear Dorothy’s clear soprano, Margret’s pleasing contralto, and Crane’s mellow tenor chime in from the adjoining room.’ Skylark is full of rich language that is ripe for parody, yet transcends such bass ignominies. It will never be accused of being literature; it is too self-mocking for that.

Please do not be put off by thinking that the characters are all cardboard thin, true though this is, as they are all gloriously larger than life. Skylark is not subtle, it is a rollicking rollercoaster adventure populated by characters of epic proportions: all clean-shaven and square of jaw.


The plot, what there is, revolves around Dr Seaton’s surprise discovery of a controllable process to release the intra-atomic power of copper, leading to his creation of the eponymous space ship. Meanwhile, gangsters lead by his lab colleague Dr DuQuesne first steal the plans and intending on blackmail kidnap Dorothy. Their plans go awry and they find themselves heading off into deep space with Dick and Martin in hot pursuit. Following the rescue, the intrepid travellers find themselves on a prehistoric world, then one of hostile disembodied intelligences, and finally on a world populated by beautiful, friendly, green, humans who are engaged in a war of extermination. Dick saves the day, marries his girl and returns home in triumph.


Dr Edward Elmer Smith PhD, a food chemist, started writing Skylark in 1915 at the insistence of a friend, Lee Harkins Garby, who said that he should write up his ideas about space travel. While he had no trouble about writing about a character that is remarkably similar to himself, though presumably exaggerated, he struggled so much to write the female parts that he asked Lee to help. This she did, providing the romantic passages in the book. The work was finally finished in 1920 but proved so radical that no publisher would touch it. It was not until 1927 that Amazing Stories, a pulp magazine specialising Scientific Romances, agreed to publish it. Interestingly, Skylark shared the edition with the first Buck Rodgers story. Its time had come.

Skylark exhibits many of the prevailing attitudes and scientific understandings of the period just after the First World War that have now falling into disrepute. One of the most noticeable is that Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity, published only 10 years before Smith started to write Skylark, had not been fully accepted by the scientific establishment. This enabled Smith to propel his spacecraft faster than light: “the Skylark flew through the infinite reaches of interstellar space with an unthinkable, almost incalculable velocity – beside which the velocity of light was as that of a snail to that of a rifle bullet; a velocity augmented every second by a quantity almost double that of light itself.” Similarly, Smith generally bases the physics on the assumption that the theory of Ether, the substrate of the universe, was correct.

To the modern reader, Skylark’s most distasteful aspect is that of eugenics. This is the belief in intervention in human hereditary, encouraging the breeding by strong health people and discouraging that by those deemed genetically defective, possibly even by forced sterilisation. Eugenics was a widely held and popular belief until the Nazis took it to its logical conclusion in the holocaust. This tied in with prevalent views on total war, which held that there were no innocent civilians; all were targets and combatants. The majority of the aliens in Skylark held the view that genocide was the only way to win a war; a move generally stopped by Dick Seaton, at least for human races. Genocide of chlorine breathing (and therefore irredeemably evil!) races was viewed as quite necessary and was a repeated theme in the series of books.

As one review so succinctly put it, the four Skylark books can be summarised as:

  1. The Skylark of space – Seaton builds a spaceship and has a big adventure
  2. Skylark Three – Seaton builds a bigger spaceship and has an even bigger adventure
  3. Skylark of Valeron – Seaton builds a even bigger spaceship and has an even bigger adventure
  4. Skylark DuQuesne – Seaton builds a even bigger spaceship and has an even bigger adventure

The Skylark series was so groundbreaking, or possibly ignorant of the conventions, that Smith named the sequel “Skylark Three”. While this is quite logical, it has been know to cause confusion even among publishers.

Skylark DuQuesne was nominated for the 1966 Hugo award for best novel, loosing to Frank Herbert’s Dune.


E.E. “Doc” Smith is hailed as being the creator of both interstellar science fiction and of the Space Opera sub-genre. His visions of epic space battles by the greatest of heroes against the evilest of villains inspired many great SF writers through the 20th century, eventually leading to its eminent descendant Star Wars. This is were it all began, boldly going to galaxies far far away, seeking out new worlds and ways of writing SF. Skylark’s faults may be many, but they are forgivable. If later works seem more refined, it is because this is the mother lode. Forget characterisation and realism: just hold on tight and enjoy the ride. All aboard?

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