Monday, April 22, 2019

The Skylark of Space by E.E. Smith


Skylark #1


With inklings of space travel in the future this is a series of adventures starting solidly on the Earth that take varying amounts of time on alien worlds afterward. That is not a sales pitch.

Semi- Main Character Richard Seaton accidentally discovers how to “decompose” copper into pure energy. Through some dumb-luck and some governmental machinations that probably wouldn’t have worked back in 1928 much less these days, Seaton is able to liberate the patent, or plans, from the governmental laboratory clutches and starts to really expand the idea in some related ways balanced with the “object compasses.”

Of course a dark, handsome and evil adversary wants nothing more than to utterly control the idea and goes about stealing it. Plans go awry and several hundred light years away and he and his captives need to be rescued. Nicks of time abound and through more dumb luck and a liberal application of chemistry they make it back to Earth.


The white male chemist as the Ubermensch: Yeah, is as strong as an ox and can shoot, do dastardly amounts of chemistry, fly brand-new-designed-and-built objects under many gravities, and still woo the love of his life. In fact it is taken so far as an ultra-Darwinian alien culture declaring that he, his fiancee, his friend, and his friend’s wife to be are all just one step away from being perfect. Barf.

I do like a story about nerd “empowerment” but this is more like a power-trip fantasy. It is actually quite hard to get through some sections of the book that might have been gripping to a younger me, or to whole herds of young white males in the past. I think this is exactly what people think of when they are stereotyping science fiction.

While the casual racism sprinkled throughout is unfortunately straightforward cultural, the outright suggestion that white people, such as myself, are ultimately superior, even outwitting a much more “advanced” being is super cringeworthy.

Atomic power: This is actually somewhat interesting. The whole concept behind the book relies on an almost antimatter-like annihilation of copper to produce energy. Since the book was published in 1928, it sits between Einstein’s E=mc^2 and true atomic power. Doc tries to get the reader to understand just how powerful atomic energy could be, but of course is a bit off and very blase about the possibility of radioactivity.

Matter Attractor: I like how this has become a staple in quite a few science fiction media, and beyond just trying to use it in a different way basically hasn’t changed all that much in trying to describe how it works.

The Matter Compasses: Oh the MacGuffins have arrived. Have you accidentally lost your planet while traveling hundreds of light years? Well not to worry: a matter compass attuned to Earth can guide you back! While it isn’t totally out of the realm of the “spooky action at a distance” or quantum entanglement, it is still used with almost a practiced carelessness in the story in order to make the wild flights of fancy even close to possible.


At one point, right before the one-step-below-god scene I was thinking of trying to retell this tale with a bent toward advancing concepts, making characters more believable, and actually creating a story rather than a series of shallow episodes. I could take two approaches: Write an outline from memory, highlight important points that would tie back to the original story and then write a new story, something like Scalzi might have done.

Or reread the book and take careful notes, fill out technology with more modern understanding, etc. But this I think would be too hard. There is too much power fantasy edging into romance. Sure characters have crises, but generally anything more than the overarching return to Earth plot is literally resolved in a paragraph or two. I think I would have to tear this apart much farther than my abilities would allow at this point.

I would not recommend this book beyond getting a good taste of what a science fiction fueled power trip was like in 1928. Why did I write such a long review?

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