Literature / Skylark Series
"I'm here to bring you a message: to tell you that humanity has never been conquered permanently and never will be so conquered. Humanity has triumphed and will continue to triumph over all the vermin infesting all the planets of all the solar systems of all the galaxies of all surveyed space."
— Dick Seaton
The first science fiction series written by E. E. “Doc” Smith
, better known for his Lensman
series. Smith started work on The Skylark of Space
in 1916, though he was unable to find a publisher until 1928, making the work arguably the first Space Opera
, and certainly the first major one.
Richard Seaton, a chemist, discovers that an unknown extraterrestrial metal ("X") reacts with copper to provide total matter-energy conversion. Seeing the possibilities of this, he and his rich friend Martin Crane (who provides the initial capital) use it to build power stations — and a spacecraft, the "Skylark". The evil Marc DuQuesne, co-worker and collaborator with the highly pragmatic World Steel Corporation, wishes to steal it for himself, and descends to theft, threatening Seaton's new wife Dorothy. Everyone goes into space, looking for more metal "X" and other resources, and the story takes off from there.
There are four books: The Skylark of Space
, Skylark Three
, Skylark of Valeron
, Skylark DuQuesne
. (The last was written decades after the first three, and it shows.)
The Skylark Series contains examples of:
- 90% of Your Brain: The misconception that humans use only 10% of their brains is repeated here.
- Absolute Xenophobe: the Fenachrone.
- Action Girl: Dorothy and Margaret develop into this. Shiro's wife Lotus Blossom is introduced as being the deadliest hand-to-hand fighter on Earth. Sitar of Osnome, Princess of a Proud Warrior Race, at one point complains at being only able to carry two guns instead of her usual arsenal. Kay-Lee from Skylark DuQuesne is also an example.
- Alien Invasion: Lots and lots of them; though Earth doesn't get hit, all sorts of aliens plan to take over one planet or another, leading to a variety of interplanetary and interstellar wars.
- Earth does get conquered temporarily during Skylark of Valeron, but it's by another human: DuQuesne.
- Always Chaotic Evil
- Artistic License - Physics: Besides the examples where Science Marches On, there are a few places where Smith violates even the physics what was well-established by the time the first book was written:
- The first book has the Skylark accelerate away from the Earth at about 12gs. It reaches three times the speed of light inside about 20 minutes. Even if we assume that Einstein's Theory of Relativity is wrong and that one can keep accelerating without bound, it would take three months to accelerate to three times the speed of light at 12g. (To do it in 20 minutes would require an acceleration of 75,000g.)
- Note: the acceleration felt by the protagonists is 12g. It's made very clear in the dialogue describing the ship that the actual accelerations are vastly higher, and special designs were made for the ship to allow people to survive the actual forces. Smith's description of the acceleration ("acceleration of several lights", in which he means "light-speeds") is mangled, but one can figure out what he meant by it, if one goes through the few numbers provided — and it is in fact something monstrously high (over a hundred thousand gs). Basically, Smith was describing Inertial Dampening before he came up with a much superior version, which he used in the Lensman series. See also note under Science Marches On.
- Even if we assume that the Skylark really was accelerating at 75,000g, and that relativistic mass/time dilation doesn't happen, there's still the problem that the ship has far more kinetic energy than could possibly be supplied by the mass-to-energy conversion of a few pounds of copper. In a purely Newtonian universe where a space ship's kinetic energy is always 1/2 m v<sup>2</sup> no matter its speed, at three times the speed of light the ship's kinetic energy would be equal to 4.5 times its own mass multiplied by c squared. You'd have to convert 4.5 Skylark masses' worth of copper into energy, to accelerate to that speed. (To say nothing of the mass you'd have to convert to energy to slow back down — unless a "free" or "energy-recovering" form of space braking existed in the Skylark universe, which I wouldn't put past Doc Smith.)
- The only way to "make sense" of the acceleration figures is simply to invoke this trope and/or Rule of Cool and avoid analysing them; they are too inconsistent to withstand analysis — not Smith's usual style, but then this was his first book. The measures taken to enable the crew to withstand the acceleration are purely mechanical shock-absorber type devices, which in reality would no more solve the problem than they would in the case of Verne's cannon. There is no mention of anything truly effective until the second book when they copy the Fenachrone drive system which applies its force to all parts of the ship equally (similar to gravity) instead of transmitting the force through the ship's structure. A further problem is that the ship simply does not carry enough energy to accelerate itself to such speeds. The Einsteinian rest mass energy equivalent of a given mass is equal to the Newtonian kinetic energy of that same mass travelling at c root 2; given that the ship has a much greater mass than the power bars it carries, it clearly doesn't have the wellie to attain more than a fraction of the speed of light, even in a purely Newtonian universe.
- Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: The pure intellectuals transform DuQuesne into one of them; he is later returned to human form.
- As You Know: Dunark gives an Info Dump (which uses this very phrase) about his planet to Seaton, who has just received all knowledge of said planet via Applied Phlebotinum and thus knows all of this anyway.
- Subverted in that the Info Dump is still necessary; Seaton's memory is still struggling to index the huge mass of material that just got shoved into it all at once, and having someone verbally walk him through an executive summary of it helps the process.
- Bad Ass Bookworm: Richard "Dick" Seaton. This guy is a master marksman, tennis champion, hunter, trapper, intergalactic explorer, smiter of evil aliens, and a he's got a PhD in chemistry. He's not a bad engineer either. (And he's pretty good at sleight-of-hand...)
- DuQuesne. Everything that Seaton is (except the tennis and legerdemain), but also Wicked Cultured and a decent military tactician. In the first book alone, he was steering a starship at 20''g'' acceleration and did it well, though he blacked out afterwards.
- Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit": Occasionally the narration will describe really alien fauna in terms of Earth life, and sometimes will Lampshade it.
- Catch-22 Dilemma: The Norlaminians are stuck technologically because their planet utterly lacks metal X, which is essential to put their advanced theory into practice. They do have primitive rockets, but all expeditions to the nearest X-rich solar system have failed. Though they can project themselves to other planets of their solar system, they cannot travel between stars this way, since that requires metal X.
- Character Exaggeration: Seaton's use of slang, and his impulsiveness, is exaggerated while on Norlamin, to provide a greater contrast between the young humanity and the Older and Wiser Norlaminians.
- Chekhov's Gun: The education machine. At first it's just used so that Seaton knows enough about Osnome to befriend Dunark and side with Kondal in the war, but starting from Skylark Three he really starts to put it to good use, gathering knowledge from various species in order to create a defense against the much further advanced Fenachrone.
- Cool Starship: The Skylark, especially after it is renovated.
- Deadpan Snarker: "Baby Doll" Loring, DuQuesne's second Dragon, after Perkins's death. After he and DuQuesne commandeer an alien ship which could vaporize their own craft in seconds, he says that their new vessel is so delicate and harmless that they should name it the Violet.
- Dirty Business: The reaction most of the humans have to completely exterminating the Fenachrone. However, despite Seaton saying he doesn't have the stomach for the act before doing so, and feeling bad about it after blowing up their planet, he is visibly angry when he finds out that he has to delay it for a short time.
- Distant Finale: Actually in Skylark Three, even though it's only the second book of the series. The epilogue is set many thousands of years in the future, after The Alliance has grown into a Galaxy-spanning civilization, ruled by Seaton's distant descendant. Apparently they celebrate the anniversary of the Fenachrone's destruction with a film recounting Seaton's exploits — which actually justifies some of the story's Moral Dissonance.
- Earth-Shattering Kaboom: The home world of the Fenachrone is reduced to ashes.
- Easy Evangelism: Seaton is able to get the Osnomians and the Urvanians to stop their war just by threatening to wipe them out, but it's really the speed at which the ambassadors start to befriend one another that makes it this trope.
- Mild case with DuQuesne's starships: the Capital D and the DQ, although it could be argued that since DuQuesne's ultimate aim is to destroy Seaton, it's natural for him to want a ship which is at least as powerful and preferably more so.
- Also, Urvania is apparently named after its leader, Urvan.
- Eldritch Abomination. The Chlorans.
- Enemy Mine: DuQuesne and Seaton, despite being bitter foes, work together at times against really nasty alien threats.
- Energy Beings: The "pure intellectuals" — immortal creatures made of thought. Arguably the Q continuum by any other name, except Smith did it first.
- "Smith did it first" is a fairly safe bet in an awful lot of SF tropes, if Wells and Verne didn't get there before him. Arthur C. Clarke stated outright that "Smith holds all the original Star Wars patents", and he was sufficiently well informed about SF in general (as well as being personally acquainted with or a direct contemporary of many of its greats) that there seems little reason to doubt him.
- Entertainingly Wrong: When DuQuesne returns to Osnome in secret in Skylark Three to steal a warship, he sees a battle on the planet, which he thinks is the Kondalians finishing the Mardonalians off. It's actually the beginning of the war against the Fenachrone, but he has no way of knowing that.
- Everyone Is Armed: by Skylark DuQuesne, all the heroes are in the habit of going constantly armed... and need to. Even as early as Skylark Three, they wear armor whenever they are out in public in order to defend themselves against DuQuesne's minions.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Even DuQuesne is disgusted by Perkins, but that doesn't stop him from using Perkins in his plan.
- Evil Versus Evil: DuQuesne versus the Fenachrone. His conversation with a Fenachrone soldier is just dripping with Eviler Than Thou, with both intending to backstab the other the moment the opportunity presents itself. The only reason he doesn't kill the alien on sight is because he could potentially use him to kill Seaton. Note that his "The Reason You Suck" Speech, in which he points out that the Fenachrone are basically a race of sociopaths, applies just as much to DuQuesne himself.
- Evolutionary Levels: The Kondalians believe in this. No one calls them on it, so this belief may be intended as correct in-universe.
- Expansion Pack World: In Skylark Three we learn that Osnome is just one inhabited planet in a solar systemnote containing literally hundreds of worlds, which have the same culture and Proud Warrior Race attitudes. Since the planets have some level of contact before the heroes arrive, this introduces some Fridge Logic into the Kondal-Mardonale feud. It is later explained that the reason why the Urvanians did not try to conquer Osnome while it was divided was because none of those planets have access to metal X, which allows space flight.
- Fantastic Racism:
- Kondalians believe that they are superior to Mardonalians, and vice-versa. Note that the Kondalians are among the good guys.
- The Fenachrone believe that they are superior to everybody. This extends to calling themselves "supermen" and believing that no other species stands a chance against their military might. To be fair, they're right about that second part before the Lensman Arms Race starts.
- Faster-Than-Light Travel: Accomplished by the simple notion that, hey, Einstein was wrong. (They accelerate away from earth, and before they know it, they're going 3 times the speed of light!)
- Which is odd, because the conversion of mass into energy — the principle on which Metal X operates — is a direct consequence of Einsteinian relativity.
- Lampshaded in dialogue, in the revised edition:
Crane: Three hundred and fifty million miles [in twenty minutes]. Half-way out of the solar system. That means a constant acceleration of about one light.
Seaton: Nothing can go that fast, Mart. E equals M C square.
Crane: Einstein's Theory is still a theory. This distance is an observed fact.
Seaton: And theories are modified to fit facts. Hokay.
- Lampshaded even more in the original edition; when discussing the ship's performance potential Seaton explicitly states that Einstein's theory will limit their speed to no more than c, and the original version of the above quote has him sounding rather more surprised to find this violated than in the revised version.
- Faux Affably Evil: As Bad Ass and intelligent as DuQuesne is, and even though he is willing to enter an Enemy Mine situation when he needs it, it doesn't change the fact that his goal is to kill Seaton in order to have a monopoly on metal X.
- Fish People: The Dasorians are a race of marine mammals which resemble porpoises. The Norlaminians once offered them the option of settling on their own planet, thinking it would solve their stagnation, only for them to refuse, because they cannot abide the land.
- Generation Ship: The Party of Postponement try to escape the Fenachrone's home world in one of these: they have enough supplies to last a century, and they intend to settle in as distant a galaxy as possible. The heroes kill them all anyway.
- Gonk: Shiro is illustrated as having vastly disproportionate limbs.
- It is worth noting however, that he is never described in that way. There is only an illustration, and that is most likely misplaced in the text and actually shows Seaton dealing with a surviving Fenachrone he rescued from the wreck of his ship. The Fenachrone are described as having extremely short, stumpy legs.
- Good Is Not Nice: Played with. Seaton and his compatriots are utterly incorruptible and courteous to everyone, but they also won't hesitate to systematically wipe out your species if you threaten Earth.
- Gravity Sucks: DuQuesne's ship is caught in the pull of a dead star. Notably it induces a sickening sensation of falling even though the characters are now used to freefall.
- Gray Eyes: Seaton has them.
- Guilt-Free Extermination War:
- Kondal and Mardonale are in the middle of one at the time of First Contact. Also, the heroes get involved in these against the "evil" races and the same fate is planned for the Urvanians before the existence of the Fenachrone changes the dynamic. Given that the Fenachrone and Chlorans have no problem doing it to others, the heroes' willingness to go to this extreme is at least understandable.
- In sorting out the feud between the Osnomians and the Urvanians, Dick Seaton gives both sides the exact same knowledge of Fenachrone technology. Then he tells them to set aside their differences, promising to exterminate whichever race survives the war if they don't.
- Hard Light: Produced by higher-order projectors.
- Have a Gay Old Time: The series was published in the 1920s, so it should be expected that the hero is called "Dick" and the word "gay" is used to mean "carefree", but it is kind of jarring to read the word "boner" being used to mean "mistake".
- This exchange from the first book takes on a new meaning thanks to this:
"[The creature] seems to [...] have within itself the possibilities of both bisexual and asexual reproduction."
"I wouldn't doubt it—it's a queer one, all right."
- Higher-Tech Species: Smith actually put more thought into this than most later writers would— the reason that the majority of alien species in the series are more advanced than humanity, but haven't spread out to conquer the whole Galaxy, even though Faster-Than-Light Travel is so easy in this setting that humans figure it out before rocketry, is because to do so is dependent on a material so rare that most star systems completely lack it. If Seaton had not stumbled upon metal X by chance, then humans would not have worked out Casual Interstellar Travel either. Without this, the Dasorians and Norlaminians advanced as far as they could before their civilizations' power requirements stagnated them.
- How Do I Shot Web?: Seaton has trouble using the projector at first — he would often be off his target by light-years.
- Human Aliens: Many. In this series, humanlike intelligent species naturally develop on Earthlike planets. At least it's lampshaded that the heroes find this odd, and at one point Seaton does speculate that Starfish Aliens exist, but on planets that are completely uninhabitable to humans.
- Ignored Epiphany: DuQuesne has a whole conversation with Loring about how the Earth is just an Insignificant Little Blue Planet in the vastness of the universe, but he's still hung up on getting his revenge on Seaton and ruling Earth, even though it would be pointless.
- Ignored Expert: After, the heroes give their ultimatum to the Fenachrone, their Emperor is furious, and refuses to give in to the demands. A Fenachrone scientist, Ravindau, tells him to his face that he has doomed them all, because Seaton has far more advanced technology than they. Predictably, the Emperor flies into a rage and accuses Ravindau of treason, and Ravindau only survives by killing the Emperor before the latter can kill him.
- Incredibly Lame Pun: The first Applied Phlebotinum in the series is not given a name, but just designated "X". Bullets made from it are called "X-plosive". Geddit?
- Japanese Ranguage: Shiro, Seaton's Japanese cook, speaks this way in the first book and part of the second, but then learns proper English thanks to alien phlebotinum.
- Lensman Arms Race: So much. From steel hulls to impenetrable armor made of the alien material "inoson"; from simple explosive projectiles to insanely powerful beam weapons (and various types of 'projectors', which are very versatile). From a ship 40 feet across to one a thousand miles in diameter. Whole galaxies are embroiled in battle eventually.
- Magic Compass: It's possible to create an "object compass" which, once attuned to something, would always point towards it.
- Messianic Archetype: The Norlaminians are unfortunate enough to live on a planet with hardly any resources, meaning that they can never leave their planet. However, they have still somehow managed to deduce the existence of a material which makes space travel possible, and their religion teaches that one day, an alien will arrive and give it to them. So when Seaton asks them for help, they agree because they think that he is that figure.
- Mid-Season Upgrade: The heroes start with the first Skylark, which first gets upgraded in the middle of the first book when they land on Osnome, and then gets upgraded again in the eponymous Skylark Three when they first encounter the Fenachrone. Once they arrive on Norlamin and give the natives the material they need to put their theories into practice, the Skylark is upgraded yet again, and can destroy entire armies with ease.
- Mind over Matter: The ultimate expression both of sentient life within the universe (the Immortals) and Dick Seaton's research.
- Mind Reading Machine: Used by Seaton and the Kondalians to learn each other's language. It can even be used on a dead brain!
- Though not indefinitely on the last one. Dead brains decay eventually.
- The educator can also be used to take thoughts against the wearer's will, and worse. Seaton describes its potential darker side as "making the Inquisition look like a petting party."
- Modern Stasis: Kondal and Mardonale have been continuously at war for approximately six thousand years — about as long as Earth civilization has existed — and there is no indication that their societies or cultures have changed at all during that time.
- My Brain Is Big: The Norlaminians' brain is about three times the size of a human's.
- My Species Doth Protest Too Much: Played With. Ravindau is the only named Fenachrone who doesn't think that his species is invincible, but he is still just as warmongering and genocidal as all the others.
- Name of Cain: Marc DuQuesne's name is a relatively subtle punnote on "mark of Cain".
- No Biochemical Barriers:
- Played with in a bizarre way. The heroes land on a planet, Osnome, which contains a high concentration of heavy elements. Thus, Seaton and DuQuesne refuse to eat any food they are offered before they test it. However, Seaton then gives the Emperor of Mardonale salt and pepper, at a point when he doesn't know anything about his biochemistry. Apparently the barriers only work one way.
- In later books, there is always an explanatory paragraph where the aliens give the heroes only food that they have specially synthesized to be safe.
- Omniglot: Dorothy fulfills this role (for all of one day) until the heroes gain access to Translator Microbes.
- Planet Spaceship: Drs. Seaton and Crane build a 1000km diameter spaceship called the Skylark of Valeron. Its size was needed to house the sensors required to travel at its full velocity. Later, their rival Dr. DuQuesne builds an even bigger ship.
- Power Copying: The Osnomian educator can give the heroes absolute knowledge of someone else's brain, allowing them to pick up foreign technologies really quick.
- Pragmatic Villainy: This is how DuQuesne operates. In the first book, even he is disgusted by Perkins mistreating their captives For the Evulz... not because it is morally wrong, but because it's a waste of time.
- Projected Man: The Hard Light version; this is achieved by using the higher "order" projectors. Possibly the Ur-Example.
- Proud Warrior Race: The Osnomians. The Urvanians and the Fenachrone also qualify, even though the latter are the enemy (as are the former, temporarily).
- Psychic Powers: The highest level technology (sixth-order) depends on the manipulation of thought, essentially creating psychic powers via technology.
- Puny Parachute: DuQuesne's bail-out over Panama using an Osnomian (low gravity, high air density) parachute.
- Reactionless Drive: When metal X is used to convert matter into energy, that energy can be released as explosive force (as in the case of the X-plosive bullets), or it can be used to drive a starship. When used for the latter, no exhaust is produced — the released energy is "just added onto" the kinetic energy of the ship. (Actually, Smith wasn't even that specific. The ship just "goes.")
- Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Rovol has little patience for Seaton's unwillingness to relax. When Seaton tells Crane that talking about their work is forbidden while the Norlaminians are on break, Rovol scolds him the way one would a child.
- Space Age Stasis: The Dasorians and the Norlaminians are both stuck here. They have advanced their technology as far as they can, but, despite their scientific knowledge being far above that of Earth (particularly among the Norlaminians) they can advance their technology no further, because they lack the metal X/Rovolon, which is needed to provide the necessary amount of power. Thus, they are quite grateful when the Skylark, which is powered by the metal, shows up on their planets.
- Space Elves: The Norlaminians, and to a lesser extent, the Dasorians. Unlike the other species in their system, they are Perfect Pacifist People who simply desire knowledge, and the only reason they have not spread throughout space is because they lack the reassures to build a spacecraft. The Norlaminians in particular are said to have millions of years of scientific knowledge ahead of humanity, and follow a mystical philosophy. Both species are immediately friendly to Seaton and crew, and the Norlaminians tried to help the Dasorians out in the past.
- Spheroid Dropship: The Skylarks are probably UrExamples of this trope.
- Statuesque Stunner: Stephanie "Hunkie" DeMarigny, DuQuesne's eventual Love Interest.
- Sufficiently Advanced Aliens: The Norlaminians, even before they get their hands on metal X. Rovol doesn't need to use any tools at all, because the laboratory suffuses the environment with rays that do most of the work. Compared to him, Seaton's understanding a chemistry is like a schoolboy's.
- The Alliance: Seaton and Crane create one of these to fight off the Fenachrone, by visiting all the inhabitable planets in Osnome's system, to convince the locals to join them in their cause. Most wind up hailing Seaton as their "Overlord".
- The Fatalist: Orlon's first reaction to hearing about the Fenachrone is that Norlamin will inevitably be conquered and that there is nothing that can be done, because his species would only put up passive resistance. Amusingly, when Seaton gets him to help anyway, he suddenly says that the Fenachrone are fated to fail.
- The Sociopath: Both DuQuesne and Perkins, but in different ways; the former is Wicked Cultured and the latter is The Brute.
- The Starscream: Ravindau, of the Fenachrone. After he uses science to deduce that Seaton's threat is not a bluff, and they truly are capable of exterminating the Fenachrone, he criticizes the Emperor, telling him that his arrogance and short-sightedness has doomed their race. But since the Emperor's mind is made up, he commits regicide so that his own plan to save a remnant of their civilization will not be overruled.
- Technology Levels: Averted with the people of Osnome, who are more advanced than Earth in mechanics, but less advanced in chemistry.
- That's No Moon!: The Skylark of Valeron is a spaceship a thousand miles in diameter.
- To the Pain: Before the events of Skylark Three, a Fenachrone ship captured a Kondalian ship, and told the crew exactly how they and their species would be tortured in horrible ways, before killing them.
- Two of Your Earth Minutes
- Unobtainium: Arenak, Dagal, and Inoson. Super tough, super hard, super temperature resistant materials, at least two of which are transparent.
- Inoson (or "isonon," the spelling seems to vary) is described as a gleaming purple in its raw form, though doubtless Seaton can paint his ship any color he likes.
- It is also described as the "theoretical ultimate" in material durability. Then one might consider that this setting uses degenerate matter for the focal lenses of their
lasers heat rays...
- The metal X is also a kind of Unobtainium, having the power to convert copper completely into energy — without destroying any of the metal X in the process — if it's subjected to X-rays.
- Then there is the faidon, a substance described as "crystallised ether" (in modern terms, basically crystallised space). It passes no ordinary vibrations, and is used as an outer shell for the focusing lens at the heart of Seaton's fifth-order projector. Inside that lens is material from the CORE of a white dwarf star, which is also the only environment in which the faidon is at all malleable.
- What the Hell, Hero?: At the beginning of Skylark Three, Dorothy and Margaret are horrified when they find out that Dunark has come to get supplies in order to commit genocide against an invading species. However, Seaton and Crane say that it's either the Osnomians or their enemies. But when Seaton actually arrives at the planet, he tells the natives that they and Osnome must put aside their differences in order to have a chance against the Fenachrone.
- Wicked Cultured: DuQuesne is exceptionally intellectual, and a ruthless scientist with a symbiotic relationship with World Steel Corporation.