The Skylark of Space is a science fiction novel. It is generally held to be the first example of Space Opera. It was written by E.E. "Doc" Smith, and offers one of the first stories of travel between star systems.

It is a hell of a good time.

In it, hairy-chested Men of Science(tm) do battle with debonair, ruthless Evil Men of Science; with the laws of physics, and with aliens - some of whom, yes, are even green, although they aren't from Mars.

The book offers a relatively 'hard science' approach to storytelling - hard science, that is, within the bounds of knowledge when it was written. Doc Smith wrote it while studying for his Ph.D and during his first years on the job, betwen 1915 and 1921. It wasn't published until 1928, when it was serialized in the magazine Amazing Stories by Hugo Gernsback. Years later, in 1946, a collected and bound edition was published by The Buffalo Book Company, featuring cover art which included a pretty girl, laboratory glassware, a Scientist(tm) wearing a natty lab coat and smoking pistols.

Yep, that covers it well.

Some spoilers ahead, so beware. Our Hero, a chemist named Dick Seaton, is working with a heretofore unknown metal when he discovers some of its amazing properties. Notably, if combined with copper and subjected to a particular form of electricity and particle acceleration, this new metal (element X, when referenced early on) converts part of the mass of the copper from matter directly to energy - and not just any energy, but kinetic energy, producing acceleration. Seaton observes this when the lab container he is using to hold the mixture accelerates straight out the window and out of sight, heading for space at a tangent to the Earth's surface.

What is a man of Science to do?

Well, duh. Build a starship, of course, and power it with this new discovery!

So Seaton resigns from his institute, acquires the remaining store of Element X via a somewhat-dubious scheme, and with his partner (multi-millionaire smart analyst Martin Crane), sets out to build a 'space car' to take them to the stars. Unbeknownst to them, however, another scientist from the Institute, the nearly equally smart and entirely unprincipled Marc DuQuesne, has guessed what Element X does - and he wants it, too. He builds a spacecraft first and kidnaps Seaton's girl, but she fights back and damages the controls - and his spacecraft takes off like the proverbial bullet, forcing Seaton and Crane to pursue at top speed.

And they're off. Waving away the then-brand-new Einsteinian speed limit by simply observing that 'it's a theory, and it appears to be wrong' (basically) their vessel (named Skylark by Seaton's fiance, Dorothy Vaneman) tears off across the galaxy in pursuit. Along the way they'll find new supplies of Element X, giant monsters, telepathic beings, and meddle in a planetwide war to the death between alien races - and that's just the start!

Dick Seaton is the quintessential (indeed, almost the prototypical) pulp sci-fi hero. He is principled, smart, a scientist, and happens also to be good at bareknuckle fighting and even better with pistols, with which he is a champion. He is honorable, and doesn't stick at interfering in situations where he thinks things aren't going the way they should - all the way up to and including fighting in remote wars to the benefit of one side or another. Suck on that, Federation Prime Directive pantywaists.

Although the slang and some of the terminology is dated enough to make this a sometimes bemusing read ("Say, you're a blinding flash and a deafening report, ace!") at least the story isn't entirely a sausage party. Doc Smith, worried that he couldn't write dialog involving women (um...can't imagine why...Ph.D, chemist, sci-fi nerd in the 1920s...yeah...) enlisted the help of his next-door neighbor and college classmate's wife Lee Hawkins Garby to handle the softer side (for they are such, in this book - delightfully so. Remember, these are MEN! of SCIENCE!).

Skylark was immensely popular after publication, and has remained in intermittent publication ever since. It can be found for free (and legal) download on Project Gutenberg here, if you're curious. I recommend you be curious. If you like it, there are three sequels - Skylark Three, Skylark of Valeron, and Skylark Duquesne - and that's just the tip of the Doc Smith iceberg.

Iron Noder 2010

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