My life in outer space

The Skylark of Space (Skylark #01) – EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1928)

The Skylark of SpaceThe Skylark of Space by E.E. “Doc” Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

‘Brilliant government scientist Richard Seaton discovers a remarkable faster-than-light fuel that will power his interstellar spaceship, The Skylark. His ruthless rival, Marc DuQuesne, and the sinister World Steel Corporation will do anything to get their hands on the fuel. They kidnap Seaton’s fiancée and friends, unleashing a furious pursuit and igniting a burning desire for revenge that will propel The Skylark across the galaxy and back.

The Skylark of Space is the first and one of the best space operas ever written. Breezy dialogue, romantic intrigue, fallible heroes, and complicated villains infuse humanity and believability into a conflict of galactic proportions. The Amazing Stories publication of The Skylark of Space in 1928 heralded the debut of a major new voice in American pulp science fiction and ushered in its golden age. Legions of interstellar epics have been written since that time, but none can match the wonder, dazzle, and sheer fun of the original. The commemorative edition features the author’s preferred version of the story, the original illustrations by OG Estes Jr., and a new introduction by acclaimed science fiction writer Vernor Vinge.’

Blurb from the 2001 Bison Books commemorative edition..

It’s difficult to date this book with any accuracy since Smith began it in 1915, finished it in 1920, had it published in Amazing Stories in 1928, published as a book in 1946 at least and subsequently revised for republication in 1958.
The Bison books commemorative edition – which reprints the 1958 edition complete with a couple of typos – is a marvellous treat which includes illustrations from 1947 (OG Estes Jr.).
This edition also contains a scholarly introduction by Vernor Vinge in which he explains the presence of a co-author , Mrs Lee Hawkins Garby, whom Smith enlisted for the magazine version and the 1946 book edition to make the female characters more credible.
It would be churlish to suggest that none of the characters are credible by today’s standards, but in 1928 it was a rarity to see female characters at all. One can compare this book to Campbell’s ‘Islands in Space’ which consists of a suspiciously similar plot (notably in its basic premise, and the plot devices of being trapped by the gravity field of a dead star and intervening in a war between two humanoid societies) but one in which women are so conspicuously absent that one feels Campbell was trying to make a point.
Richard ‘Dick’ Seaton is working with a solution of platinum and an unknown metal and discovers it to be (once his copper steam bath has flown out of the window and off into space) the secret to the production of limitless energy, the metal solution having the power to release the atomic energy of copper without producing radiation.
(Vinge points out that the concept of ‘unknown element with amazing powers’ became such a common device with SF authors that it was christened with the genre name of ‘unobtainium’).
In partnership with his old friend – millionaire M Reynolds Crane – he builds a ship, powered by the mysterious metal ‘X’ and some bars of copper.
In the meantime another ruthless scientist, Marc DuQuesne (who has to be evil since he has a French name) has stolen some of Seaton’s solution, has built a ship of his own and kidnapped Dick’s girlfriend Dorothy and a woman called Peggy. Due to some judicious kicking on the part of feisty Dorothy, DuQuesne is knocked against the controls and the ship hurtles off across the universe.
Seaton and Crane race to the rescue of course, which results in all five of them having to work together to save themselves and attempt a return to Earth.
Two things which may seem alien to contemporary readers is the apparent willingness to assist in the genocide of an alien race who are the enemies of a race the humans have befriended, and the odd notion of ‘honour’ which commits DuQuesne to working with the others having promised not to do them harm. He does qualify this by saying that he will escape if he gets the chance, but even so, by modern standards this ‘honourable code among men’ in this context seems very odd indeed.

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