Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.
Richard Seaton accidentally discovers the ability of ‘X’, a hitherto unknown metal,
to liberate and control the entire constituent energy of metallic copper. (17)
pure and total conversion of matter to controllable energy [with] no radiation, no residue, no by-products (17)
provides the key to space travel. Seaton and his millionaire chum, M Reynolds Crane, set out to exploit this source of virtually free energy. An attempt by rival scientist, Marc ‘Blackie’ DuQuesne, to hold Seaton’s wealthy fiancée, Dorothy Vaneman, ransom in exchange for X goes awry. DuQuesne’s starship is flung across space at an incredible speed. Seaton and Crane pursue them in the eponymous starship. They rescue Dorothy, DuQuesne and another hostage, Margaret Spencer, from the grip of a dead star. On the low-gravity planet Osnome, they take sides in (and win) a genocidal war, before returning to Earth.
Smith was neither the first to write space opera (Robert W Cole’s 1900 The Struggle for Empire is a more likely contender), nor the first American author of space opera (that distinction probably belongs to Ray Cummings), nor indeed the best of the subgenre’s first flourishing in the American pulps (Edmond Hamilton, John W Campbell, Jr and Jack Williamson consistently wrote less infelicitous prose and demonstrated a better grasp of the potential of sf). But Smith’s work remains the best-remembered. Undoubtedly, this is partly a result of being among the first pulp sf to be reissued in hardback editions in the late 1940s and 1950s, and of the 1960s and 1970s paperback editions finding a substantial following among the fantasy readership created/uncovered by the US paperback editions of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Although Smith’s space operas often seem excruciatingly naïve by the standards of more contemporary authors (Iain M Banks, Samuel R Delany, Colin Greenland, Ursula Le Guin, M John Harrison, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds), the continued popularity of the Star Wars movies indicates that juvenile sf of this sort is still attractive; and while it is tempting to read Smith’s sf as camp, this can only partly (if, presumably, increasingly) account for its appeal.
One of Smith’s central achievements is to capture something of the scale of the universe while also rendering it safe, conquerable, human-sized. Despite postulating new technologies and travelling thousands of light years from Earth, the characters and plotting of The Skylark of Space are firmly rooted in familiar romance conventions. Seaton is a working class boy made good, a scientist and athlete
over six feet in height, broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted. (12)
He can withstand higher acceleration than any of his crew, and exercises his super-strength to great effect in Osnome’s low gravity.
the multi-millionaire explorer-archaeologist-sportsman’ (12)
is also a businessman, an engineer and
a rocket-instrument man second to none in the world. (13)
Seaton’s love for Dorothy and Crane’s for Margaret is pure, assured, eternal. DuQuesne is
utterly heartless and ruthless, so cold and scientific (90)
yet strangely honourable in his villainy. And in a world dominated by global corporations, it falls to such individuals to discover, create, explore. Despite such unrealistic characterisations, the very familiarity of these types works to domesticate the universe in which they adventure.
Moreover, the vastness and strangeness of space is also contained by Smith’s repeated failure to depict it. As the crew whiz around the galaxy, they observe it almost entirely through instrument readings, and the few descriptions of what can be seen through the Skylark’s viewports possess a curious contradictory quality:
For the blackness of the black of the interstellar void is not the darkness of an earthly night but the absolute absence of light–a black besides which that of platinum dust is merely gray. Upon this indescribably black backdrop there glowed faint patches which were nebulae; there blazed hard, brilliant, multi-colored, dimensionless points of light which were stars. (88)
In addition to the clumsy simultaneous presence and absence of light in this view, there is blackness to be recognised through its dissimilarity to the blackness with which the reader is familiar. A more telling failure to depict an external view of space comes in the passage in which Crane realises his love for Margaret. Staring out
into infinity, each felt as never before the pitiful smallness of the whole world they had known, and the insignificance of human beings and their works. (91)
As their ‘minds reached out to each other in understanding’, Crane considers Margaret:
He looked up quickly and again studied the stars; but now, in addition to the wonders of space, he saw a mass of wavy black hair, high-piled upon a queenly head; deep brown eyes veiled by long, black lashes; sweet, sensitive lips; a firmly rounded, dimpled chin; and a beautifully formed young body. (91 and 92)
This description displaces that of the view that so enraptures Margaret and prompts her to say
‘How stupendous . . . how unbelievably great this is . . . […]. How vastly greater than any perception one could possibly get on Earth . . . and yet . . . […] doesn’t it seem to you, Mr. Crane, that there is something in man as great as even all this? That there must be, or Dorothy and I could not be sailing out here in such a wonderful things as this Skylark, which you and Dick Seaton have made?’ (92)
This bathetic descent contains and constrains the capacity of the sublime to disorientate and estrange.
Throughout the novel, Smith demonstrates little interest in the implications of his conceits. For example, when a mechanical educator accidentally gives Seaton and Dunark, Kofedix of Kondal, perfect knowledge
down to the finest detail […] of everything that the other had ever learned (117)
it is merely a convenient plot device, enabling Seaton to justify his collaboration with the fascistic social-Darwinist Kondalians against the treacherous Mardonalians (who ‘are the scum of the universe’ (120)).
And herein must lie whatever appeal it has: there is no terrible abyss, just space waiting to be filled should anyone ever look out of the window.
The other eight entries I wrote were:
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
London, The Iron Heel
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X
This practice of describing the indescribability of a phenomenon rather than the phenomenon itself reaches its glorious nadir in the explosion of a charge of X:
There was a blare of sound that paralyzed their senses, even inside the vessel and in the thin air of that enormous elevation. There was a furiously-boiling, furiously expanding ball of . . . of what? The detonation of a Mark Ten load cannot be described. It must be seen; and even then, it cannot be understood. It can scarcely be believed. (105)
It is, of course, equally telling of Smith’s lack of interest in his female characters that not only should Margaret be so beautiful as to distract Crane but also so eminently reducible to a list of clichéd fragments. Elsewhere, she champs at the bit to be a secretary (92).