Skylark Series

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Amazing Stories, Volume 3 Number 5, August 1928: "Our Cover this month depicts a scene from the first installment in this issue of the story entitled THE SKYLARK OF SPACE"

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, etc. 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.


Tropes used in Skylark Series include:
  • Absolute Xenophobe: the Fenachrone.
  • 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.
  • Exclusively 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 12 G's. It reaches 3 times the speed of light inside about 20 minutes. Even if we assume that Einstein was wrong and that you can keep on accelerating with no upper limit, it would take you three months to accelerate to 3x the speed of light at 12g. (To do it in 20 minutes would require you to accelerate at 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 the special designs made for the ship are to allow people to survive the actual forces which would otherwise turn them into a goo. Smith's description of the acceleration ("acceleration of several lights", in which he means "light-speeds") is mangled, but one can actually figure out what he meant by it if you go through the few numbers provided -- and it is in fact something monstrously high (over a hundred thousand gravities). Basically, Smith was describing Inertial Dampening before he figured out his much superior version which he used in the Lensman series.
  • 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; its a known flaw of the process that dumping in too much information at once leaves you unable to use it well because your memory has had no chance to actually index all this crap. Having someone verbally walk him through an executive summary of the material he just got brain-loaded with helps him organize it in his head.
      • There's also the simple fact that the rest of the Skylark party also needs to know this stuff, and they weren't in on the braindump.
  • Badass 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 Ph. D. 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 Gs 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.
  • Cool Starship: The Skylark, especially after it is renovated.
  • 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.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Even DuQuesne is disgusted by Perkins, but that doesn't stop him from using Perkins in his plan.
  • Evolutionary Levels: The Kondalians believe in this. No one calls them on it, so this belief may be intended as correct In-Universe.
  • Fantastic Racism: Kondalians believe that they are superior to Mardonalians, and vice-versa. Note that the Kondalians are among the good guys.
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • Human Aliens: Many. In this series, humanlike intelligent species naturally develop on Earthlike planets.
  • 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?
  • 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.
  • Medieval 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.
  • Mind Over Matter
  • 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."
  • 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.
    • That's because they weren't worried about the biochemistry of their food, they were worried about possible heavy metal contamination (as they'd already seen that the locals had no reluctance to drink the groundwater, something the Skylark party can't do without distilling it first because they'd die of heavy metal poisoning). Since Seaton's salt and pepper are from his own food stores, he knows they're clean.
  • Omniglot: Dorothy fulfills this role (for all of one day) until the heroes gain access to Translator Microbes.
  • 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.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: The entire basis of Seaton and Crane's friendship. Richard Seaton is a visionary genius and a bold, dashing man of action. Martin Crane is neither... but since he is an extremely thorough and conservative engineer, as well as a man of unshakable nerve, his design input into Seaton's inventions is consistently shown to be almost as necessary as Seaton's (Seaton makes them work, Crane makes them so that they don't blow up when you smack them too hard), and there are multiple occasions where Seaton is about to blindly charge in where angels fear to tread until Crane politely points out that he's about to walk straight into a trap and perhaps he might want to go this way instead of that way.
  • Science Marches On: The series' technology is heavily dependent on ether. The "orders" of energy, in general, don't fit with anything known to modern science. Ironically, when it was first published, the blurb praised how "realistic" the science behind the story was.
    • The lower orders correspond to electromagnetic effects, although when he first wrote the outlines in 1916, the fluid-drop model of the atom was still valid (electrons embedded in a gloop of positive charge) and he chose to keep consistency with this to the end. The higher orders correspond to smaller and smaller orders of subatomic particles. In effect what we would call quarks, subquarks, sub-subquarks etc (although it's not a true prediction since the electron appears to be indivisible).
      • The way this troper understood it, the first three "orders" were electromagnetic forces, more or less. The fourth was gravity. Fifth and up would, as noted above, probably be closest to Quantum Mechanics Can Do Anything in terms of modern-day Techno Babble.
    • Another example, unrelated to ether or Faster-Than-Light Travel, is that the series seems to believe that "qualia" (perceptions of phenomena such as colors) are completely subjective and can change from person to person. It is currently believed that they aren't.
      • Absent telepathy or the equivalent, how can anybody know if qualia are perceived different by different people?
        • It's instructive to note that in-setting, Seaton actually arrives at his observation re: different qualia after undergoing a machine-based version of telepathy with an alien life form (specifically, Dunark of Osnome) that has a different color perception.
      • Actually, it's revealed that different races, Tellurians and Osnomians, perceive some qualia differently.
  • Spheroid Dropship: The Skylarks are probably Ur Examples of this trope.
  • Technology Levels: Though it should be noted that this is 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.
  • 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 colour 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.
  • Wicked Cultured: DuQuesne is exceptionally intellectual, and a ruthless scientist with a symbiotic relationship with World Steel Corporation.