Subspace Encounter – EE ‘Doc’ Smith (1983)
This is a novel left unfinished by Smith and subsequently completed by LA Eshbach with the help of Smith’s notes and an additional manuscript which Smith had sent to Frederik Pohl, and one which did not see publication until almost twenty years after Smith’s death. It’s a sequel to ‘Subspace Explorers’ set in a future where many humans have developed their ‘psionic’ powers and are termed psiontists. Humanity has spread out into the galaxy due to the discovery of ‘subspace’.
Meanwhile, in a neighbouring dimension, another race of humans has founded an interplanetary civilisation, but one in which a communistic dictatorship is in charge.
‘Psiontists’ are treated as witches and charlatans here and any with psionic powers have to keep the fact a secret. An underground organisation of psiontists are working toward a revolutionary end.
In our universe, a group of psiontists aboard a fortified ship are investigating unexplained explosions and danger to ships (something that also appears to be happening in the second universe). Andrews, the leader of the team, has deduced that there is a psionic supermind at work somewhere, and while in rapport with his wife very briefly experiences the presence of the supermind which shows him the office of the dictator of Slaar, the evil empire of the other universe.
Smith appears, as he grew older, to have become more preoccupied with sex, or perhaps the more permissive publishers of the sixties permitted him liberties he could not take in the pulp magazines of the thirties and forties. Certainly in ‘Galaxy Primes’ we see a marked shift toward eroticism, where previously he would have restricted himself to describing a woman as a ‘Seven Sector Call Out’ and left it at that.
There was a certain chasteness in the Lensman saga that is done away with here. When Rodnar and Starrlah (psiontists of the Second Universe) first meet each other they grapple with such reckless abandon that he bursts the stitches of a wound he incurred in a gladiatorial battle.
There’s also a peculiar (and somewhat paradoxical) attitude to race. All the main protagonists are fit, young white Anglo Saxon types. The women are blonde for the most part. Smith points out that the differently skin-toned humans in the Second Universe all have their own worlds, and seldom marry or interbreed. The supreme tyrant, who is white, is considered by the protagonists of both universes to be, on the whole, not a bad egg, despite the fact he has been feeding his citizens to caged giant eagles for most of his career.
It later becomes evident that the worst aspects of this tyrannical civilisation are displayed by the dark skinned hook-nosed residents of Gharsh.
It’s a curious throwback to the pulp SF of the 1930s and before, such as Ray Cummings ‘The White Invaders’ in which dark-skinned brutes from another dimension invade earth to slake their desire for white Earth women. Indeed, the Gharshian whom Rodnar defeated in the arena and from whom he obtained his wound, had set his sights on Starrlah, to her horror and dismay.
There is no defence of this. Clearly there was no need to have included the background detail of racial segregation or to have made the Gharshians basically Arabic.
Smith was never a practitioner of decent dialogue either. He attempts to impose a form of hippy ‘right on daddio’ Sixties linguistics to his protagonists which is both stilted and confusing (see also van Vogt’s ‘Children of Tomorrow’). Added to this, when the Second Universe psiontists go undercover on the planet Gharsh, they adopt a local dialect and things get a bit surreal when they start talking about ‘whankers’.
The psiontists of both universes eventually meet up and unite, finding common ground in the language of science.
As is explained in the introduction, this novel was completed by LA Eshbach from drafts of manuscripts left by Smith and may well have been a different beast had Smith lived to finish it himself. Given the final publication date, it is something that would be of interest to Smith completists and SF historians rather than those seeking quality SF in the early Nineteen Eighties, although no doubt the publishers were hoping to cash in on the resurgence of interest in Smith in the Seventies when his Lensman series experienced an unexpected revival.
One of Smith’s great talents was for making the vastness of space real. One got a sense of the immensity of the universe, the vast empty distances that lie between one star and another. There is little of that here, which pains me somewhat.
If there can be such a thing as a pulp-fiction masterpiece then his Skylark, and certainly his Lensman series were unquestionably that; great stonking Space Opera sagas that still evoke that sense of wonder, or at least a vestige of it.
There are occasional flashes of the old ‘Doc’ here, but the moments are too few and far between.