À LA RECHERCHE DES LIVRES PERDU: RETRO BOOK REVIEWS

Figure 1 – E.E. “Doc” Smith

Things caught up to me again, and so I’m going to have to postpone the Matthew Hughes review to next week. (I have been hauling 45-odd years’ worth of collecting and personal papers around for… um… 45-plus years? And now it’s time to divest, divest, divest. For some reason, “collecting” in the Fahnestalk family looks a lot like other families’ “hoarding.” And I only have a few weeks, so I’ve been working my tailfeathers off lately. I did notify the local fans that they should check out a specific thrift store, to which I have given hundreds of books/magazines.)

Anyway, Figure 1 is a person I never met, but I did meet and become friends with his daughter, Verna Smith Trestrail. I refer to Edward Elmer Smith, Ph.D., called “Doc” (or sometimes “Skylark Smith”), who wrote the book in Figure 2. (You may also be familiar with another series he wrote, about Lensmen. Or the Family d’Alembert series, continued by Stephen Goldin after Doc’s death.) This week was the first time I’d reread this book in {mumble mumble} years; and certainly the first time since becoming friends with Doc’s family. (Sadly, Verna died in 1994, nearly ten years after I moved to Canada.)

Now, bear in mind that this book was first published in 1928, long before most of us were around, and certainly long before much of the modern world we know of existed. The world had undergone one World War, and Calvin Coolidge was President of the U.S.; the Great Depression was a year away (along with Hoobert Heever—as one newscaster dubbed him); there were no rockets used for space travel or exploration. No television, no internet, no superhighways, no computers—no Facebook, no Angry Birds; movies were black and white—The Jazz Singer had come out, with sound! a year earlier. (King Kong was still years away!) Can you imagine? And here comes “Doc” Smith, whose expertise was in food chemistry—he actually invented a donut machine that is still used today—and sends Richard Seaton and company out into interstellar space.

Figure 2 – Richard Powers cover for the 1958 Pyramid edition of Skylark of Space

Now wrap your mind around this: the book was actually conceived, and partially written, in 1915, when Doc and his friends the Garbys, lived on Seaton Place. (Yep, that’s where the name came from.) Doc figured that the book needed some “romantic interest,” so Garby’s wife, Mrs. Lee Hawkins Garby, was his co-writer, though she received short shrift in later editions of the book. I’m sure there has been a bit of editing between 1928 and the 1958 Pyramid edition (Figure 2), but in some ways this is head and shoulders above the John W. Campbell-type space opera—there are no gigantic bus-bars here. But it’s the “pure quill,” as Smith’s Lensman would have said; this is kind of the mother of all space-opera.

Richard Seaton, a chemist and researcher—and incidentally, a very brainy kind o’ guy—for the government, is testing some platinum residues from a mix of very odd metal residues to see if there’s anything worth salvaging before sending this big vat of stuff off for sale or recycling or whatever. He’s already recovered—and saved the government money—a bunch of useful stuff; this is the dross, and Seaton is just being thorough. He has a small container of the stuff which accidentally receives a small dose of electrical current due to a carelessly-draped set of wires, and the results of that current are spectacular: the container takes off for outer space right through the wall! The last time Seaton sees through the hole, it’s traveling at a high velocity and in a very straight line. This gives him the main idea, and experimentation shows him that this strange mixture of metallic liquids contains a factor or substance he calls “X” (how original!), and that is the key to space exploration. Oh, and “X” also allows one to liberate all the energy (without concurrent radiation, as in an atomic explosion) from a given amount of copper. From here we meet Seaton’s friend, billionaire Martin Crane, Seaton’s fiancée, Dorothy Vaneman, and evil adversary Marc DuQuesne. And not only that, we get to go on an interstellar voyage in the spherical vehicle, the titular Skylark of Space, designed and built by Seaton with Crane’s money.

Figure 3 – The Skylark of Space – Artist Unknown

The cover in Figure 3 shows a Skylark more or less as described by Smith, but I don’t know who actually drew it. It has a general Frank R. Paul-ish air about it (I found it on the internet). But here’s the thing about this book—if you can’t read a book which embodies the morés and attitudes of the 1920s or so, you probably won’t enjoy this as much as I did. Although the women (Seaton’s and Crane’s fiancées and later, wives) are not exactly shrinking violets, they do have some traits which are more suitable to those times than these. There is some unconscious racism here as well; Seaton or Crane has a manservant, Shiro, who is a stereotyped Japanese man—he speaks in broken English and is extremely good at martial arts; there are black people offhandedly referred to as “colored” and relegated to menial roles.

Worse, there is a “race” of non-Earthian humans who practice a certain kind of eugenics that later was espoused by some Germans. They cold-bloodedly kill all newborns that don’t fit their ideas of perfection. They literally practice genocide on their enemies, wiping them from the face of their planet. Seaton and company take this in stride; a modern person wouldn’t stand for it. It’s all a product of the time(s) it was written, however, and there is a reason for reading it. It’s a fun book, despite its numerous flaws, which include speech patterns that no modern reader (or at least one who hasn’t watched a lot of very old movies) would find believable. And yet, and yet…it’s clever in its own way, and kind of fun and exciting. It may trip too many triggers for modern readers, but for me it remains a classic of early science fiction.

Figure 4 – Brain Twister Cover by John Schoenherr

I was going to review both books in this series, which wasn’t originally intended to be a series; indeed, from comments made by the authors, it was a one-shot written over a period of something like eight days…and yet, it remains a funny look at parapsychology for those of us who appreciate books about possible human potential. Like James Blish’s Jack of Eagles, and others, this book deals with mental developments (“powers,” if you will) that so far seem to be sadly lacking—yes, I did say “sadly”; I remain hopeful that humans will develop mental abilities far beyond those we see day to day—in present-day humanity. I refer to those abilities generally lumped into the category of “ESP” or “psionics,” including telepathy, telekinetics, teleoportation and the like. I’ve always been fond of that sort of book, and to find one—written by Randall Garrett and Laurence M. Janifer under the pseudonym of Mark Phillips (their individual middle names) that is humourous and fun to read was a great day back in 1962. That’s when the first of these (See Figure 4) was published. As I said, I was going to review Brain Twister as well as the sequel, The Impossibles, but I ran out of time for reasons detailed at the beginning of this column (and others). I’ll see if I can review The Impossibles next week, along with the Matthew Hughes “Raffalon” book I was going to do this week. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the third collaboration, Supermind, so I can’t review that one. Randall Garrett may be better known for his “Lord Darcy” series, and Janifer had a number of Ace titles (and a few Lancers) under his belt. This particular series, however, stands very well on its own. I will give you some sense of what the book is about.

In the year 1972, FBI agent Kenneth J. Malone has been sent to Yucca Flats, Nevada, to deal with a spy situation. There’s a super-secret project in the works at Yucca Flats, and information is being leaked out of the project in such a way as to suggest that the spy is a telepath. Now, you and I, as SF/F readers, are very familiar with telepathy and telepaths as concepts, but those things are hardly known to the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the direction of Andrew Burris. (This book was written in 1962, by the way.) Yes, the US now has 3D TV, videophones, some kind of special jet that has supplanted normal air travel (this part I learned from the second book), as well as robotic redcaps at train stations, but ESP and parapsychology are not within the FBI’s normal purview. Except that they need to set an esper to catch an esper, and Malone finds out that under normal circumstances, most telepaths are hopelessly insane. One of the least insane ones, who comes to work for the FBI to help them catch their telepath, is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 1, who is an immortal. So Malone and his co-workers (including Special Agent Thomas Boyd, who is a dead ringer for Henry VIII), become part of the Queen’s Own FBI. And yes, it’s as wacky as it sounds. I found the book and its sequel very enjoyable. (But then, I’m probably mad as a hatter myself.)

I’m hoping for some comments on this column. I appreciate all of you who comment on Facebook, and who share the links. You too can comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish my column links. Your comments are all welcome, as is any information (and corrections for my errors of fact). My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

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