The Skylark of Space by E. E. “Doc” Smith and Lee Hawkins Garby
One cannot learn about Space Operas without hearing about E.E. “Doc” Smith and Lee Hawkins Garby’s The Skylark of Space. This might not only be one of the earliest examples of the subgenre, but also one of the earliest examples of space travel to other solar systems. It all started with what seemed like a science experiment that would never work and ended in visiting new worlds and meeting new people and, don’t forget, a lot of danger. After all, what would a space opera be if it didn’t have that element as well?
While as far as science fiction, as well as literature in general, goes, The Skylark of Space is showing its age a bit, it was still a very enjoyable read if you keep it in its context. Written in the early part of the 1900’s it is truly remarkable for its time. The plot and action of the story is largely experienced through character dialogue, which can be a bit unbelievable and elicit an eye roll or two from someone reading it now. After all, the main characters are more than perfect, so they always have the answers whether through their complete knowledge of the subject or by lucky coincidence.
If you’re a die hard feminist, I wouldn’t read this, as gender roles are very much depicted as they were then. The technology might be imaginative and before its time, but not all ideas were progressive. Dorothy and Margaret, while at times showing bravery in the face of danger with Dorothy stealing guns from her kidnappers and turning them on them at one point, are still largely shown as relying very much on the men in their lives. Margaret’s background has her kidnapped and tortured for information, which she is strong enough to withstand and not divulge, but she has shaky knees at other points when she has a man to lean on. Physically they are of course perfectly proportioned, beautiful, and perfect devoted matches for their men. Not to mention they can make a mean sandwich in space.
The men, Seaton and Crane, are of course perfect examples of the male half of the human population. In fact all four (not including the evil DuQuesne… although he is of course a crack shot and big and strong as well) are described as being the height of evolution by the alien race the Kondalians on the planet Osnome. Seaton is incredibly intelligent, very good looking and muscular, a sharp shooter, and more. His best friend Crane is exceedingly rich, has amazing engineering skills, and has all of the resources his friend could possibly need to create their space ship.
As with all space opera, the bad guys are of course really bad. Mark DuQuesne not only steals Seaton’s idea, but with the World Steel Corporation, an evil organization at heart, sabotages the dynamic duo’s plans. Sent defective parts, our two heroes are of course too smart for their own good and have discovered the (evil) scientist’s involvement with the evil organization and managed to create a ship secretly while still appearing to be creating the Skylark out of defective parts. After leaving Earth, the girls are kidnapped, and our heroes have to fly to their rescue. Almost being sucked into a dead star, our heroes and our evil villain have to find a way home.
After a few perilous stops, one which provided them with more of the component X which helped fuel their craft, they find the planet of Osnome. At first they land in Mardonale where they are treated as guests but cannot understand the language of the people living there. By lucky chance they had been provided with slaves after saving the life of the Emperor, and those slaves happen to be of the royal family of Kondal. Both cultures have amazing mechanical ability and the use of electricity. The Crowned Prince of Kondal has a machine that he calls the educator, with which he transfers knowledge of his language to our four heroes.
Throughout their terrifying and magnificent adventures they experience aliens, some friendly but most evil and have to be outwitted and dealt with. The technology Smith comes up with, including a watch that essentially works as a cell phone to The Skylark itself is quite a bit before its time. When you look at that, it is quite impressive. It was clearly written as a pulp, but it is also all space opera. I would easily recommend this to anyone interested in the foundations of not just space opera but science fiction as well. It’s a fun read… nowhere near literature, but a quick read. If you like your heroes smart, witty, athletic, and ultimately the height of “good” and your villains dark, evil, and nefarious, this is the book for you.
“There’s only one possible name for her, The Skylark.”