The Skylark of Space is frequently called the first Space Opera. Whether it is or not probably depends on how you define “space opera,” and even then it will be subject to debate. Certainly some of the works of Burroughs, Wells, and Verne contain elements of space opera; we could probably argue forever about what divides “space opera” from “scientific romance.”
We do know that The Skylark of Space was the first novel by E. E. “Doc” Smith, with the collaboration of (Mrs.) Lee Garby (because he wanted to get the female parts right). It was written during the period of 1915 and 1920, rejected by Argosy in 1922, and picked up by Hugo Gernsback for publication in Amazing Stories in 1928. At the time Gernsback called it, “the greatest interplanetarian and space flying story that has appeared this year…The story is chock full, not only of excellent science, but woven through it there is also that very rare element, love and romance.” Gernsback apologizes for blowing the story’s horn so vigorously, but blow it he does. It’s clear he was thrilled to get it. And by that time Gernsback had been editing Amazing for two years and editing magazines for twenty, and he knew a story that was fresh and new when he saw it.
For the purposes of this essay I read the version of Skylark uploaded to Project Gutenberg, which is the version published in Amazing. It is almost certainly abridged from the paperback edition, and there is always the question of how much “editorial assistance” the story got. For the record, Gernsback has a bad reputation as a businessman, but there seem to be few complaints that he had a heavy hand with the blue pencil.
The Gutenberg version also includes Gernsback’s comments at the start of each of the serialized sections.
Richard Seaton, genius and all around All-American fellow, is at his day job with the Bureau of Standards when he accidentally discovers what we might now call “cold fission;” he annihilates metallic copper by catalyzing it with Element X, an element outside the Periodic table that he has been analyzing. By releasing the intra-atomic force, he can create untold amounts of power.
Another scientist, Marc DuQuesne, who is almost equally brilliant scientist but completely amoral chap who is secretly in the employ of “Big Steel,” a trust that desires to control all the power sources of the U. S. learn of Seaton’s breakthrough. “Big Steel” obviously wants control of Seaton’s discovery, and so they unleash the full panoply of dirty deeds to obtain a small quantity of Element X.
Both parties soon realize that unlimited power will allow space flight. Seaton and his best friend, the inventor and millionaire Martin Reynolds Crane, begin to build a spacecraft. By cornering the area’s supply of copper and sabotaging the metals used in the Seaton-Crane ship Big Steel manages to get their spaceship built first; DuQuesne gets the task of getting his hands on the rest of the X, and he carries out a plan that involves kidnapping Seaton’s fiancee, Dorothy Vaneman, and setting off in his spaceship, not knowing that the Forces of Good have planted a “object-compass” on his person, allowing them to detect what direction he is in from any distance.
Seaton and Crane immediately (literally days later) complete a larger, more powerful spaceship that they christen the “Skylark,” and set off in pursuit.
DuQuesne (and also his henchman, Perkins, and Perkins’s kidnap victim, Margaret “Peggy” Spencer) have, through the plucky actions of Vaneman, fallen into an orbit around a distant star whose gravity well that they cannot escape. Seaton and Crane track them down, liberate the women, and strike a deal with DuQuesne: so long as they are in space he is to work with them. He agrees, warning that all bets are off on the return to Earth. (Perkins, in the mean time, has been killed by DuQuesne in self-defense.)
By using almost all the fuel in the Skylark they are able to break away from the star trapping them, but this leaves them hurtling across the cosmos at speeds of dozens of lightyears an hour, knocked unconscious by the tremendous acceleration. Seaton awakens first and is able to stop the Skylark, but now they must replenish their supply of copper before they can return.
They arrive at a planet that possesses both copper and the very useful element X. Unfortunately, the planet’s fauna is vicious, and it is inhabited by a being possessed of mental powers so advanced that he decides to dematerialize the Skylark crew for being an insufficient mental challenge; given a head start, they manage to escape, along with a substantial supply of X.
Still in need in of fuel, they select a star system because its star shows green in its spectrum, indicating a high proportion of copper. Finding planet Osnome, they arrive to see a convoy of air battleships being attacked by fearsome flying beasts which the Skylark crew fights off, earning the good will of Nalboon of Mardonale. Nalboon, though, is a bad man who keeps his captured enemies as slaves; one of them, Dunark, proves to be the Kofedix, or Crown Prince, of Mardonale’s rival nation on Osnome, Kondal. Dunark builds a device that allows him to exchange memories with Seaton. Knowing what Dunark knows (and having learned his language), Seaton tells the others that Kondal is the victim and Mardonale the enslaver; they use their X-powered hand weapons to escape to the Kondal city of Kondalek.
In Kondalek the Skylark people are honored as guests. They supply the Kondallans with a locally rare compound very useful to them, salt, and are appointed to high rank. While there, Seaton and Vaneman, and Crane and Spencer are married by the customs of Kondal.
Good times in Kondalek are interrupted when the Mardonale fleet of air battleships attacks the city. With great effort the Skylark and her crew destroy the Mardonale fleet. They are honored by the Kondal and richly rewarded with jewels unique to Osnome, a hold full of platinum (which Seaton and Grant vow to use for scientific purposes), and all the copper they need to refuel the Skylark.
The Skylark returns to Earth where DuQuesne, true to his word (and having also been made wealthy enough by the Kondallans to free himself from Big Steel), bails out of the Skylark at 30,000 feet, neatly setting up a sequel.
In fairness, it has to be said that Seaton and Grant are as Mary Sue as they could be. Seaton is the most brilliant scientist at the Bureau of Standards; he is straightforward and a complete Boy Scout, even to the point where he is trusted completely alone with a woman to whom he is only engaged. (Remember, this was a century ago!) He is also both a dead shot and also a quick draw expert with a hand gun. In the Skylark he is the last to pass out from gee forces and the first to recover, and he is clearly the alpha male of the crew.
Grant is independently wealthy and a brilliant inventor. He is Bruce Wayne with a manservant named Shiro instead of Alfred and no cape. His only flaw is that he is shy with women. Together Grant and Seaton are also the doubles tennis champions of Washington, D.C., in a day when the only professional sport was baseball. In other words, they are also among the greatest athletes of the world.
Marc DuQuesne is interesting in two ways. First, he is a classic 1920’s bad man direct from Central Casting: he has black hair, a black beard, heavy black eyebrows, and dark skin (although he is not African-American); his nickname is “Blackie.” All he needs is a black cowboy hat to complete the stereotype.
But he also has two other characteristics. He is highly intelligent, almost as brilliant as Seaton himself. And he is a complete pragmatist. He makes no bones about the fact that he will do anything that advances his own interests, including murder and kidnapping, without compunction. His finest characteristic is that his word is his bond. When he and the others are trying to survive against hostile environments, he fights fiercely by their sides. When they return to Earth, he escapes.
Dorothy Vaneman is no shrinking violet. She is intelligent and loving, holds a Ph. D. in music, and is a virtuoso upon the violin. Peggy Spencer has been gathering evidence against Big Steel, in revenge for their mistreatment of her father, by posing as a secretary. Of her it is said that not only is she an expert stenographer, she is also, “One of the best looking women in Washington.” The women are not fainters and rarely screamers. But when the chips are down, the boys do the dirty work.
Of the aliens, only the unnamed mental entity is noticeably “not like us,” and he serves as a reminder that it’s a big universe out there and we might not be top dogs. The Skylark and her crew escape only because they outwit him in a game he permits them to play for his amusement; if he had been less bored, they would have been dematerialized (and the story would have ended prematurely).
It has to be remembered that “Doc” Smith had a Ph. D. in Chemistry, completed in 1918 while The Skylark of Space was still being drafted. (He, too, worked at the Bureau of Standards, so the setting of the start was known to him.) He had a thorough grounding in science generally and chemistry specifically, and so the science in this “science fiction” (or “scientifiction,” as Gernsback preferred) is a melange of real chemistry, current thinking of the day, and fantasies that allowed the momentum of the story to keep going.
For instance, Smith is well aware of the value of catalysis. Element X catalyzes the cold fission reactions, he mentions the value of platinum as a catalyst rather than as an element in jewelry (As anyone who has taken Organic Chemistry can attest!) several times, and has the residents of Osnome use salt as a catalyst in their chemical reactions.
He also has Seaton think like a scientist. Upon making his new discovery he has Seaton discover the nature of the cold fission reaction and the rules governing its use. And he does the same for the reader: on Osnome, the copper-rich system, the Skylark crew are faced with dealing with lighting conditions unlike those of Earth. Smith tries to covey the strangeness of everyday things not looking the same as they would under the yellowish light of Sol.
Yes, some of the science is dated. Smith clearly understands the implications of E=mc^2, and the energy release upon the annihilation of matter is what drives Skylark. When DuQuesne’s ship accelerates out of sight to speeds much higher than that of light in violation of Einsteinian thought, Seaton says, “Another good theory gone to pot,” while DuQuesne observes, “I never could see how mass could be a function of velocity, and now I am convinced that it is not.” Fair enough. In the late teens and early twenties, Einstein’s ideas were simply theoretical; no one had the means to test them.
Then there are the points from the realm of the fantastic. The “object-compass” appears to work at any distance with time lag that indicates distance. No one seems to have noted that the time lag for hundreds of millions of miles would be millions of times longer than the time lag for a hundred miles. Element X is described as being outside the Periodic Table, but the arrangement of the Periodic Table can encompass any element with a whole number of protons in its nucleus. The Osnomic peoples, as above, have a chemistry based on catalysis by sodium chloride (which is probably too easily broken down to make a successful catalyst).
And then there are the points that are just plain wrong. On Osnome, for instance, hundreds of light years from Earth, it is said that the watches of Seaton and Grant are synchronized to signals from the national observatory. Um…radio signals? When DuQuesne kidnaps Vaneman, the object-compass places their distance at 350,000,000 miles, which Crane describes as, “…Clear out of our solar system…” Sorry, Martin. You’re a nice guy and all, but that’s still inside the orbit of Jupiter.
It has to be noted that The Skylark of Space is very much a product of its time. The major antagonist, Big Steel, is a cartel bent on the economic domination of the nation, and possibly the world; there is no act…murder, kidnapping, theft…too low for it to do toward that end. President (Teddy) Roosevelt’s attacks on the large corporations stifling growth in the US were a part of Smith’s childhood (he was ten when Roosevelt was sworn in), as were the break-ups of the railroads and Standard Oil. The trust busting spirit was still very alive in the advocacy of writers like Upton Sinclair during the same time that Skylark was being written.
Despite, or perhaps because of Mrs. Garby’s contributions, gender role boundaries are very strong. The women, Vaneman and Spencer, are said to be as accomplished in their ways as Seaton and Grant are in theirs, and Vaneman has even studied some physics, but when Seaton starts to describe some equations to her she tells him to stop. (I would have, too. The math was gibberish.) The men do the fighting and the women tell them how wonderful they are. There are strong social biases against unmarried couples sharing living quarters, and they even refer to the fictive Mrs. Grundy, the prude whose tongue will wag if they do, no matter how innocently.
There is one minority character, Grant’s Japanese valet Shiro, whom Grants describes as “…really my friend instead of my man…,” but Shiro gets exactly one line in the book, and misses out on the excitement (although there is a room and galley designed for him in the Skylark) when he takes a bullet to the head while Vaneman is being kidnapped. (Shiro is only grazed, and is up on his feet in a few days. Perhaps he will have a greater role in the sequel.) Although called “Blackie,” DuQuesne is a white man; there are “colored” people who do the cooking and cleaning off-stage.
It’s also worth noting that both nations on Osnome practice slavery. Even in Kondal a lesser race serves the Kodefix and his people.
I am not one of those reviewers who puts thoughts into the minds of writers because of what they speculate about in their books. The Skylark of Space is both ahead of its time and a product of its time. Readers who are offended by the beliefs of 1920 should probably avoid it.
Dated though it is, The Skylark of Space was meant to be a ripping good yarn and it is. In the serialized version I read, it breaks naturally into three parts. The first installment covers the conflict between Seaton and Grant on one side and the nefarious activities of Big Steel in trying to steal their secrets, and this section is almost a True Crime story.
The start of the second installment describes the chase after DuQuesne and their escape from the star which has trapped DuQuesne’s ship. The parallels with the horse opera genre that led to stories like this being described as space operas are clear; Seaton and Grant might as well be wearing white hats and brandishing six shooters. But before the end of the installment they have evaded the creature with the powerful mind and made their way to Osnome, where they come to the court of Nalboon.
The finale brings the breakout from Nalboon’s court, the alliance with Dunark, a side trip to try and capture one of the flying beasts that beset the planet, fighting off Nalboon’s fleet, the weddings of Seaton to Vaneman and Grant to Spencer, and the return to Earth. Whew! Not much action there!
The Skylark of Space might be the first space opera, but it’s also a classic space opera. The Skylark roars across lightyears, the speed of light long forgotten in its wake, firing weapons that are actually miniature atomic bombs at gigantic bug-eyed monsters. Her stalwart crew outsmarts the intellectual and outfights the belligerent. And at the end, we’re ready for a sequel, and so were Amazing’s readers: Skylark III (the sequel) was purchased before the run of The Skylark of Space was finished.
Park your disbelief at the door, strap in, and go along for the ride!