Editor's Note: This is a guest piece from a new contributor, Eric Onkenhout. He's an expert in all things pulp and Star Wars and we hope to see more of his work around here. Without further ado, here is his review of pulp classic The Skylark of Space. If you enjoy this, check out Eric's review of Gulliver of Mars.
I’m back again for a review of another science fiction classic. This time I’ll be reviewing The Skylark of Space by Edward E. Smith, who is more commonly known as E. E. (Doc) Smith. E. E. Smith, who could arguably be called the father of space opera, was made famous by his series of books called the Lensman series. However, before he wrote those remarkably influential books, he wrote another set of stories that culminated in a book called The Skylark of Space. Originally published from August-October 1928 by Amazing Stories, The Skylark of Space tells the tale of Richard Seaton and his serendipitous discovery of element “X” which he combines with pure copper to create the first means of space propulsion. When Seaton tries to recreate the event, he fails, only to realize that he is missing a component; a field generated by his rival, Marc “Blackie” DuQuesne’s particle accelerator. Once he realizes this he meets with his millionaire friend, Martin Crane to set up a business.
The Skylark of Space was one of the earliest stories that not only dealt with space travel, but interstellar travel to other planets. This was my first foray into E. E. Smith, and the first thing I noticed right away was the difference in the quality of writing between Smith and my previous reviewee author, Edwin L. Arnold. While Arnold’s writing was pulp fiction on the extreme, Smith’s was toned down just enough to make it much more enjoyable. The difference in skill level between the two is quite drastic. Smith’s writing is not flower-y, but at the same time it still packs a tremendous imagination punch right to the brain.
The version I read, which had a cover price of a whopping .35¢, was the first edition published by Pyramid Books in 1958, with cover art done by Richard Powers (I have to mention the cover art because the cover art for books in this genre is almost as important as what is inside, see Frank Frazetta). This version is slightly different than the original published in 1928 by Amazing Stories. While the original was co-written by Lee Hawkins Garby, with later editions keeping her contributions, by 1958 the story was revised by Smith and almost everything Garby contributed was left out.
As is typical with space opera stoires, bad guys like DuQuesne, are pretty bad. Once DuQuesne learns of their discovery, he teams up with the corrupt World Steal Corporation to sabotage their plans and steal Seaton’s idea. DuQuesne eventually kidnaps the two female characters Dorothy Vaneman and Margaret Spencer. Both of which are romantically linked to the male protagonists, Seaton and Crane, respectively. Once the two figure out what happened, the duo quickly build another ship, eponymously named the Skylark and go after DuQuesne.
In order to find DuQuesne and the girls, who have travelled so far they have left the solar system, Seaton invents an instrument called an “object-compass”, think of it like a cell phone GPS. They find the derelict ship and force DuQuesne to cooperate in order to get back home, to which he agrees. The team eventually finds enough of the element “X” on one Earth-like planet that allows them to travel to another planet called Osnome. During their travels in between, they encounter a being having a disembodied intelligence much like Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation. After Osnome the group lands on Mardonale, where, much like Gulliver and his Martian friends, there is a language conflict. After saving the life of the Emperor, the group is rewarded by being given their own group of slaves, who turn out to be the Royal Family of Kondal. The Crown Prince of Kondal has a machine called the educator which has the capacity to transfer knowledge. This is reminiscent of the telepathic way the Martians taught Gulliver their language in Gulliver of Mars.
As far advanced as this book is for its story and imagination, the gender roles are firmly placed in the early 20th century. While the two male protagonists are smart, athletic, muscular, and in Crane’s case extremely wealthy. Their female counterparts are described as being perfectly proportioned and beautiful. In fact, and I’m paraphrasing, the aliens described them as being perfect specimens of their race.
The Skylark of Space may not be the most well written book, but whatever it lacks in the literary sense, it more than makes up for it in its action and imagination, which for me is more important than anything. If it’s enjoyable (given that it is a bit dated), then it’s a good book. I think one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story was its fast pace and how exciting it was. There were times when I was blown away by how quickly everything was happening, and not even at the detriment at the character building because a lot of that was imbedded in with the dialogue. Another great quality the book has is how Smith incorporated not only elements of space opera, but of spy thrillers and westerns.
I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone interested in the beginnings of space travel in literary form. I am definitely looking forward to reading more by E. E. Smith; I’m starting to wonder why I haven’t read his books earlier. The Skylark of Space has everything one could want from a pulp/science fiction/space opera: Excitement! Adventure! A Jedi may not crave these things, but we sure do.