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.