Skylark of Space & Skylark Three

March 10th, 2005
This entry is part of 1 in the series Skylark of Space
  • Skylark of Space & Skylark Three

(Prescript: This was intended as a fluff review of what really are fluff books. What I found instead was that I couldn’t review them and convey their absurdity without likewise covering the context in which they were written. Enjoy the slog.) I used to think I was pretty widely read, at least as far as science fiction and fantasy were concerned, after all, I’d read everything pretty much everything my local libraries had to offer. The Internet changed that idea, as it did so much else, and I soon began to realize how broad the genre was, how deep its roots were sunk, and how shallowly I had skimmed the surface of its history and potential. I resolved to study it as one would any other branch of literature, sampling from what was considered by the genre’s experts to be its great works and formative classics. The Skylark books are definitely the latter…opinions differ on their placement in the former. E.E. “Doc” Smith is one of the earliest writers of what could more-or-less accurately be called science fiction, and is credited by many as the Father of Space Opera (he is also commonly hailed as the grandfather of Star Wars, although the Lensman books have much more to do with that than Skylark did). Doc wrote fantastical fiction in which the heroes were scientists, or at least using science as a key element of his setting even if the “science” involved more or less demanded those scare quotes. The “science” seems laughable to anyone with a latter twentieth century education, but I’m sure it all seemed eminently plausible to his readers in the 20s when he wrote it all, and he was in fact a doctor of Chemical Engineering…just like the main character of the Skylark books…hmmm… (A warning before I get any further: The Skylark series was republished in the recent past by Bantam Spectra, and this is the set that I acquired. The only problem with this edition (which is pretty cheaply available), is that the folks over at Bantam evidently got confused by the title of the second book in the series, Skylark Three. As a result, everywhere on the cover copy of Skylark Three and the third book of the series Skylark of Valeron is their order reversed, including the numbers on the spines, labelling Valeron second and Three third. I was a good ways into Valeron before I figured that out, of course. That such an error could occur on books so short that it is inconceivable everyone in the publishing process couldn’t have read them with minimal effort and time, and yet none of them caught it, is mind-boggling.) The first book Skylark of Space, is the requisite origin and world-building story. It introduces us to the protagonist, Richard Seaton, in the moment of his discovery of the unique properties of a strange metallic mineral he obtained in a government lab and think-tank. Seaton, who shows a ridiculous reluctance to name the strange metal anything but “X”, accidentally finds that the application of a small electrical current to the mineral, when it is in contact with a sample of copper and in the presence of certain mysterious radiations, will catalyze the complete conversion to energy of the entire mass of the copper sample in a controllable reaction. That is, it accelerates off sideways from the direction in which the current was applied, completely ignoring stuff like gravitational attraction, and with almost all of the energy converted into pure directional force. Seaton immediately thinks to himself that he’s got a spacedrive on his hands. Fortunately, his best friend is the fabulously wealthy instrumentation inventor Martin Crane, who fronts up the funds to develop Seaton’s spaceship with nary a qualm about testing or liability. Unfortunately, his labmate is the cold-hearted and ruthless “Blackie” DuQuesne, who figures out what Seaton’s up to and enlists his secret employer, the evil and shady “World Steel Corporation” to try and steal the secrets and all of the material of “X” from Seaton & Crane. Failing that, they kidnap Seaton’s fiance, the fabulously wealthy, beautiful, auburn-haired daughter of an old Southern family, but then accidentally zip halfway across the galaxy in their knock-off copy of Seaton’s spaceship, the eponymous Skylark. Seaton goes to rescue her, discovers that relativistic effects and limits don’t actually occur (look at that hand waving, ladies and gents! Aint’ that something?), and zany adventures ensue. In case this didn’t sound hackneyed enough, I failed to mention that Seaton is a 6’5″ son of a lumberjack who grew up wrestling bears in the mountains, with the body of a world-class athlete, the hand-eye coordination of a champion sharpshooter, and the reflexes of a cyber-ninja. So, yeah. Spoilers begin below, but really…you don’t read these for plot… Seaton and Crane make enemies and friends in their voyages through space seeking more fuel and more “X”, most notable among the friends being the Osnomians, who are a friendly and warlike race who believe in Evolution as a religion and practice polygamy and severe eugenics. Their science is a bizarre blend of chemical and physical sciences taken to extremes, while being largely ignorant of several inexplicable branches of development. Amongst their technology is a “mechanical educator,” which can transfer knowledge from one brain to another in part or completely, all with just simple switches and dials of course. That’s one of those anachronisms that stands out to the modern reader, aside from the cute occasional use of slide-rules…the most advanced devices you can imagine literally fill these pages, but all of them are controlled by plunger switches, knobs, and levers, and their results are monitored by assorted analog dials and indicators. At one point, in order to achieve an extreme degree of precision in a measurement, a 40-foot dial is produced. I know I boggled… Anyway, after rebuilding Seaton’s damaged spaceship with tougher alien materials, Seaton saves the Osnomians from certain destruction and is declared evolutionarily superior and the Overlord of the whole damn planet. Oh, and he marries his sweetheart, too. Yay. Several things stand out in thinking about this book aside from what I’ve already covered. Firstly, Seaton is cavalierly accepting about taking up slavery on Osnome…oh, he’s not perfectly comfortable with it, and he frees his own slaves shortly, but not out of any particular moral obligation to do so. Secondly, this guy destroys stuff and people pretty indiscriminately for a purportedly compassionate and deliberate chemist. There’s some serious wholesale slaughter being committed here, on what seems to be pretty flimsy evidence. Finally, Seaton’s and Crane’s girlfriends are purportedly strong and educated women…but are complete bubble-brains. Seriously, these girls seem to avoid learning like the plague and wilt like flowers all the freakin’ time. It’s amazing that educated, civilized human beings looked at each other in the way that is evident in Smith’s writing within less than a century of our own. In the second book, Skylark Three, Seaton goes to rescue the Osnomians from another world in their weird 14-sun solar system, discovers on the way that an evil and vastly technically superior race is hell-bent on destroying all other life in the Universe, and decides that the only way to save everybody is to make himself Overlord of the entire “Green system” (so-called because of the predominance of copper in its makeup). He bullies himself into that position on a couple of occasions with some earnest threats of planet-wide genocide, then buys his way into it in those cultures too advanced for him to bully, acquiring all their technology on the way. But it’s all for noble purposes, right? Well, of course. At the end of the book, the whole freakin’ planet of the race bent on conquering the Universe is blown up. The whole thing. Oh, a few of them escape with their families, but Seaton hunts them down, too. So, lets review. These bad guys are, based on Seaton’s single contact with a military officer, Evil with a capital “E”. All of ’em. Women, children, cripples, etc. Without exception. How could you possibly believe this, with an intensity of belief that justifies wiping them out without further investigation? Particularly when you’ve mastered technology that could easily neuter or destroy every vessel they launch, probably without their ever figuring out why? This is not a sane objective, this is a freakishly harsh judgement, and is as Evil as anything the enemy ever proposed, regardless of the fact that some of them proposed it first. So I hated reading these, right? No way. These books are almost pure fun and action, diluted only slightly by moral reprehensibility. If the wild ideas about science weren’t enough to entertain, there’s gems of prose like this one describing spaceship design: “Resting one hand caressingly upon the huge member, he explained exultantly that it was the ultimately last word in strength;” or this one about their foes: “…designed and was being maintained by the world-girdling World Steel Corporation as hte hub and center of its world-girdling nefarious activities,”; or dialogue like “Dick, boy, I don’t know why you wrecked the joint, and I don’t know whether that yarn came out of a bottle or a needle, but believe me, it stinks. It’s and honest-to-God, bottled-in-bond stinkeroo if I ever heard one. You better lay off the stuff, whatever it is.” If you can suspend your disbelief enough to not care about the bad guys, then the way they get fantastically blown up by the farcically idealized good guys is satisfying in the same way a summer popcorn flick is. And, as you can see from all of the above, it certainly makes you think about the way our modern perceptions have changed so dramatically in the past century…and wonder how much and in what way they will inevitably change over the next. If you’re looking for that kind of insight and inspiration, and have a few hours to spare for these very light reads, I recommend you give them a try.

One Response to “Skylark of Space & Skylark Three”

  1. Gideon says:

    Sounds like the same type as any of the old Doc Savage books or…oh…what’s his name, right, Dirk Pitt.

    Pitt especially almost strikes me as some form of Mary-Sue, though enjoyable nonetheless.

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