Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Skylark Of Space!


The Skylark of Space by E.E. "Doc" Smith is one of those seminal works of science fiction which defined the genre. I have long wanted to sample a "Doc" Smith novel, but never got around to it. Until now.


The Skylark of Space debuted in this powerful issue of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories. The story itself not only gave birth in many respects to the genre of space opera but this cover art by Frank Paul is often pointed to as a launching pad for many of the great artists and creators of comics of the later 30's. Superman himself owes a great debt to this image of the hero of Skylark, Dick Seaton as he tests his invention, a device which allows a human being to defy gravity at fantastic speeds. That's his best girl Dorothy Vaneman and his best pal Martin Crane, a fantastically rich fellow.

These three emblems of early American upper-crust society use the power of the invention to build a spaceship they dub "Skylark" and they then proceed to pilot Sklyark to the ends of the universe, skipping across the cosmos in winks of an eye. They are in contest with a decided villain named Marc "Blackie" Duquesne who is without question the most interesting character in this insane yarn.

The hardest thing to like about this story is the hero Dick who lives up to his name time and time again. One of those typically brawny types but with a brain, he scuttles around in the early stages of the story on his motorcycle with a witless devil-may-care attitude that you know is going to bite everyone in the ass. His mildly wiser comrade Martin ("Mart") throws money at any problem and never seems to question any of his decisions, a whopping number of which have grave consequences.


But as hard as the guys are to like, the girls (another one named "Peg" is added to give Martin someone to cling to) are worse. Dot and Peg are among the most vapid women I've ever stumbled across in modern fiction, apparent indicators of what proper women should think and feel, both of them seem chipper enough but depend on the men in nearly all respects despite apparent evidence they needn't do so. A huge chunk of the story toward the end is taken up with descriptions of wedding plans, as if any red-blooded American male (the target audience for Amazing Stories) would give a hoot about that stuff.

There was some input on this story in its early stages (written in the teens apparently though not published for over a decade) by a woman named Lee Hawkins Garby, who I guess must account for these feminine touches, as weird as they are. Smith gets the blame if she doesn't and the version I read doesn't mention her as co-author so I drop it all on him.

The Skylark crew set a paradigm of doughty folks flying into space to wreak adventure, that's certain. I can see the genesis of Flash Gordon here without doubt. But the dynamics between Flash, Dale, and Zarkoff are manifestly better than that presented in this novel.

I want to be fair and judge the novel within the constraints of its time, but even given that the thing reads like an antique. The prose is merely adequate moving us from event to event with sufficient clarity, but constantly discovering oddball places to linger as the action unfolds. There is action for sure, monsters, spaceship battles, and whatnot.

One big problem is that the main villain Duquesne disappears in the last third of the novel only to reemerge toward the finale without a sufficient resolution. I know we're suppose to read the next installment to find out more, but I have to say I'm not in a hurry.


The sequel is titled Skylark 3. I got it from Bison Books when I ordered the first one. So it's there to read when I can work up the nerve.

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4 comments:

  1. Bison Books did a great job with both the Skylark series (there's four of them) and the complete Lensman series (six novels) , which of course inspired the Silver Age to present Green Lantern series.
    The Lensmen books reuse the Fantasy Press cover art, giving them a kool retro look.
    Bison's entire "Frontiers of Imagination" line is well worth your time.

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    1. I love the Bison Books, they are handsome and have a great heft. I have several, but not those Lensmen books.

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  2. I haven't read the Skylark books, but I've read the Lensmen series (which also helped inspire the Jedi). The Lensmen books usually get pointed to as Smith's best work. They might suit you better, because once the action gets going, it never lets up. There is some astonishing stuff going on in those books, from using the Sun itself as a weapon, to using parallel universe planets as weapons...a lot of thought is put into making some of the most ridiculously powerful weaponry I've read about in scifi. The Death Star pales in comparison. Smith's prose gets a bit better in the books published later, though his characters never feel fleshed out. Plus, there are elements thrown in that made me do a double-take when reading. Perhaps my favorite bit is a stealth spacecraft that uses a diesel engine as a back-up. It's truly kooky, crazy fun that sounds better than Skylark of Space.

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    1. I need to seek these out for sure. Thanks.

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