“She flies! She flies, dearest, like a ray of light for speed and like a bit of thistledown for lightness. We’ve been around the moon!”
—Richard Seaton, The Skylark of Space
In the first post in this series I took a look at Edmond Hamilton’s Interstellar Patrol stories. Now, it’s time for another space opera that commenced publication in August 1928: The Skylark of Space, written by Edward Elmer Smith partly in collaboration with Lee Hawkins Garby. The former went on to write the influential Lensman series under the name of E. E. “Doc” Smith, but the latter vanished from the field.
Sam Moskowitz’s book Seekers of Tomorrow goes into detail about the background to the novel. The spark of inspiration occurred back in 1915, when Smith was discussing outer space with Lee Hawkins Garby’s husband, Carl. The conversation caught the imagination of Lee Garby, who suggested that Smith write a novel based on some of the ideas discussed. Smith was comfortable writing a scientific adventure, but got cold feet at the idea of writing a convincing romantic subplot, which he felt would be necessary to the story; and so Lee Garby agreed to act as co-writer, providing the requisite love interest.
The two finished roughly a third of the story in 1916 before losing interest. It was not until 1919 that Smith picked up the project again, this time without the direct involvement of Garby. Although he completed the story in 1920, it received an overwhelmingly negative reaction from potential publishers – hence why it did not see print until 1928, when Amazing Stories began serialising it across three issues. The novel edition, published in 1946, had significant revisions; I’m basing this post on the original magazine version.
The story takes place in a near-future world, generally resembling 1928 but with a number of technological advances (such as a wireless telephone, “developed by a drug-crazed genius who had died shortly after it was perfected”) to push the plot along where needed. At the start of the story, inventor Richard Seaton tinkers with an unknown metal, identified only as X, in a copper bathtub. His experiment causes said bathtub to suddenly fly out the window. Seaton then teams up with his lawyer friend Martin Crane to build a flying machine powered by X, with the long-term aim of constructing a spacecraft using the same principles. This spacecraft, when it is built, is dubbed the Skylark.
This set-up appears to have been lifted from H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. There, an inventor named Cavor develops a metal that allows flight, and – aided by his hard-headed acquaintance Bedford – builds a craft that takes the pair of them to the Moon. Smith spends rather more time establishing the scientific plausibility of his idea, using a rough-and-ready portrayal of atomic energy rather than Wells’ whimsical gravity-blocking metal, but the end result is much the same. The stories even share spherical spacecraft.
As far as the first instalment of The Skylark of Space is concerned, there are two main differences between it and Wells’ novel. One is the addition of a love interest in Seaton’s fiancée Dorothy. The other is a human antagonist in the shape of Marc DuQuesne, an unscrupulous chemist who works for the corrupt World Steel Corporation (which stands in contrast to Seaton and Crane’s small-scale, mom-and-pop company). DuQuesne and his accomplices succeed in stealing plans for the Skylark and a sample of X, allowing them to build a spacecraft of their own; in the hopes of extracting further X from Seaton, they also kidnap Dorothy.
So, Smith has modified Wells’ premise by adding in two familiar elements of pulp adventure fiction: a caddish villain and a love interest/damsel in distress.
The two X-powered spacecraft are capable of travelling many times the speed of light – the characters have no qualms about dismissing Einstein’s theories – and DuQuesne’s plan is scuppered when he ends up hopelessly lost, far from Earth’s solar system.
However, the Skylark finds him thanks to its “object compass”, a form of tracking device. Seaton and Crane end up saving not only Dorothy, but also a second kidnapping victim on board the ship, named Margaret “Peggy” Spencer (whose father was swindled by the evil steel company) and even DuQuesne, who ends up on their parole. After all, his scientific know-how might come in handy. (Here, Duquesne starts to look like an ancestor of Dr. Zachary smith from Lost in Space. In fact, one of the chapters from this sequence is actually entitled “Lost in Space”).
This occurs during the second instalment of the story. If the first part resembles a pulp version of Frist Men in the Moon, the second starts out by giving a similar treatment to Jules Verne’s Around the Moon: the mismatched crew of the Skylark spend their time drifting about in space engaging in technical discussion, as did Verne’s heroes. Smith affords his characters more domestic considerations, though: “Come on, Peggy, I know where our room is. Let’s go powder our noses while these bewhiskered gentlemen reap their beards. Did you bring along any of my clothes, Dick, or did you forget them in the excitement?”
Then the ship begins visiting planets in search for copper (which, alongside X, is used by the Skylark for fuel). First up is a world inhabited by alien dinosaurs; this sequence fits into a tradition typified by Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. The next planet is home to a shape-shifting, telekinetic creature, which takes on the appearances of the Skylark’s crewmembers as it tries to kill the Earthlings, before revealing its fanged, clawed true form. Finally, the Skylark lands on an Edgar Rice Burroughs-like planet populated by statuesque humanoids.
As can be seen, The Skylark of Space pioneers the pick-and-mix approach that would be taken by many later space operas. Star Wars, Doctor Who and their like take place in universes where different genres or subgenres exist simultaneously, so that one planet may be a cyberpunk dystopia while another just around the corner is a samurai film; Seaton’s adventures, similarly, look a little like a greatest hits compilation of SF circa 1928.
The protagonists’ exploits on the Burroughsian planet of Osnome begin in the second instalment and take up almost the entirety of the third. The planet has two civilisations, Mardonale and Kondal; the Skylark crew initially sides with the Mardonalians against a species of flying tentacled creatures, but subsequently switch sides to aid the Kondalians, who are kept as slaves by the Mardonalians. After aiding a slave revolt led by Dunark, who turns out to be the crown prince of the Kondalians, Seaton receives a hero’s welcome back at Kondal.
Smith introduces a novel method for breaking the language barrier: the aliens have a mind-reading device which malfunctions, causing Seaton and Dunark to share the entirety of their personal memories. Thus, Seaton ends up with a native’s knowledge of Kondal and its society. Communication between the two races is so smooth that the Earthlings are able to arrange for Kondal to host a joint wedding between Seaton and Crane and their female companions Dorothy and Margaret.
The Osnome sequence packs in a fair amount of worldbuilding. An inventive touch involves the planet having a different colour spectrum to Earth: the natives appear to have green skin, while the Earthlings turn all manner of grotesque hues, necessitating the wedding to take place beneath simulated Earth light. In terms of culture the Osnomeans have no concept of mercy, seeing death or enslavement as the only fates worth meting out to enemies, and have abolished crime through the usage of their mind-reading devices. Their mechanical skill is far in advance of Earth, but they have little understanding of chemistry, meaning that the Kondalians can combine the best of both worlds by teaming up with the Skylark crew.
While the Mardonalians and their ruler Nalboon are clearly framed as the villains, the Kondalians are scarcely less brutal. They subscribe to the belief that all other races on the planet – not only the Mardonalians but also the “savages” from outside the two developed nations – are evolutionarily inferior and destined for either slavery or destruction. “Mardonalians and savages are unfit to survive and must be exterminated” says Seaton, explaining the Kondalian perspective.
At the wedding, one of the Kondalians delivers a speech declaring that the Mardonalians should be wiped out using the Eathlings’ technology, but the protagonists are not perturbed. Quite the opposite: Dorothy has tears of joy in her eyes immediately afterwards as she discusses the marriage ceremony with her new husband.
Genocide is also a recurring plot device in Edmond Hamilton’s contemporary Interstellar Patrol stories, but those at least took the time to set up last-minute, us-or-them scenarios where humanity’s only hope was to completely destroy whatever alien world was troubling it. With The Skylark of Space, however, it is hard to see the Kondalians as anything other than the lesser of two evils: Nalboon may be a genocide tyrant, but Dunark gives every indication that he will be just as bad once his nation comes out on top. Yet, Seaton and company show not a qualm about forging an alliance.
The Mardonalians then invade Kondal armed with flesh-burning ultra-violet rays, which the heroes thwart by smearing themselves with red paint and donning ruby glass lenses. The next weapon used by the Mardonalians is infra-sound, which sends heavy vibrations through the bodies of the opposing men – until they stat protecting themselves by wearing multiple layers of fur and stuffing their ears with cotton. Heat waves, too, form part of the enemy arsenal; but Seaton is equipped with protective refrigerators.
Eventually Seaton’s technology drives away the invaders. The Kondalians thank their Earthling allies and announce that they will go on to destroy Mardonale entirely; in the meantime, the Skylark prepares to head home.
As a reward reward, the space travellers are granted large amounts of material that is commonplace on Osnome but precious on Earth, such as platinum. Seaton requests twenty tons of this metal to take back home, and waxes lyrical about how breaking the platinum market will mean that the metal can be put to proper use in laboratories. “Anybody who claims to be a scientist and yet stands for any of his folks buying platinum jewelry ought to be shot”, he says.
As they arrive back on Earth, the roguish DuQuesne manages to escape. But he still has a tracking device planted upon his person, and so the heroes vow to pursue him should he ever return to his old tricks.
The Skylark of Space has, for decades now, been consigned to that unhappy shelf labelled “historical interest only”. But it has to be said, there’s a fair amount of historical interest to be found here. Right here, in this single novel, we can see the space opera genre developing before our very eyes, starting out with an unconvincing H. G. Wells pastiche and ending up in roughly the same sphere as Edmond Hamilton’s seminal “Crashing Suns”, published the same month. A sequel, Skylark Three, followed in 1930; after that came Skylark of Valeron in 1934 and the posthumously-published Skylark DuQuesne.
Next up: Philip Francis Nowlan and “Armageddon 2419 A.D”!
2 thoughts on “Space Opera Archeology: E. E. Smith and The Skylark of Space”
Thank you for this! I have tried to read this book before and failed, so it’s good to finally know how it ends.
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A detail you didn’t mention but I found interesting (Maybe it’s only in the novel?) is that — up until the accident with the telepathic device, the two women were in fact doing a pretty good job creating means to communicate and befriend the Kondalians, and all that social stuff. Smith breezes past this as not that important, and then solves it with his science… but I thought it was notable that it even got a mention, as it’s squarely in the social sciences/women’s spheres areas that early SF is notorious for ignoring and which were a big part of New Wave and beyond. And as soon as you mentioned Lee Hawkins Garby (of whom I had been unaware), I was wondering if that wasn’t possibly another of her touches.
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