Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Monsters




     Now what would The Odyssey be without its monsters? The Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens – all have been solace to generations of school children who otherwise might have been bored silly by the prospect of having been forced to study some dull old Greek myth... for who doesn’t love reading about Odysseus’s battles with them?


     Having escaped the clutches of the dead sun, Seaton and his fellow travelers find their spacecraft’s fuel sadly depleted after the titanic struggle against the star’s massive gravitational field. They have no hope of returning to Earth without first procuring a new supply. And so begins a planet-hopping search for more copper. What follows is a delightful series of stand-alone vignettes – independent adventures presented in serial fashion.

     The first world our travelers encounter is home to a deceptively pretty landscape of lush green meadows and dense forest, with no animal life in sight as they touch down. The significance of this, Mankind’s first landing on an alien planet, is not lost on Seaton. “A strange world,” he murmurs in awe. Margaret (the other kidnapping victim, of whom we are beginning to see more and more) breathes out “Columbus at San Salvador.” The entire party sets out to explore.


     But they don’t get far before they must rush back to the safety of the Skylark. “The scene, so quiet a few moments before, was instantly changed. The trees, the swamp, and the air seemed filled with monsters so hideous as to stagger the imagination. Winged lizards of prodigious size hurtled through the air … Indescribable flying monsters, with feathers like birds, but with the fangs of tigers, attacked viciously … a scorpion-like thing with a body ten feet in length … a huge spider – if an eight legged creature, with spines instead of hair, many-faceted eyes, and a bloated, globular body weighing hundreds of pounds, may be called a spider … several twelve foot cockroaches … an indescribable monstrosity of that reptilian age which apparently combined the nature and disposition of Tyrannosaurus Rex with the physical shape of the saber-tooth tiger…” and so forth.

     (Digression: Smith often lapses into using terms as we see in the above paragraph, such as “to stagger the imagination” or “indescribable” (used twice!). One might be tempted to dismiss this as merely evidence of Smith’s undeniably great flaws as a writer, but I think there is something more significant here. Smith is taking us into a realm outside of all human experience, and quite literally lacks the vocabulary to express himself adequately. It could well be that the most effective way of portraying this to the reader is to simply label what we are encountering as “indescribable”.)

     Fortunately, unlike Odysseus’s experience with the monster Scylla, Seaton does not lose a tithe of his fellow travelers to this fantastical bestiary. Foiled by the armored hull of the Skylark, the monsters are ultimately content to devour each other before our heroes’ horrified gaze.

     The next world they come to is dispatched in two brief sentences (“Soon they were approaching another planet, which was surrounded by a dense fog. Descending slowly, they found it to be a mass of boiling-hot steam and rank vapors, under enormous pressure.”), and the third almost as casually (“The next planet they found to have a clear atmosphere, but the earth had a peculiar, barren look; and analysis of the gaseous envelope proved it to be composed almost entirely of chlorine. No life of an earthly type could be possible on such a world, and a search for copper, even with the suits and helmets, would probably be fruitless if not impossible.”)


     Now at first I was a bit disappointed at Smith’s apparent short changing of these two all-too-briefly described yet nevertheless intriguing worlds. I felt he could have fleshed them out to great effect. But upon further thought I realized that we have here one of the many, many instances where Smith proves to be a far better writer than his natural talents can account for. For this practically tossing off of strange planets fulfills exactly the same function as the middle three movements to Gustav Mahler’s titanic Seventh Symphony. That is, they provide space for and accentuate the gravitas of the two massive bookends to that symphony, the first and last movements. For we now come to the next, and climactic, planet in our heroes’ search for enough fuel to return home.


     Like the first, monster-filled world, our travelers’ initial impression is one of tranquil beauty. But instead of the Sylvan seeming paradise of lawn and forest, they find themselves descending over “a large and imposing city in the middle of a vast, level, beautifully-planted plain.” However, it quickly proves itself to be an illusion conjured up by an entity of pure thought and tremendous power, a being capable of manipulating matter in ways undreamed of by creatures of mere flesh and blood. Seaton and his companions are in short order in a danger far, far greater than that posed by the dead sun. For that was a simple matter of applying sufficient force to overcome a deterministic threat. Now they are up against a will – one determined to “dematerialize” his unwelcome visitors. It takes all of Seaton’s ingenuity and skill to get them out of this mess (no spoilers here – I’ll let the reader discover how for himself).


A "Monster from the Id" in Forbidden Planet

     Together, the first and final planets are a perfect contrast. The first is mindless brutality – animal against animal (the very meaning of the word "brutality"). The fourth is something far more menacing – the combination of physical power with an active and hostile will. (Interesting how Smith uses the vision of a City to introduce us to this latter theme.) Smith will return to this idea in a context of far greater significance and astonishing (for Smith, that is) applicability to our own lives, in the third novel of the series, Skylark of Valeron.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Charybdis



     “In hideous fashion, fiendish Charybdis sucked the salt water in. When she spewed it forth, she seethed and swirled through all her depths like a cauldron set on a great fire, and overhead the spray fell down on the tops of the two rocks. But when she sucked the sea-water in, one might look right down through the swirling eddy while the rock roared hideously around her and the sea-floor came to view, dark and sandy. Ashy terror seized on the crew. We had looked her way with the fear of death upon us.”


     As in some cheesy silent movie, with the heroine tied to the railroad tracks while a train is roaring down at full speed, to be rescued only at the last possible second by her lover, Dorothy Vaneman is saved from the clutches for “Blackie” DuQuesne just minutes before plunging to her doom, caught in the inexorable clutches of a black hole.


     Now Smith didn’t use the terminology “black hole” – such things were yet to become part of the astronomer’s lexicon. He called it a dead sun. Having come to their senses after their wildly accelerating flight due to Perkin’s fall onto the control panel, DuQuesne turns his ship around and starts to head back toward Earth. But unseen in his path lies a monster, a dead sun with a tremendous gravitational field – so great that his spacecraft’s engines lack the strength to escape its pull. Were not Seaton and Crane hot on his tail in a far larger and more powerful ship, they would surely have been doomed. In yet another cosmic coincidence, the rescuers arrive in the nick of time, saving not only Dorothy, but her kidnapper and another young woman who had been a prisoner of the by now dead Perkins.

     This entire episode is a good example of how serious Smith was about the “science” in his story. It was well thought out, fully integral to and integrated into the plot, and stretched the imaginations of his 1928 audience. This was truly cutting edge stuff, and Smith was just getting started!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Helen of Troy




     The Trojan War began with the abduction of a woman, i.e., of Helen of Sparta by Paris of Ilium. The Goddess of Discord, miffed at not being invited to a feast in Olympus (Now be reasonable – who in their right mind would invite discord to a party?) in retaliation rolled a golden apple into the assembled deities, labeled “To the Fairest”. Of course, all the Goddesses were sure the apple was meant for them, but only three were powerful enough to make their case before Zeus – Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Possessed of infinite wisdom as he was, Zeus was NOT about to fall for that trap, so he instructed the three lovelies to present themselves before the mortal Paris, who would judge between them.


 The Judgement of Paris, by Henri Pierre Picou

     So off they went. Not wishing to leave things to chance, and definitely not trusting the judgement of this foolish mortal, each of the Goddesses decided to bribe Paris in hopes of his deciding in her favor. Hera offered to make Paris the King of the World, while Athena would bestow upon him wisdom and skill in all his endeavors. Aphrodite, however, knew the surest way to a man’s heart and promised Paris the most beautiful woman on Earth to be his bride. Apparently without the slightest hesitation, Paris awarded the apple to Aphrodite.


The Rape of Helen, by Francesco Primaticcio

     There was, however, only one tiny little, almost too insignificant to mention, problem. (Isn’t there always?) The most beautiful woman in the world was already the wife of Menelaus of Sparta. And although Aphrodite had technically offered Helen to Paris, she seems to have done nothing to actually procure her for him. He had to abduct her himself, and drag her by force off to Troy. What follows is, as Paul Harvey used to say, “The Rest of the Story”…

     In like manner, the action proper in The Skylark of Space begins in earnest with the kidnapping of Dorothy Vaneman, fiancĂ©e to Dick Seaton. Stymied in his first attempts to gain a monopoly over Seaton’s discoveries, DuQuesne decides on “indirect action”. That is, he will kidnap Dorothy, spirit her away in a duplicate of Seaton’s spaceship, and hold her for ransom – the ransom being sole possession of everything Seaton and Crane have learned about the mysterious Metal of Power and its applications to industry and weaponry. And so he does, and everything goes precisely according to plan… for about the first 15 seconds or so.


Not Dorothy Vaneman, but definitely captures what must have been 
Dorothy's mood at being hauled off  by DuQuesne.
("Helen of Troy" by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys)
 
     Dorothy, in her struggles to avoid being tied up by DuQuesne’s henchman Perkins, kicks him straight into the spaceship’s control panel, causing his body to by chance drive the acceleration lever all the way to its maximum setting. The resultant extreme G-force causes everyone to black out, and before you know it they are hopelessly lost in interstellar space, hundreds of light years from the Earth.

     Naturally, Seaton and Crane set off in hot pursuit, and the greatest adventure ever imagined by anyone, ever, anywhere (or at least until 1928) begins.