EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s, The Skylark of Space (co-written with Mrs Lee Hawkins Garby)

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.

eeds_theskylaWritten: 1915–1920
First published: Amazing Stories, August-October 1928
First edition: Providence, Rhode Island: Buffalo Book Co., 1946
Edition used: London: Panther, 1974 (revised text of 1958)

Richard Seaton accidentally discovers the ability of ‘X’, a hitherto unknown metal,

to liberate and control the entire constituent energy of metallic copper. (17)

This

pure and total conversion of matter to controllable energy [with] no radiation, no residue, no by-products (17)

062provides 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 the-skylark-of-space-fffamong 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.

Crane,

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)

003yet 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.[1] 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[2] 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)).

ill-613Again and again, The Skylark of Space promises novelty but delivers mere novelties.

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:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[1]
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)

[2]
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).

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William Godwin’s Things As They Are, or The Adventures of Caleb Williams

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.

Caleb Williams.2-1Originally published: 1794
Edition used: Caleb Williams (Penguin, 1988) edited and introduced by Maurice Hindle

Of humble origin, Caleb Williams, orphaned at the age of 18, is taken into the household of the local squire, Ferdinando Falkland. One day, he stumbles upon his master behaving in a secretive manner; on perceiving Caleb, Falkland becomes violent. Falkland’s steward explains the curious chain of circumstances that saw Falkland recently accused of murder and then vindicated, after which his personality underwent a profound change. Caleb begins to suspect Falkland is actually guilty of the murder and let others be executed for his crime. Falkland eventually confesses to Caleb, secure that no one will believe a servant over his master. When Caleb tries to flee the tyranny with which Falkland circumscribes his daily existence, he is framed for robbery. Awaiting trial, Caleb escapes, and from that moment on his life becomes a miserable series of disguises and upheavals as Falkland’s agents dog his steps, never allowing him to settle.

Things As They Are is an intriguing test case for where the boundaries of the fantastic lie. A ‘political Gothic’, there is nothing of the fantastic in it – not even of the apparently supernatural that is later revealed to have a mundane explanation. M John Harrison argues that the problem with much sf is that it has become addicted to the mediating metaphor – the whole paraphernalia of future societies, other worlds, monsters and spaceships, and the grab-bag of technical and rhetorical tools – rather than deploying such image-furniture and techniques to establish a metaphoric relationship between text and world. Much the same can be seen to happen in the flowering of the Gothic in the second half of the 18th century and its subsequent permutations.

While the Gothic imagined terrible incarcerations in crumbling vaults and subterranean dungeons, Godwin turned to the reality of the contemporary judicial and penal systems as described in The Malefactor’s Register; or the Newgate and Tyburn Calendar (1779) and Howard’s 1777 report on The State of Prisons, and as witnessed on visiting Newgate prison and in the treatment of fellow radicals such as Joseph Gerrald and Maurice Margarot.

While the Gothic generally used such torments to thrill its readers with the depiction of sensibilities under distress, Godwin – who was not above such things – also turned his Gothic imagination to an elaboration of the prison as a model of the social world.

Falkland-discovering-Caleb2-e1300118099300While much Gothic fiction can be read as a kind of sadomasochistic proto-feminist expression of the internalisation of particular historical restrictions on female experience, Caleb stands as a kind of typical subject for whom the whole world is carceral.[i] The ‘paranoid’ depiction of society as a prison-house becomes an important fantastic metaphor in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892), Daniel Paul Schreber’s Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken/Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s My (1924), Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess/The Trial (1925), B Traven’s The Death Ship (1934), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), Samuel Beckett’s Le Depeupleur/The Lost Ones (1971), Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), throughout Philip K Dick’s work and in countless other fantastic and dystopian fictions.

But at what point does one judge the metaphor to have become sufficiently concretised in the diegetic world to make it a fantastic world?[ii]

One particular moment is worth considering in this light. Hiding out in London, Caleb encounters a hawker peddling a fictionalised account of his life:

Here you have the MOST WONDERFUL AND SURPRISING HISTORY AND MIRACULOUS ADVENTURES OF CALEB WILLIAMS: you are informed how he first robbed, and then brought false accusations against his master; as also of his attempting divers times to break out of prison, till at last he effected his escape in the most wonderful and uncredible manner; as also of his travelling the kingdom in various disguises, and the robberies he committed with a most desperate and daring gang of thieves; and of his coming up to London, where it is supposed he now lies concealed; with a true and faithful copy of the hue and cry printed and published by one of his Majesty’s most principal secretaries of state, offering a reward of one hundred guineas for apprehending him. All for the price of one halfpenny. (278)

Robbed of his liberty, Caleb is now stripped of his identity as other characters take this popular account for the truth about him. And it does indeed contain some superficial truths – he has escaped prison, been sheltered by a gang of thieves (although committing no crimes himself), become expert at disguise and made his way to London – but not the truth, especially not what has forced him into this behaviour. But this virtual self becomes a doppelganger, permitting him no rest, even as Falkland’s exercise of arbitrary power takes on a life of its own separate from and outside of his control. Elsewhere, much is made of the difference of justice as it exists on paper and as it is experienced by those subjected to its institutional practices – a long time before Borges or Baudrillard, Godwin observes not only the distinction between map and territory but also the supersession of the territory by the map.

Ultimately, even if Caleb’s misadventures are not judged to be fantastical, they nonetheless pose important questions about how we conceptualise fantasy. If M John Harrison’s Things That Never Happen (2004) collects the fiction of a fantasist working to strip the fantasy out of fantasy, Godwin’s Things As They Are seems to tackle the same problem from the other side.

220px-CalebWilliamsIt should also be noted that Caleb provides a template of sorts for the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) – Shelley was, of course, Godwin’s daughter – and that like Shelley’s novel Things As They Are cries out for queer reading.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[i]
This is not to imply that female characters cannot be typical subjects, nor that male experience should be normalised as in anyway typical.
[ii]
Things As They Are bears some obvious similarities to such noirish crime movies as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (LeRoy 1932) and The Big Clock (Farrow 1948), itself a possible prototype for Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (1977); and a similar question about the boundaries of fantasies is posed by the heady and tortured prose typical of Cornell Woolrich’s crime fiction.

Four or Five Things About China Miéville

[Just stumbled across this old thing I wrote for the Wiscon 17 Programme Booklet in 2003, when China and Carol Emshwiller were GOHs]

Skulltopus011 Saturday September 28th 2002 was a bright and clear day in London. Which was just as well, because China and Emma were late. A group of us had arranged to meet at the National Film Theatre’s Café on the South Bank of the Thames at 12.30. From there, we would cross the river to the Embankment to join the protest march against war on Iraq and for a free Palestine.

In a way, though, the delay didn’t matter. Despite early police claims that there were only 40,000 protestors, it was clear there were ten times that number. It’s not like anyone would have noticed if we were late.

But coffee had been drunk and impatience was setting in and the crowd on the opposite bank was swelling and China wasn’t answering his mobile phone.

Suddenly, in the distance, a sighting.

Arms were waved. Watches were pointed at extravagantly. Tutting noises were made.

China and Emma arrived. China was breathless, not from rushing but from excitement. ‘Sorry we’re late, but you won’t believe what we’ve just seen. We had to stop and watch. We were walking through the park, and there was this pelican. Fucking huge, and it just swooped down and ate a pigeon. It was gross. You could see the pigeon struggling in its gullet.’

China was right. Nobody believed him.

Not that the story was completely implausible. It’s just that impish Mike Harrison had already started the rumour that en route they had popped into John Lewis – an irredeemably bourgeois department store – to buy some things for their new flat.

To this day, nobody believes China’s story about the pelican and the pigeon. But for some reason everybody seems to take a special delight in preferring to believe Mike’s version of events.

***

One of China’s favourite passages of our sf explanation is to be found in Eric Flint’s 1632. It goes like this:

So that’s about it folks … Somehow – nobody knows how – we’ve been planted somewhere in the middle of Germany almost four hundred years ago. With no way back.

It seems like this passage might soon occupy that special place in China’s heart once reserved for a line from the underrated Prince of Darkness:

Nothing anywhere ever should be able to do what it is doing.

***

China’s taste in movies is a bit hit-and-miss.

He’s right about Prince of Darkness – it is underrated. He’s right about Being John Malkovich – the more you think about it the worse it becomes. He’s right about Donnie Darko – it is a little too knowing for its own good. And he’s right about Daredevil – even it if was identical in every other respect, it would have been massively improved by casting Eric Stoltz instead of Ben Affleck.

But he will insist on the genius of the first five minutes of X-Men.

And that Fight Club is a great movie.

***

One of China’s favourite comic book panels is to be found in an old Trigan Empire strip from Look and Learn. It is night-time. On a roof in a city an old man and a young lad are stargazing. Suddenly there is a noise. They both look alarmed.

What was that?

say the old man. The boy replies:

It sounded like a large party of men rushing stealthily down the alley!

***

Last autumn, I was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma. We got home from my first session of chemotherapy about 3.30pm on Friday 15th November. Around 4.00pm the doorbell rang. China and Emma had sent me a huge bouquet of flowers with a hope-it-went-okay kind of message. Later that evening I phoned to thank them, and the first thing China did was apologise in case receiving flowers from a male friend made me feel awkward.

It was a rugged, ironic, manly thing to do; but, in truth, I’d never before received flowers from a male friend and I’d no idea feeling awkward about it was even an option.

***

Perhaps these tidbits, incidents and events will provide a future biographer with things around which to drape some insights into China’s character. But I will leave it to you to decide what it all might mean.

[A sort of sequel piece can be found here.]