The Book: The Skylark of Space by Edward E. Smith. Originally published as a serial in 1928, the edition read was published by Pyramid Books in 1958.
The Setting: Earth, Outerspace, Planet Osnome
The Story: A brilliant scientist, Richard Seaton, from humble beginnings accidentally discovers the secret of space travel. His arch-nemesis, De Quesne, steals it from him and kidnaps his girl into DEEP SPACE. Seaton and his millionaire best friend, Martin Crane, set off to rescue the girl. They do, narrowly escaping a black hole at the far reaches of the universe. They also rescue De Quesne and another dame he’d kidnapped. They team up, reluctantly, and try to get home to earth, for which they need more copper. They try a few planets, encountering only terrible danger. They find a copper bearing planet with inhabitants suspiciously like Barsoomian red men except kind of greenish, beat the bad guys, marry the girls, and become Overlords of the planet. Then they make it make to Earth just fine. But super rich from jewels and stuff.
The Science: The author is actually a Ph.D in chemical engineering, so there’s a lot of science in this book. How much of it is good science… I don’t know.
- Space travel: Seaton discovers the mechanism for space travel by accident. There’s this element X, you see, found by accident. He’s examining it and put some into solution. When he went to throw it out, the solution sloshed over the side of its copper tub and the tub accidentally came into contact with some electric current and then… it busted out through the wall. Small bits of copper wire had the same result. Turns out, a machine in the next room was the key, in addition to the solution of X and the electricity. The X somehow turned the copper into pure energy, no radiation by products. So naturally, into space they go! Honestly, I have no idea if something like this is feasible. I mean, I kind of doubt it. Especially since it relies on Chemical Element X, only ever found on Earth once. But it works well enough for a plot device for the story. It’s a hell of a reaction – complete transfer of matter to energy. Certainly nothing we’re even close to achieving on earth.
- Otherworldly food: One thing I really appreciated in this book is that, when invited to a feast on a planet very different than their own, the human protagonists (geniuses, all, except for the women who are merely spunky and fast learners) have the presence of mind to examine the food and determine if it will kill them or not. It will. How exactly they can tell, I’m not sure, but it’s a good effort. Later, the aliens make them food they can eat, something which is not fully explained. But, in so many books, humans eat whatever they find and it very rarely disagrees with them, much less poisons them.
- Education machines: At one point, an alien prince rigs up a learning machine MacGyver style in order to teach the humans how to speak. And, accidentally, he imprints his entire brain on Seaton, and Seaton’s brain imprints on the alien. But it’s cool – their normal brains are still there, they just have bonus knowledge. An education helmet is a pretty classic science fiction idea, as are education pills. At this point in time, the brain is still a very mysterious thing, so a machine to imprint knowledge is pretty much not gonna happen. However, science is reaching a point where it knows what you’re thinking. I’m not kidding. It’s pretty crazy.
The Reaction: I tried to read this book once before. The prose is…. not so good. Smith has this unfortunate habit of not really fleshing everything out – I kept having to go back to try and figure out what was happening or why it was happening, and not finding an answer. Once I got past the prose, I hit the misogyny. Sure, the broads are spunky, but the men are always amazed at their spunk and the women are always off dressing up and making sandwiches for the men somewhere out of scene. I can assign it as a function of the times and the genre – the main characters in this book are hyper-idealized; the men are manly and the women are beautiful and good at making sandwiches. Or something. Anyway, I guess it’s a classic and one of the first space operas and all, but… I’m not inclined to be at all interested in reading this again.
The Cover: Cover art by Richard Powers. The cover (what hasn’t been damaged) shows a super cool, kind of organic-y building and a couple of flying spaceships, of which I assume one is meant to be the Skylark (that’s the name of the spaceship, by the way). Problem is, the Skylark is just a great big sphere. But that wouldn’t look nearly as awesome. So I’m okay with the cover. In fact, I kind of love it.
Up Next: A Fighting Man of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.