Saturday, October 22, 2016

Loose Ends

     DuQuesne tightened the control of the attractors, which had never been entirely released from their prisoner, thus again pinning the Fenachrone helplessly against the wall.

     "Just to be sure you don't try to start something," he explained coldly. "You have done well so far, but I'll run things myself from now on, so that you can't steer us into a trap. Now tell me exactly how to go about getting one of your vessels. After we get it, I'll see about letting you go."

     "Fools, you are too late! You would have been too late, even had you killed me out there in space and had fled at your utmost acceleration. Did you but know it, you are as dead, even now—our patrol is upon you!

     "DuQuesne whirled, snarling, and his automatic and that of Loring were leaping out when an awful acceleration threw them flat upon the floor, a magnetic force snatched away their weapons and a heat-beam reduced them to two small piles of gray ash.
                                                                 (Skylark Three, Chapter 13)

     Among the times when I most feel old is when I think about the movies I used to watch on Saturday afternoon television as a kid. Among the cheesy Westerns and (now embarrassingly racist) Tarzan features, as often as not those innocent days’ fare would include a silent movie or two. My own daughters were at first incredulous when I told them this, but just think about it. In the late 1950s, the last days of the Silent Era was were not more than 20 years ago. It would be like watching Independence Day or Jerry Maguire today – not so remarkable. Top Gun and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off were further in the future than Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights were in the past to that young Bobby Prokop watching poor Nell being tied to railroad tracks by the mustachioed villain, with an onrushing train in the distance and our dashing hero nowhere in sight.

     Another bit of standard fare in those simpler times was the serial. Every week we’d be treated to our heroes ending up in some improbable fix with no apparent way to escape. A common “cheat” was to actually show their catastrophic demise, such as the airplane they’re in crashing into a mountainside in the last seconds of one episode, only for the next episode to reveal them safely bailing out just before the fiery explosion.

     Which is exactly how Smith handles his villain, “Blackie” DuQuesne, near the end of Skylark Three. Anxious to wrap up the story (which was apparently approaching the word limit dictated by his publishers) and nowhere close to resolving the many and intricate plot threads surrounding DuQuesne’s epic space voyage, Smith simply kills him off in four short sentences. Done. In fact, it happens so fast that I can easily imagine someone skimming the October 1930 issue of Amazing Stories and missing his demise altogether.

     (This, by the way, would by no means be the last time Smith would use such a plot device. The endings to Galactic Patrol, Gray Lensman, and Second Stage Lensmen all end with the “bad guys” all-too-abruptly being defeated… only to reappear in the next novel with ever greater powers and more threatening than ever.)

     But just like in those old time serials, we learn in the opening pages of Skylark of Valeron that DuQuesne and Loring were not killed at all, no matter what was printed in the preceding novel. Smith spends no less than four full chapters of Skylark of Valeron in rewinding the reel and showing the reader what really happened during those four deceptive sentences quoted above, before proceeding with the story. Suffice to say for our purposes here that Duquesne remains alive and a potent threat to the safety, and indeed the lives, of Seaton and company.

Saturday, October 1, 2016


“Loosing a savage cry, the long-enduring great Odysseus, gathering all his force, swooped like a soaring eagle – just as the son of Cronus hurled a reeking bolt that fell at her feet, the mighty Father’s daughter, and blazing-eyed Athena wheeled on Odysseus, crying, “Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, master of exploits, hold back now! Call a halt to the great leveler, War – don’t court the rage of Zeus who rules the world!”

So she commanded. He obeyed her, glad at heart. And Athena handed down her pacts of peace between both sides for all the years to come – the daughter of Zeus whose shield is storm and thunder.
                                                          (The Odyssey, Book 24, Lines 590-601)

     The closing lines of The Odyssey have long perplexed scholars, students, and even casual readers of that great work. They seem all too abrupt, almost as though they aren’t really part of the original poem. Speculation has abounded through the centuries about “lost endings” or pastiche composition. Some deny their Homeric authorship altogether. Others go so far as to regard them as evidence that there never was a “Homer” at all, and that the epic is the work of many hands assembled over a space of generations.

     Do not count me amongst the doubters. I have always regarded the ending to The Odyssey as sheer perfection, and entirely fitting to its context. A bit of contrast with the closing scene of Skylark Three will show you what I mean.

     Odysseus has finally rid his house of the plague of suitors - by slaughtering them. 
But the relatives of the slain gather to wreak vengeance upon the House of Laertes. Odysseus alongside his son beat off the assault, and prepare to exterminate their whole tribe. (“They would have killed them all.”) But without the least preamble, in step the Gods, putting an instantaneous end to the conflict and establishing peace “for all the years to come”.

     Bam! Just like that. One moment - seemingly endless carnage and death. The next - peace, love, and tie-dye. It happens so fast (I've quoted the full text at the top of this posting), the reader is left with an impression not unlike that of a pilot who’s overshot the runway.

     But let’s leave Odysseus, apparently “glad at heart” (for the moment) now that the blood feud is ended, and check in with Seaton and company, who have by no means been idle. We left them forging an irresistible weapon of war in the heart of a white dwarf star (a smithy Hephaestus himself would have envied), preparing to rain terror upon the militaristic Fenachrone. I won’t spend much time on the next several chapters, which are basically one, long catalog of death and destruction that sickens even our steely hero. Seaton’s technological superiority in battle was now so overwhelming that he likened the ensuing war to “pushing baby chickens into a creek” or, in another place, to “drowning baby kittens” (a curious similarity in images there, by the way). The one-sided conflict concludes with the literal blowing up of the Fenachrone home planet and the death of every last man, woman, and child of that race.

     And so one might think that to be the end. Seaton certainly thought so, until he learned that a single boatload of Fenachrone survivors had escaped the destruction of their world, and were fleeing the very galaxy itself, headed for parts unknown. Does he say “Good riddance!”? Does he figure, “Well, at least we won’t have to deal with them here in the Milky Way!” (an awfully big place, after all)? No, he does not. Without the least hesitation, he instantly sets about to pursue them to the ends of the universe, if need be, and bring the war to a “successful conclusion”.

     And so Seaton, with the aid of the supposedly pacifist Norlaminians, sets about to build the most colossal warship of all time, the Skylark 3 - truly gargantuan in size (so large that the Skylark 2 is its lifeboat), armored against any conceivable attack, armed with the most frightful engines of destruction imaginable, and packed with more than a cubic mile of uranium (Smith having apparently realized by this time that copper was a really stupid metal from which to obtain nuclear power) for fuel – all in order to overtake and destroy the last representatives of the Fenachrone race. Without the slightest hint of irony, Smith labels this vessel a “stupendous ship of peace”.

     The final battle of the Fenachrone War, and thus of the novel itself, is one of the action highpoints of the epic. The two warships, after a weeks-long pursuit deep into intergalactic space, are still separated by more than 200,000 light years (twice the diameter of the Milky Way!) when hostilities begin. Smith is at his literary best here, and by telling the story entirely from the point of view of Seaton and his companions, he masterfully invokes the “fog of war” in the narrative. (We never do learn exactly what is occurring over in the enemy vessel.) Example: “Within battle range at last, Seaton hurled his utmost concentration of direct forces, under the impact of which three courses of Fenachrone defensive screen flared through the ultra-violet and went black. There the massed direct attack was stopped – at what cost the enemy alone knew.”

     To this reader’s mind, this engagement resembles nothing so much as the aircraft carrier battles of the Pacific Theater in World War II, such as Midway (which took 
place more than two decades after the writing of Skylark Three). In both cases, the participants are widely separated, offensive operations are conducted at the most extreme range, out of the direct sight and control of the commanders, and battle 
damage assessments are a matter for guesswork.

     In any case, Smith was not about to kill off his heroes, so it was inevitable that Seaton would ultimately triumph:

     There was a sudden cessation of all resistance, and those Titanic forces, all directed inward, converged upon a point with a power behind which there was the inconceivable energy of four hundred thousand tons of uranium, being disintegrated at the highest possible rate short of instant disruption. In that same instant of collapse the enormous mass of power-copper in the Fenachrone cruiser and the vessel's every atom, alike of structure and of contents, also exploded into pure energy at the touch of that unimaginable field of force.

     In that awful moment before Seaton could shut off his power it seemed to him that space itself must be obliterated by the very concentration of the unknowable and incalculable forces there unleashed—must be swallowed up and lost in the utterly indescribable brilliance of the field of radiance driven to a distance of millions upon incandescent millions of miles from the place where the last representatives of the monstrous civilization of the Fenachrone had made their last stand against the forces of Universal Peace.

     Once again, without the least irony.

     I have to almost suppress an urge to cry after reading this. Within a few short years after the publication of Skylark Three, Nazi Germany would be waging a war of implacable extermination against the Jews. And the United States, rather than negotiate a settlement with a clearly defeated Japan, would apparently be perfectly willing to blast that country into nuclear oblivion unless it surrendered unconditionally. Closer to our time, we were witnesses to “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans and a seemingly endless blood feud in Northern Ireland. And even today, we watch in horror as ISIS annihilates millennia-old cultures and the Syrian government murders untold thousands of its own citizens with aerial bombardment and the intentional starvation of entire cities.

     Here is where we see how sublimely perfect the ending to The Odyssey actually is. Homer knew all too well that violence begets violence, reprisal calls forth reprisal, and the harvest of one war is but the seed corn for the next. Mankind not only seems, but is, helpless in the face of this reality, and it requires divine intervention to break the infernal cycle. Absent Athena’s direct action, The Odyssey would sadly have had no end at all. Odysseus’s would-be victory in the final battle would have merely been the grounds for yet another round of retaliation, and our weary wanderer would never find rest… and neither shall we.